Saturday, August 4, 2012

Saintly Saturday: The Seven Youths of Ephesus

Today is the feast of the Seven Youths of Ephesus. Maximilian, Iamblicus, Martinian, John, Dionysius, Exacustondianus and Antonius all lived during the third century. All of them were from illustrious families in the city of Ephesus (on the western coast of modern day Turkey), served in the military, were friends and were faithful Christians.

Upon the arrival of the emperor Decius, every citizen was required to sacrifice to the pagan gods. This, of course, led to the Seven answering to the emperor himself for their refusal to make the required sacrifices. After confessing their faith in Christ, however, Decius was moved to spare them — at least while he was away on a military campaign. The youths were stripped of their military ranks and set free.

They fled to a cave outside the city, where they prepared for their eventual martyrdom. When the Emperor found out, he had the cave sealed shut. Faithful Christians placed a plaque on the stone to commemorate the event.

Almost two centuries later, there was a heresy in the city of Ephesus that called into question the general resurrection at the second coming of Christ. The owner of the land on which the cave was situated found the plaque and had the cave uncovered. Rather than dying of dehydration and starvation, the Seven Youths had been preserved in sleep — nothing about or on them had either aged or decayed. Their presence, story and witness demonstrated that the heretics’ imaginations were nothing compared to the power of God.

There is not anything especially new about finding one or more persons from another age either in the wilderness or in a dungeon. Indeed, there are enough denizens within various old school D&D modules that it could almost be called a trope. What I find intriguing about the Seven Youths is the source and purpose of their torpor.

In D&D, when one encounters a person from another age, the source of their great age is usually some variation on the arcane. Liches are magic users that have figured out a way to become undead. Vampires are a variation on the same theme (though they may be victims rather than willing participants). Sleepers might be found in an arcanely produced cryogenic pod. If one expands the arcane to include science and science fiction cyborgs, and robots with human memories can be included in this group of beings that try to cheat death.

Often, these creatures hold a key to understanding the history of the dungeon/place where they are found. They have information which fills in the backstory of why the immediate surroundings are the way they are. They are a fantasy version of an interactive encyclopedia that might want to suck out your brains after getting the information you need.

The Seven Youths, however, are preserved not by the arcane experiments of someone afraid of death, but rather by God Himself. Indeed, the youths were in process of preparing for death. What I find most intriguing, however, is the information they possess. They were not meant to inform those of the present about the past, but rather about issues of the present day (and by implication the future).

This, of course, is a much greater challenge to a Referee/GM/DM than your average lich, which is why I find it so alluring. Saints, of course are always a plausible vehicle for such a find; however, the time traveller who miscalculates her arrival time in order to save the present or future also comes to mind...

1 comment:

Anthony said...

There's an Islamic version of this tale, called "The People of the Cave." The most interesting variation for me in the Qur'anic version is that the sleeper have a guardian, a loyal dog who keeps watch for 300 years. Putting that in a game context, the dog could be symbolic of an obstacle that has to be overcome before explorers can gain access to the "interactive encyclopedia."