The Seven Sleepers Of Ephesus

: Curious Myths Of The Middle Ages

One of the most picturesque myths of ancient days is that which forms

the subject of this article. It is thus 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
br />
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

then 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 everywhere, 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 towards 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 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 market-place. 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,[25] 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


"'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, who 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 Savior 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.

A poem on the Seven Sleepers was composed by a trouvA"re named

Chardri, and is mentioned by M. Fr. Michel in his "Rapports 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 19th 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 favor 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 MusAum 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


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--O that he had

shown himself in the Schleswig-Holstein war!

Well do I remember, as a child, contemplating with wondering awe the

great KyffhA¤userberg 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


"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 Rutli, near the

VierwaldstA¤tter-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 Eilden 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 Rip Van Winkle passed twenty years slumbering in the

Katskill mountains. 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.

St. 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 forsoothe 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


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,

Hewed the chamber, now his tomb:

Crash! the rocky fragments tumbled,

Closed him in abysmal gloom.

Sixty years passed by, ere miners

Toiling, hundred fathoms deep,

Broke upon the shaft where rested

That poor miner in his sleep.

As the gold-grains lie untarnished

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 neighboring houses,

Fast the curious peasants run.

"Who is he?" with eyes they question;

"Who is he?" they ask aloud;

Hush! a wizened hag comes hobbling,

Panting, through the wondering crowd.

O! 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 agA(C)d, worn, and wasted,

O! what life has done to me!"

Then his smooth, unfurrowed forehead

Kissed that ancient withered crone;

And the Death which had divided

Now united them in one.


[25] This calculation is sadly inaccurate.