We are in the Dog Says of summer, when the sun is said to burn at its most fierce and rainfall to be at its lowest level. It is often a period of desiccating heat, when summer growth and moistness ends, and the sun dries the corn ready for harvesting, ushering in the autumn.
The Dog Days are named after Sirius, the Dog Star, which sets in the west in spring and is absent from the sky for seventy days, before its heliacal (just before dawn) rising in the east marks the beginning of the Dog Days. The Old Farmer’s Almanac of 1792 lists the timing of the Dog Days as the forty days beginning 3 July and ending on 11 August (Old Lughnasa), and they are traditionally listed as such in the present day.
The Romans thought that Sirius was a distant sun which, during the Dog Days, rose with our sun to add its own heat, making the weather unbearable. Its influence was considered baneful and malign. Pliny wrote that Sirius burned with “…a bright fire and sheds a killing light’. Hesiod described it as ‘a desiccating sun’, burning up plants and making the seeds in the earth sterile by depriving them of food. Animals die of thirst, vines are burned, and humans are prostrated with fevers and illness. Those afflicted with rabies were said to have been driven mad by Sirius. In fact, the Greeks imagined the constellation of Canis Major in the form of a rabid dog with its tongue lolling and its eyes bulging. The astronomer Manilius related how the heat brought out the worst in people, with anger, hatred and fear, impetuosity, frayed tempers and arguments, all fanned by alcohol.
In ancient Egypt, however, Sirius had a more benign influence. The rising of Sirius, after its seventy-day absence, brought the Nile inundation, the annual floods which carried rich alluvial mud for planting. They called the star Septit (Sothis in the Greek form), the Water Bringer and identified it with the goddess Isis. The rising of Sothis was considered to be the goddess coming to mourn her husband and revive him (as corn god) with the flooding of the Nile.
Of all the stars only the heliacal rising of Sirius coincides with the length of our solar year of 365.25 days. For the Egyptians, each year it started time – and therefore order, the seasons and creation. It was linked with the benu bird of creation, which rose from the primordial mound (similarly, the Greeks associated Sothis with the phoenix). Tacitus (1st century CE) reported that it took 1461 years for the benu to fly to the east and back. This was because the Egyptians calculated that Sothis took 1461 years to recycle through their 365-day calendar, moving forward by a day every four years (which accrued because they had no leap year). This was called a Sothic Year.
© Anna Franklin, condensed from Lughnasa, Lear Books, 2010