August has this funny way of feeling like a far-off place at summer’s start. It almost seems as though there is this vastness between June and August; a sense of distance that makes us believe that the dog days live in a time and space outside of our own. And yet, there is some truth to this. While August arrives within what feels like a blink of an eye, the tale of the dog days lies within space and the interpretations of a single star. The origins of its stories trace back as early as ancient times.
Though many of us associate the phrase with unbearably hot days and a lethargy like no other, “the dog days of summer” is a reference to the binary star, Sirius. Greek mythology describes that Sirius was the dog of the hunter, Orion. In the sky, Sirius’s constellation follows closely behind Orion’s Belt, just as a loyal dog would its owner. The ancient Romans followed suit and named the constellation that Sirius inhabits Canis Major, or, “Greater Dog” in Latin. Sirius or “the Dog Star” is the brightest star in the night sky that is visible from planet Earth. From July to mid-August, the Sun occupies the same region of space as Sirius.
Since ancient civilizations tracked time and season by looking to the sky, it is no surprise that the ancient Greeks noticed that the hottest days of the year occurred when Sirius was in conjunction with the Sun. They believed the Sun extracted even more light and energy from Sirius, thus allowing it to burn brighter and warmer for longer periods of time. Sirius stems from the ancient Greek word seírios, or “scorcher.” The dog days has its roots in the ancient Roman phrase, diēs caniculārēs, or “days of the dog star.” Diēs caniculārēs was the phrase the ancient Romans used to refer to the stretch of blazing days that occurred each July and August. Both the Greeks and Romans associated the dog days as a time of drought, devastation, and suffering. However, other ancient civilizations interpreted Sirius’s heliacal rising–or rising with the Sun–as a trying, spiritual event that would soon bring abundance. The ancient Egyptians believed that when Sirius rose with the Sun each year, deities would cause flooding to the Nile. Though the floods were in many ways destructive, they were followed by rich, fertile soils. Several ancient indigenous tribes around the world looked to Sirius as a guiding light, a sign of good fortune, or a promise of prosperity in the season to come.
It makes sense that there is an apparent bitter sweetness to August. It has been practically embedded in our ancestry to recognize the last hoorah that the long, hot days bring while we anticipate the excitement of the approaching festivities in the colorful months to follow. Oftentimes, we become lost in what feels like the perpetual, lazy heat of the summer as we await the new beginnings of the fall. We must not forget to take moments in the dog days to be mindful. Look to the sky. Relish in its beauty. What stories can we learn here?
While Sirius is best seen in late winter and early spring, there is so much beauty that space has to offer this month. No matter which crevice of the planet we come from, we can all view the spectacular Perseid meteor shower. The Perseid meteor shower occurs annually each August. The shower’s peak dates are August 11th, 12th, and 13th, and is best viewed prior to midnight–before the Moon rises. But fear not! Even if we are unable to witness the peak of the Perseids, meteors will still be visible for at least ten days after. Areas of low light pollution and open skies make the finest stages to observe the Perseids. Since the Moon will be in its last quarter phase, moonlight may obstruct our view of the meteors this year. If we place ourselves within the Moon’s shadow, such as between a large structure that obscures the lunar glare, we may have better luck. Astronomers are predicting that as many as thirty shooting stars an hour can be seen this August.
If all else fails, feel free to enjoy the miraculous sight of our Red Planet nearly floating alongside the Moon between midnight and five in the morning on August 8th. Glimpses of Venus can be viewed at 5:39 AM most August mornings. Simply look to the right of the Sun and below the Moon. We might even catch Sirius peaking at the horizon just before sunrise. The sky is calling us. So, let us grab a lawn chair or a blanket, a cozy drink, and good company. (Oh, and our masks, too!) We ask with kindness to please practice safe, social distancing. May our hearts be opened to the wonder of the dog days of summer. Here’s to clear skies ahead.
Briana Shea, BA, B