Heavenly Haircuts & Missing Bodies: An Examination of Berenice’s Absence from within Callimachus’ “Coma Berenices”

1§1 The narrative, fantasy, and representation of Berenice II continue to provide a sense of mystery and intrigue. In the third century BCE, Callimachus forever repositioned perceptions and receptions of the queen with his poem Lock of Berenice. In the fragments of the original Greek text that survive,[1] there remains a tangible tension between the presence of Berenice’s hair and the absence of her body. This tension raises questions concerning Berenice II’s representation as a woman, queen, and goddess, while also providing an important perspective on her nebulous condition within the Alexandrian world. Throughout the epigram, Berenice’s figure and body are presented as entirely removed. The explicit absence of Berenice’s agency in the epigram positions Callimachus to create a literary persona of his queen through a sacrificed lock of her hair. She has disappeared bodily from the text, and yet, surprisingly enough, Callimachus’ innovative metonym enhances Berenice’s powerful and performative dynastic impression.

1§2 In this paper, the word absence is to be understood as the lack of explicit reference to Berenice’s physical body as well as the lack of her active participation in the poem. This idea of absence stands directly in contrast to the way in which Berenice exists outside of the limitations of the poem, what I refer to as her physical presence. By examining Berenice’s literary absence, the artistry of Callimachus’ poem is seen as more starkly directed toward the enhancement of her as a transcending symbol, ultimately leaving both the physical Berenice and the literary one behind.

1§3 Feminist methodology includes a critical examination of figure, analyzing the ways in which a body is or is not portrayed, or how women either appear or do not appear within a text[2]. Yet, to work with any methodology requires an awareness of its limitations and its strengths, as noted by a number of scholars.[3] The absence of Queen Berenice is not to be interpreted necessarily as merely another ancient example of misogyny. While the removal of female agency often reflects a cultural assumption of female weakness, the representation here in Coma Berenices is more complicated. Not all absences are created equal, and Coma Berenices is no exception. In regards to Callimachus’ epigram, one must therefore take a closer look at the curious way in which Berenice II’s unique identity is crafted within the broader context of Hellenistic women — especially the elites. Rather than present Berenice as a traditional Macedonian princess, Callimachus removes her body and then entirely reappropriates her absence.

1§4 The epigram opens and immediately the audience receives news of the elevated event,

7          κἠμὲ Κόνων ἔβλεψεν ἐν ἠέρι τὸν Βερενίκης

βόστρυχον ὃν κείνη πᾶσιν ἔθηκε Θεοῖς [4]

The lock of hair, which narrates the entire work, records its dedication. This is the first of only two times in which Berenice’s name is mentioned at all in the Greek, a striking observation for a poem written in her honor. Βερενίκης second appearance, by name at least, occurs as the lock speaks,

60        καὶ βερ]ενίκειος καλὸς ἐγὼ πλόκαμος[5]

1§5 It is intriguing that in each of these circumstances, Berenice is not in a position of grammatical subjectivity. In the first example, her name is written in the genitive, here a reflection of removed possession. In the second example, she is presented as an adjective, which, in this instance, functions as an equivalent to the genitive and reflects again her removed possession. Rather than giving Berenice literary agency, or a position equivalent to the nominative, the lock of hair – the πλόκαμος – retains the narrative power. Callimachus purposefully removes Berenice from the epigram, bifurcating her body and her image. In doing so, Callimachus is able to present the figure of Berenice II through the metaphor of the lock of hair. The lock, having been separated from the physical Berenice, and at the same time representing her, becomes a bridge to shift audience perceptions of the queen. Her body disappears and only her name – in the genitive and as an adjective – remain in the surviving lines. The lock of hair, on the other hand, is far more prominent. It narrates, mourns, feels distress, remembers its past, and receives the fragrant oils. But Berenice is bodiless, situated on the outskirts of the poem and thus free to float beyond the human realm by means of the lock of hair.

