“Old Priam first beheld him with his eyes
As, shining like a star, Achilles streaked across the plain,
The star that comes at summer’s end, its clear gleaming
In the milky murk of night displayed among the multitude of stars
- the star they give the name Orion’s Dog;
most radiant it is, but it makes an evil portent
and brings great feverish heat on pitiful mortal men…”
- Homer, Iliad, Carolyn Alexander, trans.
What we know as the Dog Star (in the constellation Canis Major) is the brightest star in our night sky here in the northern hemisphere. The Greeks called this star Sirius, a word which means searing or scorching. What we see as as the dog star is actually two stars. (Now, you say: “Seriously?”, and I say, “Sirius-ly!” because it’s true.) Canis Major, and it’s companion constellation Canis Minor represent the two hunting dogs of Orion, and familiar Orion, with his pointy sword and bow, is one of the constellations most people recognize.
According to this guy Sirus was “famed from times long past, the first glimpse of Sirius in dawn announced the rising of the Nile in ancient Egypt. (It no longer does because of precession, the 26,000-year wobble of the Earth's axis.)”
Sirus and Orion are harbingers of winter. As days shorten, they begin their nocturnal hunt later - after the sun sets. In summer, Orion and his dogs cross the sky while the sun is above the horizon, and thus we can't see them in the sky until winter.
In the Iliad, scenes with Achilles are often filled with metaphors about light, from dimly glowing to brightly searing. But unlike allusions to light that modern readers might associate with good cheer or sunny dispositions, descriptions involving light associated with Achilles are often heavily weighted with ill omens and dark portents. Here’s my favorite example of that - a digression in the description of Achilles donning his armor before he joins the battle in which he will slay Hecktor:
“He…caught up the great shield, huge and heavy
next, and from it the light glimmered far, as from the moon.
And as when from across water a light shines to mariners
From a blazing fire, when the fire is burning high in the mountains
In a desolate steading, as the mariners are carried unwilling
By storm winds over the fish-swarming sea, far away from their loved ones;
So the light from the fair elaborate shield of Achilles
Shot into the high air…”
I love the way this passage (Alexander quotes from Lattimore's translation) relentlessly focuses on increasingly fearful detail. While at first the light reflected from his shield seems to hint at good, but then we zoom into focus an image of storm-tossed sailors on a restless sea spotting a faraway signal fire evokes the sort of grimness. The light, intended as a beacon of hope and safety, becomes their final glimpse of unreachable safety upon a dry and distant mountain. The metaphor forces you to imagine that then the sea swallows them whole. This, to me, foreshadows the eventual fate of these soldiers.
While the star that comes at summer's end may refer to an evil omen when described by Homer, for me it will continue to signal the season of harvest and feasting. Unlike those sailors who were unable to avoid their cruel fate, my garden today seems to look forward to it's destiny and to a long cool rest. My backgard will begin to thrive again when the skies change to signal that Spring is coming.