“Dog Days,” the phrase invokes the hottest, most stifling days of summer. The 40 days, beginning July 3 and ending August 11, marks the traditional timing of the Dog Days. These coincide with the heliacal (at sunrise) rising of the Dog Star, Sirius. For the ancient Egyptians, Sirius appeared just before the Nile’s flooding season, so they used the star as an indicator of the flood. Since its rising also coincided with a time of extreme heat, the connection with hot, sultry weather was made for all time:
indicate a happy year.
But when accompanied by rain,
for better times our hopes are vain.”
Now, you may well ask, what has this common feature of a modern farmer’s almanac, got to do with a study of the relationship between Western mythology, and the Hebrew Old Testament? Well, our modern concept of “dog days” can be traced back through the Romans, to the Greeks, and then in my opinion, even beyond that (as I hope to convince the reader) to the story of Samson, that has come down to us in the Old Testament Book of Judges. Etymologists have no problem tracing the origins of the Idiom “dog days” back to the Romans, the Greeks, and even as far back as the Egyptians. But one important question, that they all seem to have successfully avoided explaining, is this; How did the stars (that are naturally associated with the hot, dry, wildfire season, by virtue of their mere location in the summer sky,) get originally affiliated with dogs (or, even more anciently, with foxes)? First of all let us establish that those days that we moderns have linked to “dogs” may once have been just as strongly (or even more so) connected to “foxes.” Among the Greeks the two stars that we commonly associated with dogs (namely Sirius and Canicula) were anciently represented as one dog, and one fox, who were known as “Laelaps the dog” and the “Teumessian fox” as follows (Taken from the Wikipedia article “Laelaps”);
Laelaps was a female Greek mythological dog who never failed to catch what she was hunting. … Cephalus, decided to use the hound to hunt the Teumessian fox, a fox that could never be caught. This was a paradox: a dog who always caught his prey and a fox that could never be caught. The chase went on until Zeus, perplexed by their contradictory fates, turned both to stone and cast them into the stars as the constellations Canis Major (Laelaps) and Canis Minor (the Teumessian fox). (See: Apollodorus, “Bibliotheca” 3,192. and; “Nature Guide Stars and Planets.” p. 275. DK Publishing 2012. Penguin. ISBN 978-1-4654-0353-7).
In the story of Samson there were pairs of foxes tied together at their tails, with a blazing fire between them. They were presumably running back and forth trying to get away from the flame, in a perverse, back to back, tug of war (running after, following but not really chasing each other.). It is perhaps understandable how the Greeks could’ve come up with the idea of the unresolved chase of Laelaps (forever pursuing) and the Teumessian fox (never overtaken) as a corruption of the original tale, told about Samson and his pairs of foxes, in the Book of Judges (in their frantic end to end chase). It is however, noteworthy to point out that the foxes are portrayed as being in pairs, because the dog stars are indeed portrayed as a pair of stars (During the wildfire season, the blazing sun appears between them.). The next logical step in identifying the “dog stars” with Samson’s well known firefoxes (with a knowing wink and a nod to users of the very popular web browser), comes with showing that there was an ancient Greek association, of the “Teumessian fox,” with crop burning wildfires. The Greeks did connect the “dog stars” (at least one of which, which we have pointed out, was a fox and not a dog) with wildfires, I shall here produce a few ancient Greek sources to prove it. First of all, this association was made evident by the Greek myth of “Aristaeus.”
