June 27, 2015

It Happened on June 27th

Seven Sleepers Day

The Seven Sleepers
June 27th is celebrated as Siebenschläfertag, or "Seven Sleepers Day", in Germany. According to weather lore, whatever the weather is like on this day will determine (or predict) the weather for the next seven weeks.

I had never heard of this holiday before, and as I read about the day, several sources made a statement that rather startled me. Seven Sleepers Day does not take its name, "as is commonly thought" from the edible dormouse, but rather from the legend of the Seven Sleepers.

At this point, my mind didn't quite know where to turn. Several parts of my brain were vying for attention. One part -- the more sedate, logical part, I'd like to think -- was eager to find out about the legend of the Seven Sleepers. Another part was wondering just who these people were -- the ones who "commonly thought" that the name of the day was derived from the edible dormouse. A third section seemed to be screaming, "Edible dormouse? Edible dormouse?!!"

The Edible Dormouse

Glis glis: delicious with honey and poppy seeds.
There is, in fact, a variety of dormouse known as the edible dormouse, or fat dormouse. Its Latin name is Glis glis, and, like most dormouse species, it's native to Europe. The word dormouse comes from the Anglo-Saxon dormeus, meaning "sleepy one" -- a perfectly logical name, considering that the dormouse hibernates a lot. Our friend Glis glis hibernates from October to May, which is a lot of sleep, even for a dormouse. Later on, dormeus got altered to dormouse, which was also logical, since the dormouse is a small rodent, similar to a mouse.

As for the edible part, the ancient Romans liked to eat them, and even raised them especially for that purpose. They had special terra cotta containers that they kept them in, called gliraria, sort of like an early version of the hamster cage. Edible dormice could be eaten either as an appetizer, or as a dessert, dipped in honey and poppy seeds.

Lionel Rothschild let the dormice escape.
The edible dormouse is native to much of Europe, but not to England, although, curiously enough, about 10,000 Glis glis live there now, all in a 200 square mile area around Tring, in Hertfordshire. It seems that Lionel Walter Rothschild, of the Rothschild financial dynasty, had a private zoological collection. The dormice escaped, and ... Well, you know what rodents do best.

In Germany, the edible dormouse is known as Siebenschläfer, which means something like "seven sleeper" probably because it hibernates for seven months of the year. The day we're celebrating today is called Siebenschläfertag, Seven Sleepers Day, for reasons altogether unrelated to the dormouse. We'll get to that story next.

The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus

The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus were a group of Christian youths who lived neared Ephesus somewhere around the year 250 AD. The Roman Emperor Decius was trying to eliminate Christianity from his domain at the time, and the young men were given their choice of recanting their beliefs, or of being executed. They went to a cave to pray and fell asleep.

The Seven Sleepers in the cave.
When they awoke, they realized they were hungry, and sent one of their number into the village to buy food, warning him to be careful to elude capture. When he got there, he was amazed -- there were buildings there with crosses on them, prominently displayed. The townspeople were equally dumbfounded when the young man attempted to pay for his purchases with coins that were 200 years old. The Christians told their story to the local bishop and then died, praising God for the miracle.

Various versions of the story have the men sleeping for anywhere from 150 to 250 years. There is also a version in which they were sealed into the cave by the Emperor, and only awoke when a farmer unsealed the cave to use as a pen for his cattle.

The story appears to have originated in Ephesus, and then to have spread outwards. Many pilgrims made the pilgrimage to Ephesus. A church was built over a collection of graves in the area. During the Crusades some bones from the area were brought to Marseilles, and found a home at the church of Saint Victoire.

And Back to the Weather...

St. Swithun gets the credit in England.
I'm not sure exactly what the connection is between the Seven Sleepers and June 27, although I'm guessing that at one time it was a feast day. In any event, according to folk wisdom, whatever sort of weather occurs on this day will be pretty much the same sort of weather that will fall for the next seven weeks. There are various rhymes to help one remember:

Das wetter am Siebenschläfertag
Sieben wochen bleiben mag.

["The weather on Seven Sleepers Day, seven weeks will remain."]


Wie's wetter am Siebenschlafertag,
So der Juli werden mag.

["As the weather is on Seven Sleepers Day, so will it be in July."]
As you'll note, the saying actually rhymes in German.

The closest thing to Seven Sleepers Day that we have in the English language is probably Saint Swithun's Day, the 15th of July. We are told:

St. Swithun's Day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain.
St. Swithun's Day if thou be fair
For forty days 'twill rain nae mare.

As a prediction of weather, neither holiday is noticeably accurate.

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