In Germany today it’s Siebenschläfertag or Seven Sleepers Day, ostensibly a celebration of medieval weather lore. The weather experienced on Siebenschläfertag is supposed to determine the average weather for the next seven weeks. It’s similar to St Swithen’s Day in the UK or Groundhog Day in the US.
Siebenschläfertag, or Seven Sleepers, however, has far more ancient origins than mere medieval lore.
The Seven Sleepers were a group of youths who lived in the Roman city of Ephesus (now in modern Turkey) around 250 AD. They were Christian and, at that date, this meant they had to keep their practices secret due to persecution from the state.
The Roman Emperor at that time was Decius, who was known for his building projects in Rome, his love of morality, and his ceaseless persecution of Christians. His reach eventually fell upon Ephesus and the seven youths found themselves at dire risk. To escape, they fled to a cave outside the city where they walled themselves in. They were not heard of again for many, many years.
In fact, according to legend, the seven youths slept for 180 years until they finally awoke during the reign of Theodosius II. Fortunately for them, Theodosius was a committed Christian who liked nothing better than to pontificate on theological disputes. The youths left the cave and walked about the city, reportedly speaking to many residents before eventually succumbing to extreme old age.
The earliest version of their legend comes from the writings of the Syrian bishop, Jacob of Sarug, who lived in the 5th century, although he probably copied earlier (and now lost) Greek sources. The best known record of the legend is by Jacobus de Voragine, an Italian chronicler and archbishop of Genoa who lived in the 13th century. His Golden Legend chronicled the lives of several saints, including the Seven Sleepers, who, by this time, had been beatified.
The disappearance of seven youths into a cave, where they slept (presumably in some sort of trance) for 180 years before emerging again, has clear shamanic overtones and may reveal traces of earlier ascetic traditions. Somewhat fortuitously, there is a clue in the Islamic Koran that adds further detail.
In Surah 18, verse 9-26 of the Koran, the legend is retold, except this time the sleepers lie in the cave for 300 years. Most tellingly, they were accompanied by a dog, which lay at the entrance to the cave, seemingly guarding the inhabitants from harm. (The illustration above shows a folio page from the Book of Omens, dating to around 1550 from Qazvin in Iran, where the dog appears in the foreground). The importance of dogs as guardians of the otherworld in the ancient world cannot be overstated. A canine friend also finds its way into Christian mythology in the story of Tobias, where a dog accompanies the boy along with Raphael, his guardian angel. Perhaps in an effort to divorce itself from earlier beliefs, the Book of Tobit (where the story appears) was excluded from the authorised bible and is now only found in the Apocrypha.
The Seven Sleepers legend may reveal echoes of earlier traditions of accessing the otherworld through caves, with a dog either accompanying the practitioners or acting as a threshold guardian. It is possible that, in the original legend, the sleepers brought back knowledge and wisdom from their sojourn in the otherworld, just like modern shamans, but, if they did, this part of the myth is now lost.
An early Christian catacomb on the slopes of Mount Pion near Ephesus came to be associated with the site of the cave. These catacombs, along with the ruins of a later church covering them, were excavated in 1927–28. Archaeologists discovered several hundred graves, dating to around the 5th and 6th centuries. Inscriptions dedicated to the Seven Sleepers lined the walls of the church and also occurred in the graves. Clearly, the legend of the Seven Sleepers meant a lot to people even then.
Curiously, according to the Koran, Surah 18, verse 15, the myth even came to be attached to Glastonbury. The cave is associated with a cavern beneath Chalice Well and the sleepers were guided by Joseph of Arimathea. But even the Koran concedes that this may be no more than a picturesque addition to the legend.
Modern Siebenschläfertag recalls only the merest hint of the earlier tradition but, somewhat whimsically, Siebenschläfer in German also refers to the edible dormouse, a creature known to sleep for long periods.
So whether you celebrate seven saints, medieval weather lore, or even an edible dormouse, have a wonderful Siebenschläfertag and let’s hope it doesn’t rain.