The chapter of the Aristaeus myth that deals with the field scorching “dog-star” takes place on one of the Minoan Islands, specifically Keos (sometimes spelled “Ceos”). This story is like that of Samson and the foxes, in that the “scorched … land of the Ceans” that had “robbed their fields of produce” had been caused by “Procyon” a star that the Greeks identified with the Teumessian Fox, related by Higinus as follows; “Jupiter, pitying their misfortune, represented their forms among the stars … The dog, however, from its own name and likeness, they have called Canicula. It is called Procyon by the Greeks, because it rises before the greater Dog. … Canicula rising with its heat, scorched the land of the Ceans, and robbed their fields of produce … Their king, Aristaeus, son of Apollo and Cyrene, and father of Actaeon, asked his father by what means he could free the state from affliction. The god bade them expiate the death of Icarus with many victims, and asked from Jove that when Canicula rises he should send wind for forty days to temper the heat of Canicula.” (Hyginus, Astronomica 2. 4). It is noteworthy that Hyginus, while using the Latin term “Canicula” (the “lesser dog”) points out that “It is called Procyon by the Greeks, because it rises before the greater Dog” (“Procyon” meaning “before the dog” does not necessarily indicate that the Greeks themselves thought of it as a dog but, that it merely preceded the dog, or that it ran ahead of the dog, as it was known in their mythology as the “Teumessian Fox.”). We nowadays call it Canis Minor, however in Akkadian and Sumerian it is “Shelebu” and “KA.A” (both meaning “the Fox”). It was well known in ancient times that the appearance of these “dog-stars” in conjunction with the sun meant severe drought and wildfires.
Although burning fields were clearly associated with the fox, the Pelasgian hero Aristaeus is characteristically credited with doing just the opposite of what the Danite hero Samson did (The Pelasgian/Philistines had apparently mitigated their version of the Scriptural Samson, their antagonistic enemy, into “Aristaeus” their own protagonist hero. An article that explores the probability that Aristaeus was an ancient Pelasgian/Philistine version of the Hebrew Samson can be read; Here.). Aristaeus alleviated the scorching, while Samson was said to have caused it. As Apollonius relates; “Sirius was scorching the Minoan Islands from the sky, and the people could find no permanent cure for the trouble till Hekatos (Apollo) put it in their heads to send for Aristaeus. So, as his father’s command, Aristaeus … made ritual offerings in the hills to the Dog-star and to Zeus Kronides himself. In response, Zeus gave his orders–and the Etesiai refresh the earth for forty days.” (Apollonius Rhodius, “Argonautica” 2. 518 ff.). The number “40,” used as a time period, is a well known Hebrew convention, widely attested to in Scriptural usage. It has translated into Christian applications in such traditions as “Lent” and “St. Swithins day” (July 15 is St. Swithin’s Day. There is a very old Scottish weather proverb; St. Swithin’s Day if thou dost rain, For forty days it will remain.). This, it seems to me, is highly suggestive as to the Hebrew origins of even some “pagan” customs like the “six weeks” of groundhog day, and the subject of the present article the dog days of summer where, as we can see here from Apollonius, it’s roots go back into the dim antiquity of Greek mythology.
See how Nonnus tells the tale, weaving Aristaeus’ beekeeping (another Samson connection from Judges 14:8) attribute into the narrative; “He (Aristaeus) lulled asleep the scorching dogstar of Maira. He kindled the fragrant altar of Zeus Ikmaios (of the Moisture); he poured the bull’s blood over the sweet libation, and the curious gifts of the gadabout bee which he lay on the altar, filling his dainty cups with a posset mixt with honey. Father Zeus heard him; and honouring his son’s son, he sent a counterblast of pest-averting winds to restrain Sirius with his fiery fevers.” (Nonnus, “Dionysiaca” 5. 212 ff.).
