Blustery late winter nights are perfect for retelling old stories. Tonight we listen again with new ears to the ancient story told in the 'hymn of the pearl' and explore how old myths and folktales can weave such powerful tales if we just allow them tell their own stories.
15th February, Wednesday
“An old moon leans back against the dawn.
Gulls scythe and cry
Between street lamps and traffic noise.
Chaos above and chaos below.
But between the concrete
There is green.”
In this episode I retell the story of the quest for the pearl which is based on the ancient Syrian (possibly Indian) song, ‘The Hymn of the Pearl’.
You can find the text in English here: The Hymn of the Pearl.
The song is part of a much longer late second/early third century gnostic text, the ‘Acts of Thomas’. You can read the full text here translated into English from the Syriac: The Acts of Thomas.
Gnosticism appears to have been a widespread stream of early Christian thought within the emerging Church. Its focus was on salavation through the reception of revealed (divine) knowledge, encapsulated in the figure and (secret) teachings of Jesus, rather than his crucifixion and resurrection. It viewed all matter as evil and, therefore perceived the creator god of the earth (as depicted in the Hebrew Bible) as an evil demiurge (lesser god). For more information on Gnosticism see: Gnosticism-IEP
The beginning of a later version of the Gospel of Thomas written in Coptic and dated to around 340 CE. Found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945.
Image: Photographer unknown. Wikepedia. Public Domain.
Mary, Arabella, and Stephen.
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In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.
Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence.
Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.
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15th February, Wednesday
“An old moon leans back against the dawn.
Gulls scythe and cry
Between street lamps and traffic noise.
Chaos above and chaos below.
But between the concrete
There is green.”
You join me on a night of racing clouds and a drift of stars. It's blowy, but mild and the trees are a-dance. This is NB Erica narrowcasting into the darkness to you wherever you are. Thank you so much for coming. I'd already got the kettle warming and stoked the fire in case you could make it. It's a wild night, so come inside for a while and welcome aboard.
Milder weather has given a spring-like feeling to much of the week. In fact, more than one person has mentioned that it’ll be nice to do a spot of spring-cleaning soon. Spring is a bit like that. It creates a desire for clean starts. No matter how much you try to keep on top of it, running a solid fuel stove means that dust and ash slowly accumulates on surfaces and edges. It’s therefore nice when you can get an opportunity to strip everything down and give everything a good wash and brush up. And, actually, Donna this week, when I was out at work, started sanding down and revarnishing the wooden drop-down table that is situated in the cratch or well deck, in the bow of the boat. It is one of the newer features to the Erica and had it made for us just after we bought her. It makes eating outside so much easier and, on hot days, it is lovely to work from.
We are entering the period of school half-term holidays and it is nice to see more boats out and about. The towpath has been busy too. Green shoots are bursting out all along the bankside and the bared earth is being covered with an ever-thickening mat of lime and emerald green vegetation. The rabbits are becoming a bit more visible and earlier today a squirrel scolded me for sitting under their tree.
The ducks are now increasingly busy and pairing off. However, I still haven’t seen that much of the swans. Although, I haven’t been around during the day that much this week. I did see one (I couldn’t see if it was the male or female), but that was my only sighting.
We are now beginning to become much more careful about closing doors and zipping down canopies? The ducks are very much on the hunt for safe and cosy nesting sites. A well deck or a semi-trad stern deck, are viewed as prime duck real estate
Listen to the wind.
This is the oceanic sound of trees in the wind. Bare limbs bending and whipping, bucking and jostling. ‘And all the trees of the fields will clap their hands’ the psalmist writes, he did not mention their song.
We are experiencing the outer edges of Storm Otto. The gusts are not much above 25 to 30 mph. They are much stronger further north.
Nevertheless, the Atlantic blown winds bellow and roar through the tops of the trees that line the canal towpath on the opposite bank.
It is just like being at the coast here. The noise, breakers foaming on the harbour bar. This little inlet that forms the shallow bay is like a miniature seaside cove. A succession of ripples spreading out from the centre of the canal, send a pulse of gentle waves that swell and ebb like sea-tides. A rush and then drawback that covers and uncovers the thrown slabs and shingle. A few of the smaller stones are caught in the currents.
