The Dog Days of Summer (Sort of) Explained

Dog Days Summer

We have almost reached conclusion of this year’s Dog Days of Summer and my own canines are ready for cooler temps. In my mind, the phrase “Dog Days of Summer” always conjures up vibrant images involving the hottest days of summer. A classic view of Dog Days includes a large dog resting below a mossy oak, panting, and simply too tired and hot to chase a squirrel or rabbit which crosses its path. Instead of animals, perhaps Dog Days are better embodied in black and white photos of sweltering city apartment dwellers who brave their rusty fire escapes after sundown in the hope of catching even a warm breeze. Maybe Dog Days are captured with visions of a raving mad, out of control Al Pacino on New York City streets entangled in a bank robbery gone bad. As it turns out, each of these images — lazy, exhausted, weak, reckless, insane — have been part of the fabric of Dog Days of Summer as that phrase evolved over time.

The origination of “Dog Days of Summer” has little to do with actual dogs, although references to canines remain throughout the entire history of use of that phrase. In celestial terms, where Dog Days of Summer began, the “dog” is, indeed, just that. Sirius is the brightest star in the southern sky. While visible most of the year, it cannot be seen in early summer due to the tilt of the Earth. Sirius reappears, or rises, in the night sky on or about July 19. For ancient Greeks, when Sirius arose, the Dog Days started.

But what about the dog part? To locate Sirius, first find the Orion constellation. Follow the line created by the three stars on Orion’s Belt toward the south (usually toward the horizon). The brightest star in that path is Sirius. Sirius is the star which follows Orion across the night sky as a dog follows its master. Thus, Sirius is oft-times referred to as the Dog Star.

The Greeks associated the rise of Sirius with the onset of extreme heat of summer and accompanied unpleasantness. In fact, some Greeks believed that Sirius hid from view in early summer as it was busy adding heat and power to the sun for the Dog Days. In the Iliad, Homer described the Dog Star’s appearance as follows:

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

Evil portent? Suffering humanity? Bringing heat and fevers? It is little wonder that few, if any, would look forward to the Dog Days. Over time, the perception has not improved terribly much. The Romans blamed Sirius for summer heat and diseases. Drought in the vineyards would be the making of the Dog Star. Romans were cautioned to be vigilant of dog attacks during these days.

Fast forward to the 1500s to discover still little change. The medical practices of bloodletting and induced vomiting were to be avoided during the Dog Days as man was “made weake” at that time. In 1729, a British medical publication noted that if men became ill during the Dog Days, “they be more sick than at any other time, yea very near Dead.” Men were then counseled to “abstain all this time from women.” No bloodletting and no sex while the Dog Days of Summer continued? — sort of a glass half full situation in the medical world.

So, in the Dog Days, men became sickly, feeble and weak. Dogs became vicious. Crops suffered. What group could history possibly treat worse than these in describing the effects of the the Dog Days of Summer? Of course, women. As early as the 2nd Century, Greek men were advised to “steep their lungs in wine” as Sirius approached as “women are at their foulest.”

Hesiod described the arrival of Sirius as the “season of wearisome heat, then goats are plumpest and wine sweetest; women are wanton, but men are feeblest.” Men are feeble. Women are aggressive. So enlightened.

How long do the Dog Days of Summer last? They begin on or around July 19, although the Farmer’s Almanac has an earlier date. Historical references abound for the various end dates of the Dog Days. The earliest end date appears to be August 11. The latest date is September 7. Most cultures carried the Dog Days through late August. Some invoke the Catholic Feast of St. Roch on August 16 as the final Dog Day. St. Roch is the Patron Saint of Dogs with a back story including acts of mercy and compassion involving dogs. With a feast day reminding us of the caring, gentle demeanor of dogs, how could the oppressive Dog Days continue thereafter?

In these times so modern and enlightened, can we avoid the effects of the Dog Days of Summer? Take a few lessons from my own canines, Louie and Sully. First, rarely leave a temperature controlled environment. Second, use the Starbucks Drive Thru to order Puppycinos (Yes. They have Puppycinos and your four legged friend will adore you for them!). Third, on those especially challenging days, lick a vanilla ice cream cone until gone. Fourth, take extra long naps. Actually, that process describes their entire existence, not merely the Dog Days.

In any event, it works. It is still the summertime. Slow down. Enjoy a treat. Avoid bloodletting. Ignore the outdated abstinence directive. The temperatures will cool, the leaves will change, and Sirius will soon enough follow Orion across the autumnal night sky.

Editor’s Note: Michael typically writes on topics which he somehow connects to mediation or ADR. The article about the Dog Days of Summer could probably be used to describe how perceptions change over time and mediation parties must remain alert to changed positions and signals; or to draw obvious analogies between bloodletting and the litigation process, both of which could be avoided with a settlement during the Dog Days. However, the Dog Days have taken their toll and Michael appears too feeble and weak to think about such things. Instead, Michael will take Louie and Sully out for Puppycinos.

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