The “dog days” are the stretch of time in midsummer when the combined heat and humidity make the afternoons unbearable and send humans and dogs alike seeking shelter in cool shade or the forgetfulness of a sultry siesta.
The dog days gestalt is an ancient concept in Western culture dating back at least to the Iliad, the oldest work of Western literature (~800 BC). Homer uses an allusion to the dog star Sirius no less than three times to describe the sun’s rays off brilliant bronze armor, evoking not only the brightest star but also the concomitant ill fortune and death that is also associated with the summer sauna.
And aging Priam was the first to see him
sparkling on the plain, bright as that star
in autumn rising, whose unclouded rays
shine out amid a throng of stars at dusk–
the one they call Orion’s dog, most brilliant,
yes, but baleful as a sign: it brings
great fever to frail men. So pure and bright
the bronze gear blazed upon him as he ran.
Virgil would parrot Homer 800 years later in his Aeneid:
“… even as when in the clear night comets glow blood-red in the baneful wise; or even as fiery Sirius, that bearer of drought and pestilence to feeble mortals, rises and saddens the sky with baleful light.”
The Greeks gave us the constellation Kyôn, meaning dog, which is one of the most ancient of words across all language. The brightest star in the constellation and in the entire sky they named Seirios, meaning scorching; colloquially the star was known as Kyôn Aster, literally the dog-star. The Romans would call the constellation Canis Major, the greater dog, and the star Sirius was referred to as Canicula meaning little dog. They called the dog days dies caniculares meaning days of the little dogs, recognizing both Sirius and Canis Minor’s brightest star Procyon (meaning ‘before the dog’ seeing as it would rise in the sky before Sirius) as the two dog stars of summer.
In ancient times, the Dog Star would return to the sky after a 70 day absence just before the annual flooding of the Nile in late July. Because of Sirius’ brightness and proximity to the Sun during its return–what we call a star’s heliacal rising–the ancients believed that it added its heat to that of the sun creating the hotter weather.
This event was so central to the Egyptian culture that they timed their year on the cycle of this star which they called Sothis and deified as the goddess Sopdet; they also designed their mummification process to match this 70 day observance. This calendar is called both the Sothic cycle and the Canicular period, and it gave the Egyptians a sidereal year that matches the one we use today almost exactly at 365.25 days per year.
The Egyptian timing of their new year survives in the Greek name for the winds which descend upon the Mediterranean coinciding with the dog days. The Etesian winds (from the Greek for year), are an annual phenomenon which the fishermen referred to as the “meltem” short for mal temps meaning bad times. The strength of the winds caused hazardous conditions for the small craft, but on land they brought welcome relief to the stagnant conditions characteristic of the dog days.
The Etesiae blow after the summer solstice and the rising of the dog-star: not at the time when the sun is closest nor when it is distant; and they blow by day and cease at night. The reason is that when the sun is near it dries up the earth before evaporation has taken place, but when it has receded a little its heat and the evaporation are present in the right proportion; so the ice melts and the earth, dried by its own heat and that of the sun, smokes and vapours.
– Aristotle, Meteorology 350 B.C.
We do not ascribe to chance or mere coincidence the frequency of rain in winter, but frequent rain in summer we do; nor heat in the dog-days, but only if we have it in winter.
If in the dog-days there is wintry and cold weather, we say this is an accident, but not if there is sultry heat, because the latter is always or for the most part so, but not the former.
As the classical derivation of the name faded, the common folk embellished the days with their own interpretations. Common wisdom said that the days would make women more passionate and men more feverish, and dogs themselves would succumb more easily to rabies, lethargy, and madness. People under the influence of Sirius were called “star struck,” “dogging,” or “dog tired” and we retain these uses today.
Dogs, of all animals, were thought most affected by the annual reappearance of Sirius. Dogs were believed to suffer at this time of year and their panting was an indication of internal desiccation and excessive dryness. When this occurred, dogs were in danger of becoming rabid and their saliva poisonous. Humans could then become rabid and die from a dog bite.
– Sirius: Brightest Diamond in the Night Sky, J.B. Holberg
The association of the dog star is not uniquely Western, hinting at an even more ancient cultural association. The ancient Chinese called Sirius Tian Lang for “heavenly wolf” and associated it with the bridge between heaven and hell. Their interpretation mirrors the ancient Egyptian as the soul must be weighed and perfected before passage is allowed.
The ancient Babylonians referred to Sirius as ‘Kak-shisha translated “the Dog that Leads” and alternately “a star of the south.” Later Mesopotamian cuneiform call the star Kal-bu “the dog” and Kakab-lik-u the “Star of the Dog.” The Assyrians called it “Dog of the Sun,” The ancient Akkadians named it “Dog Star of the Sun,” and the Phoenicians dubbed it Hannabeah “the one who barks.”
There are also numerous and intriguing associations of Sirius with dogs and wolves from throughout North America. To the Alaskan Inuit of the Bering Straits, Sirius is the “Moon Dog.” When the moon comes near Sirius, high winds will follow. Among the Tohono O’odham of the southwestern deserts, Sirius is the dog that follows mountain sheep, a description that was shared with the Seri who lived to the south along the Gulf of California, in Mexico.
To the Blackfoot of the north-western Great Plains the star was “dog-face.” Among the Cherokee, whose ancestral home was the central Appalachian Mountain region, Sirius and Antares are the dog stars that guard the ends of the “path of souls,” the Milky Way. Sirius, in the winter sky, guards the eastern end, while Antares, in the summer sky, guards the western end. A departing soul must carry enough food to placate both dogs and pass beyond, or spend eternity wandering the “path of souls.”
Alternatively, the Pawnee of Nebraska have an elaborate and well-developed mythology tied to the heavens. The Skidi (or Wolf) band of the Pawnee call Sirius the “Wolf Star” and the “White Star.” According to Skidi cosmology, Sirius brought death into the world and would escort deceased tribal members along the “spirit pathway” (the Milky Way) to the place of the dead in the south. During times of a sacrificial ceremony, a tribal representative of the White Star would sit in the southwest corner of the lodge to watch over the ill-fated sacrificial maiden. Among other Pawnee, Sirius was the Coyote Star, the trickster. The Northern Osage, of the south-central United States, regarded Sirius as the “Wolf that hangs by the side of Heaven.”
It should not be surprising that our cultural ties with dogs are so ingrained and universal. Sadly, cuddling up to one of them when the weather is like this only reminds me of the more sweltering connotations of this time of year. That doesn’t stop me though, they’re too cute to kick off the bed.
Happy Dog Days!
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