Sirius: The Dog Star

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Wait, isn’t this blog supposed to be about historical people? Not so fast! I said historical figures and one definition of figure is symbol or shape. Like a star! Now, why would a star get its own blog post? Well, stars were very significant to people in the past and even to this day people across the country stopped their busy schedules just to watch the sun be exactly the same….just darker. One major people group who loved this star was the Egyptians.

I’ll get all the science stuff out of the way right at the beginning. “Sirius (/ˈsɪri.əs/, a romanization of Greek ΣείριοςSeirioslit. “glowing” or “scorching”) is a star system and the brightest star in the Earth’s night sky. With a visual apparent magnitude of −1.46, it is almost twice as bright as Canopus, the next brightest star. The system has the Bayer designation Alpha Canis Majoris (α CMa). What the naked eye perceives as a single star is a binary star system, consisting of a white main-sequence star of spectral type A0 or A1, termed Sirius A, and a faint white dwarf companion of spectral type DA2, called Sirius B. The distance separating Sirius A from its companion varies between 8.2 and 31.5 AU.[24]”

Okay, that may have been directly from wikipedia.com, because I have no idea what half that means. So moving on from the science. Ancient people would often look to the stars to tell them stories, predictions, and to help mark dates. It is not a perfect method and has gained some criticism lately in light of new methods to help date, but it is still interesting to look at how ancient people used the stars for their own dating methods.

Towards the beginning of the year in Ancient Egypt, the star Sirius would move so it did not appear in the sky; 70 days later, the star would reappear in a Heliacal rising and mark the beginning of the annual flooding of the Nile- a very important time of year. A Heliacal rising is when a star rises in the sky right before the sun appeared to begin the day. Once every 1,461 years, the rising of Sirius would occur on the Egyptian new year in July and it would be a very important time for the people of Egypt. Every time this happened, it began something called a Sothic cycle (the cycle of those 1,461 years).

So who cares about Sothic cycle? The Egyptians for one, but also archaeologists and historians. If, for example, I said “I turned 20 on a leap year.” You would know I turned 20 in either 2012, 2016, or 2020. Since I was only in highschool in 2012 and 2020 hasn’t happened yet, you would know I was 20 in 2016. In a similar way, when someone in history wrote that a Sothic cycle began in the 20th year of King Amenhotep, that must mean he was king in either the early 1500s B.C, around 100 B.C, or almost 3,000 B.C. Since there were good records in 100 B.C, we know it was not then and since they couldn’t have written that he was king before writing was developed in around 3,000 B.C, that leaves 1500 B.C.

This gives a good idea for historians who can get a basic idea of what happened when based on when the Egyptians celebrated the Sothic cycle. Since the Egyptians partied like there’s no tomorrow during these cycles, it is pretty easy to find evidence.

Sirius was worshiped in many cultures and was used to help date certain times based on its cycles. This shows that sometimes when looking for historical evidence, it can be helpful to look up as well as underground. Astronomy has been around since humans could see stars (hint: that’s a long time), so writings about it are all over the world. I know this is a weird subject for a history blog, but sometimes you learn about history in weird places. Even out of this world! Sirius, the dog star, has been worshiped, recorded, and loved for hundreds of centuries and this is his (hers? (its?)) snapshot from history.

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