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  • Writer's pictureZoe Franznick

Episode 19: The Seven Sleepers, Pt. 1

Updated: Nov 25, 2021

In a unique twist on the traditional hagiography, we're delving into the story of the Seven Sleepers. This saint's tale features group of time-traveling, heresy-debunking lads from Late Antiquity. Versions of this tale are found in both Christian and Islamic tradition, and we'll be reading two different records ourselves!

Though the Seven Sleepers haigiography was reportedly first copied down in the fourth century by Jacobus de Serugh. Gregory of Tours also brought this story to Europe. However, the most well known version of this tale, and the one we are studying today is the version recorded in Jacopo de Voragine's Golden Legend, originally written in the thirteenth century. Our translation today comes from Sabine Baring-Gould's 1866 Curious Myths of the Middle Ages. (Apparently, H.P. Lovecraft cited Baring-Gould's work while commenting that all the prerequisites for modern horror can be found in medieval myths. His work can be read here!) The second version of this work is from Aelfric's Life of Saints, which will be featured in part two! Stay tuned for details on that text in the subsequent post.

According to the Golden Legend, this Syriac tale begins with seven young Christian men living in Ephesus during the crisis of the third century. This period in Roman history was chaotic, encompassing almost constant warfare, plague, and political upheaval. These seven young men lived during the reign of Emperor Decius, who forcibly took power in Rome and reigned from 249-251 until he was killed in battle. Decius and his advisors came to the conclusion that the constant upheaval was the result of the gods' anger, and ordered that everyone in the empire must provide a sacrifice to the gods. Interestingly, the emperor excluded the Jews, but not the Christians.

The Legend's account dramatizes the decree of Decius by dichotomizing the two options for Christians: either provide a sacrifice to the Roman gods, or die. Notably, the pope at this time was executed for refusing to partake in the sacrifice, and the resulting events did create schism in the early church. In the growing pandemonium, the seven young men (Maximiam, Malchim, Martian, Dionysius, John, Serapion, and Constantine) gave away their belongings and retreated into Mount Celipon to live as hermits. When Malchus took a trip into town to buy groceries, he heard tell of the emperor's decree and fury (especially against the Christians, of course), and reported the news to his fellows. They broke bread together and wept at the news before, "by the will of God," they fell asleep.

Decius apparantly heard news of these seven men who had failed to follow his decree before disaoppearing into the wilds, and called their parents to him. He threatened them on pain of death, but they did not know where their sons had gone. Ultimately, it seems Decius found out where the lads were hiding, because he blocked off the cave as they were asleep in order to starve them to death. The text is unclear how he knew it was this particular cave - perhaps he got lucky. or blocked off many caves on the mountain.

366 years later, in the reign of Theodosius, another Ephesian was building a stable and found some of the rocks along the mountain, pulling free the blocked passage. The seven sleepers awoke when the passage was opened, feeling as though they had slept only one night. Given their relative unawareness of the situation, they still all feared that Decius was searching for them. After discussing the matter, Malchus carefully went down the mountain to get more food and information.

Upon arriving at the city, however, the man was shocked to see crosses atop each of the city gates. (As Mac points out in the podcast, this is likely an anachronism, as crosses were not used as symbols of Christianity during Malchus' time; he would not have recognized it as a Christian symbol.) Going into the town, he was further amazed to hear the folk around him speaking Christ's name, and wondered if he was even in Ephesus at all, or if this was some sort of dream.

As he entered a bakery, Malchus asked about the city and was shocked to hear he was still in Ephesus. When he attempted to pay for the bread, the shopkeeper began whispering to his friends about the coin. Thinking he was being hunted by Decius, Malchus panicked and offered to leave the bread and coin with the shopkeep. However, the shopkeep and and his fellows grabbed him and demanded to know where he found the treasure.

St. Martin, the local Bishop, and Antipeter, the governor, heard of this news, and had Malchus brought before them. They questioned him, asking where he got these strange treasures. He answered that he'd pulled them from his own purse, and that he was a native of Ephesus himself. The bishop and governer then demanded his family be found, but, of course, no living relatives existed. The two authorities again demanded to know how he came by the coins, and Malchus finally asked where Decius was.

