Monday, 20 July 2009

Dog Days

The Dog Days last about a month, starting around the 20th of July. They are named after the constellation Canis Major (or Big Dog). Sirius is the biggest star of the Big Dog (and is also known as the Dog Star). When Sirius rises next to the sun (heliacal rising), for weeks it is invisible: these are the Dog Days.

In Greek mythology Sirius was the dog of Orion, the celestial hunter. The goddess of the hunt, Artemis fell in love with Orion, but her brother Apollo disapproved of the relationship and so sent a huge scorpion to attack Orion, who fled to the sea and swam for his life. Apollo called to his sister: “You see that man swimming? He just raped one of your nymphs.” Artemis immediately took her bow and sent a deadly arrow across the sea. When she saw who she had killed she was in despair. She immortalised Orion and his dog Sirius between the stars, and that is where they still are. Artemis herself vowed that she would never love a man again.

On the Cycladic island of Kea, they used to make sacred offerings to the Dog Star Sirius (and Zeus), in order to beg for a cooling wind. That is because the Dog Days are known to be the hottest of the summer. When Sirius reappeared in the sky (after the Dog Days), the old Greeks thought that if the star was obscured by mist, plagues would invade the world. In ancient Egypt the yearly flood of the Nile happened during the Dog Days.

In earlier times it was thought that during the Dog Days the sea would boil, wine would turn acidic, people would become hysterical and dogs go crazy. Some people even muzzled their dogs during the Dog Days because they were afraid of rabies.

In my experience that’s the opposite of what really happens. The black Labrador Black Jack lies like he’s stone dead all day, refusing to move one leg in front of the other. It’s too doggy hot to move...

But not only dogs suffer from the heat, which here on the island now rises over 35 °C and elsewhere in Greece as far as 40 °C. Today I am using my Spanish fan to cool me down a little. According to the weather forecast this heat wave will continue and according to the Dog Days legend it could last until the middle of August.

I am sorely tempted to burn a candle in one of the many churches here — for Sirius the Dog Star: please send us a cooling wind. Only at night do we feel comfortable, the energy revives us and even the dog is ready for a walk.

Just like some people say they get moonstruck, I ask myself if I am perhaps touched by the Dog Days. Last night I had some really dark,thoughts, thanks to a book I read last winter that a left big impression: The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

In this book a father and his small son try to survive in a world that is in ashes after an apocalyptic disaster. They try to reach the coast, where they hope to be saved. On the way the earth looks bad: high up in the mountains fires are still burning; on deserted highways there are burned out cars, often with the charcoaled remains of their human occupants; the air is full of ash and blocks the sun and the sky; it rains black flecks of soot; nothing is growing anymore; the trees, if not already burned, fall like firewood.

In this horrible but beautiful story nothing is said about what exactly happened to the earth. But feeling these hot temperatures I can imagine what it might be. With the warming of the earth and the ever hotter annual Dog Days, the opportunities for natural disasters are on the increase. Imagine a rash of huge wild fires everywhere and the sad scenario of The Road becomes more and more realistic.

I wonder if Cormac McCarthy wrote his story during the Dog Days. This tiresome heat inhabits thinking and makes you slow and sleepy, with little energy to do anything whatsoever. The idea of the fall of the earth is definitely a Dog Days Thought. During this heat, it’s impossible to think about happy things...

But I never really was moonstruck, and I will not let the Dog Days get me down. While I watch the tempting blue sea and drink my umpteenth glass of water, I realize that living at the seaside during the Dog Days is not at all bad. Although the seawater is quite warm, taking a dip in it is still a refreshing experience.

The best way to survive a heat wave is just live like the Greeks do: stay inside as much as possible, and do not go into the sun. Have your meal in the early afternoon and afterwards, give in to tiredness and take a long nap. Wake up in the cooling night. These days most Greeks go to the beach at 7 or 8 at night and many don’t come out of their houses until well after the sun has dived into the sea. Then they have a coffee and prepare for the coming night. Only around 10 do they go for another meal and until the late hours, they parade through the streets, enjoying a warm summer night.

(Thanks to Tony Barell)

@ Smitaki 2009

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