Eastern Orthodoxy has never had a Reformation; Eastern Orthodoxy has never had a rational review of its catalog of saints. That accounts for the numbers of mythical saints long painted in icons and still found in the Church Calendar today, saints venerated even though their reality is equivalent to that of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
One of the most interesting of these is the group of saints known as the “Seven Sleepers of Ephesus.”
According to the accepted story, these seven youths were all friends who had grown up together in the city of Ephesus, and all had become soldiers in the Roman army and were Christians, even though this was in the time of the Emperor Decius, who persecuted Christians. The Seven youths refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods, and to avoid punishment they hid out in a cave on a mountain. The Emperor, learning of their hideout, ordered it blocked up with stones. All this is said to have happened in the middle of the 3rd century.
Here is where the “miracle” comes in. The seven youths fell into a strange sleep, and they slept not for a few hours or days or weeks or months; they slept for almost two hundred years.
If we look more closely, we can see them pleasantly snoozing away:
I particularly like this friendly, comfy pair in the middle:
In the time of the Emperor Theodosius the Younger, who lived in the first half of the 5th century, certain “heretics” appeared at Ephesus saying that the resurrection of the body was not possible. Meanwhile, a certain man had decided to construct a building on the mountain where the long-forgotten youths lay asleep. He had stones removed from the entrance to the cave.
At this time the youths awoke out of their two-century-long sleep, and one of them, Iamblicus, was sent into the city to buy some bread. When he got there, he was amazed to see a cross on the gates of the city, and further surprised to hear people openly talking of Jesus.
When Iamblicus found a place to buy bread, he paid for it with a coin bearing the image of the Emperor Decius, a two-hundred-year-old coin. The seller considered this very suspicious, and soon the youth was accused of hiding a treasure of old coins somewhere. He was taken before the governor and the bishop, and the bishop, realizing that there was something mysterious here, went with the youth to the cave where his companions were waiting. The story got around, and even the Emperor came to the cave and talked with the young men. But then the youths lay down and went back to sleep again in the cave, this time until the resurrection, which supposedly had been proved possible by their first sleep.
Now as one can tell, the logic of this tale is somewhat skewed, and it is a simple piece of folklore, recorded at least as early as the 6th century (it is found in the writings of the Syrian bishop Jacob of Serugh, c. 451-521). One wonders why it is still put forward as the “Gospel truth” in Eastern Orthodoxy, where the Seven Sleepers can still be painted and venerated in icons, when their story has no more validity as history than that of Rip van Winkle, to whom a similar thing happened in the Catskill Mountains of New York.
We also find the motif of the “long sleep” in the very old tale recorded by Diogenes Laertius:
“Epimenides, according to Theopompus [4th century b.c.] and many other writers, was the son of Phaestius; some, however, make him the son of Dosiadas, others of Agesarchus. He was a native of Cnossos in Crete, though from wearing his hair long he did not look like a Cretan. One day he was sent into the country by his father to look for a stray sheep, and at noon he turned aside out of the way, and went to sleep in a cave, where he slept for fifty-seven years. After this he got up and went in search of the sheep, thinking he had been asleep only a short time. And when he could not find it, he came to the farm, and found everything changed and another owner in possession. Then he went back to the town in utter perplexity; and there, on entering his own house, he fell in with people who wanted to know who he was. At length he found his younger brother, now an old man, and learnt the truth from him. So he became famous throughout Greece, and was believed to be a special favourite of heaven.” (Diogenes Laertius 1.109)
Pausanius (2nd century c.e.) also mentions the old story:
“In front of this temple, where is also the statue of Triptolemus, is a bronze bull being led as it were to sacrifice, and there is a sitting figure of Epimenides of Cnossus, who they say entered a cave in the country and slept. And the sleep did not leave him before the fortieth year, and afterwards he wrote verses and purified Athens and other cities.” (Pausanias 1.14.4)
We find it also in the Natural History (7.175) of Pliny the Elder (died 79 c.e):
“It is told of Epimenides of Cnossus, that when he was a boy, being fatigued by heat and walking, he fell asleep in a cave, where he slept for fifty-seven years; and that when he awoke, as though it had been on the following day, he was much astonished at the changes which he saw in the appearance of every thing around him: after this, old age it is said, came upon him in an equal number of days with the years he had slept, but his life was prolonged to his hundred and fifty-seventh year.”
The “long sleep” motif is also found in the Apocryphal Jewish work, 4 Baruch (5.1-52, etc.), generally considered to date from the 2nd century c.e. The tale begins with:
“But Abimelech took the figs in the burning heat; and coming upon a
tree, he sat under its shade to rest a bit.
And leaning his head on the basket of figs, he fell asleep and slept
for 66 years; and he was not awakened from his slumber.”
So it is a very old motif, recycled in Christian hagiography.
Candida Moss says of such fanciful “lives of saints” (in her book The Myth of Persecution; how early Christians invented a story of Martyrdom, Harper One, 2013) that “The fact of the matter is that these aren’t historical accounts; they are religious romances written and intended to be read for moral instruction and entertainment.” It is unfortunate that Eastern Orthodoxy does not inform its laity that much of what they read in the lives of the early saints is not history at all, but rather religious fiction, and that many of the saints depicted in icons either never existed at all or have had their stories heavily embroidered with non-historical elements.
The title on Russian “Seven Sleepers” icon usually is, with some variation, that found in the image below:
It reads, OBRAZ SEDMI OTROKOV IZHE VO EFESYE, meaning “[The] IMAGE OF THE SEVEN YOUTHS WHO [were} AT EPHESUS.”
If we look at the title at the first icon on this page, however, it reads a bit differently:
СВЯТЫЯ СЕДЬМЪ ОТРОКОВЪ СПЯЩИЯ ВО ЕФЕСЕ
SVYATUIYA SEDM OTROKOV SPYASHCHIYA VO EFESE
“[The] Holy Seven Youths Sleeping in Ephesus”
Here is another example:
It depicts the Seven Youths asleep in their cave on the mountain near Ephesus. The names usually assigned them are:
Максимилиан, Иамвлих, Мартиниан, Иоанн, Дионисий, Ексакустодиан (Константин) и Антонин — Iamvlikh, Martinian, Ioann, Dionisiy, Eksakustodian (Konstantin), and Antonin — Maximilian, Iamblicus, Martinian, John, Dionysius, Exacustodian (Constantine) and Antoninus. Four patron saints of the person who owned the icon are shown in the borders of the image. The one at upper left is the “Angel Khranitel,” the Guardian Angel, a generic figure in icons who represents the angel guarding every believer.
Here is yet another example, this time with strong Western influence. We can tell from the border and style that it comes from the end of the 19th-beginning of the 20th century As you can see, once you know what this icon type looks like, it is very easy to identify:
Finally, here are the Seven Sleepers in a fresco at the Dionysiou Monastery on Mt. Athos, in Greece. Their names, given in the Greek form, are from left: Maximianos, Iamblikhos, Martinianos, Dionysios, Antoninos, Exakostoudianos, and Konstantinos.