We’re in the midst of the lazy days of summer, and July 27 brings us to what was once a very popular feast in the Medieval Catholic Church: the Feast of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. It appears in many versions, but seems to date to the sixth century Syriac poet-theologian, Jacob of Serug or Serugh.
The sleepers’ story has been told by many, including the sixth century historian-bishop St. Gregory of Tours and the 13th-century Dominican Blessed Jacobus da Varagine, who wrote the European best-seller, “The Golden Legend.” The story is also popular in the Eastern churches of both Catholic and Orthodox traditions, and is even recorded in the Qu’ran (surah 18). In the Byzantine church, the Seven Sleepers are honored on two days: Aug. 4 and Oct. 22 — since the legend says they fell asleep (died) on two different days.
The basic story is similar to many legends about people who fall asleep and awake many years later: from Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle to the Jewish story of Honi M’agel to China’s Ranka.
According to the basic story, the seven young men — Maximillian, Jamblichos, Martin, John, Dionysios, Exakostodianos, and Antoninos (or Maximianus, Malchus, Martinianus, Dionysius, Joannes, Serapion, and Constantinus in the Roman Martyrology) by name — became Christian converts in the third century. They lived in Ephesus, now in modern Turkey.
Theirs was a time of persecution for Christians under the Roman emperor Decius, who even traveled to Ephesus to enforce his laws against Christians. The young men, who may have been nobles or former soldiers, refused to renounce Christianity. For some reason, the emperor condemned them to death but not immediately. Instead, he allowed them to remain free for a time, in order to consider changing their minds while he went off on a military campaign.
The young men gave away their possessions to the poor and, when they heard that Decius was returning, they went to a cave on Mount Anchilos to pray. They fell asleep there and Decius, learning of their whereabouts, had them sealed alive in the cave. Other Christians placed a marker near the cave, telling their story and listing their names.
Years passed — about two to three centuries, depending on which version of the story — and a local farmer decided to open the cave so he could use it to house his cattle. The men awoke and, thinking they had slept for only a night, sent their youngest member to town to buy food.
The young man found the city greatly changed — since Christianity had now become the religion of the empire. When he used his ancient coins to pay for food, people became suspicious and followed him to their cave. The current emperor, the Christian Theodius, arrived on the scene, and the young men told their story to him. Everyone at the time took this as a miracle that proved the resurrection of the body — which at that time was being debated heavily in the church. Then, still praising God, the seven men truly died and — at their request — were buried in the same cave. This time they rested in golden tombs.
Eventually, a church was built around their tombs, but the relics of the seven men were moved some time during the Crusades. Today, their cave is said to be found on the slope of Panayirdag Hill near Ephesus.
The Muslims call the seven men “the Companions of the Cave” (Ashaabul Kahf). In the story told in the Qu’ran, the men are guarded by their dog, which also sleeps at the mouth of the cave. And, at the command of God, angels turn the men from side to side to keep their bodies healthy and the sun does not shine directly on them. For many Muslims, this story is a lesson in the mercy that God bestows on those who have faith in his care.
In the Orthodox churches, there is a tradition of asking the intercession of the Seven Sleepers for insomniacs. As for the two different feast days in the Eastern church, one tradition says that the seven men first fell asleep on Aug. 4, and that they later died on Oct. 22.
With the wet weather we’ve had this year, it might be interesting to know that, in Germany, the feast of the Seven Sleepers is considered a day of weather omen — like our Groundhog Day. In Germany, the day, called Siebenschläfer, is supposed to tell what the weather for the next seven weeks will be. (Siebenschläfer is the German word for “dormouse,” a rodent that is said to hibernate for seven months.) If it’s sunny on July 27, then it will be sunny more often than not into September.
Sources: hiddeneurope.co.uk; piecesofgerman.com; oca.org; “The Golden Legend;” sacred-destinations.com; islamiclandmarks.com; muslimmatters.org; scriptoriumdaily.com; Kathy Schiffer blog at ncregister.com; “Catholic Encyclopedia”