In many ways the story is a classic European faerie tale of a man who is actually rewarded for helping the faeries move their barrel. They advance him to a time in life where he is free of his nagging wife and is now old enough for it be respectable for him to take it easy and play with children, working when he wants to instead of when he has to, supported by his loving, grown children.
Author Joe Gioia suggests the basic plot strongly resembles, and may have originated with, an upstate New York Seneca legend of a young squirrel hunter who encounters the mystic "Little People", and after a night with them returns to his village to find it overgrown by forest and everyone gone: that single night had lasted a year.
The story is similar to the German folktale "Peter Klaus" by Johann Karl Christoph Nachtigal, which is a shorter story set in a German village.
The story is also similar to the ancient Jewish Talmudic story about Honi M'agel who falls asleep after asking a man why he is planting a carob tree which traditionally takes 70 years to mature, making it virtually impossible to ever benefit from the tree's fruit. After this exchange, he falls asleep on the ground and is miraculously covered by a rock and remains out of sight for 70 years. When he awakens, he finds a fully mature tree and that he has a grandson. When nobody believes that he is Honi, he prays to God and God takes him from this world.
In Christian tradition there is the well-known story of "The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus". The tale recounts a group of early Christians who hid in a cave about 250 AD to escape the persecution of Christians during the reign of the Roman emperor Decius. They fell into a miraculous sleep and woke some 200 years later during the reign of Theodosius II, to discover that the city and the whole Empire had become Christian. This Christian story is recounted by Islam and appears in a famous Sura of the Koran, Sura Al-Kahf. The story recalls a group of young monotheists escaping from persecution within a cave and emerging hundreds of years later. Irving, who wrote a biography of Muhammad, may have been familiar with the story.
The story is also similar to a 3rd-century AD Chinese tale of Ranka, as retold by Lionel Giles in A Gallery of Chinese Immortals, and an 8th-century Japanese tale, "Urashima Tarō".
In Orkney there is a similar folktale linked to the burial mound of Salt Knowe adjacent to the Ring of Brodgar. A drunken fiddler on his way home hears music from the mound. He finds a way in and finds the trowes (Trolls) having a party. He stays and plays for two hours, then makes his way home to Stenness, where he discovers fifty years have passed. The Orkney Rangers believe this may be one source for Washington Irving's tale, because his father was an Orcadian from the island of Shapinsay and would almost certainly have known the tale.
In Ireland, the story of Niamh and Oisin has a similar theme. Oisin falls in love with the beautiful Niamh and leaves with her on her snow white horse to Tir Na nOg – the land of the ever-young. Missing his family and friends, he asks to pay them a visit. Niamh lends him her horse, warning him never to dismount, and he travels back to Ireland. But three hundred years have passed; his family and fellow warriors are all dead. Some men are trying to move a boulder. Oisin reaches down to help them. The girth of the horse's saddle snaps and he falls to the ground. Before the watching eyes of the men he becomes a very, very old man.
Diogenes Laertius, an Epicurean philosopher of the third century, includes the story of Epimenides in his book On the Lives, Opinions, and Sayings of Famous Philosophers, in chapter ten in his section on the Seven Sages of Greece, precursors to the first philosophers. The sage Epimenides is said to have slept in a cave for fifty-seven years. But unfortunately, "he became old in as many days as he had slept years". Although according to the different sources that Diogenes relates, Epimenides lived to be one hundred and fifty-seven years, two hundred and ninety-nine years, or one hundred and fifty-four years old.
In Bhagavatam, there is a story of Muchukunda, King of Ikshavaku dynasty, who slept for a long long time. According to Hinduism, Muchukunda was an ancestor of Sri Rama. Muchukunda had helped Indra fight against Asuras (demons). Once, in a battle, the Devas (deities) were threatened by the Asuras(demons). The Gods sought help from king Muchukunda. King Muchukunda agreed to help them and fought against the demons for a long time. Since the deities did not have an able commander, king Muchukunda protected them against the demonic onslaught, until the deities got an able commander like Kartikeya, the son of Lord Shiva. Then Indra said to the king Muchukunda, "O king, we, the deities are indebted to you for the help and protection which you have given us, by sacrificing your own family life. Here in the heaven, one year equals three hundred and sixty years of the earth. Since, it has been a long time, there is no sign of your kingdom and family because it has been destroyed with the passage of time. We are happy and pleased with you, so ask for any boon except Moksha (liberation) because Moksha(liberation) is beyond our capacities". Muchukunda asks Indra for a boon to sleep. While fighting on the side of the deities, king Muchukunda did not get an opportunity to sleep even for a moment. Now, since his responsibilities were over, overcome by tiredness, he was feeling very sleepy. So, he said, "O King of the deities, I want to sleep. Anyone who dares to disturb my sleep should get burnt to ashes immediately". Indra said, "So be it, go to the earth and enjoy your sleep, one who awakens you would be reduced to ashes". After this, king Muchukunda descended to earth and selected a cave, where he could sleep without being disturbed. A lot of time had passed during his sleeping years. Finally, Sri Krishna lured Kalayavana into the cave where Muchukunda was sleeping. Kalayavana inadvertently woke up Muchukunda and was burnt to ashes when Muchukunda's gaze fell upon him. Then, Muchukunda came out of the cave. He was astonished to see the size of various beings. The size of all creatures had shrunken due to evolution during the longtime that he was asleep. Then Muchukunda went to north to Gandamadana Mountain and from there to Badrika Ashrama where a famous Vishnu Temple is now located.