Thursday 24 August 2023

Enchanted Sleep and Sleepers #1



This is the first of a series of posts on enchanted sleep and sleepers in mythology, legends, the eddas, sagas, fairy tales and folklore. And to begin as as close to the beginning as I can, the earliest tale of an enchanted sleep I know is that of the 7th or 6th century BCE philosopher Epimenides, recorded by Diogenes Laertius in his 3rd century CE Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Epimenides is far enough in the past for any story about him to be of dubious historicity, but we're told he was a Cretan of Knossos. As a young man:

He was sent by his father into the fields to look for a sheep, turned off the road at mid-day and lay down in a certain cave and fell asleep, and slept there fifty-seven years; and after that, when he awoke, he went on looking for the sheep, thinking that he had taken a short nap; but as he could not find it, he went on to the field and there he found everything changed, and the estate in another person’s possession, and so he came back again to the city in great perplexity, and as he was going into his own house he met some people who asked him who he was, until at last he found his younger brother, who had now become an old man, and from him he learned all the truth.

            And when he was recognised he was considered by the Greeks as a person especially beloved by the gods...

‘Beloved by the gods’ would be down to the belief that Zeus was born in a cave on Crete, where his mother Rhea hid from his father Cronos who had the bad habit of devouring his offspring. Epimenides’ sleep was therefore presumed sacred or god-sent. He became a seer and philosopher, and the Athenians called him to help them when the city was afflicted by a plague in the year of the 16th Olympiad (596 BCE). Diogenes attributes various works to him, only one fragment of which has survived.

In the Bhagavata Purana (dated as written text from the 8th to 10th centuries CE but based on far older oral traditions) King Mucukunda aids the devas, benevolent heavenly spirits, in their war against the malevolent asuras. When at last the devas win, Indra their lord reveals to the king that an entire age of the world has passed, along with everyone he has known, but offers in recompense any gift within his power to give. The king, grief-stricken and weary, asks for unbroken sleep and for anyone who disturbs his slumber to turn to ashes. This Indra grants, and the king falls asleep in a cave. 



Thousands of years later the god Krisha lures his enemy Kalayavana into the dark cave where, mistaking the sleeping Mucukunda for Krishna, Kalayavana kicks and wakes him. The king’s opening eyes burn him to ashes. Krishna next instructs Mucukunda on how to cleanse himself of sin, concluding, ‘O King, in your very next life you will become an excellent brahmana, the greatest well-wisher of all creatures, and certainly come to Me alone.’ On leaving the cave, Mucukunda notices that ‘the size of all the human beings, animal, trees and plants’ are far smaller now than before his long sleep.

A story from the Babylonian Talmud (c. 200 - 400 CE) concerns the sage Honi HaMe’agel (Honi the Circle-maker), a historical character of the 1st century CE. The nickname was given him when during a drought, he drew a circle in the dust and told God that he would not step out of it until it rained. God obliged with a drizzle. Honi complained this was not enough; God sent a downpour. Honi then begged for a ‘moderate rain’, and God kindly reduced the flow. ‘Troubled throughout his life concerning the meaning of the verse, “When the Lord brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like dreamers,”(Psalm 126)’, Honi wondered how it was possible for seventy years (the period of the Babylonian exile) to be like a dream: ‘How could anyone sleep for seventy years?’

One day Honi was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked, ‘How long does it take to bear fruit?’ The man replied, ‘Seventy years.’ Honi then asked him, ‘Are you certain you will live another seventy years?’ The man replied, ‘I already found carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted those for me, so I too plant these for my children.’

            Honi then sat down to eat, and sleep overcame him. As he slept, a rocky formation enclosed upon him which hid him from sight and he slept for seventy years. When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree, and asked him, ‘Are you the man who planted the tree?’ The man replied, ‘I am his grandson.’ 

When Honi returned, no one recognised him, or believed him when he tried to identify himself; distraught, he prayed for mercy and died. But the Jerusalem Talmud tells the story differently: ‘Near the time of the destruction of the [First] Temple,’ Honi set out to oversee his workers on a mountain, and went into a cave to shelter from rain. There he fell asleep and remained for seventy years ‘until the Temple was destroyed and it was rebuilt a second time.’ At the end of this time he woke and ‘saw a world completely changed.’ Vineyards had been replaced by olives, olives by fields of grain. On learning what had happened during his sleep he went to the Temple and recited the verse: ‘When the Lord restored the fortune of Zion, we were like those who dream.’ 


