Hymn of the Pearl

Commentary by John Munter

The Hymn of the Pearl is called by G.R.S. Mead ‘The Hymn’ since there was no title attached to this work.  It is also called ‘The Hymn of the Soul’ and ‘The Hymn of the Robe of Glory’ which are both very appropriate, however ‘the Pearl’ as the subject of the quest and as a metaphor for the higher self supercedes them.

The translation by G.R.S. Mead from over a century ago online at the Gnostic Society Library is being used since as a superior translation despite its archaic language.  Mead uses his own numbering system and capitalization idiosyncracies.

The author of the Hymn with good evidence is considered to be Bardaisan, the great heterodox Christian literary master and philosopher who flourished in Edessa from 154 CE to 222 CE which had been part of great Parthian Empire.  The Hymn is found in the text of The Acts of Thomas but scholarly opinion is unanimous that it is not original to that book but was inserted by a Syrian redactor and originally written in Old Syriac. 

The internal evidence that tops the list to indicate the authorship of Bardaisan is the mention of Parthia in Section 8 which ceased to exist in 224 CE.  Aside from the fact that Bardaisan only wrote in Syriac, the language of his philosophical treatises and of the Hymn, the detail in the Hymn of having rich and wealthy parents corresponds to Bardaisan’s life. He grew up and was educated with the crown prince of Edessa who he converted to Christianity which then became the state religion.  Bardaisan composed the hymnody of Osrhenia with a book of one hundred and fifty hymns like the Psalms set in pentasyllabic meter and set to folk tunes which was beloved for a century and a half until St Ephrem over-wrote his melodies with his own Nicene theology.

Mead imagines that the spiritual allegory was possibly based on a spiritual quest Bardaisan, himself, had of following the trade route from Parthia to Egypt, exploring the magic and spirituality in Egypt until a companion introduced him to Valentinian Christianity.  Whatever the case may be, the Hymn can be seen as a spiritual allegory from beginning to end.

The Hymn is well qualified to be considered part of the Bridal Chamber Christianity literature.  It clearly discusses the pre-existence of the soul before earthly life and the choice of it to make human birth a quest with a return to the heavenly realms as in the Sophia Mythos rather than to remain for a physical resurrection and existence.  There is the frequent mention of his parents and brother which approximate the trinity of the Father, Mother-Sophia-Holy Spirit, and Son.  There is the approximation of a soul mate in Section 5 and 6.  There is the “King of kings” above the ‘parents’ which helps describe a Valentinian metaphysics.  

The author speaks in the voice of Thomas Judas who was reputedly the twin of Jesus.  This heavenly twin relationship describes the consciousness of the higher self.  The ‘pearl’ and ‘child’ metaphors describes the ‘dew drop’ of pure consciousness of the androgenous Primal Adam which needs to be reacquired from the attachment to the physical.  The ‘serpent’ metaphor represents the sexual energy that has drawn us into the physical world.  The ‘glorious robe’ represents the ecstasy of the individual soul experience of every person.  The ‘purple mantel’ represents the divine relationship of the soul to the rest of the universe—really God-consciousness.

Certain features are recognizable from other Bridal Chamber works such as the use of ‘adornment’ for the robe and mantel in Section 10.  The word is used in Joseph and Asenath, the Gospel of Philip, the Tripartite Tractate, and the Exegesis of the Soul.  Sections 15 and 16 have the robe and mantel become a twin of the speaker that exudes music and is full of gnosis (knowledge) that speaks. In fact, some translations used the word ‘mirror’ in this regard in having a psychomantium reference even though a literal mirror is not meant.  This is followed by the two treasurers who brought the mantel and robe who are revealed to be distinctly two but one likeness.  Bardaisan would surely have been quite familiar with the Gospel of Thomas where the ‘twins’ conceit of word games referring to the higher and lower self is quite common.  In addition the two treasurers are another replay of twin souls in the Adam and Eve typology.

The Hymn

(The Hymn of  Judas Thomas the Apostle
in the Country of the Indians)

Translated by G.R.S. Mead


When, a quite little child, I was dwelling
In the House of my Father’s Kingdom,

And in the wealth and the glories
Of my Up-bringers I was delighting,

From the East, our Home, my Parents
Forth-sent me with journey-provision.

Indeed from the wealth of our Treasure,
They bound up for me a load.
Large was it, yet was it so light
That all alone I could bear it.

Gold from the Land of Beth-Ellaya,
Silver from Gazak the Great,
Chalcedonies of India,
Iris-hued [Opals?] from Kãshan.
They girt me with Adamant [also]
That hath power to cut even iron.
My Glorious Robe they took off me
Which in their love they had wrought me,

And my Purple Mantle [also]
Which was woven to match with my stature.

And with me They [then] made a compact;
In my heart wrote it, not to forget it:

"If thou goest down into Egypt,
And thence thou bring’st the one Pearl --
"[The Pearl] that lies in the Sea,
Hard by the loud-breathing Serpent --
"[Then] shalt Thou put on thy Robe
And thy Mantle that goeth upon it,
"And with thy Brother, Our Second,
Shalt thou be Heir in our Kingdom."

I left the East and went down
With two Couriers [with me];
For the way was hard and dangerous,
For I was young to tread it.
I traversed the borders of Maish~ n,
The mart of the Eastern merchants,
And I reached the Land of Babel,
And entered the walls of Sarbãg.
Down further I went into Egypt;
And from me parted my escorts.

Straightway I went to the Serpent;
Near to his lodging I settled,
To take away my Pearl
While he should sleep and should slumber.
Lone was I there, yea, all lonely;
To my fellow-lodgers a stranger.
However I saw there a noble,
From out of the Dawn-land my kinsman,
A young man fair and well favoured,
Son of Grandees; he came and he joined me.

