Mad Dogs, Dog Stars, and Dog Days.

The Met Office has just issued its first ever extreme heat warning for the UK as the hot weather continues unabated. Not even ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’ should be out in the midday sun, despite what Rudyard Kipling wrote and Noel Coward later memorialised in verse.  

Coward wrote ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ in his head while driving through the broiling sun from Hanoi to Saigon. On reaching his destination he sang his new composition on the veranda of the guest house where he was staying where, he assures us,  not only his travelling companion, but also ‘the gecko lizards and the tree frogs gave every vocal indication of enthusiasm’  for his performance.

A close-up of the Dog Star – Sirius.

References to dogs are topical at this time of year, and not just in magazine articles giving advice on keeping your dog out of the sun and away from hot cars and pavements. Periods of hot sultry weather that can occur between July and early September are known as dog days. The dog in question refers to the Dog Star, Sirius, which comes to prominence in the night sky at this time of year. In ancient Greece the conjunction of the rising of the Dog Star, and extreme summer heat, was also associated with drought and intermittent thunder storms, lethargy, fatigue, and bad luck for humans, and madness in dogs.

In the Northern hemisphere these days, the reference to dog days, is little more than a passing observation about the uncomfortable, sticky, heat of high summer. But the term held more significance in the past – like other sages from the ancient world, both Homer and Virgil associated dog days with bad luck.

But, centuries later, the superstitions lingered on. In the sixteenth century, doctors advised against blood-letting in the ‘doggie days’ of summer, and men in the eighteenth century were advised to ‘abstain from women [and] take heed of feeding violently’ during these periods. Even in the nineteenth century it was seen as a likely time for your pet dog to go mad.

Clearly Kipling and Coward were knowledgeable about something integral to our Anglo-Saxon natures, if not the natural good sense of dogs. There are still plenty of Englishmen who feel it hasn’t been a proper summer if they haven’t burnt through a couple of layers of skin on the way to a good sun-tan; but my own dog has, very sensibly, shifted his demand for his afternoon walk to the much cooler time of 8pm.

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