Dog Days of Summer: The Days when Humans and Animals “Go Mad”

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Photo courtesy of Zachariou Fotini
Photo courtesy of Zachariou Fotini

As if the year 2020 hasn’t been wild enough, brace yourself: On July 22, 2020, we entered a 32 day stretch in which ancient scientists warned that “men may behave as wild beasts” and 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”. Because of the miseries and dangers associated with this time, the 1729 British Husbandman’s Practice advised men to “abstain all this time from women” and to “take heed of feeding violently”.

The days are known as the Dog Days of Summer and throughout Appalachia, they were closely followed by Granny Women and farmers alike.

Contrary to what many may believe, the term “Dog Days” has nothing to do with actual dogs and everything to do with the star Sirius, the brightest star in the night’s sky, known colloquially as the “Dog Star”, reiterating its unchallenged title as “the big dog” of the stars in our sky.

Ancient peoples often noticed that Sirius, the Dog Star, would briefly become visible above the eastern horizon at dawn just before sunrise in late-July and would continue this brief early-morning rising for roughly a month.

These days became known as “The Dog Days” and were associated with bad luck, violent storms, excessive heat, drought, lethargy and madness in animals and humans.

Even as a child, growing up in the Appalachian Mountains of Southwest Virginia and West Virginia, only a handful of decades ago, I distinctly remember this time of summer.

Despite the heat and the fact that my cousins and I had spent the past three and a half months wading and swimming in the creeks around her home, my grandmother would become militant in prohibiting us children from swimming or even taking a step into the creek behind her house the very moment her complimentary bank calendar told her it was the “dog days.”

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 (she pronounced this word as “turr-uh-ble” infection.

In addition to prohibiting swimming, she really wasn’t all that keen on us roaming through the hills and hollers of our untamed Appalachia paradise — she said that snakes would be shedding their skin and be blind and in no mood for exercising patience with children who might unknowingly stumble upon their backs.

Neither my grandmother nor her Appalachian parents and neighbors, were the first to offer up superstitious beliefs associated with the morning appearing of Sirius the star.

Thousands of years earlier, the Romans blamed the star for the intense July heat and the lethargy and diseases associated with it.  Ancient writings note of an increase in attacks by dogs during July and August, and advises feeding them chicken manure to curb the tendency.

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”.

Always eager to find guidance for the future from the stars above, early pioneers often 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.

A word of caution, however, 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 grandmother’s mountain wisdom was on to something.

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