The Healing Charms of the Seven Sleepers

As a footnote to the story of The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, we have their appearance in multiple leechbooks and other ephemera as a kind of folk-remedy for bad dreams or “against a dwarf.” (Dwarfs were suspected of causing nightmares. Look, I don’t make these things up; I just report them.)

One of the books is Lacnunga, an Anglo-Saxon collection of recipes and leechcraft from the late 10th century. It includes the following:

”Against a dwarf one must take seven little wafers such as are used when making an offering, and write these names on each wafer: Maximianus, Malchus, Iohannes, Martinianus, Dionyius, Constantinus, Serapion. And hereafter one must sing the charm which follows, first into the left ear, then into the right ear, then on top of the man’s head. Then let one who is a virgin go to him and hang it on his neck. Do so for three days: it will soon be well with him.”

The names of the sleepers appear in charms throughout the middle ages in a variety of places, but always with the clear influence of the version by Gregory of Tours. For example, on the flyleaf of one manuscript (MS Royal 2. A. XX.) is found this cure for insomnia:

”In the city of Ephesus on Mount Celion lie the seven holy sleepers, whose names are Maximianus, Malchus, Iohannes, Martinianus, Dionyius, Constantinus, Serapion. Because of their merits, and through the holy intercession, deign, O Lord, to free thy servant N. from all evil. Amen. Cause this thy servant N. to sleep, that he may recover from the sleep he has lost.”

A Welsh charm against insomnia, found in the Physicians of Myddvai (1861 edition), says

”Take a goat’s horn, and carve the names of the 7 sleepers thereon, making a knife haft of it. The writing should begin at the blade. … When the names are inscribed, lay the knife under the sick mans head unknown to him and he will sleep.”

Needless to say, don’t do any of these things. And please don’t blame dwarfs for your problems.

Source: Bonser, W. “The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus in Anglo-Saxon and Later Recipes.” Folklore 56, no. 2 (1945): 254–256.

Image: First page of Lacnunga