1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, The

SEVEN SLEEPERS OF EPHESUS, THE, according to the most common form of an old legend of Syrian origin, first referred to in Western literature by Gregory of Tours (De glor. mart. c. 95), seven Christian youths of Ephesus, who, in the Decian persecution (A.D. 250), hid themselves in a cave. Their hiding-place was discovered and its entrance blocked. The martyrs fell asleep in a mutual embrace. Nearly 200 years later a herdsman of Ephesus rediscovered the cave on Mount Coelian, and, letting in the light, awoke the inmates, who sent one of their number (Jamblicus) to buy food. The lad was astonished to find the cross displayed over the city gates, and, on entering, to hear the name of Christ openly pronounced. By tendering coin of the time of Decius at a baker’s shop he roused suspicion, and was taken before the authorities as a dishonest finder of hidden treasure. He confirmed his story by leading his accusers to the cavern where his six companions were found, youthful and beaming with a holy radiance. The emperor Theodosius II., hearing what had happened, hastened to the spot in time to hear from their lips that God had wrought this wonder to confirm his faith in the resurrection of the dead. This message delivered, they again fell asleep.

Gregory says he had the legend from the interpretation of “a certain Syrian”; in point of fact the story is common in Syriac sources. It forms the subject of a homily of Jacob of Sarug (ob. A.D. 521), which is given in the Acta sanctorum. Another Syriac version is printed in Land’s Anecdota, iii. 87 seq.; see also Barhebraeus, Chron. eccles. i. 142 seq., and compare ssemam, Bzb. Or. x. 335 seq. Some forms of the legend give eight sleepers—e.g. an ancient MS. of the 6th century now in the British Museum (Cat. Syr. MSS. p. 1090). There are considerable variations as to their names. The legend rapidly attained a wide diffusion throughout Christendom; its currency in the East is testified by its acceptance by Mahomet (sur. xviii.), who calls them Aṣḥāb al-Kahf, “the men of the cave.” According to Biruni (Chronology, tr. by Sachau, p. 285) certain undecayed corpses of monks were shown in a cave as the sleepers of Ephesus in the 9th century. The seven sleepers are a favourite subject in early medieval art. The story is well told in Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ch. xxxiii.