Now that the nice weather (we hope) has officially returned to the Northern Hemisphere, we can look forward to warmer, sunnier days. We’ll be spending more time out of doors and barbecue season is just around the corner. By August, many of us will be in the midst of the hottest, sultriest days of the year, also known as The Dog Days of Summer.
But what does hot weather have to do with dogs? Not much, actually. But it does have to do with the constellations. Long ago, people looked to the stars to explain what was happening around them. Patterns in the night sky would allow them to predict when they should plant crops or expect drought. Sirius, the Dog Star, is the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (or Great Dog). And every year in the ancient Mediterranean, from mid-July to mid-August, Sirius could be found in the morning sky, rising with the sun.
The Romans called the resulting hot, sticky days ‘diēs caniculārēs’, a phrase they adopted from Ancient Greece. They thought this bright star, which takes on a reddish hue when near the horizon, added it’s heat to the Sun and created the hottest and brightest days of summer. That’s why the Greeks called Sirius “The Scorcher”.
The weather was also believed to bring sickness and even madness.
Annual floods in Egypt at this time brought renewed fertility to the fields but also bugs, which increased illnesses like malaria and dengue fever. Spoiled food, dehydration and heat-stroke would mean these weeks could be very dangerous, especially without access to clean drinking water, air conditioning and refrigeration.
In reality, we have longer, hotter days in mid-summer because of the tilt of the earth and the more direct angle of sun. Today, Sirius is no longer visible at the same time of the year, arriving around mid-August for much of the Northern Hemisphere, because of the slow change in the position of the stars over time. But the phrase has stuck around.
So, even though it feels like it, the dog days of summer won’t drive your dog mad. But you may want to give Fido an extra bowl of water, just in case.