Understanding the Dog Days of Summer

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PHOTO: Summer at Myrtle Beach, courtesy of David R. Tribble
PHOTO: Summer at Myrtle Beach, courtesy of
David R. Tribble

As a young child in the hills of West Virginia, there was always a certain time of year that my mother would forbid my brothers and me from going wading or swimming in the creek behind our house — and it just so happened to always fall during the absolute most miserable and sweltering weeks of the year.

She called this time “The Dog Days” and she’d swear that if we entered the flowing water with even the slightest cut or nick on our legs, we would most certainly end the day with a terrible infection in our legs.

As I grew older, I came to hear the phrase “dog days of summer” more and more; however, like most, I didn’t truly understand what it even meant.

My quest to better understand the old time wisdom of my Appalachian ancestors, separating superstition from science, has led me to this topic and the findings may be surprising to some.

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, “the phrase ‘Dog Days’ conjures up the hottest, most sultry days of summer. The Old Farmer’s Almanac lists the traditional timing of the Dog Days: the 40 days beginning July 3 and ending August 11… Since its rising also coincided with a time of extreme heat, the connection with hot, sultry weather was made for all time.”

The ancient Egyptians were the first to recognize the Dog Days, associating the annual flooding of the Nile with the appearance of the summer star Sirius.

Thousands of years later, the Romans continued to blame the appearance of the star for the intense July heat and the lethargy and diseases associated with it.

The star became known as the “Dog-Star” and the ancients believed that its appearance “cleaves the thirsty ground”. Other writings note of an increase in attacks by dogs during July and August, and advises feeding them chicken manure to curb the tendency.

As newly arrived European settlers headed west into the mountains of Appalachia, they brought with them the knowledge of ancients, which was the product of both scientific observation and superstition.

The 1564 English Hope of Health counseled that purging (bloodletting and induced vomiting) should be avoided during the “Dogge daies” of summer because “the Sunne is in Leo” and “then is nature burnt up & made weake”.

The 1729 British Husbandman’s Practice claimed that “The Heat of the Sun is so violent that Men’s bodies at Midnight sweat as at Midday: and if they be hurt, they be more sick than at any other time, yea very near Dead”. It therefore advised men to “abstain all this time from women” and to “take heed of feeding violently”.

Much superstition has surrounded these days through history and many old timers believed bright and clear dog days would bring with it a happy close of the year, but rainy dog days equated to despair and heartache for the remainder of the year.

My mother also told me to be especially mindful of snakes during the dog days of summer, as their shedding skin would leave them agitated and with impaired vision.

A word of caution, to any person who may be willing to dismiss all talk about the dangers associated with dog days as being mere hype or superstition — A medical institution has reported a connection between Finland’s dog days and increased risk of infection in deep surgery wounds — so perhaps, just maybe, my mother’s mountain wisdom was on to something.

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