Those dog days

Why be so cold when you can be more dog? Casting aside the coincidental O2 ‘Be more dog’ campaign which exhorts us to adopt a run-all, chase-all outlook, I thought, with all this oppresive heat bringing us down, that I would throw a few words on how the ancients regarded heat waves, in particular the reason why we refer to a canicula in the Romance-speaking world as such; canicule (French), canícula (Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese), canicola (Italian), caniculă (Romanian). The word comes from the Latin ‘canis’ meaning dog. The Germanic-speaking world recast canicula into dog days (English), Hundstage (German), Hundedagene (Danish), Hondsdagen (Dutch), etc. Whether Latin or Germanic, there is unity in the idea that heat waves are dog business. But why?

It all begins in the 8th century BC with Homer, obviously, and with the glorious image of a victorious Achilles whose armour rivalled the orbs.

So spake he [Achilles], and was gone toward the city in pride of heart, speeding as speedeth with a chariot a horse that is winner of prizes, one that lightly courseth at full speed over the plain; even so swiftly plied Achilles his feet and knees. Him the old man Priam was first to behold with his eyes, as he sped all-gleaming over the plain, like to the star that cometh forth at harvest-time, and brightly do his rays shine amid the host of stars in the darkness of night, the star that men call by name the Dog of Orion. Brightest of all is he, yet withal is he a sign of evil, and bringeth much fever upon wretched mortals. (book 22)

Later, Virgil famously picks it up in the Georgics:

Aye, and there have been, who with weight of stone
Or heavy potsherd press them from above;
This serves for shield in pelting showers, and this
When the hot dog-star chaps the fields with drought. (2, 350)

Virgil uses canis aestiver, which literally means the sultry dog, from which we now have aestival, pertaining to the summer (Fr. estival). Right, so we have dogs and heat. Romanian speakers, don’t you dare put those two words together in an idiom!

So who’s the dog? Is it a famous dog, perhaps a pharaoh’s, a consul’s or an archon’s pet dog? Not at all. The dog refers to the constellation of the Greater Dog (Canis Major, to distinguish it from a neighbouring constellation, that of the lesser or smaller dog, Canis Minor). On the night sky (in the northern hemisphere, where Homer, Virgil, me and perhaps you, reader, live), they look like this:

Screen Shot 2013-08-03 at 12.55.53

The brightest stars in the dog formation are Sirius and Procyon, each belonging to the greater and lesser dogs, respectively. The two dogs accompany the hero Orion on his hunting expeditions. Such are the mechanics of our planet that Orion goes daylight hunting only from the beginning of August and ends up in the dark over winter, when he rules the midnight sky. The ancients picked on Sirius (the Dog star) not because it shined in the night sky (in winter), but that it rose along with the sun (this is called heliacal rising and most of us have witnessed it in relation to Venus or the Evening Star, when the planet can be observed at sunrise for a short while not having been previously visible). When the day began with such an inauspicious synchrony, it was believed that terrible things were in store.

This is what the sky will look like for the first week of August around sunrise this year, when the Dog begins to bark over the horizon, heralding days of scorching heat. (especially if you’re in southern Europe, like me)

Screen Shot 2013-08-03 at 12.12.17

The Dog-star, dog day and ultimately the dog period, dies caniculares, gave rise to something quite unexpected. Presumably on account of the troublesome hot weather and the adverse effect on human temper, canicula came to mean ‘a passionate, quarrelsome woman’ (L&S), but I am tempted to extend it to a whole ethnic trait congenial to those Mediterranean peoples brought under the blistering sway of Orion’s dog, of whom I am one.

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