A 12th or 13th century CE manuscript owned by Kiel University (S.H. 8A 8vo) contains a similar and charming story. An unnamed monk was meditating on the psalm, ‘The mercies of the Lord I will sing forever’ (Psalm 89) when a beautiful little bird led him out of the cloister into a wood, where it flew into a tree and began singing so wonderfully that the monk was entranced. When it had finished its song and flown away he made his way back to the monastery, but the buildings were utterly changed, no one knew him, and he was accused of being an imposter. On checking the records however, the current abbot realised that that the monk had lived there two hundred years before.

Then the monk became aware that he was seized by God ... and that the sweet birdsong had delighted him throughout so many years that he completely forgot food, drink or sleep. From then on the monk was received with great veneration and retired within the same sacred monastery.

Though this monk doesn’t actually fall asleep, he certainly experiences the lapse of time in a very dream-like trance. The story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus dates from at least the 6th century CE and is extant in numerous Islamic and Christian versions. The basic Christian story tells how, escaping persecution for their faith during the reign of the Emperor Decius, seven Christian youths take refuge in a mountain cave where they pray and fall asleep. The Emperor has the cave sealed up with them inside. More than two centuries later the cave is opened by a landowner who wishes to stall cattle there, and the sleepers wake, imagining only a day has passed. Finding that Ephesus is now a Christian city, they tell their story to the bishop, and die praising God. 

I can’t resist adding that in her children’s novel The Silver Curlew (an adaptation of the Norfolk folktale Tom Tit Tot) Eleanor Farjeon uses the Seven Sleepers in a spell cast by the Man in the Moon, Charlee, to rescue the heroine Poll from the wicked Spindle-Imp and his coven of Queer Things.

And now strange words seemed to swim through the pipe with the tune, but whether Charlee was breathing them as he blew, or whether the moon-misty notes had a tongue of their own, Poll could not have said.

            Malchus... ’ breathed the pipe. ‘Martinian ... Serapion...’

            The Queer Things swayed like shadows, and Rackny yawned.

            The Spell of the Seven Sleepers (breathed the pipe)

            I put upon your peepers,

            The sevenfold spell of the Sleepers

            In Ephesus long gone.

            Malchus ... Maximinian...

            Dionysius ... John...

            Constantine ... Martinian ...

            And Serapion...

What did the strange spell mean? But what did it matter? The Queer Things were nodding now, their heads flopping from side to side, their heavy eyelids lolling up and down. [...] ‘Two hundred nine-and-twenty years shall you lie there,’ murmured Charlee to the sleepers.

Leaving  Eleanor Farjeon aside, almost all these accounts have four things in common: an implied intervention by a god or other religious supernatural power; a cave; a world that has visibly changed since their sleep began; and an all-male cast who reap spiritual benefit from their experiences. There seemed nothing special about Epimenides before his oddly specific 57 year sleep in – it seems to have been assumed – Zeus’s cave: but afterwards he is god-touched and becomes a philosopher important enough to be called upon by the Athenians in their hour of need. King Mucukunda assists Indra and his devas against the evil asuras, sleeps thousands of years in a cave and wakes to meet Krishna and become a Brahman. After pondering the meaning of a psalm, the Jewish sage Honi sleeps for seventy years in either a ‘rocky formation’ which grows up around him or else in a mountain cave. Though not specified it’s implicit that God has sent this experience. Minus the cave, the same is true for the monk who spends two centuries listening to the bird. ‘Seized by God’, he does not immediately die but is treated with ‘great veneration’ by the abbey. The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus slumber in their cave for two or three centuries: on waking to find themselves in a Christian world, there is no more for them to do but ‘praise God and die’. 

Caves are dark, quiet and secret places into which people might well disappear, and as such they recur frequently in enchanted sleep narratives. There are more to come. In my next post I’ll be looking at some of the more malevolent occurrences of sleep-spells, such as that cast on the valkyrie who pre-figures the Sleeping Beauty.   


