Perhaps it’s because I’ve been so busy writing this, but it seem to me as though summer is dragging its heels a bit this year. Still, today looks promising and perhaps this will be the start of a run of fine weather. Traditionally, July 3rd is the first of the ‘Dog Days’, hot, sultry summer days that should last, at least here in the Northern hemisphere, from now until August 11th.
The term Dog Days originally referred to the time of year when the Dog Star, Sirius rose just before the sun appeared over the horizon. Should you be interested, I can tell you that this is called a ‘heliacal rising’. Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky. That led ancient people to believe that it added to the power and heat of the sun and made the days hotter. Because of something called the precession of the equinoxes, the heliacal rising of Sirius once happened earlier in the year and now happens later. For the ancient Egyptians, it appeared around the time of the summer solstice and heralded the annual flooding of the Nile. But for the ancient Greeks, it started around this time and was associated with the hottest days of the year. They didn’t like them at all. Pliny considered it to be a time when people were most at risk of being bitten by a mad dog and Hippocrates thought it a bad time to prescribe purging medicines. They were evil days, stagnant and unwholesome. The sea boiled, wine turned sour, dogs went mad, people were more prone to diseases and hysterics and everyone was too hot to do anything about it. Even Homer complained about them in his ‘Iliad’:
Sirius rises late in the dark, liquid sky
On summer nights, star of stars,
Orion’s Dog they call it, brightest
Of all, but an evil portent, bringing heat
And fevers to suffering humanity
Maybe it was the evil effects of the Dog Days that affected a Swiss soldier, who found himself in Paris on this day in 1418. According to legend, he had been drinking and gambling in a Paris tavern. He had lost his money, he had lost his clothes, and he was feeling angry. He reeled his way furiously down the street, swearing all the way until, at the corner of ‘la Rue aux Ours’, the Street for Bears, he came upon a statue of the Virgin Mary. He took out his knife and stabbed it. The statue began to bleed. A lot. The authorities were called and he was arrested. The story is probably not true at all, but supposedly his punishment was the be scourged until his eyes fell out, his tongue was skewered with a hot iron and his body cast into a fire. The statue was taken to a church for safety. For hundreds of years afterwards, the people of Paris built a fire, every July 3rd, on the spot where the statue had stood. They also built, carried through the streets, and then burned an effigy of the soldier. In later years, they began to fill him with fireworks too. Luckily, in 1744, someone realized that this was quite dangerous in a narrow street and the fireworks part was banned. But the citizens continued to parade and burn their soldier until around 1807.
Perhaps though, there is another reason why people might have been a bit bad-tempered around the time of the Dog Days. Astrologer’s almanacs, which first appeared, along with printing, in the fifteenth century, were full of helpful advice about where, when and with whom is was advisable to indulge one’s carnal desires. “Restrain your desire…” they advised, “particularly during the dog days of July and August”. It seems many followed this advice as parish records indicated a distinct fall in the birth rates during Spring. Also, a commentator writing in 1662 noted a “high dissatisfaction among women” in July because “men this month observe the rule of astrology too much”. Many wives turned to adultery because “If husband won’t, another must”.