1§6 In opposition to Berenice’s removed character, Callimachus has the lock of hair emerge as the central narrator. The lock grieves for how “I no longer shall touch that head.”[6]

75        οὐ τάδε μοι τοσσήνδε φέρει χάριν ὅσσον ἐκείνης

ἀσχάλλω κορυφῆς οὐκέτι θιξόμενος,

ἧς ἄπο, παρθενίη μὲν ὅτ’ ἦν ἔτι, πολλὰ πέπωκα

λιτά, γυναικείων δ’ οὐκ ἀπέλαυσα μύρων.[7]

Instead of Berenice retaining the literary agency to display an emotion, the hair displays emotion, conjuring memories of a previous time wherein it drank the frugal scents of Berenice’s maidenhood. This grieving and display of emotion leave Berenice and her body all the further away from the reader. The lock of Berenice’s hair is the prominent voice throughout the epigram – in fact, it is the only explicit voice at all. Thus the voice of the physical Berenice is usurped by a metonym, one that gives her a seemingly limited and almost nonexistent literary agency within the text. Yet, her bodily absence from the text might not be as restrictive as it seems.

1§7 If the poem is to bolster the image of Queen Berenice, why would Callimachus remove her body, pushing her figure off the margins? The literary absence of the “real” Berenice provides the space for Callimachus to recreate and expand her written image, which transfers her into the sky. This transference can be noted earlier in the epigram, when the lock links itself to the realm of the divine, remembering its washing and placement in the heavens.

63       ὕδασι] λουόμενόν με παρ’ ἀθα[νάτους ἀνιόντα

Κύπρι]ς ἐν ἀρχαίοις  ἄστρον [ἔθηκε νέον.[8]

1§8 At the very beginning of the poem, the lock speaks of being placed amongst the gods in the sky. Here, it aligns itself with “Cypris,” a metonym for Aphrodite. By means of her lock of hair, he parallels his queen to the Greek goddess of love and affection, which serves as both flattery and a myth for her legitimacy.[9] Callimachus continues his mythical representation when he writes about the hair rising to the sky, “close to the immortals” (64). This places Berenice’s hair – and by association, Berenice – in the sky, somewhere above the human realm, and somewhere intertwined with the Divine. As the lock becomes a “new star among the ancient ones,” (65 – 67) Callimachus is forging a new significance for Berenice’s hair and her royal perceptions; yet Berenice’s body remains invisible while the lock of hair continues to take up more and more space within the epigram. Because the lock stands in for the removed figure of Berenice, these instances can be interpreted as a display of Callimachus’ authorial license as he bolsters queen Berenice’s image, not merely instances of her literary absence.

1§9 As the poem progresses, Callimachus continues to connect Berenice’s hair with Aphrodite. When the hair references its washing in the sea in lines 63 and 64, it echos Aphrodite’s own rising out from the sea foam. Just as Aphrodite emerged from the water in a divine miracle, so it appears that the lock of hair emerges from the water into the sky. This is an explicit connection between the image of Berenice and the goddess Aphrodite, a link between her absent figure and the birth of a goddess. The removal of Berenice’s human figure ushers in a distanced and performative identity.

1§10 Since Aphrodite washed Berenice’s lock of hair in the ocean and set it amongst the stars, the emerging image of Berenice becomes divine. The new Hellenistic Queen is thereby suitable for worship. Callimachus is able to recalibrate his audience’s perceptions of Berenice’s status, using the lock’s dedication into the sky to align Berenice with divinity. Because the lock was divinely placed in the heavens, its association with Berenice implies that her presence in Alexandria is otherworldly. Callimachus’ mention of Aphrodite is no accident; it is an intentional reference to Berenice’s divine status, all of this communicated through a galactic lock of hair.

