By Robert Chambers with footnotes, links, and additions by Amos-Cola Staff
Editors’ Note: This is an excerpt from Chambers’ work The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character, Volume 2. (1864 and 1869). This book and its excerpt are in the public domain. We have added annotations, links, additional information, and images and performed some editing for modernization and style. You can read the original article here.
The festival of the Seven Sleepers, commemorated on the 27th of July , was introduced into the Christian church at a very early period. The legend on which it is founded, relates that the Emperor Decius [d. CE251], having set up a statue [in some versions, idol or temple] in the city of Ephesus , commanded all the inhabitants to worship it. Seven young men , disobeying this mandate, and being unambitious of the honour of martyrdom, fled to Mount Caelius , where they concealed themselves in a cavern (anno 250)[CE]. Decius, enraged, caused all the various caverns on the mount to be closed up, and nothing was heard of the fugitives till the year 479 , when a person [an Ephesian and/or a landowner], digging foundations for a stable, broke into the cavern, and discovered them.
Disturbed by the unwonted noise, the young men, who had been asleep all the time, awakened; feeling very hungry, and thinking they had slept but one night, they despatched one of their number into Ephesus to learn the news, and purchase some provisions. The antiquity of the coin proffered by the messenger at a baker’s shop attracted suspicion, and the notice of the authorities . After an investigation, the whole affair was declared to be a miracle, and in its commemoration the festival was instituted .
This legend, which is merely an adaptation of a more ancient one, has found a place in the Qu’ran. According to the Mohammedan account, the sleepers were accompanied by a dog named Kratim [or Kratimir]. This animal, after its long sleep, becoming a great prophet and philosopher, has been admitted into the Mussulman’s  paradise, where it sits beside the ass of Balaam. The other eight animals that enjoy this high privilege, are the ant of Solomon, the whale of Jonah, the ram of Isaac, the calf of Abraham, the camel of Saleh, the cuckoo of Belkis, the ox of Moses, and the mare of Mohammed .
Alban Butler gives a rational cast to the legend of the Seven Sleepers. He conceives that the young men were put to death by being walled up in a cave and that only their relics were discovered in 479. These relics he states to be preserved in a large stone coffin in the church of St. Victor at Marseilles. He further cites from Spon’s Travels, that the cave of the Seven Sleepers continued in modern times to be the object of devout pilgrimages .
- After Vatican II, in the Roman Catholic Church the date is now 27 June. “The Byzantine calendar commemorates them with feasts on 4 August and 22 October. The ninth-century Irish calendar Félire Óengusso commemorates the Seven Sleepers on 7 August.Syriac Orthodox calendars gives various dates: 21 April, 2 August, 13 August, 23 October and 24 October.” [Wikipedia]
- Then, in the Ionia area of Greece. Near modern day Selçuk, Turkey.
- The number varies in different versions of the legend: three to five to eight or nine. The Qu’ran states ”My Lord knows best their number. Only a few people know as well.” (18:22; Wikipedia)
- Chambers is placing the events at one of Rome’s seven hills. This seems like a spelling/translation mistake on his part. Some Middle Ages versions placed the cavern at Mount Pion, which was also translated and known as Mount Celion or Coelian.
- Legends for the number of years the sleepers were in their cavern vary. While Chambers suggests 229 years spent in slumber, 196, 197, 300, 309, 372, and 373 are all totals expressed in different sources ranging from Gregory of Tours to the Qu’ran. It’s worth noting, too, that the start date varies as well, even placing it outside of Decian’s reign (Jacobus de Voragine placed it at 352).
- Sabine Baring-Gould, in her version based on Voragine, relates the story as:
“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.”
Baring-Gould then has Bishop St. Martin joining Theodosius and all parties traveling to the cave, where all the sleepers dissolve into dust after being recognized by the Church and the Emperor. Golden reliquaries are called to be made for the martyrs and the Emperor weeps, invoking Lazarus.
7. The earliest known version of the story comes from the East in the fifth century CE; it is spread through the west in the sixth century via the writings of Gregory of Tours (d. 594). Feast days, depending on the church (Catholic or Orthodox) necessarily date afterwards. Most of the extant accounts of the legend date between the ninth and 13th centuries.
8. ”Musselman/musselmann” is now considered to be pejorative. It was once considered another word for ”Muslim,” directly from the Yiddish, but more commonly in Western Europe, a corruption of the Old Turkish word for Muslim, ”müsliman.”
9. It appears that animals to Jannah (paradise) are the species themselves, i.e. all donkeys and not only the ass of Balaam. By 1898, a mostly same list of ten animals were listed as ”Animals admitted into heaven (The)” in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Chambers varies in referring to the ”mare of Mohammed [antiquated spelling, sic] as opposed to Brewer’s second ass, Muhammad’s “ass called Al Borak.”
10. There are multiple sites that are considered the caves of the sleepers: The Grotto of the Seven Sleepers, a cave near Afsin and one near Tarsus (all three in Turkey). There is also a cave in Amman, Jordan that is considered to be the site.
Additional Notes and Resources:
The Seven Sleepers are also known as the People of the Cave, the Companions of the Cave, and the Sleepers of Ephesus.
Modern re-tellings and variations of The Seven Sleepers include Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Rip van Winkle, The Sleeper Awakes, and chapter 13 of Twain’s The Innocents Abroad. Ancient versions that are similar include Pliny’s tale of Epimenedes and the myth of Endymion. The myth/folkloric trope of the King of the Mountain (King Asleep in the Mountain) and of sleeping-to-be-woken king figures also are examples of this broader type: St. George, Siegfrid/Sigurd, Charlemagne, Fionn mac Cumhaill, King Arthur, Ogier the Dane, and William Tell. It could also be argued that sci-fi tales/movies that include cryogenics or hyperbaric chambers and people awakened on arrival or in transit would also fit this motif, as well as resurrection tales in general: Lazarus and The Christ included.
The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, Heritage History
The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages by Sabine Baring-Gould
Seven Sleepers, Wikipedia
Qu’ran, 18:9 -18:27