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Mythology is not all myth; sometimes it has a small portion of truth. Coma Berenice, the headdress, is an excellent example of truth mixed into a myth. This constellation has a gem of a story and a jewel of a star called diadem. In other places up in the sky, Saturn and the moon join up for a show. In the tail of the bear resides a tale of an ancient starry night eye test; look up see what you see.
Coma Berenice is at the top of our sky in an early spring evening. In addition, it is at the top of the Milky Way. The North Galactic Pole is near 31 Comae Berenices, a dim star close to the astronomic stick figure that marks the constellation. The myth behind this grouping of the stars begins with two real people: Berenice II and Ptolemy III Euergetes, third-century BC Egyptian rulers. Ptolemy III needed to lead his army in a risky campaign against the Assyrians. Berenice had long hair second to none for golden long locks. She made a pact with Aphrodite that if her husband returned she vowed to cut her hair. Ptolemy did indeed come back safe.
Berenice, as vowed, cut her hair and placed the tresses of amber on the altar of the temple dedicated to Aphrodite. Ptolemy, heartbroken over the new hairdo, went to view his wife’s hair only to find an empty altar. Infuriated, he inquired of the priests concerning the location of the hair. Conon the oracle said, “Return at night, and I will show you her hair.” Upon dark he returned and Conon pointed to the sky at a dim line of stars, stating: “The goddess thought the hair was too beautiful to remain in the temple only for a few to see; therefore, she placed it in the sky for all to view.”
Coma Berenices is between the tails of Leo and the Great Bear. The brightest star in this constellation is Diadem. It marks the spot where a diamond or other precious gem would be in a tiara. Diadem is a jewel on top of the headdress that is on top of our sky at the top of the Milky Way. Elsewhere in the sky is a bear tail with an eye test.
The handle of the Dipper is the tail for Ursa Major, the Great Bear. The middle star if the handle or tail is Mizar. A person with good vision can see a second star, Alcor.
The Arabians and the Native Americans used this as a vision test. If you could see both stars, you had good vision. It also had a figurative vision test. Vidit Alcor, at non lunam plenam, which is a Latin maxim meaning, “he saw Alcor, but not the full moon.” An individual who is clearly alive to trifles, but lifeless of understanding toward broad facts, in modern lingo means “don’t confuse me with the facts; my mind is made up.” A telescope view of the two stars reveals a complex multiply star system.
This month has a Friday the 13th; however, do not be afraid to go out or you will miss the moon passing under Saturn— two great objects to view with a telescope. Come to the planetarium to see a star show and learn how to find these and other remarkable objects in the sky. For help at home, visit the www.ingramplanetarium.org and print the sky map as reference when gazing up to see the queen’s hair and a bear’s tail.