Picture credits

Seven Sleepers: Menologion of Basil II  Wikipedia

King Mucukunda burns Kalayavana: Artist unknown

Bird (bluetit?): 13th C Medieval ms. British Library

Thursday 3 August 2023

'The Homestead Westward in the Blue Mountains' by Jonas Lie

Jonas Lie was a contemporary of Ibsen, born 1833 at Hvokksund, not far from Oslo, but spent much of his childhood at Tromsø, inside the Arctic Circle.  He was sent to naval college, but poor eyesight made him unsuited for a life at sea, so he became a lawyer and began to write and publish poems and novels which reflected Norwegian life, folklore and nationalism. A collection of his short stories based on Norwegian and Finnish legends, 'Weird Tales from Northern Seas', was published in English in 1893. This is one of them. Other tales from the same collection can be found here, and here.

There was once a farmer’s son who was off to Moen for the annual manoeuvres. He was to be the drummer, and his way lay right across the mountains. There he could practise his drumming at his ease, and beat his tattoos again and again without making folks laugh – or having a parcel of small boys dangling after him like so many midges.

            Every time he passed a mountain homestead he beat his rat-tat-a-tat to bring the girls out, and they stood and hung about and gaped after him at all the farmhouses.

            It was in the middle of the hottest summer weather. He had been practising his drumming from early in the morning, till he had grown quite sick and tired of it. And now he was toilng up a steep cliff, and had slung his drum over his shoulder and stuck his drumsticks in his bandlolier.

            The sun baked and broiled upon the hills; but in the clefts there was a coolness such as you get by a rushing waterfall. The hills were covered in bilberries all the way up, and he bent down so often to pick whole handfuls that it took him a long time to get to the top.

            Then he came to a hilly slope where the ferns stood high and there were lots of birch bushes. It was so nice and shady there, he thought, and he couldn’t for the life of him resist taking a rest.

            He took off his drum, put his jacket behind his head and his cap over his face, and went off to sleep. 

            But as he lay dozing there, he dreamt that someone was tickling him under the nose with a grassblade. He quickly sat up, and was sure he heard someone laughing and giggling.

            The sun by now had begun to cast oblique shadows, and far down below, towards the valleys, lay the warm steaming vapours, creeping upwards in long drawn-out gossamer bands and ribbons of mist.

            As he reached behind him for his jacket, he saw a snake, which lay and looked at him with such sharp quick eyes. But when he threw a stone at it, it caught its tail in its mouth and rolled away like a wheel.

            Again there was a laughing and sniggering among the bushes.

            And now he heard it coming from some birch trees which stood in such wonderful sunlight, for they were filled with the rain and fine drizzle of a waterfall. The waterdrops glittered and sparkled so that he could hardly see the trees properly.

            But something was moving about in them, and he could swear it looked like a slim pretty girl, laughing and making fun of him, and peeping at him from under her hand because of the sun, and her sleeves were tucked up.

            And a moment later he glimpsed a dark blue blouse moving behind the twigs. He was after it in an instant.

            He ran and ran till he was almost ready to give up, but then glimpsed a dress and a bare shoulder between a gap in the leaves. Off he pelted again as hard as he could, and just as he began to wonder if it was all imagination, he saw her cornered against the green bushes. Her hair had torn loose from her plaits from the speed with which she had flown through the branches, and she looked back at him, pretending to be terribly frightened.

            She was holding his drumsticks! She should pay for that, he thought, and off they ran again, she in front and he behind. But she kept turning around, laughing and jeering at him, and tossing and twisting her head so that it looked as if her long wavy hair were writhing and wriggling and twisting like a serpent’s tail.

            At the top of the hill she stopped by a fence and waved the drumsticks at him, laughing. Now he was determined to catch her, but before he could grab her she was through the fence, and he tumbled after her into the enclosure of a homestead.

            “Randi, and Brandi, and Gyri, and Gunna!’ the girl cried up to the house.

            And four girls came rushing down over the greensward. The last of them had a fine rosy face and heavy golden-red hair, and greeted him graciously with downcast eyes, as if she was quite distressed that they should play such naughty pranks with a strange young man.

            She stood there quite shy and uncertain, poor thing! just like a child who doesn’t know whether to say something or not. She sidled nearer till she was so close her hair almost touched him, and then she opened her blue eyes wide and looked straight at him.

