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Dog Days of summer called us to the swimming hole

Whether it’s THE call of a swimming hole or a swimming pool, Pocahontas Countians have answered for decades. Above, in 2011, Pocahontas County High School Warriors cool off in Knapps Creek after a summer practice. At left, two ladies catch some rays in the 1950s at the pool at Watoga State Park. File photo and photo courtesy of Preserving Pocahontas

Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer

The Old Farmer’s Almanac tells us that Dog Days are the 40 days beginning on July 3 and ending on August 11. 

The term “Dog Days” comes to us from the Greeks and the ancient Romans.

The dog to which the term refers is Sirius – the “Dog Star.”

In ancient times, during the several week period during the hottest part of the summer around the Aegean and Mediterranean, Sirius rose just before or at the same time as sunrise.

This is no longer true, owing to precession of the equinoxes. 

The precession of the equinoxes is a process whereby the position of the stars and constellations gradually move in relation to the seasons. 

Since ancient times, when Sirius was the first star to rise at dawn in the summer, the precession of the equinoxes has shifted the positions of the twelve main constellations, which used to generally align with the twelve astrology signs for which they are named. 

The ancients sacrificed a brown dog at the beginning of the Dog Days to appease the rage of Sirius, believing that the star was the cause of punishing, hot weather.

These days, we make an offering to the sun of our white “farmer tan” arms and legs – slathered in sunscreen – and hope we don’t get a third degree burn.

As we have survived another season of “Dog Days,” I presume we have all been availing ourselves of every opportunity to immerse ourselves in cool water on hot days.

Yes, this time of year, swimming comes to mind, just as it must have throughout the ages.

My guess is that as soon as there was water and there were humans, there was swimming.

A hunch which cave drawings confirm.

Perhaps the earliest pictures we have of swimming can be found in Stone Age drawings from 10,000 years ago.

Pictures of swimmers were found on the walls of a now-famous cave known as “The Cave of Swimmers” near Wadi Sura in southwestern Egypt.

They depict swimmers frolicking in the water.

Written references to swimming date from 2000 B.C., having been included in Gilgamesh, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The Bible refers to swimming in Ezekiel 47:5, Acts 27:42 and Isaiah 25:11.

In the Book of Isaiah, speaking of the downfall of Moab, it says:

“And he shall spread forth his hands in the midst of them, as he that swimmeth spreadeth forth his hands to swim: and he shall bring down their pride together with the spoils of their hands.” 

The account of St. Paul’s shipwreck near Malta describes men swimming ashore while others cling to planks from the ship and other debris in the hope of saving themselves.

It is featured prominently in Beowulf, and other classic literature.

For some reason, the Greeks did not include swimming in the ancient Olympic Games, but they certainly practiced the sport, often building swimming pools as part of their baths. 

A common insult in Greece was to say someone could neither run nor swim. 

The Etruscans at Tarquinia (in Italy) made beautiful pictures of swimmers in 600 B.C., and tombs in Greece depict swimming scenes drawn in 500 B.C. 

A famous tale about the Greek hero Scyllis tells that when he was taken prisoner on a ship belonging to the fleet of Persian King Xerxes I in 480 B.C., swimming saved the day for the Greeks.

As their prisoner, Scyllis heard the Persians talking about having the Greek navy tied up in the harbor.

He stole a knife and jumped overboard. 

During the night he swam back to the Greek flotilla.

He cleverly used a snorkel he’d fashioned from a reed, to swim among his countrymen’s captive ships and cut them loose. 

Later, their ability to swim again saved the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis, even as the Persians all drowned when their ships were destroyed. 

Romans were also well-schooled in swimming for recreation and for use in war. 

Julius Caesar was known to be an excellent swimmer. 

Swimming was often mentioned in Roman literature. It was thought of as an essentially Roman sport and battle tactic.

Its history was traced back to the legendary Roman hero Horatius Cocles, who swam the Tiber River to defend a bridge against the Etruscans.

A series of Roman reliefs dating from 850 B.C. show swimmers, mostly in a military context, some using swimming aids, possibly to indicate long-distance swim training.

