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Star Lore of the Constellations: Canis Major; the Greater Dog, by Deborah Houlding

Notable stars in Canis Major: Epoch 2000
Longitude Name Nature Mag. Position Lat. Dec.
07 Can 11 Mirzam Venus 2 Dog's right forefoot 41S 18S
14 Can 05 Sirius Jupiter Mars -1.4 Dog's mouth 40S 17S
20 Can 46 Adhara Venus 1.5 Dog's back leg 51S 29S
23 Can 24 Al Wazn Venus 2 Dog's hind quarter 48S 26S
29 Can 32 Aludra Venus 2.4 Dog's back 51S 29S

Early astrologers recognised only one constellation of 'the Dog', that which we call Canis Major today. This has garnered several mythological associations. Some say that it is Laelaps, hound of Actaeon, others that it is Maera, the dog of Erigonus and Icarius who were transformed into Virgo and Bootes. Another myth claims it represents Janitor Lethaeus, the 'keeper of hell'. Usually, and according to Homer, it is described as the dog of Orion the hunter, which lies immediately to the north-west. In this guise it is frequently shown as a dog standing on hind feet, waiting on the command of its master to spring after Lepus the hare.

In classical literature, the constellation is often called by the name of its main star, Sirius, 'the Shining One', commonly known 'the Dog Star'. This 1st magnitude binary star is the brightest in the heavens, capable of surpassing all the planets in brilliance except Venus and Jupiter. It was held in the highest regard by the Egyptians, not only because of its brilliance, but because its heliacal rising coincided with the annual inundation of the Nile. Its influence was listed by Ptolemy as like Jupiter and Mars: elevating and active. [1] Because of its heliacal rising in the middle of summer, ancient cultures associated Sirius with the fierceness of the Sun's summer heat, blaming the the Dog-star for the high occurrence of heat-stroke, fever and 'canine madness' during the summer months.

" like the star that comes to us in autumn, outshining all its fellows in the evening sky - they call it Orion's dog, and though it is the brightest of all stars it bodes no good, bringing much fever, as it does, to us poor mortals."
Homer, Iliad [2]

Whilst other alpha stars are often located in the heart of the constellation figure, the intemperate nature of Sirius is fittingly associated with the most violent and dangerous part of the dog - its bite, being located in the mouth. If well placed it can indicate great wealth and high position, but if afflicted it has a very evil reputation. Manilius draws upon the allegory of a rabid dog in saying that when rising from the Sun it:

barks forth flame, raves with its fire, and doubles the burning heat of the Sun.... it will bestow on its sons billows of anger, and draw upon them the hatred and fear of the whole populace. Words run ahead of the speakers and the mind is too fast for the mouth... [3]

He also comments that those born under its influence know little fear and have aggressive failings that are intensified by wine. In ancient times it may have been customary to avoid all inclinations towards excesses, especially of wine, during its heliacal rising, since the Greek poet Theognis of Megara (6th century BC), in persuading his fellow men to enjoy the comforts of indulgence, describes as 'witless' and 'foolish' the avoidance of wine "when the Dog Star is beginning". [4] Certainly the star was considered to exacerbate intemperate behaviour and aggressive ambition, which Manilius again relates to the imagery of the constellation figure:

... But wonder not of these tendencies under such a constellation: you see how even the constellation itself hunts amongst the stars, for in its course it seeks to catch the hare in front.[5]

The 4th century Roman astrologer Firmicus Maternus exaggerated these violent properties still further, saying that its natives are "separated from all human feelings and seek out violent crime".[6] The 17th century astrologer William Lilly, however, claimed that where it rises or culminates with the Sun it gives 'Kingly Preferment', and when the Midheaven is directed to it, "it's probable the Native encreaseth his estate and augments his Reputation". [7]

The latter is the line we find taken in more modern works, such as Robson's, which states that the culmination of this star offers "High office under Government giving great profit and reputation". [8] But we should heed Lilly's warning, that although the fixed stars can bring great elevation, unless supported by the planets, they can also augur calamity. The excesses attributed to this star are capable of intensifying both. Its only reliable effect is to magnify the relevance of the issues it touches, with drama and heated passions typical of its influence.

The remaining stars of this group were described as similar in influence to Venus by Ptolemy. These include Mirzam on the right fore foot, Adhara on the back leg, Al Wazn, on the dog's hind quarter, and Aludra on the back. None of these have been strongly remarked upon in traditional literature. Although Robson detailed no star but Sirius in his Fixed Stars and Constellations, he referred to the stars of this constellation, (in a description that appears to derive from the qualities we associate with the friendlier aspects of the dog). With the exception of Sirius he tells us "It is said to give good qualities, charity and a faithful heart, but violent and dangerous passions." [9]

Sirius is an easy star to identify as it is the brightest star in the sky. The three stars in the Belt of Orion lead directly away from Aldebaran to Sirius, which lies southeast of Orion. Also note the celestial curve formed by Capella, Castor, Pollux, Procyon, and Sirius.

The Sun crosses Sirius around 6th July each year.

Notes & References:
  1 ] Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, (1st cent. AD), trans. Robbins, published by Harvard Heinemann, Loeb classical library, London. I.9 (Loeb p.57).
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  2 ] Homer, The Iliad. Trans. by E.V. Rieu, (Penguin Books: New York, 1950). Chapter 22.
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  3 ] Manilius, Astronomica, (c.10 AD), translated by G.P. Goold; Harvard Heinemann, Loeb Classical Library; 5.206-234, (Loeb p.317).
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  4 ] Wender, Dorothea. Hesiod and Theognis. Penguin Books. New York, 1984.

Theognis 1039-1040: "Witless are those men, and foolish, who don't drink wine even when the Dog Star is beginning."
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  5 ] Manilius, 5.206-234, (Loeb p.317).
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  6 ] Firmicus, Mathesis, 4th cent. (Facsimile edition: Ascella: London), VIII.IX.3 (p.275) - following Manilius 5.197 (p.317)
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  7 ] Lilly, Christian Astrology, 1647; p.621 & p.678.
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  8 ] Robson, Fixed Stars and Constellations, 1923, (Facsimile edition: Ascella: London, 1997), p.208.
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  9 ] Ibid., p.34.
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© Deborah Houlding. First published in The Traditional Astrologer Magazine, issue 16; March 1998. Published online March 2005.