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The Dog-Days of Summer

Gregory DiPippo

Since yesterday we talked about dogs in connection with both pagan and Christian religious observances in the early days of August, today we look at the “dog-days” of summer, and a Christian feast which is related to the heat of this season.

The term “dog-days” comes from the Latin “dies caniculares”, a translation of the Greek “κυνάδες ἡμέραι.” The dog in question is the constellation Canis Major, the brightest star of which, Sirius (also the brightest star in the whole night sky), currently rises for the first time in the solar year on August 12. In antiquity, it rose within the last week of July, and its first appearance was seen as the herald of the hottest and unhealthiest days of the summer. Already in the Iliad, Homer refers to “Orion’s dog” as the “brightest star, but which appears as an evil sign, and brings great heat to wretched mortals.” (22, 30-31). The star is called “Orion’s dog” because Canis Major appears to follow the hunter Orion through the sky; the name “Sirius”, which means “bright” or “searer”, then appears in Hesiod: “for then the star Sirius passes over the heads of men, who are born to misery, … Sirius parches head and knees, and the skin is dry through heat. … ” (Works and Days 417-19; 587-89). Hesiod also says that “when Orion and Sirius have come into midheaven, and rosy-fingered Dawn sees Arcturus”, that is the time to “cut off all the grape-clusters… and bring them home.” To this very day, a blessing of grapes and other fruits is celebrated by the Greek church on August 6th, and is found in many Western liturgical books as well.

(The constellations Canis Major, Monoceros (i.e. the Unicorm) and Canis Major, with Orion and the Hare to the right, 1776, by the English astronomer John Flamsteed (1646-1719) Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Among the Latin authors, Virgil says that “swift blazing Sirius parched the thirsty Indians” (Georgics 4, 425-6), and elsewhere calls it “Canis aestifer – the heat-bearing dog” (2, 353), an expression which also occurs in Seneca’s Oedipus. “Canicularis”, however, is post-Classical, first cited by Lewis and Short in the mid-3rd century grammarian Solinus. In the later 6th and early 7th century, St Isidore writes:

“Canicula stella, quae et Sirius dicitur, aestivis mensibus in medio centro caeli est: et dum sol ad eam ascenderit, coniuncta cum sole duplicatur calor ipsius, et dissolvuntur corpora et vaporantur. Vnde et ex ipsa stella dies caniculares dicuntur, … Canis autem vocatur propter quod corpora morbo afficiat, (vel) propter flammae candorem, quod eiusmodi sit ut prae ceteris lucere videatur. … Virginis etiam signum idcirco intra astra conlocaverunt, propter quod isdem diebus, in quibus per eum sol decurrit, terra exusta solis ardore nihil pariat. Est enim hoc tempus canicularium dierum.

The dog-star, which is also called Sirius, in the summer months is in the mid-center of the sky, and when the sun goes up to it and joins it, its heat is doubled, and bodies are dissolved and turn to vapor; whence also from that star, the days are called ‘dog-days’, … now it is called ‘the Dog’ because it affects bodies with disease (i.e., like the bite of a rabid dog), … because of the heat of its flame, which is such that it is seen to shine brighter than the other (heavenly bodies) of its kind. … (Astronomers) placed the sign Virgo among the stars for this reason, that in the same days in which the sun passes through it, the earth is scorched by the heat of the sun, and bears nothing. For this is the time of the dog-days.” (Etym. 3.71.14-15 and 28)

Rome also celebrates an ecclesiastical event connected with the heat of these days, the dedication of the basilica of St Mary Major on the Esquiline Hill. This is the oldest church in the world dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and is known by several names, among which is Our Lady of the Snows. This title refers to a medieval legend that in the 4th century, a childless couple named John and Mary wished to dedicate their patrimony to the Virgin, and therefore prayed to Her to let them know in what way they might do this that would be most pleasing to Her. On the night of August 5th, when Rome is usually very hot, She appeared to them both in a dream, and told them go up to the Esquiline Hill in the morning; there they would find a patch of snow, and should build a church to Her on that spot. Pope Liberius (352-66) had exactly the same dream, and met the couple on the Esquiline in the morning. Although this legend rests on fairly dubious historical foundations, the Church still honors it every year with a shower of white flower petals dropped from the basilica’s ceiling during the principal Mass of the feast day, to represent the snowfall.

(The Foundation of St Mary Major, ca. 1415, by Masolino da Panicale (1383-1447). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

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