Curious Myths of the Middle Ages/The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus

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One of the most picturesque myths of ancient days is that told by Jacques de Voragine, in his “Legenda Aurea”:—

“The seven sleepers were natives of Ephesus. The Emperor Decius, who persecuted the Christians, having come to Ephesus, ordered the erection of temples in the city, that all might come and sacrifice before him; and he commanded that the Christians should be sought out and given their choice, either to worship the idols, or to die. So great was the consternation in the city, that the friend denounced his friend, the father his son, and the son his father.

“Now there were in Ephesus seven Christians, Maximian, Malchus, Marcian, Dionysius, John, Serapion, and Constantine by name. These refused to sacrifice to the idols, and remained in their houses praying and fasting. They were accused before Decius, and they confessed themselves to be Christians. However, the Emperor gave them a little time to consider what line they would adopt. They took advantage of this reprieve to dispense their goods among the poor, and they retired, all seven, to Mount Celion, where they determined to conceal themselves.

“One of their number, Malchus, in the disguise of a physician, went to the town to obtain victuals. Decius, who had been absent from Ephesus for a little while, returned, and gave orders for the seven to be sought. Malchus, having escaped from the town, fled, full of fear, to his comrades, and told them of the Emperor’s fury. They were much alarmed; and Malchus handed them the loaves he had bought, bidding them eat, that, fortified by the food, they might have courage in the time of trial. They ate, and then, as they sat weeping and speaking to one another, by the will of God they fell asleep.

“The pagans sought every where, but could not find them, and Decius was greatly irritated at their escape. He had their parents brought before him, and threatened them with death if they did not reveal the place of concealment; but they could only answer that the seven young men had distributed their goods to the poor, and that they were quite ignorant as to their whereabouts.

“Decius, thinking it possible that they might be hiding in a cavern, blocked up the mouth with stones, that they might perish of hunger.”

“Three hundred and sixty years passed, and in the thirtieth year of the reign of Theodosius, there broke forth a heresy denying the resurrection of the dead. . . . .

“Now, it happened that an Ephesian was building a stable on the side of Mount Celion, and finding a pile of stones handy, he took them for his edifice, and thus opened the mouth of the cave. Then the seven sleepers awoke, and it was to them as if they had slept but a single night. They began to ask Malchus what decision Decius had given concerning them.

“‘He is going to hunt us down, so as to force us to sacrifice to the idols,’ was his reply. ‘God knows,’ replied Maximian, ‘we shall never do that.’ Then exhorting his companions, he urged Malchus to go back to the town to buy some more bread, and at the same time to obtain fresh information. Malchus took five coins and left the cavern. On seeing the stones he was filled with astonishment; however, he went on toward the city; but what was his bewilderment, on approaching the gate, to see over it a cross! He went to another gate, and there he beheld the same sacred sign; and so he observed it over each gate of the city. He believed that he was suffering from the effects of a dream. Then he entered Ephesus, rubbing his eyes, and he walked to a baker’s shop. He heard people using our Lord’s name, and he was the more perplexed. ‘Yesterday, no one dared pronounce the name of Jesus, and now it is on every one’s lips. Wonderful! I can hardly believe myself to be in Ephesus.’ He asked a passer-by the name of the city, and on being told that it was Ephesus, he was thunderstruck. Now he entered a baker’s shop, and laid down his money. The baker, examining the coin, inquired whether he had found a treasure, and began to whisper to some others in the shop. The youth, thinking that he was discovered, and that they were about to conduct him to the emperor, implored them to let him alone, offering to leave loaves and money if he might only be suffered to escape. But the shop-men, seizing him, said, ‘Whoever you are, you have found a treasure; show us where it is, that we may share it with you, and then we will hide you.’ Malchus was too frightened to answer. So they put a rope round his neck, and drew him through the streets into the marketplace. The news soon spread that the young man had discovered a great treasure, and there was presently a vast crowd about him. He stoutly protested his innocence. No one recognized him, and his eyes ranging over the faces which surrounded him, could not see one which he had known, or which was in the slightest degree familiar to him.

