Saturday, 24 July 2010

Dog Days and Sirius Black


[Spoiler warning for readers who have not yet read
Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix]

I mentioned in an earlier post about Surnames, Coats of Arms and Family Crests that on the Black coat of arms shield, there are three stars. Sirius is the name of a star, and in Rowling's Black family tree, there are several other "star" first names as well.

The Romans considered Sirius to be the "Dog Star" because it is the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (Large Dog). Sirius is also the brightest star in the heavens besides the Sun.

As HP readers know, Sirius Black, who was introduced in the third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban, was an Animagus with the ability to turn himself into a big black dog. In that book, the association most played upon was a big black dog as an omen of death, common in the folklore of the British isles.

One thing that I - being Swedish - was not aware of until I came across it today, is that in English, the period from 24 July - 24 August is known as the Dog Days, from Latin diēs caniculārēs, and connected by the ancient Romans with the Dog Star. The term "Dog Days" was also used earlier by the Greeks. (One reason why this had escaped me is that in Swedish, we have another name for this period of the year, which has nothing to do with dogs.)

The Dog Days originally were the days when the star Sirius rose just before or at the same time as sunrise (which Wikpedia points out is no longer true). The Dog Days were popularly believed to be an evil time "when the seas boiled, wine turned sour, dogs grew mad, and all creatures became languid, causing to man burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies" according to Brady’s Clavis Calendarium, 1813.

And here is the really interesting thing: The Romans sacrificed a dog at the beginning of the Dog Days to appease the rage of Sirius, believing that the star was the cause of the hot, sultry weather.

Sirius Black is described in the books as having that kind of temper - hot and flaring one minute, depressed and steaming the next.

This kind of weather and mood also dominates the fifth book in the series, Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix, which culminates in - what? The death of Sirius Black. A death that greatly upset a lot of fans; and J.K. Rowling found herself in an awkward position in quite a few interviews afterwards: Why did this have to happen? One of her answers used to be: It just had to; and she hoped that readers would get to understand it later, in the light of the whole story.

Today as I read in another context about the Roman tradition of sacrificing a dog in the heat of summer, "to appease the rage of Sirius"... and thinking of how Rowling has made use of so many other old stories and traditions like that to build  her own... it suddenly made sense.

The hottest day of the summer so far was drawing to a close and a drowsy silence lay over the large, square houses of Privet Drive.
~The first sentence in Chapter One (Dudley Demented) of
Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix.~



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