Germanic folklore describes swimming as a stealth tactic used successfully in war against the Romans. 

Swimming was originally one of the seven “agilities” of knights during the Middle Ages.

And the knights were expected to be able to swim while wearing armor. 

However, as swimming was usually done without armor, or even much clothing, it was seriously being discouraged by the church by the end of the Middle Ages. 

In the 16th century, a German court prohibited naked public swimming by children. 

But, of course, swimming could never be eradicated.

Leonardo da Vinci made early sketches of lifebelts and men wearing lifebelts.

In 1538 Nicolas Wynman, a German professor of languages, wrote the first book about swimming, called, “Colymbetes.”  His primary aim was not to encourage exercise or recreation, but to reduce the likelihood of drowning.

Nevertheless, the book contained sound instructions as to how to learn to swim.

It also explained how to use swimming aids like air-filled cow bladders, reed bundles or cork belts. 

Around the same time as the Germans were learning the breast stroke from Wynman’s book, an English author named Everard Digby wrote a book called De Arte Natandi.

It was published in 1587, and is considered the first English treatise on the sport although some of Digby’s theories were somewhat fantastical. He claimed that, properly trained, humans had the ability to swim better than fish.

Shakespeare wrote about swimming in several of his plays.

When Stephano, in The Tempest, asks Trinculo how he escaped the sinking ship, Trinculo says, “Swum ashore, man, like a duck; I can swim like a duck, I’ll be sworn.”

In 1696, the French author, Thevenot, wrote The Art of Swimming, featuring a breaststroke very similar to the modern breaststroke. 

This book was translated into English and became the go-to text on swimming for years to come. 

In the British classic, Gulliver’s Travels, published in 1726 by Irish writer and clergyman, Jonathan Swift, the hero considers himself a good swimmer and recites several occasions when he found it “convenient” to swim.

Francis Place’s autobiography says that during English summers, boys often swam in the River Thames. 

He remembered that when he was about eleven, “I saw boys not older than myself swim across the Thames at Millbank at about half tide.” 

By the early 1700s, recreational swimming was popular enough that London had its own public pool.

The Peerless Pool was described as “an elegant pleasure bath.” It measured 170′ by 100′ and had a smooth gravel bottom, and was accessed by several flights of stairs.

Swimming in the colonies was often out of necessity rather than pleasure. 

Nicholas Cresswell, for example, said that during a trip on the Ohio River in 1775, one of the canoes drifted across the river and “one of the Company swam across the River and brought her over.” 

The year before, when he was in Barbados, Cresswell wrote, “Early this morning Bathed in the Sea, which is very refreshing in this hot Climate.”

Benjamin Franklin must have been particularly keen about swimming at a young age.

At the age of 10, in 1716, he invented of a pair of swim fins.

Franklin believed strongly that every youth should learn to swim. 

In an undated letter written before 1769, Franklin said this about swimming:

“… they would on many occurrences, be the safer for having that skill, and on many more the happier, as freer from painful apprehensions of danger, to say nothing of the enjoyment in so delightful and wholesome an exercise. Soldiers particularly should, methinks, all be taught to swim; it might be of frequent use either in surprising an enemy, or saving themselves. And if I had now boys to educate, I should prefer those schools (other things being equal) where an opportunity was afforded for acquiring so advantageous an art, which once learnt is never forgotten.”

The number of coroner’s inquests conducted in colonial Virginia on the bodies of boys and young men who drowned while swimming suggests that more swimming education was definitely needed.

In 1875, Matthew Webb caught the interest of people around the world when he became the first person to swim across the English Channel. 

Using only the breaststroke, it took him more than 21 hours to cross the Channel. 

It would be 31 years before anyone else attempted that swim.

Today, swimming is the third most popular sport in the summer Olympic Games.

Whether in a swimmin’ hole on Knapps Creek or in the solar heated pool at Watoga, Pocahontas Countians know that swimming is one of the best ways to beat heat of the last “Dog Days” of summer.

Enjoy them while you can – we’ll soon be exchanging dog days for dog sleds.

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