15 October 2017

The symbolism of the pearl

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:
Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.

Matthew 13:45-46
This saying is usually interpreted as illustrating the great value of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the need to sacrifice everything in order to enter it. However, nowadays readers do not necessarily appreciate the dramatically high value that a pearl represented at the time of Jesus.

Before the invention of diving equipment, pearl fishing was extremely laborious and dangerous. Often slaves or prisoners would be forced to do the work. To obtain a few pearls required harvesting thousands of oysters, from depths of up to 100 feet. Burst ear drums were common, and many divers were killed by sharks or by drowning.

First century geographer Isidore of Parthax wrote that “pearl divers run into danger when they thrust their hands straight into the open oyster, for it closes up and their fingers are often cut off, and sometimes they perish on the spot”.*

According to Pliny’s Natural History, Cleopatra once boasted that “on a single entertainment she would expend ten millions of sesterces” and that “she herself would swallow the ten millions”. She proceeded to make good her boast by drinking one of the pearls from her earrings, dissolved in a glass of vinegar.** The value of a sestertius in today’s money has been estimated to be around one pound, which suggests that the value of that one pearl was about £10 million.

The image of a pearl probably no longer conveys the order of magnitude of value intended by the originator of the saying.

In the Hymn of the Pearl, a classic Gnostic myth, the Pearl is an important symbol. A prince, the hero of the story, is sent down into Egypt (representing the physical world) to retrieve the Pearl, which is guarded by a serpent. He charms the serpent so that it becomes unthreatening, and takes the Pearl back to his royal parents. Here the Pearl symbolises something of tremendous value which has been locked up in the physical world and needs to be released.

* Isidore of Parthax, The Parthian Stations, quoted in Athenaeus’s Deipnosophistae.
** Natural History, Book 9, chapter 58. If the story is true, Cleopatra would probably have had to crush the pearl first in order for it to dissolve with sufficient speed.

I appeal for financial and moral support in improving my position.
I need people to provide moral support both for fund-raising, and as temporary or possibly long-term workers. Those interested should read my post on interns.