Canis Major and Minor
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A Pair of Dogs Romp Across Our Starry Sky

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

January 13, 1999

The most beautiful part of the entire starry heavens makes its grand entry into our evening sky in January with a pair of celestial dogs at the heals of the other figures. By 8:00 p.m. a fabulous grouping of brilliant stars are nicely up in the southeast (those having mountains in that direction will have to wait until a bit later to see them). Great Orion seems to dominate the group, with its remarkable pattern of four bright stars in a sloppy rectangle forming his shoulders and legs, his belt marked by a row of three stars close together. The belt points up to the right toward the reddish star Aldebaran, eye of Taurus the Bull, with the tightly bunched Pleiades still farther right and higher. Nearly overhead is Capella, brightest of the constellation Auriga. Coming back toward the east and lower a pair of stars, the "Twins of Gemini" stand over Orion's shoulder. This is the herd of stars the heavenly dogs appear to be driving across the cosmos.

The two dogs rise into our sky about the same time. Canis Major, the larger dog, comes from the southeast and Canis Minor makes its entrance almost directly east. Each of them is dominated by a bright star. Sirius in Canis Major is the brightest star of night, famous the world over for its sparkling beauty. Only the Sun, Moon and a couple of planets are brighter than Sirius. Procyon in Canis Minor is dimmer, but still eighth brightest star of heaven. Each of these two stars has interesting history, but it is understandable that Sirius is the greatest of celestial gems.

About five millennia ago in ancient Egypt the new year was marked by the dawn rising of Sirius. The people of the Nile watched the early morning sky to catch the first glimpse of the star sitting in twilight glow. When it appeared on the morning side of the Sun Egyptians rejoiced for they knew that soon the Nile waters would rise, spreading out in shallow lakes along its banks to deposit fertile soil and renew the fields for abundant crops. Temples were aligned to the direction of rising of the Great Star they named Sothis, "mistress of the year."

In Egypt Orion was the celestial symbol of Osiris, god of resurrection, indeed "god of everything," and Sirius was symbol of Isis, goddess of fertility. They said that the tears Isis continued to shed over the death of her husband, Osiris, added to the melting snows running down from high mountains to cause the Nile to overflow each year as the light of her star blended with the glow of morning sunlight. The two stars follow each other up and across the sky. You can easily find Sirius (Isis) by simply following the line of the belt of Orion (Osiris) down to the left. Although the passage of time has changed the relationship between the morning appearance of Sirius and the flooding of the Nile (modern Egyptians have changed it even more by constructing the Aswan Dam), we can remember what these brilliant stars meant to those people as we watch them glide across our sky.

The name we use for the star comes from the Greek word Seirius, meaning "searing." In old Greek times the dawn rising of Sirius marked the hottest part of summer, the origin of the phrase "dog days of summer." Manilius expressed the Greek and Roman notion that the brilliance of Sirius added to the power of the Sun caused scorching weather: "It barks forth flame and doubles the burning heat of the Sun."

One of the first literary references we have to Canis Major referred to it as the "guard-dog of Orion, following on the heals of his master. Some said that the dog was chasing a rabbit, the constellation Lepus, located beneath Orion's feet, and one Greek story has the dog that nothing can escape chasing a fox that nothing can catch. Zeus solved that paradox by turning both dog and fox into stone, then placing the dog without the fox into heaven.

The name Procyon, brightest star of Canis Minor, also comes from the Greek, meaning "before the dog." Being farther north than Sirius, Procyon rises a bit earlier, seeming to lead the greater dog from the rim of earth to leap into heaven. Orion's pair of dogs faithfully guard and assist the great hunter in the sky as they once did, according to mythology, down here on earth. Although Procyon is not nearly as famous nor as bright as Sirius, the marvelous sky would certainly be incomplete without it.

Sirius is one of our closest neighbor stars, only about 9 light years away. Procyon is also near, about 11 light years out. It is interesting to note that both stars have tiny, very dim and dense companions known as white dwarf stars. The pair of dogs and their master can always be located by finding the "winter triangle," an equilateral triangle formed by Sirius, Procyon and Betelgeuse (bright star in one shoulder of Orion). The Milky Way runs between Sirius and Procyon, reminding us that along the Euphrates River, once equated with the milky stream of heaven, Procyon was referred to as the Water Dog.

January is a great time to bundle up and go out to look around and enjoy the most lustrous stars of heaven. You can continue to watch them, rising earlier each night, until they begin to disappear in the sunset glow during April and May.

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