The bishop and governor explain that Decius died 300 years ago, and that the coins were just as old. Realizing what had occured, Martin exclaimed that the Hand of God was at work, and they summoned the emperor to see the event.

Together, they all returned to the cave where Malchus explained the situation to his fellows. The emperor embraced them all, saying, "I see you as I see the Savior restores Lazarus!" They praised God for this miracle, and Maximian offered an interpretation of the event, arguing, "God has resurected us so that you know that the body may be ressurected." This revelation conventiently solved a heresy present at that time regarding whether Christ returned in body or only in spirit. (The heresy in question might have been docetism, which argued Christ's body was an apparition, similar to how Zeus appears in some stories.) Having established their stance on this heresy, the groupsuddenly, if conveniently, bowed their heads and gave up their spirits into death.

Afterward, the emperor wanted to make reliquaries for them, but the group appeared to him in a dream, asking him to bury them simply in the earth. He did so, but given the high demand for relics throughout the Middle Ages, their bodies were soon excavated during the Crusades and brought to the Abby of St. Victor in Marseille, France.

This tale has been propagated throughout a variety of traditions, and there are a few caves thought to be where the Seven Sleepers once lay. In Jacob of Serugh's version of this story, he includes a dog with the gift of prophecy. According to some, this dog is one of the few animals admitted into Mohammad's paradise, including Jonah's whale, Solomon's ant, Ishmael's ram, Abraham's calf, Salih's camel, Moses' ox, Balqis' cuckoo, the Queen of Sheba's ass, and Mohammad's ass.

In his commentary on the work, Baring-Gould lists a few other myths that feature "sleeping" mythical figures who will rise again, including Pliny's tale of Epimenides, the tale of St. George the Dragon-slayer, Sigurd the Dragon-slayer, Charlemange, Olgar Dansk, Emperor Frederick, King Sebastian of Spain, and possibly even Napoleon Boneparte. Curiously, Baring-Gould neglects to mention King Arthur's glorious return, so we add him as a special case.

Now that we've done the SparkNotes version of this tale, stay turned for another post on Aelfric's exciting fire-and-brimstone Old English sermon on the Seven Sleepers. We promise, it'll be worth the wait. Part two will also include a final rating and more sources!

Thanks for joining us in this week's episode of The Maniculum Podcast. Looking for more? Check out our Master List series for the full collection of segments at the end of our show, and for more gaming and world building ideas, check out The Gaming Table section of our blog, Marginalia! Searching for our sources? Read Baring Gould's translation of The Seven Sleepers here, and check out our Library for more! Additional references for interested scholars:

  • Bonser, W. “The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus in Anglo-Saxon and Later Recipes.” Folklore, vol. 56, no. 2, 1945, pp. 254–256. Link.

  • Crossen, Craig, and Stephan Procházka. “The Seven Sleepers and Ancient Constellation Traditions — a Crossover of Arabic Dialectology with the History of Astronomy.” Wiener Zeitschrift Für Die Kunde Des Morgenlandes, vol. 97, 2007, pp. 79–105. Link.

  • Cubitt, Catherine. “'As the Lawbook Teaches': Reeves, Lawbooks and Urban Life in the Anonymous Old English Legend of the Seven Sleepers.” The English Historical Review, vol. 124, no. 510, 2009, pp. 1021–1049. Link.

We do our best to accurately research, source, and cite the works we use, and make them available to you, too! Each episode has a corresponding blog post which includes further breakdowns of the big ideas in each text as well as cites our sources and references. We also have the Maniculum Library, which actively collects resources and recommendations for writers, scholars, and geeks alike! We update our collection of Master Lists after each new episode, so be sure subscribe and stay updated! Are we missing something? Let us know! We'd love to add more knowledge to our ever-growing compendium. Chat with us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Thanks for checking us out! If you like our content, please share it! If you want to support us, rate and review on iTunes, find us on Patreon, or buy us a coffee so we can keep making content you love. You can also find some cool merch to rep your love for medievalism and support us here!

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