Book of Legends - Horace Scudder

The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus

When Decius was Emperor of Rome, he hated the Christians, and persecuted them. Now he went on his travels and came to the city of Ephesus. There he had altars built, and commanded that all the people should worship the gods of the heathen. If there were any Christians there, they must worship these idols openly or be put to death.

This caused great fright in the city, and there were some who feared to die, and they did worship the idols though they had called themselves by the name of Christian. But there were seven young men who refused to worship the idols, and remained in their houses praying and fasting. When Decius heard this, he bade them be brought before him; and because they were fair and good to look on, he gave them a little time in which to make up their minds whether they would worship the idols or be put to death.

So the seven got together, and, because they were willing to die for the faith, they sold all they had and gave the money to the poor of Ephesus, keeping only a few coins for themselves. Then, hoping to escape alive, they went secretly from the city to Mount Celion, not far away, where they found a cave, and there they hid themselves.

By and by they were hungry, and one of their number, Malchus by name, went back to the town to buy some bread. He went disguised, and when he reached Ephesus he heard every one talking of the seven Christians who had fled. The Emperor Decius was furious, and was sending soldiers in every direction to hunt for them.

At that Malchus turned back, and managed to reach the cave again without being seen. He told his comrades what he had heard, and they all fell a-weeping. But he gave them the loaves he had brought, and they all ate, and then, plucking up courage, they crept into the darkest part of the cave, and, committing themselves to God, lay down and fell asleep.

Decius was very angry that the seven young men had escaped. He called their parents, but they could tell him nothing save that the seven had sold all their goods and given them to the poor, and then had disappeared. Decius sent in every direction, but the seven could not be found. Finally he gave orders that all the caves in the neighborhood should be stopped with stones; "for," said he, "if they should chance to be hiding in any one of them, there they should stay till the end of the world." So the cavern in which the seven were hid was blocked up, but the seven sleepers within knew nothing, heard nothing, that was going on.

The Emperor Decius died, and all the people of Ephesus died, and time went on. Little by little, and sometimes by great leaps, Christianity became the religion of the empire, and in three hundred and sixty years after this time Theodosius was emperor and Christianity was the established religion.

One day a shepherd, who had his hut on the side of Mount Celion, wished to make a wall about his sheepfold, and he began drawing stone from a large pile. As he drew away one stone after another, he saw that they stopped the mouth of a cavern. At last he had drawn them all away, and the cavern was open to the light and air.

With this the seven sleepers, who had slept soundly for three hundred and sixty years, awoke. They rubbed their eyes and sat upright, and began talking over the affairs of yesterday, for they had no thought except that they had slept a night.

"What," they asked Malchus, "do you think Decius will now do?"

"He will surely hunt us down, to force us to worship the idols," said Malchus. But they all agreed they would sooner die first. Nevertheless, as the day wore on, they were hungry enough, and Malchus, taking a few coins from their little store, said he would go again to the city to buy bread, and learn what he could of the emperor's doings.

When he left the cavern he saw a heap of stones lying beside the mouth, for the shepherd had not carried all away. He was puzzled, and called his comrades to look at them. They could not any of them remember to have seen them before. Then Malchus went on his way to the city, and when he came to one of the gates he looked up and saw a cross above the gate. He was disturbed, for he thought something must ail his eyes. He went around and came to another gate, and there also he saw a cross.

"Am I in a dream?" he asked himself; but he entered the city, and made his way to a baker's shop. The city had changed. The houses looked curiously older, and there were some he did not remember to have seen before, though he had lived in Ephesus since he was a boy. But what amazed him most was to hear one and another say, as they passed him, "The Lord be with you," "May Jesus bless you." What! why, yesterday, no one dared pronounce aloud the name of the Saviour!

He entered the shop and laid a piece of money on the counter and asked for bread. The baker answered him: it was his own language, and yet it was not. The baker took up the coin and looked at it curiously. Then he looked at Malchus, and began whispering to some who stood by.