“St. Martin, the bishop, and Antipater, the governor, having heard of the excitement, ordered the young man to be brought before them, along with the bakers.

“The bishop and the governor asked him where he had found the treasure, and he replied that he had found none, but that the few coins were from his own purse. He was next asked whence he came. He replied that he was a native of Ephesus, ‘if this be Ephesus.’

“‘Send for your relations—your parents, if they live here,’ ordered the governor.

“‘They live here certainly,’ replied the youth; and he mentioned their names. No such names were known in the town. Then the governor exclaimed: ‘How dare you say that this money belonged to your parents when it dates back three hundred and seventy-seven years[1], and is as old as the beginning of the reign of Decius, and it is utterly unlike our modern coinage? Do you think to impose on the old men and sages of Ephesus? Believe me, I shall make you suffer the severities of the law till you show where you made the discovery.’

“‘I implore you,’ cried Malchus, ‘in the name of God, answer me a few questions, and then I will answer yours. Where is the Emperor Decius gone to?’

“The bishop answered, ‘My son, there is no emperor of that name; he who was thus called died long ago.’

“Malchus replied, ‘All I hear perplexes me more and more. Follow me, and I will show you my comrades, fled with me into a cave of Mount Celion, only yesterday, to escape the cruelty of Decius. I will lead you to them.’

“The bishop turned to the governor. ‘The hand of God is here,’ he said. Then they followed, and a great crowd after them. And Malchus entered first into the cavern to his companions, and the bishop after him. … And there they saw the martyrs seated in the cave, with their faces fresh and blooming as roses; so all fell down and glorified God. The bishop and the governor sent notice to Theodosius, and he hurried to Ephesus. All the inhabitants met him and conducted him to the cavern. As soon as the saints beheld the Emperor, their faces shone like the sun, and the Emperor gave thanks unto God, and embraced them, and said, ‘I see you, as though I saw the Saviour restoring Lazarus.’ Maximian replied, ‘Believe us! for the faith’s sake, God has resuscitated us before the great resurrection day, in order that you may believe firmly in the resurrection of the dead. For as the child is in its mother’s womb living and not suffering, so have we lived without suffering, fast asleep.’ And having thus spoken, they bowed their heads, and their souls returned to their Maker. The Emperor, rising, bent over them and embraced them weeping. He gave them orders for golden reliquaries to be made, but that night they appeared to him in a dream, and said that hitherto they had slept in the earth, and that in the earth they desired to sleep on till God should raise them again.”

Such is the beautiful story. It seems to have travelled to us from the East. Jacobus Sarugiensis, a Mesopotamian bishop, in the fifth or sixth century, is said to have been the first to commit it to writing. Gregory of Tours (De Glor. Mart. i. 9) was perhaps the first to introduce it to Europe. Dionysius of Antioch (ninth century) told the story in Syrian, and Photius of Constantinople reproduced it, with the remark that Mahomet had adopted it into the Koran. Metaphrastus alludes to it as well; in the tenth century Eutychius inserted it in his annals of Arabia; it is found in the Coptic and the Maronite books, and several early historians, as Paulus Diaconus, Nicephorus, &c., have inserted it in their works.

