“In the mydle of the monthe Iulius the Canicular dayes begyn.”
Bartholomeus De proprietatibus rerum, 1398: John de Trevisa
Well, fellow St Margarethans, I think we’ve made it! The gods have smiled upon us once again and it looks like we’re going to survive. I’m not talking about getting through the trials and tribulations of the School holidays either. My concern is with the Dog Days which according to ancient wisdom ran from early July to late August …
“…when the seas boil, wine turns sour, dogs grow mad, and all creatures become languid, causing to man burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies”…
The villain at the centre of this calamity is Sirius - the Dog Star, the second brightest object in the night sky. In ancient times it was noticed that the hottest period of the year, from July to late August, coincided with the star’s rising. Believing that Sirius contributed to the overall heat, the Romans called this period Caniculares Dies - the ‘Days of the Dog’. The Greeks, always a smart bunch, observed that during the Dog Days animals grazed towards the star as it rose in the east and made strange crying and sneezing noises. Men would be struck down by fevers and women would be overcome by - wait for it - carnal desire! People who succumbed to the heat were described as “star struck” (astrobóletus.) Even Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine and in all other respects a man of remarkable good sense, warned of the effects of Sirius. The inhabitants of the island of Ceos in the Aegean were with Hippocrates. They were so concerned about it all they would sacrifice a brown dog to moderate the star’s power.
Even in more northerly latitudes where Sirius remains invisible most of the year the Dog Days were still marked for their baleful influence. In Sweden the period July 23rd to August 23rd is known as “Rötmånad” and in Finland “Mätäkuu” both literally meaning “rotting-month”, due to the risk of foodstuff spoiling in the high temperatures.
In good old Britain, where we are much more sensible, the “Dog Daies” were still listed in the Saints Day calendar in the 1552 edition of the Book of Common Prayer. When Bishop Wren set about revising the prayer book in the early 1600’s, he was so offended by this pagan nonsense he removed the dates with the terse comment “Out with ‘dog days’ from among the saints!” And while Bishop Wren was doing his thing with the Dog Days, the Astrologers of the time were doing theirs…and their advice was “Dog Days? Don’t!”
This was an age when Astrologers’ Almanacs were widely consulted for all kinds of advice, from the best cure for smallpox (red flannel) to the appropriate days for husbands and wives to make love. You can imagine the disappointment of regular Almanac readers when they came across this sobering recommendation for the summer months…
“Restrain your desire - particularly during the dog days of July and August”.
One commentator noted in 1662 that there was “high dissatisfaction among women during July, because men this month observe the rule of astrology too much!” Many wives indeed were said to have turned to adultery on the grounds that “if my husband won’t, then another’s must.” Surprisingly parish registers, which showed a distinct fall in the number of spring baptisms, suggest that some couples did follow the astrologers’ advice. I think that Bishop Wren would have gone along with the Astrologers. Does it not say in the Bible, Ecclesiastes Chapter 3…
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven… a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing?”
More recently the phrase “Dog Days” has found new meaning as a period of inactivity or exhaustion. The term is also used in the U.S Stock Exchange to describe a slow, flat market. Poorly performing stocks are known as ‘dogs’.
In the U.K the term “dog days” suggests lounging around in dappled sunshine, sipping an ice cold Pimms and watching the Australians getting walloped by England at the Oval which for most England fans is about as “Sirius” as it comes.
“Dog Days bright and clear / indicate a happy year. / But when accompanied by rain, / for better times our hopes are vain.”
– from Martyn Day