But she had a frightfully sharp look in those eyes of hers.

“Better come with me and you shall have dancing – or are you too tired, lad?” cried a girl with blue-black hair and a wild dark fire in her eyes. She skipped up and down and slapped her rump; she had white teeth and hot breath, and would have dragged him off with her.

“Tie yourself up behind first, black Gyri!” giggled the others, and immediately she let the lad go and wobbled away backwards, twisting her hands behind her back. He couldn’t help staring: she writhed uncomfortably as if she were hiding something behind her and was suddenly so quiet.

But the fine bright girl whom he had chased, the prettiest of them all with the slender waist, began to laugh and tease him again. “Run as you like, you’ll never catch me,” she jibed and jeered, “nor your drumsticks either.” But then her mood shifted right round and she flung herself on the ground, sobbing. She’d followed him all day, she cried, and never had heard any fellow who could beat a rat-tat-a-tat so well, nor ever seen a lad so handsome as he slept. “I kissed you then,” said she, and smiled up at him sadly.

“Beware of the snake’s tongue, lest it bite you! It caresses before it stings,” whispered the shy girl with the golden-red hair, stealing softly up. And all at once the boy remembered the snake on the hillside, as slender and supple as the girl who lay there weeping and mocking at the same time, with the same sharp, cunning eyes.

Now a bent, clumsy little figure stuck her head in between them, and smiled bashfully at him as if she knew and could tell him so much. Her eyes held a deep, inward sparkle and over her face passed a sort of pale golden gleam, like the last sunbeam fading over the hilltop. “At my place,” said she, “you shall hear music such as no-one else has ever heard. You will hear all that sings and laughs and cries in the roots of trees, and in the mountains and in everything that grows, so that you will never care about anything else in the world.”

Then the boy heard a scornful laugh, and up on a rock he saw a tall, strong girl with a gold band in her hair. With powerful arms she lifted a huge wooden horn, threw back her head and blew a blast as strong as the rock on which she stood: it sounded far and wide through the summer evening, and echoes rang to and fro across the hills.

But the pretty girl on the ground stuck her fingers in her ears and mimicked the sound and laughed and jeered. Then she peered up at him through her ash-blond hair and murmured, “If you want me, you’ll have to pull me up.”

“She has a strong grip for a girl,” thought he, as he did so – “But first you’ll have to catch me!” cried she, and raced for the house. 

Suddenly she stopped, crossed her arms and looked straight into his eyes. “Do you like me?” she asked.

He had hold of her now, and couldn’t say no to that. “You’ll have to decide on this, father,” she shouted in the direction of the house. “The boy wants to marry me!” And she dragged him hastily towards the hut door.

There sat a little, grey-clad old fellow with a cap on his head like a milk-can, staring at the livestock on the mountainside. He had a large silver jug in front of him.

“It’s the homestead westward of the Blue Mountains that he’s after, I know,” said the old man, nodding his head with a sly look in his eyes.

“Is it, now?” thought the boy, understanding at last. Aloud he said, “It’s a great offer, I know, but surely too soon to decide. Down our way, the usual thing is to send go-betweens first of all, to see matters properly arranged.”

“You did send two ahead of you, and here they are!” the girl said promptly, and she brandished his two drumsticks.

“And with us, it’s customary to look over the property first, however smart the girl may be,” he added.

Then she shrank into herself and there was a nasty green glitter in her eyes –

“Haven’t you run after me the livelong day, and courted me right down there in the enclosure, where my father could hear and see it all?” cried she.

“Most pretty lasses hold back a bit,” said the boy, seeing that it wasn’t all love in this wooing. Then she bent backwards in a complete circle and shot forward her head and neck, and her eyes glittered. But the old fellow lifted his stick from his knees, and she stood upright again, merry and sportive as ever, with her hands in her silver girdle, and looked in his eyes and laughed, and asked if he was one of those fellows who were afraid of girls?

“If you want me, you might be run right off those legs of yours,” she joked, and skipped and curtseyed, making fun of him again. But behind her he saw her shadow whisking and frisking in circles on the grass like a long, coiling ribbon.

They seemed in a great hurry to get him under their yoke, he thought, but a soldier on his way to the manoeuvres is not to be married off-hand. “I came here for my drumsticks, not looking for a wife, and I’ll thank you to hand them back.”

