06 August 2009

Caniculares Dies (The Dog Days)

If I need an excuse for being so frivolous, let it be blamed on the Dog Days of Summer.

So, how could I resist when this Classic Chalk popped onto my screeen in the middle of the August doldrums?

Just what every Classics Prof. has ever wanted: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian chalks!

Do you scratch on the blackboard (if such a thing still exists) with sticks of Greek and Roman columns, shifting from severe unadorned Doric for Plato, perhaps, to red Corinthian for the mad Emperor Elagabalus?

This is the perfect problem to consider during the Dog Days.

Why Dog Days?

The Dog Days originally were the days when Sirius, the Dog Star, rose just before or at the same time as sunrise -- which no longer happens due to the procession of the equinoxes. But it is still the hottest, driest time of year in most of the northern hemisphere, a time of torrid, sultry weather, when bloggers slow down or even stop blogging.

Sirius is the brightest star in Canis Major (left) and rose and set with the sun in summer, roughly from 20th July to mid-August. The star is so bright that, under the right conditions, it can be seen by the naked eye even in daylight.


The Greeks believed that the heat of late summer was actually caused by the appearance of Sirius and called this period the days 'under [the] Dog' (hupò Kúna). To Hesiod (Works & Days, 8th C BC), the star brought the enervating heat that led to inactivity and lethargy in men (when men are feeblest) but women -- ever devious -- were at their most wanton and ran riot.

Four hundred years later, the Latin poet Aratus (ca. 310-260 BC), depicted Sirius as bringing a dangerous scorching heat that burns and wilts the crops. It was bad for humans, too. Sirius produced 'emanations', you see, which placed people and animals in dire danger. The star shot out flaming tongues of fire and deadly fevers. People who suffered from its heat were said to be 'struck by the star' (astrobóletus).

The Romans believed that Sirius was adding heat along with the sun to make it super-hot, thus scorching the earth. And thus, Sirius and the "Big Dog" constellation (Canis Major) came together with the hottest summer days, called the caniculares dies, the days of the dog star (in Latin Canicula), and we still use the same phrase.

But Sirius was not a nice doggy. Rather,
The brilliant constellation of the Dog...barks forth flame, raves with its fire, and doubles the burning heat of the Sun. (Manilius, Roman poet, early 1st C. AD)
When the air is turbulent and unsettled, Sirius appeared alive and active, seemingly splashing coloured rays of light into the sky. Aratus called it 'ruddy'. And the star appeared reddish to Ptolemy, who describes it in his star catalogue:
The star on the mouth [of the constellation] called Dog, brightest, and reddish.
Pliny the Younger calls it 'fiery' and the philosopher Seneca tells us that its colour is "a deeper red than that of Mars"(Caniculae rubor, Martis remissior).

If Sirius actually was red what could have caused it to change into the brilliant bluish-white star we see today?

Mixed Metaphors

Hephaestion of Thebes, a Greco-Egyptian astrologer of the 5th C AD, had it both ways:
... if the star rose great and white and if its colour passed through like a flood, then the Nile would rise high and there would be abundance; but if it were flame-coloured, and the colour of red ochre, there would be war.
Some few ancients, however, saw the star as we do, an intense blue-white. Hyginius, the Roman mythographer (end 1st C BC) waxed lyrical about "the bright [or dazzling] white Sirius on the tongue of Canis, the Dog".

This ties in with what Manilius, whom we met a moment ago, reported of Sirius: "Hardly is it inferior to the Sun ... and the beams it launches from its sea-blue face are cold."

Red or White or Sea-Blue?

The intrepid scholar Jay B. Holberg tried to settle the matter once and for all. He went to Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona to observe both the rising and the setting of Sirius to discover if and when it reddened. Holberg reports:
One night ... I carefully watched Sirius rise above the eastern horizon just after midnight As the star rose it scintillated violently, taking on a range of colors from iridescent red to a brilliant blue , sometimes almost disappearing completely, and very much resembling the flashing lights on a police car. Sirius never appeared fully red or reddish. The only time I ever witnessed Sirius take on a reddish appearance was when it was setting in the west. ...
Well, that's that, I thought.

Flashing red, but not really red.

But then the good professor added, "Granted... I was at an elevation of 2000 meters. Viewing the same events from sea-level, through a murky horizon, may well have resulted in a different appearance."

It's awfully lucky that I have my Classic Chalk in many colours, ready for anything Sirius pulls on me when it sets.

And now back to the August Doldrums.

My thanks to EternallyCool for putting Classic Chalk in the picture.


Classic Chalk from Decor Craft Inc.

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