Thursday, December 17, 2009

December 17: Sirius

The night sky has been crystal clear the past few days, but the cloud-free sky has exposed us to winter's frigid blast. Not a good time for star-gazing. But tonight I couldn't help but notice (from the comfort of my car) our brightest star Sirius rising above the western horizon. 

The facts: Sirius, alpha star in the constellation Canis Major (Big Dog) is also known as the Dog Star. This white binary star fairly close to us in relative astronomical terms--less than 9 light years away--has a magnitude, or brightness, of -1.43. The lower the number, the brighter the star--the sun, by comparison, is -27. That it's a binary--or double--star means two stars contribute to its light. And the fact that it's so bright, so obvious in the sky, brings it easily to our attention, as well as to that of star watchers throughout human history. 

In Greek mythology, Canis Major and its companion constellation Canis Minor are the hunting dogs of Orion, a familiar constellation to most. When Orion rises in the winter sky, Sirius can be found below his left leg. Sirius, Procyon--the bright star of Canis Minor--and Betelgeuse--the red giant that forms Orion's left shoulder--form "the winter triangle." 

While I always think of Sirius as a winter star, it was revered in Egypt over 5,000 years ago as a symbol of the Summer Solstice. Egyptians represented it with a hieroglyph of a dog, and the star was associated with the Nile and its annual inundation. The Greeks believed that the Dog Star produced the heat of summer, a sultry period we still refer to as the Dog Days. Other ancient cultures thought of Sirius as a dog, too, often the dog of the sun. But right now in New England, Sirius is the dog of very cold nights--three-dog nights, perhaps, when you want three dogs in your bed to keep you warm. 

Interestingly, even the Cherokees thought of Sirius as a dog star--one of the two dog guides guarding the ends of the path of souls. The other star, Antares, is only visible in summer, so the two stars aren't in the sky at the same time. When encountered on the trail, each gatekeeper dog had to be given food before the soul would be allowed to continue its progress to the afterlife.

What must we do to appease the Dog Star of the Sun and perhaps gain a few degrees of warmth back into our life? Do the rising offerings of our wood smoke help? What about the harbor, offering up its own sea smoke this morning? Or the songs of coyotes in the winter woods?

Bright star of winter
shining with cold, remote light--
a sled dog's pale eye.

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