Dog Days of Summer

The Dog Days are upon us. For me, this name evokes childhood afternoons spent with my collie, Toby, reading under the fig tree, swimming in river pot-holes, and generally doing as little as possible. I have never loved summer best. I’ve never liked heat. Nor did Toby. We invented all sorts of escapes. Mind you, this was before central air conditioning was common. The best AC was at the library where Toby was not allowed. The most we could hope for otherwise was the window unit, rattling away in the upstairs hall that spat out a tepid breeze with such an acrid chemical scent that Toby would be sent into sneezing fits. Which was only amusing for me. Until the dog snot landed on my face.

So we made do in the Dog Days of Summer. We both listened for the ice cream cart. We learned the schedule of shadows. We napped through the late afternoon sun. I’m not given to nostalgia and don’t tend to look back uncritically to Halcyon Days. But today, as I was reading about triple-digit temperatures and engulfing wild-fires in British Columbia, I realized that we had it pretty good. Me and my very hairy dog in the Dog Days, sweaty and grumpy and smelling ripe. We were, nevertheless, content and busy and healthy. So we had it much better than kids do today. Toby and I, we’d never survive the Dog Days now. The days I remember as mercilessly hot — August in Midwestern humidity, June in New Orleans, July in Phoenix — would hardly be noticed in this climate. Might even be considered cool.

The Dog Days are not named for summers with our childhood canine companions, as much as I think that’s right and proper. This time of year takes its name from the stars, from one star in particular, Sirius, Canis Major, the Dog Star. This bright blue beauty was named Sothis, or Sopdet, by the Ancient Egyptians and was personified by a goddess with a star on her brow and often cow horns on her head. The hieroglyph for both the goddess and the star was a dog, though the reasons for this are unknown as Sothis was never depicted with canine features. (One of those mysteries of history.) Sothis represented fertility and abundance. When her star merged into the sunrise around this time of year — known as the heliacal rising of Sirius — she brought the rising Nile floods, the beginning of the agricultural season in Egypt and also their New Year. With her husband, Sah, a personification of the nearby constellation that we call Orion, she gave birth to the hawk-god, Sopdu, the planet Venus. She was the lady of bright beginnings. Over time, her story was absorbed by the rising cult of Isis, but songs were still sung to Sothis at the New Year. The Dog Days were good in Ancient Egypt.

But the Greeks did not enjoy the heat. They named the star Sirius, which may derive from a word that meant “scorcher” in Ancient Greek or may just be a mutilation of Sothis (which also meant “searing fire” in Ancient Egyptian). The Greeks believed that the combined fires of Helios and Sirius, rising and setting together at this time of year, drove people mad. The sea turned into a boiling kettle. Both wine and women supposedly turned sour and bitter. Men became weak. (Oh the horror.) The very air became unwholesome in the scorching heat. The Dog Days were inauspicious. The Greeks did not have a wonderful flood of fertile river waters to temper the heat. 

The Romans disliked the heat even more. Pliny tells us that everything from depression to dog attacks increased during this time of year. (He prescribed chicken manure in dog feed to curb their aggression. I’m not sure Toby would have gone for that. And he ate anything.) Plagues of all kinds were thought to begin like clockwork on July 3rd, the first of the Dog Days. There were sacrifices just before the heliacal rising of Sirius to prevent crop failures due to drought. Orchard trees were wrapped in white swaddling because it was thought that the heat would bring black blight to the bark. Sounds somewhat familiar, does it not? Perhaps we haven’t been appeasing the right gods recently?

The Greeks and Romans never had it so bad. The days of merciless heat that I experienced as a child would have been swoon-inducing to the Ancients. Average afternoon temperatures in Greece topped out around 24°C (75°F). Clearly, they had low heat tolerance. Rome was a bit less congenial. Highs of 35°C (95°F) were not unusual. (Toby would have plopped himself down on the marble in the cold room at the public baths and never come out.) Though, with a Mediterranean climate, nights cooled off rapidly. (That’s the wonderful thing about dry air; it doesn’t hold heat. Does make for cold winter nights though.) Still, Rome emptied out in the summer, with most people heading for the cooler climes down at the coast or up in the hills. Neither the Greeks nor the Romans — nor even Toby and I — had to cope with long chains of days where the lows never dipped below 38°C and the highs could actually cook flesh — which is approximately where we are now. In Canada.

I have seen a recent spate of online writers loudly proclaiming that this is the line in the sand. The heat that has been scorching my beloved desert home for over a decade and has done its utmost to throw ocean water all over the Gulf Coast and has almost literally incinerated California was background. Never mind Australia on fire, thousands dead from heat stroke in Germany, no summer ice in the Arctic, and a host of other impossibilities in the daily headlines. Nope, it’s the heat in the usually freezing Pacific Northwest that will grab the world’s attention and make them take this climate emergency seriously at long last. I am not diminishing the suffering there. (My sister lives there after all.) But it seems to me that of all the devastating impossibilities this is an odd one to declare the end of denial. De-nile runneth over in this Dog Day heat. Humans get inured to impossibilities so very quickly. I suspect that next July 3rd there will be another line drawn… I doubt there will be much done besides this scratching in the scorching sands.

Me, I’m going to hide in the bath and dream of Toby and the fig tree and summers when the Dog Days were not littered in impossibilities. Maybe with a side of ice cream.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021