Glossary: Dog Star
The dog star has through the ages been associated with Sirius and/or less frequently the planet Venus.
The name of Sirius probably is derived from the Egyptian word seir meaning "prince," and related also to Hebrew sar. Another possibility is that the word comes from the Greek form for Osiris, the Egyptian god of the underworld.
The star is the brightest in the heavens and was called Kasista "Leader" by the ancient Akkadians. The Persians knew it likewise as Tistar "Chieftain" or Zeeb "Leader."
It was pictured in cultures throughout the world as a dog or wolf situated in the southern sky and associated with the hot or "dog days" of summer.
Sirius is also often connected with the image of a hunter. Among the Sumerians, Ninurta, the hunter, and husband of the dog goddess Bau (Gula), was linked with Sirius, while his wife had Venus associations. Later, when Inanna absorbs Bau's attributes she is likewise viewed as a huntress with links both to Venus and Sirius.
In Greek myth, Sirius formed the head of the hunter Orion's dog, the constellation Canis Major. According to Monier-Williams, the dog star was known among Hindus as Lubdhaka and Mrgavyadha both meaning "hunter" and referring to the god Siva or Rudra.
Another association of Sirius connects the star with the Milky Way, known often as the "Way of Souls" or the "Way of the Dog/Wolf." In this sense, Sirius is viewed as one or more dogs or wolves guarding the path taken by departed souls.
In ancient Egypt, the heliacal rising of Sirius was central to the yearly calendar. Sirius and Orion are personified respectively by the deities Sopdet and Sah, who are in turn manifestations of Isis and Osiris. Sopdet and Sah beget Sopdu, who is the manifestation of Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris, and the patron deity of Egyptian royalty. Sopdet is sometimes portrayed as a large dog, or as riding side-saddle on a dog (during the Roman period).
When the Sun and Moon conjoined at the start of the Egyptian New Year a festival known as the "sacred marriage" was celebrated. This may relate to the Pyramid Texts which state that Pharaoh unites with Isis in a form of hieros gamos bringing forth Horus-Sopdu. In another passage, the royal-divine union is said to beget the Morning Star, and thus may connect Venus with Horus.
Among the Sumerians, the sacred marriage took place between the priest-king and Inanna, the latter probably represented by the Lukur priestess, who was in turn linked with the daughters of dog-headed Bau. Inanna again has as her planet Venus and Sirius as one of her fixed stars. The king during this ritual stands for Dumuzi, the husband of Inanna, and every year near the rising of Sirius in the summer, the Kelabim or dog priests of Dumuzi (Tammuz) held rites for the god.
Adonis had similar rites, and Carl Kerenyi believes that the orgia festivals celebrated in honor of Dionysos were also linked with the Sirius cycle.
Further to the east we find numerous myths of the marriage of a dog to a goddess or queen in the totemic histories of numerous peoples. Especially in Central Asia, South China, Southeast Asia and the Pacific the concept of part-dog or wolf ancestry is prevalent. From Assam in the West to Mongolia in the North and Java in the South, eastward to New Guinea and other Pacific isles in Oceania and northward again to the Ryukus and Bering Sea, the sacred dog-human marriage motif is found.
David Gordon White in Myths of the Dog-Man discusses the motif found among the Chinese, Hmong-Mien and Southeast Asian peoples of a heavenly dog who comes to earth following catastrophic floods bringing the gift of rice agriculture. These resemble closely the Kapampangan tales of Tala who rescues the flooded inhabitants of Central Luzon by teaching them riziculture. White mentions a "tradition, dating from the Shang dynasty, that connects a dog with the ancient rice god Shang-ti, and a Ch'in and Han period sacrifice called the lei (a term for which the Chinese characters are "dog," "rice," and "head") that involved the offerings of dog's flesh and rice, by which a dismembered Shang-ti was ritually reintegrated and resurrected."
Shang-ti becomes associated with T'ien (Heaven) during the Zhou (Chou) dynasty and the Shih-chi states that the god in the form of the "Ti-Dog" was the ancestor of the Hou Chih and T'ai peoples.
Although Sirius (known as the Heavenly Wolf in China) is not mentioned in these legends, the idea of a heavenly dog coming after the summer floods indeed could represent a link with the Dog Star. The heliacal rising of Sirius during the summer heralds the flooding season in the monsoon climate region. The descent of Sirius or Venus from Heaven in the form of a dog bringing agriculture and uniting in divine marriage all fit in the Sirius myth pattern. The flooding of the Nile after the rising of Sirius was essential to good harvests in ancient Egypt.
The image of Phan Hu descending from Heaven and swimming across the flooded earth with a rice plant in his mouth, to later marry the Chinese emperor's daughter and father the Yao people is an ideal form of the Eastern myth.
While various explanations have been given for the canine attributes bestowed to the star Sirius, the link with a culture-bearing ancestor is the one proposed here. In this sense, the heliacal rising of Sirius would herald the advent of the canine hero linked in this case with the cataclysmic eruption of the cosmic mountain.
In ancient symbology, this involved the Sun and Moon, not simply conjunct as in the Egyptian New Year festival, but in solar eclipse represented by the Crescent Sun. Venus in inferior conjunction or transit is represented as a star in the center or next to the Crescent Sun. These celestial bodies should be placed above or emerging from a mountain, hill, mound, stupa, triangle, pyramid, person's head or some other symbol of the cosmic axis.
In some cases, one can also see to the left of these symbols another star or stellar symbol that should be taken as representing Sirius. Left in this case means to the south as ideally the celestial configuration should be in the West, the direction of Pinatubo.
Paul Kekai Manansala
Kerenyi, Carl. Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, Princeton University Press, 1996.
McGahey, Robert. The Orphic Moment: Shaman to Poet-Thinker in Plato, Nietzsche, and Mallarme, SUNY Press, 1994.
Sasaki, Chris. Constellations: Stars & Stories, Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 2003, p. 32ff.
Shaw, Ian. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press, 2002.
White, David Gordon. Myths of the Dog-Man, University of Chicago Press, 1991.