At that Malchus was sure they had discovered him, and would take him to the emperor. He begged them to let him alone. He would give them his money if only they would not take him to the emperor, and would let him go back to his friends. The baker said:—

"Not so. It is clear that you have found a treasure. Show us where it is; show us where the money is that is hidden, from which you took this piece, and we will share it with you, and then we will see that no harm comes to you." For you must know that in old times, when there were many wars, people used to hide their gold and silver in some secret place, meaning to go and dig it up again when the war was over. But often it happened that the people who hid their treasure were killed in the war, and never came back for it. So, all over the East, men were always hoping they should find these hidden treasures, which hundreds of years before had been secretly put away.

Now Malchus heard this and knew not what to say; he was amazed and he was afraid, for above all he wished not to be made known. So he held his peace. But the baker and those who stood by became angry, and they put a rope round his neck and dragged him out into the market-place. They could not hold their tongues, and soon the news spread that the young man had found a hid treasure.

A great crowd gathered in the market-place, and Malchus looked about to find some friend who would speak a good word for him. But though he scanned all the faces before him, he could not find a man or woman he ever had seen before, and it was all as if he were in a dreadful dream.

Word came to the ears of the governor of Ephesus that there was a great crowd in the market-place, and a strange man among them; and the governor and the bishop sent to have Malchus brought before them, together with the baker and the baker's men. They heard the story that the baker told, and they looked at the money. They asked Malchus where the treasure was which he had found.

"I have found no treasure," said he. "I have nothing but this coin and one or two others," which he took from his pocket.

"Where do you come from?" they asked him.

"I am a native of Ephesus," said he. "I have been away from the town but a night, and have returned to-day. I needed some bread, and I went to the shop of this man," pointing to the baker.

"If you are a native of Ephesus," said the governor, "tell us the names of your parents, and where they live." Then Malchus told their names and the street where they lived. The governor and the bishop looked at each other.

"There are no such people living in Ephesus," said the governor; "and, what is more, there is no street by that name. There was one once, many years ago, but it was long since destroyed to make room for the cathedral. And this money! why, it was coined in the reign of the Emperor Decius. Now we see plainly that you are not speaking the truth. Tell us where you found the treasure, or it shall go hard with you."

Then Malchus burst forth:—

"I implore you, in the name of God, answer me a few questions, and then I will answer yours. Where is the Emperor Decius? Is he still in Ephesus? or has he left the city?"

"My son," said the bishop, "you speak strange words. The Emperor Decius has been dead these three hundred and fifty years or more."

"I am sore perplexed," said Malchus. "But what I say is true. There are seven of us who fled from the city yesterday to escape persecution by the emperor. We went and hid ourselves in a cave on the side of Mount Celion yonder. Come with me. I will show you the cave and my comrades, if indeed I be not still in a dream."

"The hand of God is here," said the bishop to the governor. So they followed Malchus and a great crowd went with them. And when they came to the cavern, Malchus called joyfully to his comrades; and they came out, much amazed to see Malchus returned, and with him so great a multitude.

Now when the bishop and the governor saw the seven sleepers, who had thus awaked, they saw they had fresh, ruddy faces, as those who had slept well and were in perfect health. And the bishop and the governor and all the people fell down and praised God for this great wonder. Then a messenger was sent straightway for the Emperor Theodosius. When he came and heard the strange news, he too was greatly amazed, and Malchus said, speaking for the seven:—

"You behold us here whom men counted as dead, and behold we have risen from the dead. So shall it be with all those who fall asleep in Jesus. They shall rise again, as if they had passed the night in sleep, without suffering and without dreams."

And when he had said this, the seven sleepers bowed their heads, and their souls returned to their Maker. The emperor bent over them, weeping. And he would have had them enclosed in golden caskets, to be kept in the cathedral. But that night they appeared to him in a dream, and said that hitherto they had slept in the earth, and that in the earth they desired to sleep on, till God should again awaken them forever.