Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

SLEEPERS (THE SEVEN).

Fable supposes that one Epimenides in a single nap, slept twenty-seven years, and that on his awaking he was quite astonished at finding his grandchildren — who asked him his name — married, his friends dead, his town and the manners of its inhabitants changed. It was a fine field for criticism, and a pleasant subject for a comedy. The legend has borrowed all the features of the fable, and enlarged upon them.

The author of the “Golden Legend” was not the first who, in the thirteenth century, instead of one sleeper, gave us seven, and bravely made them seven martyrs. He took his edifying history from Gregory de Tours, a veridical writer, who took it from Sigebert, who took it from Metaphrastes, who had taken it from Nicephorus. It is thus that truth is handed down from man to man.

The reverend father Peter Ribadeneira, of the company of Jesus, goes still further in this celebrated “Flower of the Saints,” of which mention is made in Molière’s “Tartuffe.” It was translated, augmented, and enriched with engravings, by the reverend Antony Girard, of the same society: nothing was wanting to it.

Some of the curious will doubtless like to see the prose of the reverend father Girard: behold a specimen! “In the time of the emperor Decius, the Church experienced a violent and fearful persecution. Among other Christians, seven brothers were accused, young, well disposed, and graceful; they were the children of a knight of Ephesus, and called Maximilian, Marius, Martinian, Dionysius, John, Serapion, and Constantine. The emperor first took from them their golden girdles; then they hid themselves in a cavern, the entrance of which Decius caused to be walled up that they might die of hunger.”

Father Girard proceeds to say, that all seven quickly fell asleep, and did not awake again until they had slept one hundred and seventy-seven years.

Father Girard, far from believing that this is the dream of a man awake, proves its authenticity by the most demonstrative arguments; and when he could find no other proof, alleges the names of these seven sleepers — names never being given to people who have not existed. The seven sleepers doubtless could neither be deceived nor deceivers, so that it is not to dispute this history that we speak of it, but merely to remark that there is not a single fabulous event of antiquity which has not been rectified by ancient legendaries. All the history of Œdipus, Hercules, and Theseus is found among them, accommodated to their style. They have invented little, but they have perfected much.

I ingenuously confess that I know not whence Nicephorus took this fine story. I suppose it was from the tradition of Ephesus; for the cave of the seven sleepers, and the little church dedicated to them, still exist. The least awakened of the poor Greeks still go there to perform their devotions. Sir Paul Rycaut and several other English travellers have seen these two monuments; but as to their devotions there, we hear nothing about them.

Let us conclude this article with the reasoning of Abbadie: “These are memorials instituted to celebrate forever the adventure of the seven sleepers. No Greek in Ephesus has ever doubted of it, and these Greeks could not have been deceived, nor deceive anybody else; therefore the history of the seven sleepers is incontestable.”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25