Dog Days: The Isis-Nile-Star and Sirius dog-star connection

Excerpted from ‘Dog Days’ of Summer End With Dog Star’s Sky Return by Joe Rao, 12 August 2011

“The so-called “Dog Days” of summer in the Northern Hemisphere officially came to an end this week, when the Sirius, the bright Dog Star, returned the night sky.

Everyone talks about “Dog Days” but few may know what the expression actually means. Some might suggest it signifies hot, sultry days “not fit for a dog.” (If during you live in Dallas or Oklahoma City this summer, you may probably more than agree with this particular definition.) Others, meanwhile, may say it’s the weather in which dogs go mad.

But the actual Dog Days, or “Canicular” days as they’re known, are defined as the period from July 3 through Aug. 11 when the Dog Star, Sirius, rises in conjunction (or nearly so) with the sun. As a result, the classical Greek and Roman belief was that the combination of the brightest luminary of the day (the sun) and the brightest star of night (Sirius) were responsible for the extreme heat that is experienced during the middle of the northern summer. Other effects, according to the ancients, were droughts, plagues and madness.

A more sensible view was put forward by the astronomer Geminus around 70 B.C. He wrote: “It is generally believed that Sirius produces the heat of the Dog Days, but this is an error, for the star merely marks a season of the year when the sun’s heat is the greatest.” [The 9 Hottest Places on Earth]

The sky map of for the star Sirius here shows where it currently appears in the predawn sky.

Dog star’s night sky legacy

In ancient Egypt, the New Year began with the return of Sirius. It was, in fact, the “Nile Star” or the “Star of Isis” of the early Egyptians. Interestingly, some 5,000 years ago, this star’s “heliacal rising” (appearing to rise just prior to the sun) occurred not in August, as is the case today, but rather on or around June 25.

When the ancient Egyptians saw Sirius rising just before the sun, they knew that the “Nile Days” were at hand. Its annual reappearance was a warning to people who lived along the Nile River. The star always returned just before the river rose, and so announced the coming of floodwaters, which would add to the fertility of their lands. People then opened the gates of canals that irrigated their fields.

Priests, who were the calendar keepers, sighted the first rising of the Dog Star from their temples. At the temple of Isis-Hathor at Denderah is a statue of Isis, which is located at the end of an aisle lined by tall columns. A jewel was placed in the goddess’ forehead.

The statue was oriented to the rising of Sirius, so that the light from the returning Dog Star would fall upon the gem. When the priests saw the light of the star shining upon the gem for the first time, they would march from the temple and announce the New Year. In the temple appears the inscription: “Her majesty Isis shines into the temple on New Year’s Day, and she mingles her light with that of her father Ra on the horizon.”

Recent excavations of four ancient tombs at El Fayum have unearthed well-preserved mummies and ornate painted coffins, and in addition to these, the archaeologists also found a strange burial on the outskirts of the site containing the non-mummified remains of a child and a group of mummified dogs, a grave unlike any other yet found in Egypt. … see excerpted National Geographic article below:

“Mummified Dogs

One of the strangest discoveries made at the site was the non-mummified body of a child buried with several mummified dogs.

The human remains, which were naturally mummified by the arid climate, were partially covered in a sack, its lower half surrounded by crudely mummified canines ranging from puppies to fully mature animals.

“They are put in any which way, with no real sense of orientation,” said AUC’s Ikram, an animal mummy expert.

Ancient Egyptians were known to keep domesticated pets and sometimes were buried with them.

(Read related story: “Mummy Birds Recovered From Egypt Factory” [August 9, 2007].)

Other animals were included in burials as part of a religious ritual, but this find is unlike any that has been documented, he said.

“The kind of deposit [of animals] you have here is neither like a sacred deposit [nor] like a pet deposit,” Ikram said.

“It really is a very interesting new page in the archaeology of humans and animals in Egypt.”

El Faiyum, is an oasis about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of Cairo (see map). (See photos of the tomb treasures.)

One female mummy was found wearing a gilded mask, a rare treasure at the site known as the necropolis of Deir el-Banat…The team of U.S. and Russian archaeologists stumbled upon the burials during routine work in a section of the cemetery, which was used from the early fourth century B.C. to the seventh century A.D. … Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, said some of the newly discovered remains are the best yet found from the Ptolemaic era—the span of Greek rule that began shortly after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.”

Source: Surprise Egypt Tombs Yield Ornate Coffins, Dog Mummies by Steven Stanek, National Geographic News January 30, 2008

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