The Dog Days and Sothic Cycles of August

The month of August is upon us once again, bringing with it humid days and sultry nights for North American observers.

You’ll often hear the first few weeks of August referred to as the Dog Days of Summer. Certainly, the oppressive midday heat may make you feel like lounging around in the shade like our canine companions. But did you know there is an astronomical tie-in for the Dog Days as well?

We’ve written extensively about the Dog Days of Summer previously, and how the 1460 year long Sothic Cycle of the ancient Egyptians became attributed to the Greek adoption of Sothis, and later in medieval times to the ‘Dog Star’ Sirius. Like the Blue Moon, say something wrong enough, long enough, and it successfully sticks and enters into meme-bank of popular culture.

Sirius (to the lower right) along with The Moon, Venus and Mercury and a forest fire taken on July 22, 2014. (Note- this was shot from the Coral Towers Observatory in the southern hemisphere). Image credit and copyright: Joseph Brimacombe
Sirius (to the lower right) along with The Moon, Venus and Mercury and a forest fire taken on July 22, 2014. (Note- this was shot from the Coral Towers Observatory in the southern hemisphere). Image credit and copyright: Joseph Brimacombe

A water monopoly empire, the Egyptians livelihood rested on knowing when the annual flooding of the Nile was about to occur. To this end, they relied on the first seasonal spotting of Sirius at dawn. Sirius is the brightest star in the sky, and you can just pick out the flicker of Sirius in early August low to the southeast if you know exactly where to look for it.

Sundown over Cairo during the annual flooding of the Nile river. Image Credit: Travels through the Crimea, Turkey and Egypt 1825-28 (Public Domain).
Sundown over Cairo during the annual flooding of the Nile river. Image Credit: Travels through the Crimea, Turkey and Egypt 1825-28 (Public Domain).

Sirius lies at a declination of just under 17 degrees south of the celestial equator. It’s interesting to note that in modern times, the annual flooding of the Nile (prior to the completion of the Aswan Dam in 1970) is commemorated as occurring right around August 15th. Why the discrepancy? Part of it is due to the 26,000 year wobbling of the Earth’s axis known as the Precession of the Equinoxes; also, the Sothic calendar had no intercalculary or embolismic (think leap days) to keep a Sothic year in sync with the sidereal year. The Sothic cycle from one average first sighting of Sirius to another is 365.25 days, and just 9 minutes and 8 seconds short of a sidereal year.

Image credit:
The Djoser step pyramid outside of Cairo. Image credit: Dave Dickinson

But that does add up over time. German historian Eduard Meyer first described the Sothic Cycle in 1904, and tablets mention its use as a calendar back to 2781 BC.  And just over 3 Sothic periods later (note that 1460= 365.25 x 4, which is the number of Julian years equal to 1461 Sothic years, as the two cycles ‘sync up’), and the flooding of the Nile now no longer quite coincides with the first sighting of Sirius.

Such a simultaneous sighting with the sunrise is known in astronomy as a heliacal rising. Remember that atmospheric extinction plays a role sighting Sirius in the swampy air mass of the atmosphere low to the horizon, taking its usual brilliant luster of magnitude -1.46 down to a more than a full magnitude and diminishing its intensity over 2.5 times.

This year, we transposed the seasonal predicted ‘first sightings’ of Sirius versus latitude onto a map of North America:

Image credit:
Optimal sighting dates for the heliacal rising of Sirius by latitude. Image credit: Dave Dickinson, adapted from data by Ed Kotapish.

Another factor that has skewed the date of first ‘Sirius-sign’ is the apparent motion of the star itself. At 8.6 light years distant, Sirius appears to move 1.3 arc seconds per year. That’s not much, but over the span of one Sothic cycle, that amounts up to 31.6’, just larger than the average diameter of a Full Moon.

Sirius has been the star of legends and lore as well, not the least of which is the curious case of the Dogon people of Mali and their supposed privileged knowledge of its white dwarf companion star. Alvan Graham Clark and his father discovered Sirius B  in 1862 as they tested out their shiny new 18.5-inch refractor. And speaking of Sirius B, keep a telescopic eye on the Dog Star, as the best chances to spy Sirius B peeking out from the glare of its primary are coming right up around 2020.

