As we witness another super-moon and other celestial wonders, we might be reminded of folk tales of werewolves and beliefs that moon phases and astrological birth signs have influence over our lives.
There is a lesser-known ancient belief which associates the bright star Sirius with the Egyptian goddess Isis, floods, dogs, a sweltering summer days, lethargy, madness and renewal. It is during this sultry time of year that one senseless killing escalated into the first of two world wars which led to the death of tens of millions and the first use of atomic bombs on humans. This is the time when stars fall from the sky and when the madness of war seems to spread like rabies throughout our world. For more about this, keep reading.
Greco-Roman dog day pessimism
August is the time of year when Sirius- the dog star, rises just before the morning sun. The ancient Romans believed that this bright star added its heat to the sun and intensified the heat of summer. They saw these dies caniculares (dog days) of summer as a terrible sweltering season of roiling seas, fevers, lethargy and sour wine.
Homer (800-700BC) wrote that Sirius “exerts a malignant influence upon the health of mankind.”And in his, The Natural History, Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) wrote:
The Dog-star rises in the hottest time of the summer, when the sun is entering the first degree of Leo; this is fifteen days before the Calends of August. The north winds, which are called Prodromi, precede its rising by about eight days. But in two days after its rising, the same north winds, which are named Etesiæ, blow more constantly during this period; the vapour from the sun, being increased twofold by the heat of this star, is supposed to render these winds more mild; nor are there any which are more regular…
Who is there that does not know that the vapour of the sun is kindled by the rising of the Dog-star? The most powerful effects are felt on the earth from this star. When it rises, the seas are troubled, the wines in our cellars ferment, and stagnant waters are set in motion.
There is a wild beast, named by the Egyptians Oryx, which, when the star rises, is said to stand opposite to it, to look steadfastly at it, and then to sneeze, as if it were worshiping it. There is no doubt that dogs, during the whole of this period, are peculiarly disposed to become rabid…
Canine madness is fatal to man during the heat of Sirius, and, as we have already said, it proves so in consequence of those who are bitten having a deadly horror of water. For this reason, during the thirty days that this star exerts its influence, we try to prevent the disease by mixing dung from the poultry-yard with the dog’s food; or else, if they are already attacked by the disease, by giving them hellebore.
Pliny goes on to explain how a particular kind of wild rose can be used as a rabies cure. But in the 4000 years since Babylonians fined dog owners for the deaths their rabid dog’s bites caused until 2004, not one person survived a full case of rabies. It was far more deadly than Ebola or MERs so it’s no surprise that the “dog days” of summer would be looked upon with fear.
Egyptian dog day optimism
Five thousand years ago in ancient Egypt, precession of the equinoxes meant that Sirius rose with the sun earlier much in the year, about June 25th, near the summer solstice. This coincided with the flooding of the Nile river. These “tears of Isis” brought mud and fertility into Egypt’s fields and meant that the new year’s planting could begin. The ancient Egyptians associated Sirius both with Isis and Sothis, deified as Sopdet. They aligned their great pyramids with this star and celebrated its rising as a new beginning.
Hebrew dog star mystery
One of the most mysterious references to the dog star comes from the Hebrew book of Job where Sirius is known as Mazzaroth:
The word Mazzaroth is also used in reference to the entire zodiac as well as the star Sirius. It may also have a connection with the fallen angel Lucifer, the word mazalot (מַּזָּלוֹת) and the phrase Mazel tov which means “Good luck.”
So as we enter late summer you might want to wake up before the sunrise and look to the eastern sky. When you first see the bright star Sirius appear, good luck in deciphering what it means.
Photo of mad dog by shutterstock