When the weather turns hot and humid and a glass of iced sweet tea is always close by, it’s safe to say the dog days of summer have arrived. But what are the dog days and why are they called that? The answer may depend on who is talking.
According to meteorologists, in the United States, the dog days mark the time from July 3 until August 11 when the heat of the summer is at its worst. They indicate a time of weather instability where frequent evening thunderstorms become the norm due to daytime heating and high humidity.
Local folklorists and farmers claim that the dog days are a time when snakes go blind and randomly strike, wounds heal slowly and are at a greater risk of bacterial infection, and hay should be made with haste.
At least in regards to snakes, these old timers’ tales have some truth behind them.
Kaylee Pollander, wildlife biologist for the WVDNR, said that, depending on species, snakes begin to shed in the summer. During the shedding process, their eyes turn milky, which affects their vision.
Additionally, as the weather becomes warm, snakes become more active, Pollander continued. This activity may be the reason why farmers would correlate snake strikes with the dog days, but the answer is not definitive.
Astronomers have another thought regarding the meaning of dog days, and this one involves the universe.
According to Dr. Will Armentrout, assistant scientist at the Greenbank Radio Observatory, the definition of dog days has changed over time, but the origin of the name can be traced back to the ancient world and a star, now called Sirius A.
Sirius A is the brightest star in the sky, Armentrout explained. It is part of a constellation called Canis Major, or Orion’s Dog.
Beginning in mid-August, Sirius A begins to rise just before the sun. This phenomenon is what allowed the Egyptians to predict the flooding of the Nile River.
One of the earliest mentions of Sirius A being referred to as Orion’s dog was in the classic Greek epic poem, “The Iliad,” attributed to Homer and written in the 8th century B.C., where the arrival of the warrior Achilles toward the city of Troy is likened to Sirius A.
The Richmond Lattimore translation states, “…he swept across the flat land in full shining, like that star which comes on in the autumn and whose conspicuous brightness far outshines the stars that are numbered in the night’s darkening, the star they give the name of Orion’s Dog, which is brightest among the stars, and yet is wrought as a sign of evil and brings on the great fever for unfortunate mortals.”
For thousands of years, humans have looked to the stars, and this early “fever” may be the origin of the period we now refer to as the “dog days,” and named after Orion’s dog.
To see Sirius A locals should look toward the east beginning on August 11 just before the sun rises, Armentrout said. This is when Sirius A begins its journey across our visible sky.
“It will start to rise earlier and earlier as the year goes on until eventually, it will be up in the middle of the night in winter,” he continued. In the winter, stargazers will have the best viewing of Sirius A and the Orion constellation.
Armentrout noted that the Greenbank Observatory has stargazing parties for anyone interested in learning about the nighttime sky with a scientist. Dates for these parties can be found at greenbankobservatory.org.
For anyone who may have more old-timers’ sayings or stories of the dog days of summer, we would love to hear them.