One of the most common stories in folklore is that of the sleeper. Our hero usually sleeps an unnaturally long time and arises much later, if he’s even arisen. Many heroes continue to sleep, according to legend, until some significant day when they will rise to fight. The earliest foundation for such legends seems to revolve around a story of “Seven Sleepers.”
Roman Emperor Decius (201-251 AD) was on a journey to Ephesus (in Western Turkey). He was known for his horrific cruelty to Christians and this voyage promised more of the same. He arrived in the city demanding the Christians worship his idols or die. Friend turned on friend and parent on child.
Seven Christians refused. They prayed and fasted within their homes as the legions made their way through the city. Ephesus was believed to hold around 250,000 people, so the process was in no way rapid. Decius eventually came to where the Seven Sleepers lived. He permitted them a few minutes in the closest house to choose their fate. They abruptly gave away all they owned and fled into Mt. Celion to escape death.
The Emperor was infuriated. He targeted their families, but it was to no avail. He had the mountainside scoured, but no one found a trace of the men. He had all caves sealed shut to ensure they would not survive, if hidden there.
Around 360 years later, an Ephesian farmer needed to build a stable on the side of Mt. Celion. He didn’t have the materials. Luckily, he found many piles of rocks in front of the caves on his land and decided to use those. As he was gathering his building materials, seven men came out of the cavern. They were: Maximian, Malchus, Marcian, Dionysius, John, Serapion, and Constantine.
All of the men were terrified that Dacius was looking for them. They still carried coins from their former life. This legend went far beyond Turkey and became a phenomena in Europe.
Many regional proverbs stemmed from the original story. One proverb states that whenever sorrow threatens, the “sleepers are rolling on their sides.”
In Oldenburg (near Hess, Germany) and Salzburg (Austria), legends from centuries ago stated Charlemagne was seated on a throne under the mountains. He still wore his crown and carried his sword at his side. It said he was waiting until the time of the Antichrist to return to live and avenge the blood of the saints and martyrs.
In Kyffhauserborg (believed to be modern Kyffhäuserkreis), Thurangia (Germany), Fredric Barbarossa (1122-1190) and six of his knights slept. A shepherd crept into a mountain opening to find them all asleep at a stone table. Barbarossa had a long red beard. The shepherd woke him, but he only asked if ravens still flew over the mountain. The shepherd said they did. Just before he returned to his sleep, Barbarossa said they must sleep another century, for they couldn’t wake until his beard had grown long enough to wrap three times around the table. Sweden also has a version of this with The Knights of Ållaberg.
In Scotland, Thomas of Eruceldoune (1220-1298), also known as Thomas the Rhymer, took part in the Sicilian Vespers. This rebellion took place in Sicily and pitted the French against Sicilians. Thomas was said to have been a prophet with supernatural powers and even more powerful than the legendary Merlin. Lore claims he sleeps beneath Eildon Hills and will not wake until the Turks leave Constantinople.
Other stories involving this legend:
- In Switzerland, 3 trolls beneath the mountain await the time they can wake.
- According to Arabic legend, St. George rose from the grave 3 times and was slain 3 times.
- In Scandinavian lore, Siegfrid (or Syurd), is resting until he is called to fight.
- Bohemian legend places 3 miners in Kuttenberg.
- America- Rip Van Winkle
- Spain- Boabdil el Chico- the last Arab king of Granada now sleeps.
- Arabia- Elijah (Old Testament) now sleeps and will wake to fight the Antichirst.
- Ireland- Brian Boroimhe sleeps as he waits on the insurrection of Fenian.
- Wales- Arthur sleeps in Avillon (Avalon). There’s also a version in Wales that involves Owen Lawgoch. Another of Arthur’s sleeping garrisons is in Snowdonia.
- Servia- Knez Lazar sleeps.
- Portugal- Sebastian sleeps.
- Norway- Olaf Tryggvason sleeps.
- Ephesus- Another version of the tale from the original states St. John the Divine sleeps there.
Another story came from Iceland. It said a sleeper, Finn of Fethmingr, had ventured into a cave and suddenly felt sleepy. He fell asleep on a rock and when he woke, 3 years had passed.