Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Setting sun with sun dog (parhelion) on the left,
Denver. Photo: Peter Faris, 1998.
Sun dogs (parhelia) are a particular type of ice halo which produces a colored patch to the left and right of the sun, 22 degrees or more distant and at the same distance above the horizon as the sun itself. Best seen and most conspicuous when the sun is low, they are not rainbows. The Blackfeet knew them as “when the sun paints his cheeks”. According to The Old North Trail, Life, Legends and Religion of the Blackfeet Indians,by Walter McClintock, the Blackfeet believed that “when the sun paints both his cheeks” it is a warning that severe cold is coming, and that “when the sun paints his face on the forehead, chin and both cheeks (four Sun Dogs), it is a warning that a chief will soon die.”
Setting sun with 22 degree halo and sun dog,
Denver (the sun is behind the tree
on the left). Photo: Peter Faris, 1995.

Although they are fairly common, especially in northern latitudes, they are often overlooked because people just don’t look for them and they are not noticed unless extremely bright.

Three Rivers, New Mexico.

Photo: Peter Faris, 1998.
Parhelia would be expected to be portrayed in rock art as a sun sign with two or more spots added outside the perimeter of the sun sign. This example, which can be found at the Three Rivers petroglyph site in New Mexico, consists of the normal southwestern concentric circle sun symbol surrounded by a ring of 16 dots which may represent multiple parhelia (with a little exaggeration thrown in). In his book Rare Halos, Mirages, and Anomalous Rainbows and Related Electromagnetic Phenomena, William Corliss presents examples of multiple sun dogs with examples of up to eight cited. I would expect that a rock artist who had observed such an example of multiple parhelia could be motivated to reproduce it as the sun symbol surrounded by many dots as in this example. It certainly should be considered a possibility.

Another excellent book on atmospheric phenomena is Robert Greenler's, Rainbows, Halos, and Glories, 1980, Cambridge University Press, London, New York.

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