It is my feeling that originally, the Samson foxes incident was unconnected to the astral phenomenon. But eventually, as Samson became associated with the sun god and the crop burning wildfire story became more widely known, the heathen nations naturally connected the Hebrew story with the wildfire season and the heliacal rising of the two conspicuous stars. It seems evident to me that these stars became identified with the fox originally because of the anciently well known story of the Danite hero. It is also apparent that Samson was anciently promoted as a “Messiah” figure and, was widely popular, giving rise to such “mythological” characters as, not only Arisaeus but also Herakles, and perhaps even lended his attributes to fill out the stories “pagan” sun-kings such as Oedipus as well. Connecting the “King of kings” with the sun god (just as the “crown” has a clear association with the “corona”) should come as a shock to nobody. (The heathen equation of the King as the Sun, or as the son of the Sun, as in ancient Egypt, surely had it’s origins with the idea that the longed for Messiah, was the son of God and/or God Himself. And if you worshipped God as the Sun, then the link between the Messiah, as the great King, and the Sun, follows naturally.). Equating God and/or the Messiah with the Sun was a widely attested to ancient misconception that the Scriptural narrative spends no little effort in attempting to correct. Thus the blazing fire between Samson’s foxes became analogous to the Sun rising between the “dog” stars during the height of the wildfire season.
The burning fields in the story of Samson (“Shemesh-on” the name Samson is the word shemesh meaning “sun” suffixed with the “-on” extension. This extension personifies or localizes the root: the name “Sams-on” means “Sun Man.”) and the foxes (the dog stars) almost certainly has something to do with this phenomenon (The stars attending the wildfire season may have reminded astronomers of the, presumably renowned, field burning foxes in the Hebrew story.). See how Aratus associates the “star” with tree burning “flame” as he says; “A star that keenest of all blazes with a searing flame and him men call Sirius. When he rises with Helios, no longer do the trees deceive him by the feeble freshness of their leaves.” (Aratus, Phaenomena 328 ff.). And here from Quintus Smyrnaeus; “From the ocean-verge up springs Helios in glory, flashing fire far over earth – fire, when beside his radiant chariot-team races the red star Sirius” (Quintus Smyrnaeus, “Fall of Troy” 8. 30 ff.). And also Statius; “Sirius the Dog-star smitten by Hyperion’s full might pitilessly burns the panting fields.” (Statius, “Silvae” 3.1.5). In the story of Oedipus as told by Seneca, Thebes was plagued by a drought; “No soft breeze with its cool breath relieves our breasts that pant with heat, no gentle Zephyrus blows; but Titan (the sun) augments the scorching dog-stars’ fires, close-pressing upon the Nemean Lion’s back. Water has fled the streams, and from the herbage verdure. Dirce is dry, scant flows Ismenus’ stream” (Seneca, Oedipus 37 ff.). Take note how Seneca incorporates the “Nemean Lion” (the constellation Leo) into the portent of the “scorching fires,” for consideration along with the other lion slaying, fox subduing myths.
Another suspicious conflation between the Samson, Herakles, and Oedipus, stories is the way that the mythographers keep trying to work foxes into their tales. Corinna ties Oedipus to the crop burning fox; “Oedipus killed not only the Sphinx but also the Teumessian fox.” (Corinna, Fragment 672. Greek Lyric IV). Thus the fox is linked to the death of the maiden/lion Sphinx of Oedipus; Also Apollodorus gives to Amphitryon, the foster-father of Herakles, the same role; ”Amphitryon would free the Cadmean Land of its Fox. For a wild Fox was creating havoc in the land.” (Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2. 57) This is the same “Teumessian fox” or “Cadmean vixen” that is associated with both Oedipus and the father of Herakles. In the Herakles saga, the fox theme helps to explain the connection between the family of Herakles and the city of Thebes, where the strong-man would kill his first lion and meet (and kill) his first bride. Samson of course, killed a lion and was responsible for the death of his maiden, also in conjunction with his fox episode; “And Samson went and caught three hundred foxes, and took firebrands, and turned tail to tail, and put a firebrand in the midst between two tails. And when he had set the brands on fire, he let them go into the standing corn of the Philistines, and burnt up both the shocks, and also the standing corn, with the vineyards and olives. Then the Philistines said, Who hath done this? And they answered, Samson, the son in law of the Timnite, because he had taken his wife, and given her to his companion. And the Philistines came up, and burnt her and her father with fire.” (Judges 15:4-6); “he caught three hundred foxes, and joining lighted torches to their tails, he sent them into the fields of the Philistines, by which means the fruits of the fields perished.” (Josephus “Antiquities of the Jews” Book 5 Chapter 8, 7). Heracles set fire to the city of Orchomenus the capital city of the Minyans; “Then appearing unawares before the city of the Orchomenians and slipping in at their gates he both burned the palace of the Minyans and razed the city to the ground.” (Diodorus Siculus, “Library of History” Book 4, Chap. 10, 5).