From time to time, the wind whips and barrels down the length of the canal, driving fanning ridges into the water’s choppy surface. It doesn’t quite create white crests, but they’re not far off. The water is thick and lumpy, the colour of dampened clay. Today it is being sculpted by the wind.
I crouch beside the little patch of dead willowherb. It’s warm. I am almost too hot in my coat. I think about taking it off, but I am enjoying just sitting here too much to move. Perhaps later. One of last year’s tan ash keys that are still hanging from the great ash opposite us, flutters passed me. I try to see where it has landed, but the leaf litter is too great.
I can hear the crows, but I can’t see any. It’s strange. I would have thought that this would be exactly the type of day and the type of wind to bring them out in a tumultuous carnival of acrobating, hooliganing, hanging on the wind with wings outstretched “Look at meeeee!!”. I suppose that they have more serious jobs to do. This wind will bring down many a much-needed nest. Crows’ nests are not particularly robust constructions in the best of times. Often appearing as a thrown catastrophe of twigs. There’ll be emergency repairs to be done. Egg laying is almost imminent.
It is now the time for the height if the arial duck displays. Two males duelling for the female. The one that can cut the other off appears to be the winner. Three ducks exploding out of the water, cutting low and fast at tree top height, arcing around. The loser, pulling out, veering away to the left or right.
Unsurprisingly, they all seem to be grounded today. Crouched on the bankside or blown to the canal’s edges. Their feathers, at times, being blown awry by a gust. Like me, they prefer to sit it out. Wait.
For some reason, the noise and the frenetic movement seems to calm me. My hair is being blown every which way, but I feel strangely stilled.
I watch a leaf drift in and out of the bay.
And listen to the wind.
Winter nights and firelight have always been times for stories and this winter night in this firelight is no different. For stories help us to understand our world and who we are in the world; to offer advice, to warn, to instruct, to entertain.
This one is one I have known for a number of years, and it poses certain challenges for me in its telling. This is because, I know it when wearing a different kind of hat. Although, I haven’t specifically taught this one, it’s part of a collection of ancient texts that I include in some of the modules I teach. There, in the classroom, we investigate and dissect them. We explore their historical and literary contexts, analyse the language they use; genre, syntax. We consider the context in which they were used, what the authors (and often there is more than one hand in their current form) were trying to convey, the issues being addressed, what their audiences might have taken from them.
In other words, it exemplifies the distance we have travelled in our approach to and use of text (both written and oral). We read things differently. We use then in different ways. Therefore, it is not surprising that a lot of ancient text, particularly myth, legend, and lore are generally pushed to the cultural margins as being either naïve, out of date, anachronisms of a history we have left behind long ago or relegated to slightly strange, slightly anachronistic, entertaining children’s stories (or adult escapism?). Myth doesn’t work in our world of analytical reading. We get fixated on the wrong things. The tiny details, and it closes our eyes and ears to the stories they weave. They are also too fluid, too prone to change – to variety. We like the versions of our ancient texts to be as old as possible and as close to the original as possible. Even our retellings aim to the ‘definitive modern retelling.’ As if no further retelling is needed. Dead letters, not living words. Dead letters can be pinned to a board and studied. Living words are a little too wild, unmanageable. But, oh, don’t we need them today?
And so, I’m going to tell a story because it is one that has been playing on my mind for a couple of months. In the form we have it, it comes from Syria, but most likely originated much earlier in India. It is part of a collection of ancient texts called the New Testament Apocrypha – writings that developed and circulated shortly after Christianity began to emerge from its parent of Judaism. They are a wide and varied range of texts that include, gospels, epistles, apocalypses, and acts.
