Yesterday, I wrote about the Pied Piper legend, a story in which a whole village full of children disappear inside a mountain and are never seen again. Today I have another story about people who vanished into an underground cavern. The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. In Germany, June 27th is known as ‘Siebenschläfertag’ (Seven Sleepers Day). The weather on this day is meant to determine the weather for the following seven weeks. On this basis of that, I predict a little bit of sun, not very warm and looks as though it might rain in a bit. So no change there.
Siebenschläfer is also the name for an edible dormouse, which is a pretty sleepy animal. ‘Seven sleeper’ is also a term which had been used across Europe to describe a person who sleeps much longer that is considered necessary. The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus slept much longer than either a sleepy human or a hibernating dormouse. They were seven young Christian men who faced persecution from the Emperor Decius. They refused to worship what they saw as false idols and ran away to hide in a cave. In some versions of the story, they were walled up there by the emperor and left to die.
Many years later, their cave was opened again, by a shepherd who was hoping to use it as a shelter for his sheep. Or by a landowner who wanted it for a cattle stall. After he had gone away, the sleepers awoke but thought they had slept only one night. They sent off one of their number to buy bread in the city. Expecting to have to hide from his persecutors, he was surprised to find that the sign of the cross had been placed at the city gate and that there were churches everywhere. When he took out his money to pay for the bread, the baker was also very surprised. The coin he wanted to pay with was so very old that he thought the young man must have found some ancient treasure. It turned out that they had all slept for years and years. In some accounts it is 300 years, in others 208 or 180. The Emperor was now a Christian called Theodosius II and Christianity was now the dominant religion. Everyone was very excited, and crowds of people rushed to visit the cave and its newly woken inhabitants. There was, at that time, a debate about whether the promise of the resurrection could really be true. Here was living proof that God could raise people from the dead. The sleepers emerged from the cave and, after telling their story to the Bishop of Ephesus, they all died immediately whilst praising God. Of course a church was built over the spot, and you can still visit the Grotto of the Seven Sleepers today.
As you’ll gather from the discrepancies, there are many versions of this story and not all of them are Christian. There is a version of it in the Qur’an which is pretty vague about the number of sleepers, perhaps there were seven, but maybe five or three. The men fall asleep as Christian Berbers, but wake in a land that had converted to Islam. They too, convert to the new religion and can then die happy. This story also includes a sleeping dog who guards the cave entrance. In the Islamic version, only Allah knows how long they slept, which is a neat way of side-stepping the discrepancies between the various accounts. The location is not always the same either. Some place the cave in Jordan and there are several contenders in Tunisia. I think my favourite is at Chenini in southern Tunisia. There, if you visit the Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, you will find very large tombs which are about four metres long. The legend there tells us that the men continued to grow whilst they slept and awoke as giants.