“Not so fast. Look about you first, young man,” said the old fellow, and as he pointed with his stick the drummer boy saw mountain pastures full of dun cows grazing, with cow-bells clonking and the prettiest of milkmaids carrying bright copper buckets. There was wealth here for sure.

“Maybe this dowry of mine in the Blue Mountains doesn’t seem much to you,” said the girl, sitting down beside him. “But we’ve four such saeter as this, and what I inherit from my mother is twelve times as large.”

But the drummer had seen what he had seen. They were rather too anxious to settle the property upon him, he thought. So he declared that in such a serious matter, he needed a little time for consideration. 

The lass began to cry, and take on, and accused him of trying to fool a poor innocent young thing and pursue her, and drive her out of her wits. She had trusted him, she said, and fell a-howling and rocking with her hair all over her eyes, till at last the drummer began to feel quite sorry for her and almost angry with himself. But when she looked at him with those sharp, glinting eyes, it was as if he saw again the snake under the birch trees down on the hillside when it curled into a hoop and rolled away.

Then she reared up hissing, and a long tail whisked about behind her from underneath her skirts. “You won’t get away from me like that!” she shrieked. “I’ll have you dragged in shame from parish to parish!” And she called her father.

The drummer felt a grip on his jacket. He was lifted right off his legs and chucked into an empty cow-house, and the door was shut behind him.

There he stood and had nothing to look at but an old billy-goat through a crack in the door, who had odd yellow eyes and looked very much like the old fellow, and a sunbeam through a little hole, which crept higher and higher up the blank stable wall till late in the evening, when it went out altogether.

But towards night a voice outside said softly, “Boy! boy!” and in the moonlight he saw a little shadow cross the hole. “Hush! the old man is sleeping outside on the other side of the wall,” it said.

He recognised the voice: it was the golden-red one who had seemed so shy.

“All you need to do is say you know Snake-eyes has had a lover before, or they wouldn’t be in such a hurry to get her off their hands with a dowry. The homestead westward in the Blue Mountains is mine, so tell the old man that it was me, Brandi, you were after all the time. Hush, here he comes,” she whispered, and whisked away.

But a shadow again fell across the little knot-hole in the moonlight, and the duck-necked one peeped in at him. “Boy, are you awake? Snake-eyes will make a fool of you. She’s spiteful, and she stings. But the homestead westward in the Blue Mountains is mine, and when I play there the gates under the high mountains fly open and show the way to the nameless powers of nature. Just say it was I, Randi, you were running after, because you love her songs. Hush, the old man is stirring by the wall!” – and she was gone.

A little afterwards nearly every bit of the hole was darkened, and he recognised the dark one by her voice.

“Boy, boy!” she hissed. “I had to tie my skirts up behind today, so we couldn’t go dancing the Halling-fling. But the homestead in the Blue Mountains is lawfully mine, so tell the old man it was madcap Gyri you were running after today, because you love dancing jigs and hallings.” Then she clapped her hands and was frightened she might have awakened the old man. And she was gone.

But the lad sat inside there and watched the thin summer moon rise, and thought that never in his life had he been in such trouble. And from time to time he heard scraping and snorting against the wall outside, and knew it was the old fellow who lay there and kept watch over him.

“Are you there, boy?” said another voice at the peephole.

It was the sturdy girl who had planted herself so firmly on the rock.

“For three hundred years I have been blowing the langelur here in the summer evenings. Everything you see here is illusion and fairy glamour: many a man has been fooled by it, but I won’t see the other girls married before me. Rather than let one of them have you, I’ll set you free. Now listen! When the sun is hot and high the old man will get frightened and crawl into the shadows. Then’s your chance. Shove the door open hard and run, jump over the fence, and you’ll be rid of us.”

As soon as the sun began to burn, the drummer followed her advice. He cleared the fence in one good bound and fled, and in no time he was down in the valley again. He could hear the horn calling distantly in the mountains. But he slung his drum over his shoulder and set off to the manoeuvres at Moen. And never again did he beat his drum to call out the lasses from the farmsteads, for fear he should find himself westwards in the Blue Mountains before his time.

Picture credit:

Illustration by Laurence Housman