I may have been nine or ten years old the first time I wondered about Dog Days. The family had been downtown shopping the cut-rate sidewalk sales. Nearly all the merchants had large displays of leftover items and products that were poor sellers. The event was called “Dog Days”. I asked dad where the name came from. He quoted William Shakespeare as his explanation. “The cat will mew, and the dog will have his day.”
Dad’s literary quote didn’t have the “ring of truth” to it. I decided to ask my best friend’s dad about the meaning of Dog Days. Mr. Edwards was a major advocate of my curiosity and always had ready evidence at hand to display his knowledge. My friend John and I sat down in his dad’s den and asked about Dog Days. Mr. Edwards pulled down one of his many atlases from the bookshelf while mentioning that the expression had its start in Ancient Greece.
He found one of the star charts in the book and showed us the constellations. Then Mr. Edwards pointed to the outline of Canis Major, the Large Dog or Orion’s dog. Then he mentioned that the brightest star in the Large Dog constellation is also known as the brightest star in the sky. The ancient Romans named that particular star Sirius, (Little Dog) or just Dog Star.
In Roman times, the Dog Star rose approximately at dawn in the summertime. (This is no longer the case, due to the “precession of the Equinoxes”.) Many Romans believed that the bright star added to the heat of the Sun, so the Earth had to suffer through the intense heat and humidity that occurs this time of year. Observant Romans noticed that the city’s dog population went crazy during the Summer, further strengthening the association of dogs with the Dog Star.
In ancient times, Summer, and particularly the Dog Days, seemed to be especially evil. The Greeks and Romans believed that the power or “emanations” from the Dog Star afflicted dogs, in particular. Dogs stick out their tongues and pant in the Summer heat. The ancients thought that this made dogs more prone to diseases, especially distemper and the foaming at the mouth of rabies. People understood that if a dog should bite them, the victim would also get the disease and die a terrible death.
Besides the mad dogs, the other animals became lazy and sluggish, food and wine spoiled more easily, and often the worst of droughts happened at that time. Romans and other people who lived around the Mediterranean vicinity suffered lowered energy levels, short tempers, and there were higher rates of crime. Human diseases like hysterics and fevers were more common during the Dog Days.
Now, of course, we know the astronomical reasons behind the seasons. We also better understand the processes of disease due to infectious bacteria and viruses. In turn, the modern meanings of Dog Days are more upbeat and less evil. The Dog Days are when we take more siestas and vacation trips. By necessity, we have to slow down and drink more water.
We can also enjoy those summertime sidewalk sales where we can purchase all that doggie merchandise at super low prices. At least we have those consolations to get us through the sultry heat of July and August.