The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus
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 Voragines's
Golden Legend (Legenda
aurea) and in an Old-Norse fragment. Of all these versions and re-editions 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
Maximillian, 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 folk-lore gave it an honoured place again as the classical example of a widely spread myth. The Seven Sleepers have feasts in the Byzantine Calendar on 4 August and 22 October; in the Roman Martyrology they are commemorated as Sts. Maximianus, Malchus, Martinianus, Dionysius, Joannes, Serapion, and Constantinus on 27 July.
Metaphrastes' version is in P.G., CXV, 427-448; Gregory of Tours, Passio VII Dormientium in the Anal. Bolland., XII, 371-387; Chardry, Li Set Dormanz, ed. Koch (Leipzig, 1879); Legenda Aurea and Caxton's version for July; Koch, Die Siebenschläferlegende, ihr Ursprung u. ihre Verbreitung (Leipzig, 1883); an exhaustive monograph with a full bibliography.
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