Dear fellow travellers
It started raining early yesterday. This might not ordinarily be important, but yesterday was no ordinary day. In some parts of Europe, 27 June is marked as the day of the Seven Sleepers. It is not a day to linger in bed, but rather a day to get up and do things. In Germany, the weather on Siebenschläfer is seen as indicative of what sort of summer we can expect. Stable weather on 27 June bodes well for the weeks ahead. But wild weather on that day indicates that rain rather than sun is in store for July and August.
Yesterday was an awful day, weather-wise, in Berlin and the German-Polish borderlands. More like late April than late June. Lots of cloud, a dash of sun, and many thundery showers. We were drenched not once, not twice, but thrice. So those with faith in folklore now fear we're in for a lousy summer.
Meteorologists tell us that there is a shred of science in the folk wisdom which surrounds the Seven Sleepers. If a stable high-pressure cell has been established over northern Europe by late June or early July, then there's a good chance that it will prevail for some weeks. There's no better way of fending off moisture-laden winds from the west than by having a big anticyclone blocking their progress across Europe.
So far, so good. But folk wisdom across Europe varies from country to country, culture to culture. For many Germans, 27 June and the days immediately thereafter are the critical period. The French, however, favour the Feast of St Medard on 8 June as a predictor of meteorological fortune:
Quand il pleut à la Saint-Médard, il pleut quarante jours plus tard.
A rainy feast heralds forty days of rain to follow. Though in French and Belgian Flanders, farmers have more faith in St Godelieve, whose feast is marked on 6 July. Across the Channel in England, the weather on Saint Swithin's Day is a marker of what to expect for the following six weeks. If it pours on 15 July, don't plan a beach holiday in England.
We have hardly touched on the wider story of the Seven Sleepers, which is one of the richest pieces of folklore in Europe. It is most famously recounted in the Qur'an (Surah 8, verse 7ff). The Sleepers (with a dog in the Qur'an story) slept for 300 years. Quite where this long sleep-in took place is disputed, but Ephesus makes a pretty good claim and visitors today can see the alleged cave. But there are rival claims from North Africa and China.
The story of the Seven Sleepers (usually without canine accompaniment) pops up in English poetry, German votive paintings and Russian icons. One reference we rather like is a piece by the Elizabethan poet John Donne. The opening stanza of The Good-Morrow runs thus:
I wonder by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not wean'd till then?
But suck'd on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers' den?
No, it's not about nasal insufflation and there's not a hint of cocaine in the poem. But lo, those same Seven Sleepers, the seven young men who wiled away the centuries snoozing in a cave. It's a tale which has become part of the folk mythology of Catholic Europe. And in Germany, where there is such a strong weather angle to the Seven Sleepers, the final blessing at Sunday Mass today would, in many communities, have included a petition for some better weather. After all that rain yesterday, it might take some divine intervention to bring a good July.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)