In case you haven’t noticed, we have entered those dreaded dog days of summer. It’s hot, humid, and dry almost everywhere across the country.
The Shenandoah Valley hasn’t been excluded from the stifling temperatures and muggy air. Rains have been sporadic, all or nothing events.
The few times it has rained at our place near Harrisonburg, I could have walked through the widely dispersed drops and not gotten wet. Our backyard is so brown that it resembles a beach more than it does a lawn. Only, the grass crunches rather than squishes beneath your feet.
I understood the meaning of dog days even as a child but also wondered where that term originated. I knew that when adults talked about the dog days, it meant sunny, hot, humid, and dry times.
Those were days when the neighborhood kids would head for the woods or the creek down over the hill from our little red brick house. Mom wanted us outside playing, and with no air conditioning then, we were glad to oblige her.
But I sensed dog days meant something more profound than being so dastardly hot that the dogs wouldn’t whimper. Naturally, I Googled to find out the source of the saying. As simple as the phrase may sound, its origin is a bit complex.
It turns out that the phrase had little to do with dogs panting or even the lazy, hazy days of summer. There was a muddled mix of astronomy and fantasy involved in bringing in the dog days, not necessarily a heatwave.
Dog days first referred to Sirius, the dog star. The appearance of Sirius in the early morning sky just before sunrise ushered in the dog days for the ancient Greeks and Romans. In their time, that occurred in late July.
Back then, sailors, travelers, and stargazers didn’t have to deal with light pollution. They worshiped the heavens, establishing names and stories for stars and constellations.
In Homer’s “The Iliad,” Sirius is referred to as Orion’s dog star. Then, the dog star brought wars and disasters of all sorts. I guess they had to blame something. It might as well be an imaginary culprit.
Still, I can just imagine families gathered around a fire long ago, staring skyward, as an elder told the story of the dog star. Today, of course, most of us couldn’t find Sirius even if we could see the stars.
Whatever tradition you acknowledge and expound, the dog days of summer are here. They have gotten off to a roaring start in more ways than the hot weather.
The comet Neowise has been thrilling people for a couple of weeks now. It should be at its brightest. If you haven’t taken time to check it out, all you need are some binoculars, some keen eyes, and be willing to enjoy the cooler evening air with a good view of the western horizon. You won’t be disappointed.
Summer’s dog days are also hosting the debut of the delayed Major League Baseball season. Even with a 60-game schedule, I’m not holding out much hope for my favorite team, the Cleveland Indians.
Authorities thought that the warmer months would slow the spread of the cursed Covid-19 virus. Instead, the number of U.S. cases and, unfortunately, coronavirus-caused deaths are both increasing as the summer steams along.
I hope the dog days don’t bark too loud or long this summer. Given the state of world events, that would be some welcome news indeed, as soothing as a drenching rain.
© Bruce Stambaugh 2020