Everyone knows that myths are essays in personification. They are stories which portray things as people, and describe impersonal processes as personal and purposeful activity. You want to know what the earth and the sky are? Obviously, they’re a couple of randy deities: that’s Geb and Nut to the Egyptians, Gaia and Ouranos to the Greeks, Rangi and Papa to the Maori, and so forth. So, if they’re so fond of each other, why do they hold themselves apart? Why doesn’t the sky just cuddle up to the earth, and crush us? Because the air is holding them apart. On purpose. And so forth.

Thinking of this sort is very old indeed – prehistoric, in fact – and seems to relate to hard-wired tendencies in the human brain. We are, it seems, predisposed to see the world in personal rather than mechanical terms. We always have been. Steven Mithen suggests that this may be because our social intelligence evolved before our mechanical intelligence. To illustrate this point, we can observe the behaviour of modern primates. Like us, chimps conduct very complex social relationships – they cuddle, nurture, flirt, bully, wheedle, lie, cheat and so forth – but, unlike us, they can’t handle tools more complex than a broken stick. Mithen suggests that we were originally rather similar to chimps: socially intelligent and emotionally sophisticated, but mechanically and practically stupid, and unable to re-direct our capacity for complex thought and learning from the social arena to the practical. Unlike chimps, however, we moved on. At some point in prehistory, our brains acquired the ability to transfer learning from one arena of understanding to another. We evolved complex thought patterns for the purposes of lying, cheating, stealing and bullying, and then, suddenly, the penny dropped and we worked out how to make bows, arrows, necklaces, textiles, ballistic missiles and ecological catastrophes. So our mechanical and practical intelligence is actually an adapted spillover from our complex social understanding, and for this reason – Mithen suggests – we retain an enduring tendency to see everything in personal rather than mechanical terms. Hence my habit of giving pet-names to my trusty laptop and cussing her out when she gets one of her hissy fits and refuses to do as she’s told. And hence, too, Geb, Nut, Gaia, Ouranos, Rangi, Papa, and who knows what other gods besides – maybe all of them. In consequence, some assume that the whole idea of god or gods is simply a hangover from a slight mis-wire in the human brain: a pardonable error which we’ll get over as soon as science has provided a better explanation why we tend to instinctively feel that there’s Someone or Something Out There. So it’s worth bearing in mind that contemporary philosophy of mind is quite compatible with the idea that there’s Someone or Something Out There, or, rather, that consciousness might be a general property of matter which reaches beyond the evolved vertebrate brain. We simply don’t know enough about consciousness to have a firm basis for an opinion either way – because we know absolutely nothing at all about consciousness. Since we are all, in effect, just little parcels of consciousness, it is ironic that we remain in total ignorance about what we fundamentally are. Measured in terms of progress towards an answer to this basic question, the last five thousand years of civilisation and millions of years of evolution might as well just not have happened at all. We don’t know what consciousness is, any more than fish or crabs know.

But I digress. Looking at things this way leads us to see myth-making as a prehistoric endeavour, and to assume that the whole cosmos was well and truly personified by early historical times, by persons unknown. In general terms, this is true: all the cultures we know about have well-established mythic systems and religions in place long before writing and literacy ever put in their first appearance, and we never get to know exactly who first concluded that the Great Bear was a great bear. We rarely know who the myth-makers are.

However, this is not really true of the classical star-myths on which our modern constellations are based. As classical scholar Robin Hard points out, these stories originate fairly late in classical times. Myth-makers like Eratosthenes wrote at a time when genuinely ancient myth had lost its grip on serious belief among educated Greeks and Romans. The poets and writers who made the myths did not seriously believe what they were writing, and did not intend their readers or listeners to believe it either – any more than modern writers like J.R.R. Tolkien or Terry Pratchett seriously intend their readers to believe in Elbereth or Gandalf, or Discworld. Rather like these modern writers, the late Greek myth-makers made up the stories as an imaginative or literary exercise. So if you’ve ever read Greek or Roman star-myths and found them – frankly – a little bit boring or lacking in substance, don’t blame yourself. You’ve picked up on the fact that you’re reading a literary imitation of myth, rather than the real thing.

So on reflection it’s not perhaps all that surprising to catch one of these myth-makers at it, and even more fun to spot the connection to a rather embarrassing item of lost property. I’m talking about you, Conon, astronomer-royal to Ptolemy III, king of Egypt in the long aftermath of Alexander the Great’s famous career of world conquest.

This is the little constellation of Coma Berenices, which hangs around at this point in the northern night sky.

Coma Berenices is literally “Berenice’s Hair.” Berenice was the daughter of the king of Cyrene, a city-state founded in Libya by Greek colonists which wa something of a satellite of Ptolemaic Egypt, in the days after the death of Alexander the Great, when most of the classical world seemed to be ruled by squabbling kings descended from Alexander’s old generals and their clients and henchmen. Berenice came from this background and lived in this world. Besides being born a princess of Cyrene, she was second cousin to Ptolemy III, a prince of Egypt and decendant of one of Alexander’s generals. After murdering one husband for sleeping with her mother, she married Ptolemy on his accession to the throne of Egypt in 247BC. Ptolemy immediately went off to war with Syria. Berenice dedicated a lock of her own hair as an offering for Ptolemy’s safe return. Ptolemy did return safe from the war. But the lock of hair went missing from the temple.

This was when Conon came in. He had recently discovered a small, unobtrusive new constellation between Virgo and the Great Bear, and, to make a bad thing good, he claimed that the missing lock had been instarred – transformed into the newly-discovered constellation. The idea was taken up by the Greek poet Callimachus, but his poem on the subject is mostly lost. We know the gist of it from a version by the Roman poet Catullus.

Fittingly enough – given that myth is about personification – Catullus’ poem is narrated by the lock of hair itself, in the ancient riddling style of personification, in which inanimate objects find their voices and speak for themselves: a literary device which echoes the old mythic way of looking at the world – and, maybe, too, the socially grounded intelligence which we evolved to share with chimps, and the panpsychism which some present-day philosophers flirt with, and – who knows? Whatever or Whoever may really be Out There.

But that, as you might say, is what stories and storytelling are for: to create an imaginative mystery that echoes the actual mystery of the world. And, possibly, to palliate some of its pretence and squalor.

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