Tonight’s story – or in fact song or poem – is rather abruptly inserted into one particular early second century gnostic text – the Acts of Thomas. It is an account of the ministry of the Apostle Thomas Didymus, the disciple known for his doubts, and here presented as Jesus’ twin brother (and, at times, interchangeable with him) – something which would raise a few theological eyebrows today. However, within its early second century gnostic setting was not a problem at all, but in fact neatly encapsulates its theology. Nevertheless, this is not what I want to talk about
My challenge tonight in telling the story to you is not to read it analytically, but tell it (rather than read) as myths should be told. I’ll attempt to keep the main elements of the story, the narrative skeleton, but the thing is to let the setting, our setting paint the colours, form the contours. Myths were always told in the present for the listener’s present. That way, the story stayed alive, taking new and sometimes strange turns. Myths were dynamic, untamed, and always, always, relevant. Each performance, new and in some ways unique, woven from the shared space of firelight between teller and listeners. It is because of that, they had this capacity to tell the very stories that the listeners needed to hear – to soak down deep inside them, to lodge an image, a phrase, that would help them navigate community and life. Because of this, they are also dangerous, wild, uncontainable. They take you to the unsafe places within the familiar world. They take you to meet Manannán Mac Lir riding his chariot across the ocean waves and you will see the world as you have never seen it before. They speak the unspeakable. They speak forbidden truth to power. You will hear the willow’s whisper on the soft breeze golden with evening light, that the great, imposing, King Labhraí Loingseach has horse’s ears. I am glad that interest in the old myths is once more on the rise. But I am even more glad that that interest is not exegetical or analytical, but it is finding ways to let these old voices speak to the present and find in them, something forever young.
And so, whilst I might from time to time, break in and explain something, I will try to let the story tell itself. To let it find its own contours by which to flow. To give it free reign, to open its wings and let it soar into the nights of our stars and loves and fears – and lead us where it may. For this is how myths and legends, folklore and fireside stories have always worked. This is why we need them now.
It all happened a long, long, time ago, as these stories often do, in a world of summer and light. It was the type of world we recognise in our dreams and in the embers of memories of memories.
And it began like this:
How many of the old stories and tales begin like that? With a young boy or a young girl? Our cultural drift and consequent mythological amnesia mean we tend to assume that these are clearly stories for children and are relegated to the literary margins away from texts more appropriate for adult consumptions. Yes, these spoken stories themselves are communal events; inclusive, embracing. Children can listen, participate, learn and enjoy, but not to the exclusion of others. To ignore or dismiss them as childish fantasies that are primitively naïve in depicting worlds that are illusory and irrelevant – or, at best, as escapism from the realities of the real world, is to completely miss understand how myth and legend work.
For myth and legend and folklore provide structures to help us construct or understand our own narratives that we live. They – the good ones, the ones that have been honed and refined through use, speak to that part within us, deep, deep, down, that remains forever young. These are stories at speak to us, not as we are – locked into the rigid carapace of adult conformity – but to the essence of ourselves that we are born as and that, somehow, miraculously always remains alive. The young spark of fire that is you and that has always been and will always be, no matter how old your body will grow, how old and tired your mind will get, how old your spirit becomes. The forever young you that lies at the very heart of you; that remains rooted, for good or ill, in the convulsions and joys of your past, the cartographies of the soul of your personal histories.
And so, the stories begins with a young child talking – just as the young child in me is now talking to the young child in you.
The small child in this story was, unsurprisingly for the time, a boy, but it could have been a girl. And we are told of how loved the little boy was, nurtured and protected within his family home. His small world was prescribed with protective borders so that he walks feely and safely, without care or concern. He is clothed with a toga of rich purple, lavish and royal, the material measured to fit his small body perfectly and on his shoulders he wears the most splendid robe that you ever saw which ‘in their love had wrought for him.’
One day his parents approach the little boy and tell him that the time has come for him to leave the secure borders of the land he knows so well; the land which has nurtured and sustained him. The land which has filled his life with the glitter and beauty. The time has come to leave and go on a long journey far, far, away. For there are other lands that call to him. Lands of joy, lands of pleasure, but also lands of sorrow and regret. And he must visit these lands – know their paths, find where the springs bubble and rivers flow, discover how the sunsets on monstrous grey mountains, and the sting of rain and the bite of brutal wind. To all these lands he must journey. Although, he knows this already, for even in his dreams he has heard them call to him. Just as, there came a time when we knew it was time to go. Time to discover new lands. He must go, they say and gently lift from his shoulders the splendid robe woven with their love from all that is beautiful and sustaining in the land of his birth. And their hearts break at the tears he sobs.