1§11 Yet Aphrodite is not the only divinity to whom Callimachus connects Berenice. The lock also indicates an overlap with the traditions and rituals connected with the Egyptian fertility goddess Isis. In Egyptian cult practice, Isis was celebrated for being “the goddess of big hair;”[10] she was assimilated into the Greek culture[11] by means of the goddess Aphrodite, the two figures linked by their connections to love and marriage.[12] The central theme of hair is crucial to the legitimacy of Berenice’s role because the narrative Callimachus creates holds both cultural and political significance. Because the ritual of haircutting holds such a prominent role in both Egyptian and Greek cultures, Callimachus’ is able to allude to both of these aspects of Alexandria while weaving Berenice into a figure that resonates with both cultural divinities. Through these ties, Berenice becomes accessible to both groups of peoples, absent in the poem, but a present and prominent symbol for Greeks and Egyptians.

1§12 When Isis received the news of her brother/husband Osiris’ death, she cut off her hair in grief.[13] Berenice, too, cuts off her hair. While her sacrifice has nothing to do with Ptolemy’s death, the connection to Isis and Aphrodite would not would not be lost on a listener, especially considering the fact that Berenice’s hair was dedicated at the temple of Arsinoe-Aphrodite at Cape Zephyrium.[14] While it might evoke traditional narratives, Berenice’s lock of hair does not act in alignment with either Greek or Egyptian rituals. This suggests to audiences that Callimachus is creating something entirely different, using the lock of hair to mark a change in Berenice’s social and royal status.[15] Thus the lock of hair carries lasting impact for the image of the queen.

1§13 The lock even has memory, particularly of its previous experience as a maiden lock. Callimachus has the lock recollect its journey – being “newly shorn,” arriving in the lap of Cypris, becoming a new star in the sky, etc (51 – 63). After its melodramatic catalogue of events, the lock of hair ends the epigram with a dramatic display of grief (75). It cries out for the “myrrh of the married woman’s [hair],” loudly proclaiming its identity as linked with Berenice (78). As was the custom for Greeks, a lock of hair was often cut from the hair of a young maiden transitioning into womanhood. Tradition required that the lock of hair would then be dedicated to the gods, usually at the time of a wedding ceremony.[16] However, women were not the only ones to engage in this tradition of hair-cutting. Young boys at the cusp of manhood would conduct a similar sacrifice, cutting off their own locks in recognition of their maturing sexuality and social standing.[17]

1§14 For males and females of Alexandria, the hair-cutting served as a marker of sexuality. For women, it declared a marriageable status, and for men, it signified an entrance to manhood.[18] Berenice’s hair-cutting does not conform to either of these patterns: she is neither transitioning into a space of marriageability nor manhood. Not only was her lock of hair catapulted into the stratosphere, but she herself did not conform to the ritualistic expectations. In fact, she had been married to Ptolemy III for some time when she cut off the lock of her hair. Therefore, the lock would have encountered the perfumed oils of marriage beforehand, as Berenice would have used the fragrant myrrh before Ptolemy went off to war.[19] Why might Callimachus retell the narrative in this way, positioning the hair as if at the cusp of maidenhood, rather than following the historical and chronological timeline of events?

1§15 The incongruence in the text allows the lock to remain a symbol of transition into female sexuality, even though the removed figure of Berenice would confirm otherwise. This figural transition is visible in the Greek, as the lock of hair names itself as both a maiden and a married woman, a παρ[θ]ενίη and γυναικείων (77 – 78). According to the text, the lock will never “enjoy the myrrh of the married woman’s (hair).” Yet Berenice was married before this poem was ever written, so how could the lock grieve a loss it did not experience? It is suggested that this incongruence was “contrived to enhance the desired image of the monarch as a sexually passionate wife,” and thus, the literary absence Berenice provides the space for Callimachus to create a completely different narrative, one that positions his monarch as desirable.[20] As the poem ends, the presence of the lock of hair eclipses the absent Berenice, and instead, the hair becomes a symbol of transition. Through the lock of hair, Berenice stands in the space between maidenhood and marriage, between Cyrene and Alexandria,[21] and also between the human and the divine.