William of Malmesbury tells us a strange story concerning these sleepers. He says, that King Edward the Confessor sat, during the Easter festival, wearing his royal crown at dinner, in his palace of Westminster, surrounded by his bishops and nobles. During the banquet the king, instead of indulging in meat and drink, mused upon divine things, and sat long immersed in thought. Suddenly, to the astonishment of all present, he burst out laughing. After dinner, when he retired to his bedchamber to divest himself of his robes, three of his nobles, Earl Harold, who was afterwards king, and an abbot and a bishop, followed him, and asked the reason of his rare mirth. “I saw,” said the pious monarch, “things most wonderful to behold, and therefore did I not laugh without a reason.” They entreated him to explain; and after musing for a while, he informed them that the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, who had been slumbering two hundred years in a cavern of Mount Celion, lying always on their right sides, had of a sudden, turned themselves over on their left sides; that by heavenly favour he had seen them thus turn themselves, and at the sight he had been constrained to laugh. And as Harold and the abbot and bishop marvelled at his words, the king related to them the story of the Seven Sleepers, with the shape and proportion of their several bodies, which wonderful things no man had as yet committed to writing; nay, he spake of the Ephesian sleepers, as though he had always dwelt with them. Earl Harold, on hearing this, got ready a knight, a clerk and a monk, who were forthwith sent to the emperor at Constantinople, with letters and presents from King Edward. By the emperor these messengers were forwarded to Ephesus with letters to the Bishop, commanding him to admit the three Englishmen into the cavern of the sleepers. And, lo! it fell out even as the king had seen in vision. For the Ephesians declared that they knew from their forefathers that the Seven had ever lain on their right sides; but on the entry of the Englishmen into the cave, they were all found lying on their left sides. And this was a warning of the miseries which were to befall Christendom through the inroads of the Saracens, Turks and Tartars. For whenever sorrow threatens, the Sleepers turn on their sides.

A poem on the Seven Sleepers was composed by a trouvère named Chardri, and is mentioned by M. Fr. Michel in his “Rapports au Ministre de l’Instruction Public;” a German poem on the same subject, of the thirteenth century, in 935 verses, has been published by M. Karajan; and the Spanish poet, Augustin Morreto, composed a drama on it, entitled “Los Siete Durmientes,” which is inserted in the i9th volume of the rare work, “Comedias Nuevas Escogidas de los Mejores Ingenios.”

Mahomet has somewhat improved on the story. He has made the Sleepers prophesy his coming, and he has given them a dog named Kratim, or Kratimir, which sleeps with them, and which is endowed with the gift of prophecy.

As a special favour this dog is to be one of the ten animals to be admitted into his paradise, the others being Jonah’s whale, Solomon’s ant, Ishmael’s ram, Abraham’s calf, the Queen of Sheba’s ass, the prophet Salech’s camel, Moses’ ox, Belkis’ cuckoo, and Mahomet’s ass.

It was perhaps too much for the Seven Sleepers to ask, that their bodies should be left to rest in earth. In ages when saintly relics were valued above gold and precious stones, their request was sure to be shelved; and so we find that their remains were conveyed to Marseilles in a large stone sarcophagus, which is still exhibited in St. Victor’s Church. In the Musæum Victorium at Rome is a curious and ancient representation of them in a cement of sulphur and plaster. Their names are engraved beside them, together with certain attributes. Near Constantine and John are two clubs, near Maximian a knotty club, near Malchus and Martinian two axes, near Serapion a burning torch, and near Danesius or Dionysius a great nail, such as those spoken of by Horace (Lib. 1, Od. 3) and St. Paulinus (Nat. 9, or Carm. 24) as having been used for torture.

In this group of figures, the seven are represented as young, without beards, and indeed in ancient martyrologies they are frequently called boys.

It has been inferred from this curious plaster representation, that the seven may have suffered under Decius, A.D. 250, and have been buried in the afore-mentioned cave; whilst the discovery and translation of their relics under Theodosius, in 479, may have given rise to the fable. And this I think probable enough. The story of long sleepers and the number seven connected with it is ancient enough, and dates from heathen mythology.

Like many another ancient myth, it was laid hold of by Christian hands and baptized.

Pliny relates the story of Epimenides the epic poet, who, when tending his sheep one hot day, wearied and oppressed with slumber, retreated into a cave, where he fell asleep. After fifty-seven years he awoke, and found every thing changed. His brother, whom he had left a stripling, was now a hoary man.

Epimenides was reckoned one of the seven sages by those who exclude Periander. He flourished in the time of Solon. After his death, at the age of two hundred and eighty-nine, he was revered as a god, and honored especially by the Athenians.

