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The Dog Days of Summer are upon us!
In Greek mythology, Sirius – the “Dog Star” – is the nose of Canis Major, identified as the dog of Orion the Hunter, perpetually chasing Lepus the Hare (the constellation at Orion’s feet). The Greeks, Romans, and other ancients in the Mediterranean world believed that the warmth of Sirius, as the brightest star, combined with the Sun to generate the sultry, barely bearable heat felt at the height of summer.
According to John Brady, author of the Clavis Calendaria; or a Compendious Analysis of the Calendar, (compiled in 1812), during this period “the Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mad, and all other creatures became languid; causing to man, among other diseases, burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies.” (Pretty much anyone on Facebook can attest to the “burning fevers, hysterics, and frenzies,” at least metaphorically).
Dates are a little fluid, depending on where on the planet one is and the particular mythic tradition in play, but the “dog days” are a period of 20 to 35 days on either side of the moment when Sirius rises and sets with the Sun (and so remains invisible to the human eye); generally, the dog days are thought to run from early July to near the end of August.
Myth it may be, but it’s a fairly persistent one, going back several thousand years to ancient Egypt; like the idea of “full moon madness” (which many police, emergency room staff, and junior high teachers attest to), it’s difficult to deny the subjective experience of multitudes over millennia … though may be more the heat than the Dog Star that deserves the blame.
Another mythic projection into the heavens came to mind a few days ago when my wife and I drove out into the country this to view the comet NEOWISE, which we found in the northwest night sky, below and a little to the left of the Big Dipper.
Traditionally, comets are harbingers of famine, pestilence, plague, along with social, political, and religious upheaval. One preceded Caesar’s assassination, another is said to have signaled the arrival of the Spaniards and the fall of both the Aztec and the Inca empires, and Halley’s Comet appeared in 1066 AD, in sync with William the Conqueror’s victory at the Battle of Hastings (just a few or countless historical examples). Whenever a comet has appeared visible from earth, there have doubtless been no dearth of local tragedies ascribed to it (given 2020 so far, maybe the real wonder would be if there weren’t a comet crossing the night sky!)
Of course, we don’t mythologize the night sky the way we once did. Populations in First World countries don’t pay as much attention to the heavens today. The electric glow of city lights tends to drown out the stars, and even the Moon doesn’t command the attention she has in the past. (At the beginning of every year students in my junior high classroom would have no idea what phase the Moon was in when asked: I wasn’t looking for what quarter it was in or even if it was waxing or waning, but they almost universally could not say at that moment whether it was a crescent, or full, or if there was any moon at all in the night sky right then; no surprise they generally expressed more wonder and appreciation over McDonald’s Golden Arches than a rainbow after a storm.)
Astrologers still mythologize the heavens (that’s not a criticism, nor a suggestion that what they are doing is “false”), though for the general public astrology is effectively divorced from the stars, consisting instead almost exclusively of little “fortune-cookie” nuggets of advice assigned to one’s sign in a daily newspaper column (or its online equivalent).
I don’t ascribe causality to astrology, but I do find value in these heavenly signs and portents – useful tools for re-imagining and mythologizing my own life. I can’t help but notice I feel in the doldrums about this time every year; knowing these have long been “the dog days of summer” helps provide a mythological frame for what I experience, reminding me that this, too, will pass, as it always has. And looking up at the comet a few nights ago amid these turbulent times, I felt a surprising and unexpected sense of solidarity with generations past, stretching back into the dim and distant past, searching for meaning in the face of the collective tragedies that befall humanity.
tie-dyed teller of tales
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