Seven Sleepers of Ephesus
Legend about a man who falls asleep and years after wakes up to find the world changed
Ephesus, THE SEVEN SLEEPERS OF.—The story is one of the many examples of the legend about a man who falls asleep and years after wakes up to find the world changed. It is told in Greek by Symeon Metaphrastes (q.v.) in his “Lives of the Saints” for the month of July. Gregory of Tours did it into Latin. There is a Syriac version by James of Sarug (d. 521), and from the Syriac the story was done into other Eastern languages. There is also an Anglo-Norman poem, “Li set dormanz”, written by a certain Chardry, and it occurs again in Jacobus de Voragine’s “Golden Legend” (Legenda aurea) and in an Old-Norse fragment. Of all these versions and reeditions it seems that the Greek form of the story, which is the basis of Symeon Metaphrastes, is the source. The story is this: Decius (249-251) once came to Ephesus to enforce his laws against Christians—a gruesome description of the horrors he made them suffer follows—here he found seven noble young men, named Maximilian, Jamblichos, Martin, John, Dionysios, Exakostodianos, and Antoninos (so Metaphrastes; the names vary considerably; Gregory of Tours has Achillides, Diomedes, Diogenus, Probatus, Stephanus, Sambatus, and Quiriacus), who were Christians. The emperor tried them and then gave them a short time for consideration, till he came back again to Ephesus. They gave their property to the poor, took a few coins only with them and went into a cave on Mount Anchilos to pray and prepare for death. Decius came back after a journey and inquired after these seven men. They heard of his return and then, as they said their last prayer in the cave before giving themselves up, fell asleep. The emperor told his soldiers to find them, and when found asleep in the cave he ordered it to be closed up with huge stones and sealed; thus they were buried alive. But a Christian came and wrote on the outside the names of the martyrs and their story. Years passed, the empire became Christian, and Theodosius [either the Great (379-395) or the Younger (408-450), Koch, op. cit. infra, p. 12] reigned. In his time some heretics denied the resurrection of the body. While this controversy went on, a rich landowner named Adolios had the Sleepers’ cave opened, to use it as a cattle-stall. Then they awake, thinking they have slept only one night, and send one of their number (Diomedes) to the city to buy food, that they may eat before they give themselves up. Diomedes comes into Ephesus and the usual story of cross-purposes follows. He is amazed to see crosses over churches, and the people cannot understand whence he got his money coined by Decius. Of course at last it comes out that the last thing he knew was Decius‘s reign; eventually the bishop and the prefect go up to the cave with him, where they find the six others and the inscription. Theodosius is sent for, and the saints tell him their story. Every one rejoices at this proof of the resurrection of the body. The sleepers, having improved the occasion by a long discourse, then die praising God. The emperor wants to build golden tombs for them, but they appear to him in a dream and ask to be buried in the earth in their cave. The cave is adorned with precious stones, a great church built over it, and every year the feast of the Seven Sleepers is kept.
Koch (op. cit.) has examined the growth of this story and the spread of the legend of miraculously long sleep. Aristotle (Phys., IV, xi) refers to a similar tale about sleepers at Sardes; there are many more examples from various countries (Koch, pp. 24-40, quotes German, British, Slav, Indian, Jewish, Chinese, and Arabian versions). Frederick Barbarossa and Rip van Winkle are well-known later examples. The Ephesus story is told in the Koran (Sura xviii), and it has had a long history and further developments in Islam (Koch, 123-152), as well as in medieval Christendom (ib., 153-183). Baronius was the first to doubt it (Ann. Eccl. in the Acta SS., July, 386, 48); it was then discredited till modern study of folklore gave it an honored place again as the classical example of a widely spread myth. The Seven Sleepers have feasts in the Byzantine Calendar on August 4 and October 22; in the Roman Martyrology they are commemorated as Sts. Maximianus, Malchus, Martinianus, Dionysius, Joannes, Serapion, and Constantinus on July 27.