Sirius image Credit
The dazzling visage of Sirius. Image credit: Dave Dickinson

Repeating the visual feat of spying Sirius B low in the dawn can give you an appreciation as to the astronomical skill of ancient cultures. They not only realized the first sighting of Sirius in the dawn skies coincided with the annual Nile flooding, but they identified the discrepancy between the Sothic and sidereal year, to boot. Not bad, using nothing but naked eye observations. Such ability must have almost seemed magical to the ancients, as if the stars had laid out a celestial edge for the Egyptians to exploit.

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Man’s best (observing) friend… Image credit: Dave Dickinson

You can also exploit one method of teasing out Sirius from the dawn sky a bit early that wasn’t available to those Egyptian astronomer priests: using a pair of binoculars to sweep the skies. Can you nab Sirius with a telescope and track it up into the daytime skies? Sirius is just bright enough to see in the daytime against a clear blue sky with good transparency if you know exactly where to look for it.

Let the Dog Days of 2015 begin!

The Astronomy of the Dog Days of Summer

Can you feel the heat?

It’s not just your imagination. The northern hemisphere is currently in the midst of the Dog Days of Summer. For many, early August means hot, humid days and stagnant, sultry nights.

The actual dates for the Dog Days of Summer vary depending on the source, but are usually quoted as running from mid-July to mid-August. The Old Farmer’s Almanac lists the Dog Days as running from July 3rd through August 11th.

But there is an ancient astronomical observation that ties in with the Dog Days of Summer, one that you can replicate on these early August mornings.

The sky was important to the ancients. It told them when seasons were approaching, when to plant crops, and when to harvest. Ancient cultures were keen observers of the cycles in the sky.  Cultures that were “astronomically literate” had a distinct edge over those who seldom bothered to note the goings on overhead.

The flooded Temple of Isis on the island of Philae circa 1905. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons under an Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 license. Author H.W. Dunning).
The flooded Temple of Isis on the island of Philae circa 1905. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons under an Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 license. Author H.W. Dunning).

Sirius was a key star for Egyptian astronomers. Identified with the goddess Isis, the Egyptian name for Sirius was Sopdet, the deification of Sothis. There is a line penned by the Greco-Roman scholar Plutarch which states:

“The soul of Isis is called ‘Dog’ by the Greeks.”

Political commentary? A mis-translation by Greek scholars? Whatever the case, the mythological transition from “Isis to Sothis to Dog Star” seems to have been lost in time.

These astronomer-priests noted that Sirius rose with the Sun just prior to the annual flooding of the Nile. The appearance of a celestial object at sunrise is known as a heliacal rising. If you can recover Sirius from behind the glare of the Sun, you know that the “Tears of Isis” are on their way, in the form of life-giving flood waters.

Sopdet as the personification of Sirius (note the star on the forehead)
Sopdet as the personification of Sirius (note the star on the forehead) Wikimedia Commons image under an Attribution Share Alike 3.0 license. Author Jeff Dahl).

In fact, the ancient Egyptians based their calendar on the appearance of Sirius and what is known as the Sothic cycle, which is a span of 1,461 sidereal years (365.25 x 4) in which the heliacal rising once again “syncs up” with the solar calendar.

It’s interesting to note that in 3000 BC, the heliacal rising of Sirius and the flooding of the Nile occurred around June 25th, near the summer solstice. This also marked the Egyptian New Year. Today it occurs within a few weeks of August 15th, owing to precession. (More on that in a bit!)

By the time of the Greeks, we start to see Sirius firmly referred to as the Dog Star. In Homer’s Iliad, King Priam refers to an advancing Achilles as:

“Blazing as the star that cometh forth at Harvest-time, shining forth amid the host of stars in the darkness of the night, the star whose name men call Orion’s Dog”

The Romans further promoted the canine branding for Sirius. You also see references to the “Dog Star” popping up in Virgil’s Aenid.

Over the years, scholars have also attempted to link the dog-headed god Anubis to Sirius. This transition is debated by scholars, and in his Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Richard Hinckley Allen casts doubt on the assertion.