I made him my chosen companion,
A comrade, for sharing my wares with.
He warned me against the Egyptians,
’Gainst mixing with the unclean ones.
For I had clothed me as they were,
That they might not guess I had come
From afar to take off the Pearl,
And so rouse the Serpent against me.

But from some occasion or other
They learned I was not of their country.
With their wiles they made my acquaintance;
Yea, they gave me their victuals to eat.
I forgot that I was a King’s son,
And became a slave to their king.
I forgot all concerning the Pearl
For which my Parents had sent me;
And from the weight of their victuals
I sank down into a deep sleep.

All this that now was befalling,
My Parents perceived and were anxious.
It was then proclaimed in our Kingdom,
That all should speed to our Gate --
Kings and Chieftains of Parthia,
And of the East all the Princes.
And this is the counsel they came to:
I should not be left down in Egypt.
And for me they wrote out a Letter;
And to it each Noble his Name set:

"From Us -- King of Kings, thy Father,
And thy Mother, Queen of the Dawn-land,
"And from Our Second, thy Brother --
To thee, Son, down in Egypt, Our Greeting!
"Up an arise from thy sleep,
Give ear to the words of Our Letter!
"Remember that thou art a King’s son;
See whom thou hast served in thy slavedom.
Bethink thyself of the Pearl
For which thou didst journey to Egypt.

"Remember thy Glorious Robe,
Thy Splendid Mantle remember,
"To put on and wear as adornment,
When thy Name may be read in the Book of the Heroes,
"And with Our Successor, thy Brother,
Thou mayest be Heir in Our Kingdom."
My Letter was [surely] a Letter
The King had sealed up with His Right Hand,
’Gainst the Children of Babel, the wicked,
The tyrannical Daimons of Sarbãg.

It flew in the form of the Eagle,
Of all the winged tribes the king-bird;
It flew and alighted beside me,
And turned into speech altogether.
At its voice and the sound of its winging,
I waked and arose from my deep sleep.
Unto me I took it and kissed it;
I loosed its seal and I read it.
E’en as it stood in my heart writ,
The words of my Letter were written.

I remembered that I was a King’s son,
And my rank did long for its nature.
I bethought me again of the Pearl,
For which I was sent down to Egypt.
And I began [then] to charm him,
The terrible loud-breathing Serpent.
I lulled him to sleep and to slumber,
Chanting o’er him the Name of my Father,
The Name of our Second, [my Brother],
And [Name] of my Mother, the East-Queen.

And [thereon] I snatched up the Pearl,
And turned to the House of my Father.
Their filthy and unclean garments
I stripped off and left in their country.
To the way that I came I betook me,
To the Light of our Home, to the Dawn-land.
On the road I found [there] before me,
My Letter that had aroused me --
As with its voice it had roused me,
So now with its light it did lead me --

On fabric of silk, in letter of red [?],
With shining appearance before me [?],
Encouraging me with its guidance,
With its love it was drawing me onward.
I went forth; through Sarbãg I passed;
I left B~ bel-land on my left hand;
And I reached unto Maishan the Great,
The meeting-place of the merchants,
That lieth hard by the Sea-shore.

My Glorious Robe that I’d stripped off,
And my Mantle with which it was covered,
Down from the Heights of Hyrcania,
Thither my Parents did send me,
By the hands of their Treasure-dispensers
Who trustworthy were with it trusted.
Without my recalling its fashion, --
In the House of my Father my childhood had left it,--
At once, as soon as I saw it,
The Glory looked like my own self.

I saw it in all of me,
And saw me all in [all of] it, --
That we were twain in distinction,
And yet again one in one likeness.
I saw, too, the Treasurers also,
Who unto me had down-brought it,
Were twain [and yet] of one likeness;
For one Sign of the King was upon them --
Who through them restored me the Glory,
The Pledge of my Kingship [?].

The Glorious Robe all-bespangled
With sparkling splendour of colours:
With Gold and also with Beryls,
Chalcedonies, iris-hued [Opals?],
With Sards of varying colours.
To match its grandeur [?], moreover, it had been completed:
With adamantine jewels
All of its seams were off-fastened.
[Moreover] the King of Kings’ Image
Was depicted entirely all o’er it;
And as with Sapphires above
Was it wrought in a motley of colour.

I saw that moreover all o’er it
The motions of Gnosis abounding;
I saw it further was making
Ready as though for to speak.
I heard the sound of its Music
Which it whispered as it descended [?]:
"Behold him the active in deeds!
For whom I was reared with my Father;
"I too have felt in myself
How that with his works waxed my stature."

And [now] with its Kingly motions
Was it pouring itself out towards me,
And made haste in the hands of its Givers,
That I might [take and] receive it.
And me, too, my love urged forward
To run for to meet it, to take it.
And I stretched myself forth to receive it;
With its beauty of colour I decked me,
And my Mantle of sparkling colours
I wrapped entirely all o’er me.

I clothed me therewith, and ascended
To the Gate of Greeting and Homage.
I bowed my head and did homage
To the Glory of Him who had sent it,
Whose commands I [now] had accomplished,
And who had, too, done what He’d promised.
[And there] at the Gate of His House-sons
I mingled myself with His Princes;
For He had received me with gladness,
And I was with Him in His Kingdom;

To whom the whole of His Servants
With sweet-sounding voices sing praises.
* * * * *
He had promised that with him to the Court
Of the King of Kings I should speed,
And taking with me my Pearl
Should with him be seen by our King.
The Hymn of Judas Thomas the Apostle,
which he spake in prison, is ended.