This story is a version of the older legend of the perpetual sleep of the shepherd Endymion, who was thus preserved in unfading youth and beauty by Jupiter.

According to an Arabic legend, St. George thrice rose from his grave, and was thrice slain. In Scandinavian mythology we have Siegfrid or Sigurd thus resting, and awaiting his call to come forth and fight. Charlemagne sleeps in the Odenberg in Hess, or in the Untersberg near Salzburg, seated on his throne, with his crown on his head and his sword at his side, waiting till the times of Antichrist are fulfilled, when he will wake and burst forth to avenge the blood of the saints. Ogier the Dane, or Olger Dansk, will in like manner shake off his slumber and come forth from the dream-land of Avallon to avenge the right—oh that he had shown himself in the Schleswig-Holstein war!

Well do I remember, as a child, contemplating with wondering awe the great Kyffhäuserberg in Thuringia, for therein, I was told, slept Frederic Barbarossa and his six knights. A shepherd once penetrated into the heart of the mountain by a cave, and discovered therein a hall where sat the emperor at a stone table, and his red beard had grown through the slab. At the tread of the shepherd Frederic awoke from his slumber, and asked, “Do the ravens still fly over the mountains?”

“Sire! they do.”

“Then we must sleep another hundred years.”

But when his beard has wound itself thrice round the table, then will the emperor awake with his knights, and rush forth to release Germany from its bondage, and exalt it to the first place among the kingdoms of Europe.

In Switzerland slumber three Tells at Rütli, near the Vierwaldstätter-see, waiting for the hour of their country’s direst need. A shepherd crept into the cave where they rest. The third Tell rose and asked the time. “Noon,” replied the shepherd lad. “The time is not yet come,” said Tell, and lay down again.

In Scotland, beneath the Eildon hills, sleeps Thomas of Erceldoune; the murdered French who fell in the Sicilian Vespers at Palermo are also slumbering till the time is come when they may wake to avenge themselves. When Constantinople fell into the hands of the Turks, a priest was celebrating the sacred mysteries at the great silver altar of St. Sophia. The celebrant cried to God to protect the sacred host from profanation. Then the wall opened, and he entered, bearing the Blessed Sacrament. It closed on him, and there he is sleeping with his head bowed before the Body of Our Lord, waiting till the Turk is cast out of Constantinople, and St. Sophia is released from its profanation. God speed the time!

In Bohemia sleep three miners deep in the heart of the Kuttenberg. In North America Ripp Van Winkle passed twenty years slumbering in the Katskill mountains. In Spain, Boabdil el Chico, the last Arab king of Granada, is said to lie spellbound in the mountains close to the Alhambra. In Arabia, the prophet Elijah waits till he is called forth in the days of Antichrist. In Ireland, Brian Boroimhe slumbers, waiting till a Fenian insurrection promising action and not talk summons him to his country’s aid. In Wales, the legend of Arthur still dreaming through a long sleep in Avillon, has not died out. In Servia, Knez Lazar, who fell in battle against the Turks in the fight of Kossowa, in 1389, is expected to re-appear one day. A similar hope of the return of James IV. lasted for more than a hundred years after Flodden was fought. In Portugal it is believed that Sebastian, the chivalrous young monarch who did his best to ruin his country by his rash invasion of Morocco, is sleeping somewhere, but he will wake again to be his country’s deliverer in the hour of need. Olaf Tryggvason is waiting a similar occasion in Norway. Even Napoleon Bonaparte is believed among some of the French peasantry to be sleeping on in a like manner.

