The Dog Days of Summer
As Nature follows her annual rhythms, we reach that part of the year when the cicadas buzz, the katydids (or August bugs) pass the sultry evenings endlessly singing, “skritch-skritch-skritch—skritch skritch,” and lawns turn brown, as the earth beneath them turns to stone. At sunrise, the haze of humidity hangs like a warm, damp blanket over the land and over the waters of the harbor.
For this is August, and these are the Dog Days of summer—but where did August come from, and why are they called “dog days” anyway? Well, it’s like this…
Romulus, the founder of ancient Rome is credited with the popularization of the lunar calendar; this borrowed some of its elements from the Greek calendar. That first Roman calendar had ten months, and a year then was 304 days; quickly, the calendar fell out of sync with the cycles of nature. Farmers noticed that springtime came earlier and earlier every year. Eventually, and for practical reasons, it became necessary to add two months and lengthen the calendar year to something that more closely resembles the calendar of today. Along the way, the months of July and August were renamed for the Roman emperors, Julius and Augustus Caesar, who overhauled the Julian Calendar into its present form.
As for the Dog Days, this term was coined by the ancient Romans. They didn’t have televisions to watch at night, so many of them would sit outside and look up to the heavens, study the stars, and invent stories about the imaginary shapes that different groups of those stars made; these stories became their legends. The Europeans saw in those groups of stars different images than the Chinese did, and the Chinese saw different images than the American Indians did, and the Egyptians saw yet other images; but all of these groups indulged in this same pastime of stargazing.
Anyway, around Aug. 1, the Constellation Orion begins to rise about an hour before the sun does. According to Roman legend, Orion was a mighty hunter, who was followed by his two dogs: Canis Major and Canis Minor—or “big dog and little dog.” Within the constellation Canis Major is one star—Sirius—the Dog Star, which is absolutely the brightest star in the sky. The annual appearance of the Dog Star coincides with the hottest days of our summer, hence the term Dog Days. As a matter of fact, the ancient Romans believed that since Sirius was so bright, and the August weather became so hot when Sirius was visible, that the earth must be receiving extra heat from that star!
So let us enjoy these last hot days, before Labor Day heralds the unofficial end of summer, vacations, backyard picnics, and trips to the beach; for the coming of autumn and cooler weather is but a month away.