Sirius as the shining "nose" of the constellation Canis Major. (Created by the author using Starry Night).
Sirius as the shining “nose” of the constellation Canis Major. (Created by the author using Starry Night).

Ancient cultures also saw the appearance of Sirius as signifying the onset of epidemics. Their fears were well founded, as summer flooding would also hatch a fresh wave of malaria and dengue fever-carrying mosquitoes.

Making a seasonal sighting of Sirius is fun and easy to do. The star is currently low to the southeast in the dawn, and rises successively higher each morning as August rolls on.

The following table can be used to aid your quest in Sirius-spotting.

Latitude north

Theoretical date when Sirius can 1st be spotted

32°

August 3rd

33°

August 4th

34°

August 5th

35°

August 6th

36°

August 7th

37°

August 8th

38°

August 9th

39°

August 10th

40°

August 11th

41°

August 12th

42°

August 13th

43°

August 14th

44°

August 15th

45°

August 16th

46°

August 17th

47°

August 18th

48°

August 19th

49°

August 20th

50°

August 21st

Thanks to “human astronomical computer extraordinaire” Ed Kotapish for the compilation!

Note that the table above is perpetual for years in the first half of the 21st century. Our friend, the Precession of the Equinoxes pivots the equinoctial points to the tune of about one degree every 72 years. The Earth’s axis completes one full “wobble” approximately every 26,000 years. Our rotational pole only happens to be currently pointing at Polaris in our lifetimes. Its closest approach is around 2100 AD, after which the north celestial pole and Polaris will begin to drift apart. Mark your calendars—Vega will be the pole star in 13,727 AD. And to the ancient Egyptians, Thuban in the constellation Draco was the Pole Star!

Near Luxor (Photo by author).
The Colossi of Memnon Near Luxor, just one of the amazing architectural projects carried out by the ancient Egyptians. (Photo by author).

Keep in mind, atmospheric extinction is your enemy in this quest, as it will knock normally brilliant magnitude -1.46 Sirius a whopping 40 times in brightness to around magnitude +2.4.

Note that we have a nice line-up of planets in the dawn sky (see intro chart), which are joined by a waning crescent Moon this weekend. Jupiter and Mars ride high about an hour before sunrise, and if you can pick out Mercury at magnitude -0.5 directly below them, you should have a shot at spotting Sirius far to the south.

And don’t be afraid to “cheat” a little bit and use binoculars in your quest… we’ve even managed on occasion to track Sirius into the broad daylight. Just be sure to physically block the Sun behind a building or hill before attempting this feat!

Sirius as seen via Hubble- can you spy Sirius B? (NASA/ESA Hubble image).
Sirius as seen via Hubble- can you spy Sirius B? (Credit: NASA/ESA Hubble image).

Of course, the heliacal rising of Sirius prior to the flooding of the Nile was a convenient coincidence that the Egyptians used to their advantage. The ancients had little idea as to what they were seeing. At 8.6 light-years distant, Sirius is the brightest star in Earth’s sky during the current epoch. It’s also the second closest star visible to the naked eye from Earth. Only Alpha Centauri, located deep in the southern hemisphere sky is closer. The light you’re seeing from Sirius today left in early 2005, back before most of us had Facebook accounts.

Sirius also has a companion star, Sirius B. This star is the closest example of a white dwarf. Orbiting its primary once every 50 years, Sirius B has also been the center of a strange controversy we’ve explored in past writings concerning Dogon people of Mali.

Sirius B is difficult to nab in a telescope, owing to dazzling nearby Sirius A. This feat will get easier as Sirius B approaches apastron with a max separation of 11.5 arc seconds in  2025.

Some paleoastronomers have also puzzled over ancient records referring to Sirius as “red” in color.  While some have stated that this might overturn current astrophysical models, a far more likely explanation is its position low to the horizon for northern hemisphere observers. Many bright stars can take on a twinkling ruddy hue when seen low in the sky due to atmospheric distortion.

Let the Dog Days of Summer (& astronomy) begin! (Photo by author).
Let the Dog Days of Summer (& astronomy) begin! (Photo by author).

All great facts to ponder during these Dog Days of early August, perhaps as the sky brightens during the dawn and your vigil for the Perseid meteors draws to an end!