By John Copeland
August, like July, is named for a person, Augustus Caesar, Julius Caesar’s grandnephew Gaius Octavius Thurinus. When he became the first emperor of the Roman Empire, Octavius changed his name to Augustus. The Roman Senate decided that he too should honored by having a month named after him. The month Sextillis (Sixth) was chosen for Augustus, and the senate passed the following resolution:
“Whereas the Emperor Augustus Caesar, in the month of Sextillis . . . thrice entered the city in triumph . . . and in the same month Egypt was brought under the authority of the Roman people, and in the same month an end was put to the civil wars; and whereas for these reasons the said month is, and has been, most fortunate to this empire, it is hereby decreed by the senate that the said month shall be called Augustus.”
Not only did the Senate name a month after Augustus, but they decided that since Julius’s month, July, had 31 days, Augustus’s month should equal it: Under Rome’s Julian calendar, the months alternated evenly between 30 and 31 days (with the exception of February), which made August 30 days long. So, instead of August having a mere 30 days, it was lengthened to 31, preventing anyone from claiming that Emperor Augustus was saddled with an inferior month.
To accommodate this change two calendrical adjustments were necessary:
1. The extra day needed to inflate the importance of August was taken from February, which originally had 29 days (30 in a leap year), and was now reduced to 28 days (29 in a leap year).
2. Since the months evenly alternated between 30 and 31 days, adding the extra day to August meant that July, August, and September would all have 31 days. So to avoid three long months in a row, the lengths of the last four months were switched around, giving us 30 days in September, April, June, and November.
August is, also, the only month without a “real” holiday. That doesn’t mean nothing has ever happened in August. World War I started in August 1914. Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. It is also the month that atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the month Anne Frank was arrested, the month the first income tax was collected and the month Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe died.
In August, the Dog Star Sirius is no longer visible in the predawn sky, bringing to an end the Dog Days of Summer and then Cat Nights begin mid-month. Today, not many people are familiar with “Cat Nights.” It is pretty old, going back to the days when most people believed in witches. Cat Nights are also tied to pre-Christian harvest rites. Like many ancient festivals, the church adopted the earlier harvest festival and, in many parts of Europe, it is still known as the Feast of Our Lady of the Harvest.
The origin of Cat Nights is thought to spring from a little know Irish legend. The Celtic people created a lot of intriguing folklore. In trying to track down the origin of Cat Nights, my interest was piqued when I read several folk tails about a cat creature known as the Cait Sidhe in Ireland and the Cait Sith in Scotland. Both are pronounced “caught shee” and literally translate as “cat of the mound.” The mound refers to neolithic burial mounds found throughout the British Isles. In folk lore they were considered to be fairy mounds and residences. In England the Cait Sidhe, are commonly called fairy cats.
The Cait Sidhe took the form of large black cats, with a spot of white on their chests. For the most part, the Cait Sidhe were seen as fearsome, but they were also capable of bringing blessings.
Irish legend also tells how witches could turn themselves into a cat eight times. They could choose to transform themselves a ninth time, but then they were unable to change back to human form. This legend is the origin of the phrase “a cat has nine lives.” Many legends are based on elements of truth. Legends of the Cait Sidhe may be rooted in the Scottish Wildcat known as the Kellas Cat. The Scottish Wildcat looks like a very large house cat and is believed to be the result of a wild cat and domestic cat mating.
But besides the old Celtic folklore, August is traditionally considered a yowly time for cats. This may be what prompted the belief that witches were on the prowl in mid-August in the first place.
But what does the old legend have to do with Cat Nights? Well, August’s summer nights are getting both longer and cooler. Even as we humans notice the seasonal change, animals are much more sensitive to these changes. Those of us who share our lives with cats and dogs cannot help but notice how they are a bit more lively now.
Cats, in particular, are active at dusk and dawn, with the possible exception of Jax, our retired barn cat who prefers to sleep the night away and the day, too, for that matter.
Many cats, Jax excepted, are nocturnal hunters. Cats can see eight times better in the dark than we can. Cats can see some colors, too. They can see yellows, blues and violets. And their eyes are much more sensitive to movements than our eyes are. Longer nights are coming and the nights belong to them.
So enjoy the lengthening nights and if you’re out on a stroll over the next few evenings, make sure it’s a cat that you see and not a lurking witch out to bewitch you.