Without his splendid robe woven from love he feels alone. Lost. An unperson. As a dandelion seed must feel, blown from the perfect globe onto a careless wind, vulnerable, drifting, abandoned in air and mud. He reaches out a skinny arm to take back the robe, to feel again the person he is, the child of his parents, the one who is welcomed and accepted in his own land. But they smile gently and push his grasping hands away. Through his hurt and his tears he cannot see their tears. All he can feel is the emptiness on his shoulders, the cold penetrating down his back. All he can feel is what he has lost.
“I will go.” He sobs, “But please let me wear my splendid robe woven in your love. It will keep me warm when I am cold. It will keep me dry when it is wet. I can face any danger if I am wearing it. It will. If I wear it I can never be truly lost, for it will remind me of who I am and where my home really is.”
His parents replied, “It is not the robe on your shoulders that give you these gifts. It is the one here.” And they kissed his forehead. “Remember the robe and all these things will come to you. The robe is just something you put on your body, but it is made from all those things that are already a part of you. These we wove together so that you would be reminded that you are our child and the place to which you belong. Never forget the memory of the robe. But we will make this vow – listen carefully and write it on the deepest part of your heart. If you go to the Land of the South and dive down under the foaming waters in the midst of the sea and bring back here the one pearl that is guarded by the loud breathing serpent, you shall put on again your splendid robe.”
How many of our well-loved old stories involve not just a journey, but a quest; a task? A quest for something rather absurd, impossible; and yet, in the light of all the impossibilities of life that we face, we can somehow relate to them. We too are somehow, somewhere, deep down, on our own quests for something. Possibly for something that we can no longer remember, but when that quest stirs, we know the feeling of disquiet, of restlessness. And because of this, we can understand and, perhaps even within the mundane busyness of our day-to-day lives we begin, once more, to recognise the epic. For the epic stories are never really about the old (and new) gods or the great warrior heroes of the past, they are, in fact, about you and me. And the quest, whether it is to find a grail, or a treasure beyond price, or whether it is to fulfil certain impossible tasks, is also never really about the object of the quest. It is always something far more internal.
As the robeless young child stepped out onto the threshold of his journey, his loss and his lostness still marking its trails on his cheeks, his parents watched him. How hard that must have been. To lose their child in the letting go. To open the hand in which the butterfly is clasped, to raise it to the sky and to let it go. Grief for grief in the first steps of fulfilling the humanness. They stood by their palace gates and watched him head out, with two stalwart attendants into a beautiful, exciting, ferocious world. The world that lay beyond the beyond the borders of their own country. They were wise parents and their love must have been strong as they watched their child get smaller and smaller as he walked into the dusky distance. For they knew that the quest was never about a pearl.
The boy walked with his two companions following the trade routes and drovers’ tracks across mountains, forested valleys, go further and further south. They stopped each night at taverns and hostels, wayside lodgings, caravansaries. Some nights, the slept under hedges or took shelter in scrubby woods where the fields receded into wilderness. They wandered the crowded souqs and cluttered marketplaces – all the time heading south. And in the night time, the stars would whisper ‘remember your splendid robe. Remember your splendid robe.’ And in the day, the buzzards and carrion birds that circled in the furnace hot sky called down to the parched earth ‘remember your splendid robe. Remember your splendid robe.’ Beside the river, whose waters sparkled blindingly in the sun, the reeds would rustle, ‘remember your splendid robe. Remember your splendid robe.’ And the boy would remember his robe and drew strength from it. I am not lost, neither am I alone. I have a splendid robe woven for me by my parents’ love.
And so, he passed through the hot desert sands and dusty earth of Mesene, and Babylon, Sarbug and Arabia. And he went down to Land of the South. There he went straight to the sea and sought the loud breathing serpent that lived in the deeps below the cresting waves and guarded with her body the one single pearl. And he could see, from the movements of the waters the writhing of her body, and hear through the breakers roar her breathing. And so there he waited. There he stayed until she should fall into a slumbering sleep, for then he would dive down and take the one single pearl that lay guarded in the centre of her coiled body.
