Farewell Summer Heat: A Tribute to the ‘Dog Days of Summer’

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Published on: Sep 18, 2015
Republished August, 2017

Fall officially kicks off on Wednesday, September 23rd, and I don’t think us South Texans could be more excited. We’re happily dusting off our winter boots and bidding the hot summer days adieu with the hopes of soon feeling temperatures below 80°F.

No more ridiculously high electric bills or ice cream that melts before you even have a chance to grab a spoonful. No more sweating and melted makeup before you get to work or school. No more scorching hot seats when you jump into your car to escape the scorching hot and humid air that suffocates you every scorching hot day. No more Dog Days of Summer!

The Tale of Dog Days of Summer

Created using Stellarium by Bob Moler, an amateur astronomer...
Created using Stellarium by Bob Moler, an amateur astronomer.

It’s not truly a tale, rather a type of tradition or practice that got lost in translation. When I first heard the phrase “dog days”, I immediately conjured up a detailed image of a big dog panting and sprawled on a front porch next to his human. Little flies would be buzzing, pestering the duo as they looked out into distant fields permeated with the site of heat waves.

I thought it was just a phrase people used to describe the hot, lazy days of summer. Indeed, most people today use the phrase in much a similar way when referring to summer heat, but the moniker actually has a fascinating history. It has little to do with dogs and plenty to do with ancient astronomy and astrology.

With no NASA or fancy satellites to guide them, ancient Greeks and Romans tracked and mapped stars. They could create calendars, follow the seasons and make weather predictions appropriately. The Greeks made note of a 40-day period in the early summer when Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky and part of the Canis Major constellation, would rise and set with the sun. Sirius means scorcher or glowing in Greek and was also known as one of the dogs of Orion the hunter for the ancient Romans. Thus, the “dog days” phrase, often referred to as “la canicula”, came into existence.

The brief period of extreme heat was often associated with fever and catastrophe and has been recognized ever since. Even ancient Greece’s epic poet, Homer, wrote about the star as a harbinger of heat in the Iliad:

Sirius: The Brightest Star in the Night Credit: ROSAT, MPE, NASA, Courtesy Skyview Copyright: University of Leicester
Sirius: The Brightest Star in the Night
Credit: ROSAT, MPE, NASA, Courtesy Skyview
Copyright:University of Leicester

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.

Dog Days Today

Wondering if the Greeks and Romans were right? Yes and no. Technically, the hottest period during summer months varies from year to year in the Northern Hemisphere. Thanks to Earth’s rotation and the planet’s natural wobble, the position of the stars in our night sky has shifted since ancient times.

That’s something that ancient Egyptians noted! Today, “dog days” tend to fall several weeks later on our calendar, ending sometime in mid-August. Stick around for another 10,000 years and Sirius’ heliacal rising will fall back so much that future people will experience “dog days of winter”. It works both ways when you think about it.

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Joann Martinez
JoAnn is a graduate of the University of Texas-Pan American where she obtained a Bachelor’s in Mass Communication with a minor in English. She is an inquisitive, ambitious and lively person with an undeniable passion for the written word.

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