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

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