S. Hippolytus relates that St. John the Divine is slumbering at Ephesus, and Sir John Mandeville relates the circumstances as follows: “From Pathmos men gone unto Ephesim a fair citee and nyghe to the see. And there dyede Seynte Johne, and was buryed behynde the highe Awtiere, in a toumbe. And there is a faire chirche. For Christene mene weren wont to holden that place alweyes. And in the tombe of Seynt John is noughte but manna, that is clept Aungeles mete. For his body was translated into Paradys. And Turkes holden now alle that place and the citee and the Chirche. And all Asie the lesse is yclept Turkye. And ye shalle undrestond, that Seynt Johne bid make his grave there in his Lyf, and leyd himself there-inne all quyk. And therefore somme men seyn, that he dyed noughte, but that he resteth there till the Day of Doom. And for-soothe there is a gret marveule: For men may see there the erthe of the tombe apertly many tymes steren and moven, as there weren quykke thinges undre.” The connection of this legend of St. John with Ephesus may have had something to do with turning the seven martyrs of that city into seven sleepers.

The annals of Iceland relate that in 1403, a Finn of the name of Fethmingr, living in Halogaland, in the North of Norway, happening to enter a cave, fell asleep, and woke not for three whole years, lying with his bow and arrows at his side, untouched by bird or beast.

There certainly are authentic accounts of persons having slept for an extraordinary length of time, but I shall not mention any, as I believe the legend we are considering, not to have been an exaggeration of facts, but a Christianized myth of paganism. The fact of the number seven being so prominent in many of the tales, seems to lead to this conclusion. Barbarossa changes his position every seven years. Charlemagne starts in his chair at similar intervals. Olger Dansk stamps his iron mace on the floor once every seven years. Olaf Redbeard in Sweden uncloses his eyes at precisely the same distances of time.

I believe that the mythological core of this picturesque legend is the repose of the earth through the seven winter months. In the North, Frederic and Charlemagne certainly replace Odin.

The German and Scandinavian still heathen legends represent the heroes as about to issue forth for the defence of Fatherland in the hour of direst need. The converted and Christianized tale brings the martyr youths forth in the hour when a heresy is afflicting the Church, that they may destroy the heresy by their witness to the truth of the Resurrection.

If there is something majestic in the heathen myth, there are singular grace and beauty in the Christian tale, teaching, as it does, such a glorious doctrine; but it is surpassed in delicacy, by the modern form which the same myth has assumed—a form which is a real transformation, leaving the doctrine taught the same. It has been made into a romance by Hoffman, and is versified by Trinius. I may perhaps be allowed to translate with some freedom the poem of the latter:—

In an ancient shaft of Falun
  Year by year a body lay,
God-preserved, as though a treasure,
  Kept unto the waking day.

Not the turmoil, nor the passions,
  Of the busy world o’erhead,
Sounds of war, or peace rejoicings,
  Could disturb the placid dead.

Once a youthful miner, whistling,
  Hew’d the chamber, now his tomb,
Crash! the rocky fragments tumbled,
  Closed him in abysmal gloom.

Sixty years pass’d by, ere miners
  Toiling, hundred fathoms deep,
Broke upon the shaft where rested
  That poor miner in his sleep.

As the gold-grains lie untarnish’d
  In the dingy soil and sand,
Till they gleam and flicker, stainless,
  In the digger’s sifting hand;

As the gem in virgin brilliance
  Rests, till ushered into day;—
So uninjured, uncorrupted,
  Fresh and fair the body lay.

And the miners bore it upward,
  Laid it in the yellow sun;
Up, from out the neighb’ring houses,
  Fast the curious peasants run.

“Who is he?” with eyes they question:
  “Who is he?” they ask aloud:
Hush! a wizen’d hag comes hobbling,
  Panting, through the wond’ring crowd.

Oh! the cry—half joy, half sorrow—
  As she flings her at his side,
“John! the sweetheart of my girlhood,
  Here am I, am I, thy bride.

“Time on thee has left no traces,
  Death from wear has shielded thee;
I am aged, worn, and wasted,
  Oh! what life has done to me!”

Then, his smooth unfurrow’d forehead
  Kiss’d that ancient wither’d crone;
And the Death which had divided
  Now united them in one.

  1. This calculation is sadly inaccurate