1§16 Callimachus’ peculiar use of the hair-cutting ritual points to how he is reworking the image of Berenice, shifting her beyond the human sphere. By repurposing the hair-cutting ritual, Callimachus is able to craft a mythical identity of queen Berenice, “fusing the Queen’s questionable past, hopeful present, and glorious future into one timeless image in the night sky.”[22] And all of this occurs with an absent Berenice, a literary absence that can be felt throughout the epigram. Callimachus takes the lock of hair into the celestial realm where it is closer to the “immortals.” By association, this also places the image of queen Berenice closer to the “immortals” (65). In the text, the lock of hair serves as a placeholder for Berenice – after her actual death, she will still remain in the stars, deified with the other Greek gods despite her bodily absence in the text.

1§17 Nowhere in the poem is Berenice’s body mentioned – not once. When this reality is placed beside the agency that middle and upper-class Greek women experienced within the Ptolemaic kingdom, the Berenice of Callimachus’ poem stands in sharp contrast. Respectable women were known to participate in Alexandria’s economics; women served as artisans, vendors, and even as money lenders, able to hold civic rights.[23] In contrast to other periods of Greek society, the Hellenistic period remained one in which women held more freedom and access, though they were still relegated to positions lower than their male counterparts. Elite women were active participants within their societies, yet Berenice is anything but an active participant in the epigram. She has no agency as an individual within the poem, but remains an absence in the background, only her head appearing for a brief moment as the source of the πλόκαμος’ “sister-locks” (51). This is in contrast to the presence that other elite women held within Berenice’s realm, emphasizing the literary shift that Callimachus takes within the epigram. Instead of portraying Berenice merely as a glorified elite, he forms a completely new presentation. In place of Berenice’s literary absence, he adapts the lock of hair so as to portray Berenice as untouchable and divine.

1§18 Although access for the elite women of Alexandria was by no means equal to that of their elite male counterparts, those within the Ptolemaic dynasty held a considerable influence, and it is believed that the “changed status of women in the Hellenistic period must have been linked … to the role of queens as models.”[24] If this is the case, then why would Callimachus so blatantly remove the figure of Berenice from the text? Would not her physicality and literary agency be important models for her audience? As the lock of hair swells to fill the epigram with its narrative, Berenice’s textual agency and textual presence shrink. This appears to be a removal of Berenice, but not all absences are created equal. Where Berenice’s body has disappeared, the figure of a goddess has been placed.

1§19 Berenice becomes interlaced with the realm of the divine through the lock’s disappearance into the stars. By weaving the voice of the lock through the faultlines of so many divides, Callimachus is able to present his royal audience with a queen that transcends the limitations of maiden/woman, human/divine, and Greek/Egyptian. The removal of Berenice’s body is what allows Callimachus to connect her with the divine realm through the metonymy of the lock. Berenice’s physicality anchors her to the mortal realm, and thus by removing her body in the poem, Callimachus is able to place his queen elsewhere. He writes her image into the faultline between the mortals and the immortals, who possess neither mortal bodies nor ageing hair. Ultimately, Callimachus offers his patrons[25] an image of a timeless queen, whose reign is ambiguously floating between the sky and the ground.

1§20 Berenice II came to the throne of Alexandria with quite a formidable narrative. In the poem, Berenice is no longer confined to her history as a Macedonian princess. Instead, she transcends both her own history and that of her people, locked in the realm of the stars. Rather than dwelling on Berenice’s lurid history, (when, for example, Berenice had Demetrius the fair murdered in response to her mother’s promiscuity) Callimachus removes Berenice’s body and replaces it with the lock of her hair. As Berenice’s body disappears into the night sky, audiences are invited to witness the refashioning of their queen, shimmering above them in the spaces of the divine while performing her reign before them in Alexandria.


[1] While a more complete and extended version of the text exists in Latin, it remains re-interpreted through the poet Catullus, and becomes problematic when attempting to view Berenice II in her Hellenistic context. In order to more accurately examine Berenice II’s representation, I use the fragments of Callimachus. While incomplete, they are what is most historically relevant.

[2] See Mcmanus 1997: xiii “feminist theory has taught us to pay attention to what is not as well as what is said,” noting the necessity of examining absence as well as presence.

