The concept might be a little tricky, but it's a cinch it fuels your interest in the sky and, by extension, the animal kingdom. Bears, cranes, lions, snakes, fish, scorpions and even dragons streak through space along with us, in the form of 88 constellations, or star-pictures we've configured to keep us company. You've seen lots of these before, whether you know it or not—but this season is significant for one in particular. The group Canis Major (“greater dog” to you and me) may actually be in another locale when we see it, but to hear the ancients tell it, summer wouldn't be summer without it.
Canis Major—particularly the star Sirius, the brightest object in the summer night sky and said to represent the dog's nose—was at its most prominent during ancient Rome's “dog days” (diēs caniculārēs), so called because the Romans thought that even a dog would be crazy to try to brave the oppressive heat (there's some practical truth to that, because dogs don't sweat). Old Roman calendars mark the period as running from July 24 through August 24; other sources cite the dates from early July to mid-September.
'. . .burning fevers, hysterics and phrensies'
The Romans characterized the dog days as a time of evil, when, according to John Brady's Clavis Calendarium of 1813, “the seas boiled, wine turned sour, Quinto [a god of the inferno] raged in anger. . . and all creatures became languid, causing to man burning fevers, hysterics and phrensies." They sacrificed wheat, barley and even puppies in an attempt to stave the heat and Sirius' outrage over man; meanwhile, they idolized their dogs as pets in a show of submission to the “dog star.” Julius Caesar once wrote an admonition to ancient Roman moms, chastising them for displaying greater affection for their dogs than for their kids.
Fast-forward about 22 centuries, where noted author and speaker Jon Katz, a suburban mystery writer and former CBS Morning News producer who hosts a public radio show on dogs and has written six books on dogs, animals and rural life (he and his border collies run Bedlam Farm in upper New York state), puts the idol worship in perspective. “We give [dogs] too much credit,” he said, “make them too complex, muddying our communications" by treating them as soulmates rather than understanding and respecting their animal nature.
“Sometimes, when we love dogs, we approach the outer boundaries of what's rational or sane.”
Dogs don't sue each other
As it happens, one of Katz's titles is Dog Days: Dispatches from Bedlam Farm, in which he writes of the border collie Orson, put down years before due to behavioral problems. Orson, he said prior to the book's publication, had taught him whose behavior was the worse in their sometimes rocky relationship. The incident began with Katz's frustration over his efforts to train Orson in a particular task, when a friend said, “Look, Katz—if you want to have a better dog, you're just going to have to be a better human.” From that point, Katz's bond with dogs was unbreakable, fueled by a new respect for the dog's place in nature.
“I think it's almost arrogant,” he said, “to make them into little people. Actually, what I love most about these dogs is that they're not people. They don't go on cable talk shows and scream at each other. They don't sue each other. They really live by food, attention and weather.”
And “the weather,” as we now know, is regulated by the earth's tilt, not Sirius. Not only that: Sirius is losing some of its prominence as the Milky Way's internal forces displace certain stellar views. But it's still impossibly bright (the Romans, in fact, thought of it as a second sun)--more important, it's a central figure in the breadth of man's imagination and in his abiding esteem for the animal world. Stars may come and go, but the dog's place is as enduring as the earth below them.