Monday, August 31, 2015

Dog Days

As fans of the movie Throw Momma from the Train can attest, the night was sultry

photo by Tony Alter

And sultry is a good way to describe the Dog Days of Summer—those fry-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk days at summer’s end, just when we’re all in a mood to fill the bathtub with ice and lemonade and dive in.

How did the Dog Days get their name? Is it because at this time of year, you can see dogs panting and seeking shade under shrubs and bushes?

photo by xlibber

Actually, the reason is far more mythic than that. In this season, the constellation Orion rises in the morning—and with the celestial Hunter comes his trusty dog—Canis Major.

In fact, Sirius--the brightest star in Canis Major--is also called the Dog Star. Since the hottest days of the year coincided with the rising of the Big Dog (and the Dog Star), the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans came to associate the weather with the stars.

Parthenon, AndyLiang

The poet Homer alludes to Orion's Dog in the epic poem, The Illiad:

    Sirius rises late in the dark, liquid sky
    On summer nights, star of stars,
    Orion's Dog they call it, brightest
    Of all, but an evil portent, bringing heat
    And fevers to suffering humanity.

Of course, we have to remember that Homer was penning these words in a house with no refrigeration or air conditioning or ice cream. No wonder he thought the Dog Star was bad news.

photo by paata

In some ways, I identify with those wacky, star-gazing ancient Egyptians. Before we moved back to the city, we lived in the country for sixteen years--on flat farmland away from city lights and city distractions. I never thought I would like living someplace that flat, but what it lacked in rolling hills, it made up for in spectacular scenery. We only had to look up. 

Each morning we could watch the red sun rise from the earth, and in the evening, we could watch it sink into the horizon. In summer I could stroll up our long driveway at night at look at Scorpio and Sagittarius, strung like Christmas tree ornaments across the southern sky. 

In winter, the landscape wasn't much--endless brown and gray and too much mud tracked into the house. But the sky-scape was ablaze with Orion, Taurus, Gemini, and Canis Major. In a place like that, the spinning pinwheel of the heavens is a bigger part of your life. Looking at the Milky Way, I felt like a small speck--but a small speck who is part of a grand and glorious design.   

Pharoah's Dog - Tesem

Since we moved, I have been suffering from too much time indoors and from stellar deprivation. For me, the biggest blessing of Dog Days is that the Hunter and the Dog return from their long absence in the glare of the sun. And although I left many dear friends behind when we left the country, my oldest friends--the stars--are with me still.

Egyptian sunrise--photo, Geagea

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