Chasing Civilization

When you look to the constellations, it’s like paging through history. Creatures abound in the constellations, both real and fanciful. We see kings and queens, beasts and heroes, all recounting the travails and triumphs of ancient times. Today, many are obscure and unfamiliar.

But testament to perhaps the greatest triumph of civilization survives the test of time in the heavens.

There is no constellation in recognition of the harnessing of fire. Nor is their a constellation commemorating the invention of the wheel.

Of all the creatures depicted in the constellations, only two are tame, Canis Major and Canis Minor. Punctuating this domestication of animals, the Big Dog contains the brightest star in the heavens, Sirius, while the Little Dog is home to Procyon, the eighth brightest.

In the second century bc, the Greek Erathosthenes tells the story of Laelaps, a hound so fast no prey could escape him. In time the dog was taken to Thebes, which was being ravaged by a monstrous fox that could never be caught. True to their nature, the dog gave chase and the fox ran — and ran and ran. Finally Zeus crafted a resolution, transforming both to stone. But to honor Laelaps’ role as hunter and protector, he placed the dog in the heavens, and we see it today as Canis Minor.

Scientists estimate the domestication of canis familiaris at more than 100,000 years ago, with dogs — and their humans — spreading across the globe. By comparison, the advent of agriculture began to sprout a mere 12,000 years ago.

At the time of Erathosthenes, the Dog Star rose with the sun during the hottest time of year, in theory adding to the sun’s heat, hence the Dog Days of Summer. In the ensuing millennia, earth’s wobbling axis has shifted, so that Sirius rises a few hours before dawn. Look for this hound in the southeast around 5am, happily following his master Orion.