Aristaeus was, however indirectly, associated with this particular “Teumessian fox” as well. Actually, the fox motifs that are attributed to Aristaeus, are much more like that of Samson’s, than are those of either Herakles’, or Oedipus’. For the fox myth that is connected with Aristaeus involves the burning up of the crop fields and orchard trees.
The Romans also associated foxes with the burning of crops through wildfires (although not necessarily during the mid summer season). As is evidenced by one of Ovid’s accounts. I shall close with something that was written way back in the early 1800’s by the famous Biblical commentator Adam Clarke, who had a very perceptive opinion on Ovid’s concerning this ancient “Roman” tradition thusly (I added the parenthetical remarks):
The burning of the Philistines’ corn by the means of foxes and firebrands is a very remarkable circumstance; and there is a story told by Ovid, in the 4th book of his Fasti, that bears a striking similitude to this; and is supposed by some learned men (Namely, Samuel Bochart and Petrus Serrarius -JRS) to allude to Samson and his foxes. The poet is at a loss to account for this custom, but brings in an old man of Carseoli, with what must have appeared to himself a very unsatisfactory solution. The passage begins as follows:
The substance of the whole account, which is too long to be transcribed, is this: It was a custom in Rome, celebrated in the month of April to let loose a number of foxes in the circus, with lighted flambeaux on their backs; and the Roman people took pleasure in seeing these animals run about till roasted to death by the flames with which they were enveloped. The poet wishes to know what the origin of this custom was, and is thus informed by an old man of the city of Carseoli: “A frolicsome young lad, about ten years of age, found, near a thicket, a fox that had stolen away many fowls from the neighboring roosts. Having enveloped his body with hay and straw, he set it on fire, and let the fox loose. The animal, in order to avoid the flames, took to the standing corn which was then ready for the sickle; and the wind, driving the flames with double violence, the crops were everywhere consumed. Though this transaction is long since gone by, the commemoration of it still remains; for, by a law of this city, every fox that is taken is burnt to death. Thus the nation awards to the foxes the punishment of being burnt alive, for the destruction of the ripe corn formerly occasioned by one of these animals.”
Both Serrarius (Petrus Serrarius, who was a Dutch millenarian theologian. 1600–1669 -JRS) and Bochart (Samuel Bochart, who was a French Protestant biblical scholar. 1599 –1667 -JRS) reject this origin of the custom given by Ovid; and insist that the custom took its rise from the burning of the Philistines’ corn by Samson’s foxes. The origin ascribed to the custom by the Carseolian they consider as too frivolous and unimportant to be commemorated by a national festival. The time of the observation does not accord with the time of harvest about Rome and in Italy, but it perfectly accords with the time of harvest in Palestine, which was at least as early as April. Nor does the circumstance of the fox wrapped in hay and let loose, the hay being set on fire, bear any proper resemblance to the foxes let loose in the circus with burning brands on their backs. These learned men therefore conclude that it is much more natural to suppose that the Romans derived the custom from Judea, where probably the burning of the Philistines’ corn might, for some time, have been annually commemorated. The whole account is certainly very singular, and has not a very satisfactory solution in the old man’s tale, as related by the Roman poet. All public institutions have had their origin in facts; and if, through the lapse of time or loss of records, the original facts be lost, we may legitimately look for them in cases where there is so near a resemblance as in that above.