[Editor’s Note: The following article on the “Dog Days of Summer” was researched and written by State Rep. Sheilla Lampkin, D-Monticello. Lampkin is active in historic preservation in Arkansas and has received several awards from the Arkansas Historical Preservation Association. She writes a regular historical column for several area publications.]
Hasn’t it been “beastly” hot lately? So much so that the phrase “dog days of summer” comes to mind. I’d always thought the name came from the “lazy, lay around and lethargic” feeling the extreme temperatures seem to evoke in some people and animals. Then I decided to do a little research into the phrase’s origin and learned something surprising.
The term, “dog days” has nothing to do with our canine friends other than the three-letter word. It actually goes back to ancient Egypt and Rome and has its roots in astrology. In those days before bright lights and smog in the skies, the ancients spent some nighttime hours studying the stars. Much like we watch clouds today and “picture” certain shapes or forms, they looked at the stars at night and connected them mentally to form sky pictures. Their favorite forms were bears (Ursa), a bull (Taurus), twins (Gemini) and dogs (Canis).
Today we call these “star pictures” constellations. Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky and it is found in the Canis Major (Big Dog) constellation, so it is called the Dog Star. It is so bright that the early Romans thought it heated the sun. Because of the earth’s rotation we can see it best in the southern sky during January. The dog star name, Sirius, came from early Egyptians whose pagan idol, Osirus, had a head that resembled a dog in Egyptian pictograms.
Because of the earth’s tilt, in the summer Sirius rises and sets with the sun. During late July it is so close to the sun that ancients believed it added heat to the sun and created a period of especially hot, sultry weather. They called the period of about 20 days before and 20 days after its conjunction with the sun the “dog days of summer” because of the Dog Star, Sirius.
Over centuries the dates have changed due to the tilt of the earth’s axis and our view of the sun, but the dog days always come between early July and early September.
Ancient Egyptians were more appreciative of the dog days of summer because they were followed by the flooding of the Nile River that left precious nutrients for their crops.
Like us, the Romans were less appreciative of the heat. Early in their history, they were known to have even sacrificed a brown dog to appease their heathen gods in hopes of more pleasant weather.
Eventually the period was so associated with the conspicuous laziness of some domestic dogs (think of Duke on Hee Haw) and the term “dog days” has remained.
So now, you have a little more knowledge about the dog days of summer. We are enjoying a break for a few days, but I fear they will return once more this summer before fall finally makes an entrance. Hopefully, we will have an extended fall season before winter creeps back into our lives.
Now I have a question for long-time Drew Countians. Do you have any memories of a gypsy funeral in Monticello in the 1960s? I have been unable to learn any information to answer a recent query from a reader. If you can help, please give me a call at 367-6349. Thank you.