[3] See McManus 1997: 77 McManus writes that “part of any feminist enterprise involves making androcentric bias visible and revealing the partiality and inequality it fosters.” When considering Berenice, her literary absence might very well imply such androcentric bias, but this bias is only a part of the analysis.

[4] “Conon saw me also in the air, the lock of Berenice, which she dedicated to all of the gods.” Cedric Whitman. 1978.

[5] “and I, the beautiful lock of Berenice.” Cedric Whitman. 1978.

[6] “that head” is in reference to Berenice’s head.

[7] “The joy of these honors cannot outweigh the distress which I feel that I no longer shall touch that head, from which when (Berenice was) still a maiden I drank so many frugal scents, but did not enjoy the myrrh of the married woman’s (hair).” Cedric Whitman. 1978.

[8] “I, the beautiful lock of Berenice … washed in the waters (of the Ocean), and rising close to the immortals, Cypris set me to be a new star among the ancient ones.” Cedric Whitman. 1978.

[9] Gutzwiller 1992: 384.

[10] Clayman 2011: 239-240.

[11] Clayman 2014: 64 – 65; In discussing the Greek adoption of new gods and goddesses, particularly when this involved the king and queen, Clayman writes that “since both Greeks and Egyptians were polytheistic, there was plenty of room for accommodation.” Therefore, the divine addition of Berenice II became a natural rearrangement.

[12] Clayman 2011: 239; Gutzwiller 1992: 373.

[13] Plutarch Isis and Osiris 14; see here Clayman 2011: 239.

[14] Clayman 2011: 231 – 232 and 239.

[15] Clayman 2014: 100 – 101.

[16] Gutzwiller 1992: 369 – 371.

[17] Dunstan 2000: 242 – 243.

[18] Gutzwiller 1992: 369 and 370.

[19] For a brief overview of the historical timeline, see Clayman 2011: 229 – 230 & Clayman 2014: 97 – 104.

[20] Gutzwiller 1992: 384

[21] Berenice II’s identity as a woman from Cyrene is important to the transition of power that occurred with her marriage to Ptolemy III. For more on Berenice II and Cyrene, see Clayman 2014: 14 – 41.

[22] Clayman 2011: 244.

[23] Pomeroy 1990: 170 -173.

[24] Dunstan 2000: 418 – 422.

[25]Rolf Strootman, “Literature and the Kings,” in A Companion to Hellenistic Literature 2010, ed. James J. Clauss and Martine Cuypers (Oxford: Wiley – Blackwell) 30 – 45. This chapter expands upon the role that court poets held in the Ptolemaic society. Strootman writes extensively on the social and cultural contexts that influenced the symposia in which the court poetry was frequently presented. Court poetry was often commissioned for religious festivities. At the same time, the poems upheld a political dimension, celebrating images of the king and queen. Callimachus would have been a participant in this imperial, elite culture and thus his poems would have entertained both the religious and political sphere.


Primary Source.

Callimachus. Aetia.

Secondary Sources.

Clayman, Dee L. 2014. Berenice II and the Golden Age of Ptolemaic Egypt. New York: Oxford

University Press.

Clayman, Dee L. 2011. “Berenice and her Lock.” TAPhA 141. 2. 229 – 246.

Dunstan, William E. 2000. Ancient Greece. Harcourt College Publishers.

Garland, Robert. 1998. Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett

Publishing Company Inc.

Gutzwiller, Kathryn. 1992. “Callimachus’ Lock of Berenice: Fantasy, Romance, and

Propaganda.” AJPh 113. 3. 359 – 385.

McManus, Barbara F. 1997. Classics and Feminism: Gendering the Classics. New York: Twayne

Pomeroy, Sarah B. 1990. Women in Hellenistic Egypt: From Alexander to Cleopatra. Detroit:

Wayne State University Press.

Strootman, Rolf. 2010. “Literature and the Kings” in A Companion to Hellenistic Literature,

edited by James J. Clauss and Martine Cuypers, 30 – 45. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

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