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
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
"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
"'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, 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
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
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 KyffhAÂ¤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
In Switzerland slumber three Tells at Rutli, near the
VierwaldstAÂ¤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
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.
 This calculation is sadly inaccurate.