Yuuji Kitahara
Sirius, the Dog Star or Wolf to many cultures across time, as seen through a very modern telescope.

Let's Get 'Sirius' About the Dog Star, Sky's Brightest Twinkler

ICTMN Staff
2/1/14

Its name means scorching or sparkling, derived from ancient Egyptian. Yet the brightest star, which will shine in its brightest glory this week, caught the eye of even the most ancient Indigenous Peoples, from Turtle Island to Australia.

And across the reaches of space and time, from ancient to modern, cultures with no apparent connection have universally associated blazing Sirius with the wolf or the dog. It is part of the Greek-named constellation Canis Major, but they were not the only ones to give the star a canine connotation, and neither were the ancient Egyptians. The ancient Chinese called it Tsien Lang, or Heavenly Wolf, while the inhabitants of Mesopotamia bestowed numerous dog- and wolf-related epithets on the star, according to the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona. Even today, Sirius is associated with the so-called dog days of summer, though that dates back to the Romans. And the Dog Star is also mentioned in, of all places, a Grateful Dead song, “Lost Sailor.”

“Perhaps most intriguing of all such traditions is found among many of the Native peoples of North America,” the laboratory site said. “Here there exist a remarkable number of occurrences of names for Sirius and legends about the star having to do with dogs and wolves.”

For example, the Alaskan Inuit called Sirius “Moon Dog,” while the Blackfoot called it “dog-face.” The Pawnee called Sirius the Wolf, and the Northern Osage also saw a lupine essence, naming the star “Wolf that hangs by the side of Heaven,” according to the University of Arizona site.

The planetarium at Western Washington State University recounts the creation story of the Skidi Pawnee, who lived in the Great Plains of what are today Kansas and Nebraska. In this legend, Wolf helps guard Evening Star, one of four sentinels who Morning Star must defeat in his bid to win Evening Star’s hand in marriage. It ends with the creation of the world.

The exceptional brightness that so captivated the ancients stems from two factors. One is the star’s proximity to our sun. A "mere" 8.6 light-years away, Sirius is closest to Earth after the sun, according to EarthSky.org. The other, perhaps surprising reason is that Sirius has a little help: It's not one, but two stars, a binary system. Sirius A is a white star twice the sun’s mass, while Sirius B is a white dwarf—a fainter, dying, much smaller star that has collapsed in on itself. 

As bright as Sirius is, it cannot outshine the planets, and although it is the brightest star, it must compete a bit with Jupiter this week for brilliance.

“Normally, the only objects that outshine Sirius in our heavens are the sun, moon, Venus, Jupiter, Mars and Mercury (and usually Sirius outshines the latter two!),” notes EarthSky.org.

Jupiter, as Astronomy.com notes, is shining almost as brightly as Sirius this month. Nevertheless, sparkling Sirius is unmistakable. It is 3.5 times brighter the next-brightest star, Arcturus, according to EarthSky.org.

Sirius rises in the southeast at about 7 p.m. local time, Astronomy.com says, and reaches its highest point in the south at around 10 p.m. The best way to see it is simply to follow Orion’s belt from top right to lower left, and keep going in a straight line. You will hit Sirius in roughly eight belt lengths, says EarthSky.org. 

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