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Seven Sleepers

In Christian mythology, the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus is a folktale concerning a number of fictional people who for a time were venerated as saints.

The basic outline of the tale appears in Gregory of Tours, and in Paul the Deacon's History of the Lombards,The best known version of the story appears in Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend.

Table of contents
1 The legend
2 The career of the legend
3 External reference

The legend

The outline of the story is that during the persecutions of the Roman emperor Decius, in around 250, seven young men were accused of Christianity. They were given some time to recant their faith; they gave their worldly goods to the poor, and retired to a mountain to pray, where they fell asleep. The emperor, seeing that their attitude towards paganism had not improved, ordered the mouth of the cave to be sealed.

Centuries pass. At some later time --- usually, during the reign of Theodosius (379 - 395), the landowner decides to open up the sealed mouth of the cave, to use it as a cattle pen. He opens it and finds the sleepers inside. They awaken, imagining that they have slept but one day. One of their number returns to Ephesus. He is astounded to find buildings with crosses attached; people he deals with are astounded to find a man trying to spend old coins from the reign of Decius. The bishop is summoned, to interview the sleepers; they tell him their miracle story, and die praising God.

 

A feast day was formerly observed for the Seven Sleepers as the feast of Saints "Maximianus, Malchus, Martinianus, Dionysius, Joannes, Serapion, and Constantinus" on July 27. Other names of the Sleepers are given in other sources. The feast was not suppressed as mythical until the reform of the Roman Catholic liturgy in 1969. The Eastern Orthodox Feast, October 22, remains in the calendar.

The career of the legend

As the earliest versions of the legend spread from Ephesus, an early Christian catacomb came to be associated with it, attracting pilgrims. On the slopes of Mount Pion (Mount Coelian) near Ephesus in Turkey, the 'Grotto' of the Seven Sleepers with ruins of the church built over it was excavated in 1927-28. The excavation brought to light several hundred graves which were dated to the 5th and 6th centuries. Inscriptions dedicated to the Seven Sleepers were found on the walls of the church and in the graves. The 'Grotto' is still shown to tourists.

Syriac origins

The legend appeared in several Syriac sources before Gregory's lifetime. It was retold by Symeon Metaphrastes.

The Seven Sleepers form the subject of a homily in verse by the Edessan poet Jacob of Saruq ('Sarugh') (died 521), which was published in the Acta Sanctorum. Another 6th century version, in a Syrian manuscript in the British Museum (Cat. Syr. Mss, p. 1090), gives eight sleepers. There are considerable variations as to their names.

Another Syriac version is printed in Landís Anecdota, iii. 87ff; see also Barhebraeus, Chron. eccles. i. 142ff., and cf Assemani, Bib. Or. i. 335ff.

Dissemination

The legend rapidly attained a wide diffusion throughout Christendom, popularized in the West by Gregory of Tours, in his late 6th century collection of miracles, De gloria martyrum (Glory of the Martyrs). Gregory says that he had the legend from ďa certain Syrian,ď

In the 7th century, the myth gained an even wider audience by being incorporated into the Koran (Surah 18.9-.14 ), where an inscription in the cave is mentioned:

'Do you think that the Fellows of the Cave and the Inscription were of Our wonderful signs?
When the youths sought refuge in the cave, they said: Our Lord! grant us mercy from Thee, and provide for us a right course in our affair.'

During the period of the Crusades, bones from the sepulchres near Ephesus, identied as relics of the Seven Sleepers, were transported to Marseilles, France in a large stone coffin, which remained a trophy of the church of 'Saint Victoire,' Marseilles.

The Seven Sleepers were included in the Golden Legend compilation, the most popular book of the later Middle Ages, which fixed a precise date for their resurrection, 478 CE, in the reign of Theodosius.(1)

Early modern literature

The myth had become proverbial in 16th century Protestant culture. The poet John Donne could ask, with a skeptical undertone,

'were we not wean'd till then?
But suck'd on countrey pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the seaven sleepers den?' -John Donne, 'The good-morrow'

Little is heard of the Seven Sleepers during the rational Enlightenment, but the myth revived with the coming of Romanticism. The Golden Legend may have been the source for retellings of the Seven Sleepers in Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-eater, in a poem by Goethe, and, most familiar to Americans, Washington Irving's Rip van Winkle. See also the myth motif of the 'king in the mountain'.

External reference