I always assumed that the “Dog Days of Summer,” like many phrases I use, had some pop culture origin that I was unaware of – perhaps a sports reference (not my forte), a movie reference (ditto), or literal (I mean dogs are often hot and tired in August).
Much to my surprise, “Dog Days,” is an ancient reference to the Roman belief that the “Dog Star”, Sirius, caused the heat due to its close proximity to Earth. Sirius is the brightest star in the sky and was believed to rear its ugly head annually and shine extra bright in the later summer, sparkling mercilessly in the sky. To appease Sirius, Romans would sacrifice dogs, hoping from some relief from the endless heat that threatened to spoil their crops and exhaust their people.
Most astonishingly is the staying power of the “dog” description of these summer days. For thousands of years and across disparate cultures, the idea of “dog” has continued to be used to describe the days of extreme heat. In France they use the term “canicule,” to describe heat waves during the summer, which translates to “little dog,” in English. In 16th century England, “Dog Daies,” were delineated in the Book of Common Prayer. Down my block, every store has a “Dog Days of Summer” sale in the middle of August, where goods are sold with a 50% plus markdown.
While “Dog Days,” have always referred to days of extreme heat, they also connote other qualities than simply hot weather. They are viewed as lazy and exhausted days that call for A/C and sweet tea. They are also viewed as frenzied and sinister days, as illustrated in Tuck Everlasting, which describes the dog days as “when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after.” There may be spring fever, but there is also summer delusion. In Albert Camus’ “L’Etranger,” Meursault becomes disoriented by the glare of the sun and the power of the heat.
Yet all that seems so far away. From the sober window of my bedroom, seeing the rain pelt the ground, I think: Sirius, your time has gone.