The Hymn of the Pearl and the Cosmic Myth
The Cosmic Myth is a story that teaches of eternal truths even though it may or may not be totally historically accurate. 1 Thus, the traditional Cosmic Myth is familiar to each of us because the story is our own. We see ourselves in the stories of the heroes of these myths, and when we identify with these characters, we are changed as a result. Stories have power because they are filled with meaning. The Cosmic Myth is the storyline of The Epic of Gilgamesh, Star Wars, 2 The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, as well as the biblical accounts of Adam and Eve, Joseph the son of Jacob, and Job.
The Cosmic Myth is found in the pattern of a chiasmus.3 In an easy to read form it could look something like this:
An excellent ancient literary example of the symbolic Cosmic Myth is the “Hymn of the Pearl” that is found near the conclusion of the apocryphal Acts of Thomas. It is among the oldest and most beautiful of the non-canonical writings, demonstrating for us the example of the Cosmic Myth.
Hugh Nibley once said that in this story the Pearl is the soul itself, rescued and returned from the depths. 4 It is the story of a young prince who must leave home, given a seemingly impossible task, but when he arrives at his destination he meets another like himself (“an anointed one”) and they assist each other in preparing for the darkness to come. Though we do not hear about him again, the friend is a central part of the story. It is true the hero must fulfill his covenants alone, but it is also true that his loving Father will not leave our hero alone – he will have help from loving family and friends, and in this story, help from heaven above. The hero sinks into the despair as he is confronted with insurmountable obstacles, but again a loving Father comes to his aid—not to fulfill his covenants for him, but simply to remind him who he is and what he has come to do.
The hero recognizes and acknowledges his royal heritage. “I remembered that I was a son of kings and my noble birth asserted itself.” In an act of defiance he rids himself of the clothing that his enemies have given him, and obtains the pearl for which he came. As he leaves the alien country, he meets messengers who hand him the garment he left behind, now greatly enriched by his seeming unhappy experiences. While the boy was wallowing in the filth of this lone and dreary world, the heavenly robe that his parents made for him was still waiting for him up in heaven. It had grown so that it would still be able to fit the boy when he returned back to them. His difficult experiences down here on earth were the source of this growth, and he finds that he and the garment are a perfect expression of his newly discovered person. The robe (the inner garment that Hugh Nibley calls his “garment of light”) 5 had symbols on it which represented the boy’s having become like God. After his challenging experience he returns home to his parents, clothed in his robe of glory, jubilant.
The Hymn of the Pearl, which is part of a writing known as The Acts of Thomas, an apocryphal text purported to have been written in the second or third century. This story is of great importance, as it is the message of the Cosmic Myth. We are the prince in this story. This is a story about us: we are in the great deep, the sea, what is essentially the lone and dreary world, or Egypt as it is called in the Hymn of the Pearl. I find that as I teach the stories from the scriptures, that I am reminded of this piece of extrabiblical literature, as it is the pattern that we see in so many of these stories.
The Hymn of the Pearl
[Also called The Hymn of the Soul, Hymn of the Robe of Glory, and the Song of the Pearl]
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, and 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 bringest 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 Maishin,
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 (great rulers); 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,
Against 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,
Against the Children of Babel, the wicked,
The tyrannical Demons 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.
Even 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 over 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 Babel 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 over it;
And as with Sapphires above
Was it wrought in a motley of colour.
I saw that moreover all over it
The motions of Gnosis (knowledge) 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 over 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.
- Michael Fishbane, Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking, Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 11. Fishbane stated, “we shall understand the word ‘Myth’ to refer to (sacred and authoritative) accounts of the deeds and personalities of the gods and heroes during the formative events of primordial times, or during the subsequent historical interventions or actions of these figures which are constitutive for the founding of a given culture and its rituals.”
- It should be noted that Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi was a horribly ruined film and should not be counted as part of the Star Wars saga.
- John W. Welch, ed., Chiasmus in Antiquity.
- Hugh Nibley, Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 268 .
- The garment [of light] represents the preexistent glory of the candidate. When he leaves on his earthly mission, it is laid up for him in heaven to await his return. It thus serves as security and lends urgency and weight to the need for following righteous ways on earth. For if one fails here, one loses not only one’s glorious future in the eternities to come, but also the whole accumulation of past deeds and accomplishments in the long ages of preexistence. See: Hugh Nibley, Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, p. 489. See also E. Hennecke et al., Acts of Thomas, 108.9-15, pp. 498-499; Blake Ostler, Clothed Upon: A Unique Aspect of Christian Antiquity, BYU Studies Quarterly: Vol. 22: Iss. 1, Article 4.
For further study
Stephen E. Robinson, Background for the Testaments, Ensign, December 1982. Robinson writes: “There are over one hundred texts in the New Testament apocrypha. Most are of little use to Latter-day Saints. One notable exception, however, is the Syriac Hymn of the Pearl, which is preserved in a later work entitled the Acts of Thomas. The Hymn is a beautiful allegory of the plan of salvation. It includes references to a premortal existence, heavenly parents, mortal probation, an exalted elder brother, reunion with the heavenly family, and ultimate exaltation. The Hymn of the Pearl was probably written in the first century A.D.”
LeGrand Baker and Stephen D. Ricks, Who Shall Ascend to the hill of the Lord? The Psalms in Israel’s temple worship in the Old Testament and in the Book of Mormon. Eborn Books, 2010. You can get an authorized PDF of this book for free here.