There is a little constellation called Coma Berenices, “the hair of Berenice.” It looks like a delicate plume of dim stars, and about it a famous story is told. Berenice, queen of Egypt, vowed to sacrifice her beautiful hair if her husband returned safely from a war. He did, so her hair was cut off and hung up in the temple of the Goddess of Love. It vanished — the king was furious — a quick-witted courtier pointed upward — “Behold, the sacred tress has been set in the sky!”

That’s the story! Do we believe it? What really happened to her hair?

This novel springs from what is known about the real Berenice. She was born a princess of Cyrenaica, now part of Libya. (The author lived there for a year, and derived plot suggestions from experiences such as knowing a dextrocardiac and swimming over a drowned city.) We first meet her at the age of seventeen, being taken down to the port to greet a prince called Demetrius the Fair. This handsome fellow had been brought to marry her; instead he let himself be seduced by her mother, and in a palace coup Berenice killed him, possibly with her own hands. She may then have allowed a republic to be installed in her little garden-like country.

She was persuaded to marry the king of Egypt, but no sooner had she done so than he marched off into Asia in an attempt to save the life of his sister — leaving his young wife to the task of governing the teeming, treacherous world that was Egypt. As you might imagine, there are villains in the story and some rough stuff. But at the last moment she is saved by a natural phenomenon that exceeded the three Wonders of the World that she had seen.

6x9in., 255 pages. 2009; 2nd edition 2013. ISBN 978-0-934546-55-3.

A review:

Leo and the tuft of his tail that became Coma Berenices.


The world of Berenice’s time (part of map):

The world of Berenice's time (part of map).

Berenice’s Hair gained a curiously topical relevance with the Libyan revolution of 2011. The first part of the story is set in Cyrenaica — eastern Libya — where Berenice was born, where the revolution was based, and where Guy once lived in an army. There are incidents among the scenery — the Green Mountain, the waterfalls and coastal caves — that may make this a tourist destination after peace comes. The city of Benghazi once bore Berenice’s name. And, as the story describes, she led a sort of democratic coup in Libya.