But as it happened. Loud breathing dragons (for that is how the term ‘serpents’ was principally understood in those days) that live in the depths of the ocean seldom sleep and so his wait was long. His wait was arduous. His two companions gave up and left him, drawn to the light, and life, the colour and the sounds of Land of the South. By the sea the boy remained. And still the loud breathing serpent refused to sleep. During those long days and nights, he sat in the light of the sun and moon. He was comforted each night by the star song, ‘remember your splendid robe. Remember your splendid robe.’ When his patience was nearly spent the lapping ocean into which the great River flowed, whispered, ‘remember your splendid robe. Remember your splendid robe.’ The wheeling gulls cried from skies of sailors’ blue, ‘remember your splendid robe. Remember your splendid robe.’
And as the months grew long and the moon grew old and was reborn in the east, grew old and was again reborn, their song, ‘remember. Remember’ filled his dreams.
But at last, as sometimes happens, the boy too gave up. ‘I will come back in a little while.’ The boy said to himself, ‘and then when I return in a week or two, perhaps, the loud breathing serpent might be asleep. I am getting older now and in need of company now that my companions have left me.’
And so, the boy made his way to a hostelry above a crowded souq that was filled with life and the pungent scent of spices and incense, and the glow of beaten copper on which the oil-lamp’s flame flickered as if in dreams. There he met a fellow traveller from his homeland and they fell into conversation as fellow travellers in strange lands often do. They quickly became friends and his new friend warned him to be very careful of the those who live in this country. They are not like our own. Do not trust them. Do not let them see you are of different birth. The men of this country are dangerous.
For that is the nature of humankind. It is always easier to spy the monster in a stranger than it is to see their human heart.
And so, the boy, changed his clothes, for clothes like theirs. And he spoke in the way that they spoke, so that they might not know that he was a foreigner. For it is hard to be a stranger in a foreign land. And quickly, he made friends with the townsfolk. They gave him food and they gave him drink. They invited him into their homes to rest. And showed him around their town and all the wonders and beauties it contained. But there were times when he would stand beside the great River and watch the water flow towards the sea and he would catch the faintest sound of a song within the rustling reeds and the willow trees, ‘remember. Remember.’ And there were days, when he could not quite remember what it was that he should remember. But the knowing that there was something, gave him comfort and warmth, even though a strange feeling of discontent and restlessness would also arise.
And he would stand as if entranced by such a wistful melody. ‘I wonder what I should be remembering?’ he thought. “Why is it that it makes me feel as if I do not belong here? As if, somehow, I have taken the wrong path? That this is not how life is lived?”
He was young still and these are questions that many far older than him could not answer and so he would sadly, walk back from the softly flowing River and the rustling reeds and the dewfall of stars to his little room and there he would sleep.
Then there came the day when even the song he could no longer hear. All he could hear was just a rustle among the reeds and the wind through the willow branches. He was touched by their beauty and would sit for hours watching the sun dance on the waters. Each time he got up from the bank, he didn't know why such beauty left him feeling sad or created such a longing for something that he couldn't explain.
As the weeks passed, the story tells us that he filled his days with filling himself with the richness of their food and, because of it, began to fall into a deep, deep, sleep. It was the type of slumber in which working day rolls into working day until the haze of weeks merge and flow into one, and the seasons pass unnoticed and unmarked.
From time to time, in dreams, he would hear the echoes of a melody he once thought he knew, ‘remember. Remember.’ But he no longer remembered what it meant.
However, back in his homeland, his parents had never forgotten. Each day, they sought news from the south about their child. In the evenings, they would go up to the highest balcony of their palace and look out across the vale to the borderlands waiting, waiting, for the sight of a small figure in the dusky haze of the distance. But when darkness had fallen and the moon was climbing high in the sky, they would turn and sadly go back inside. His mother would go over to his room and run her fingers over the splendid robe that she had woven. ‘Perhaps it will be tomorrow.’ His father would say.
But, in their heart of hearts, they knew what had happened. For doesn’t this always happen? When we begin to leave our childhood, childishness is not the only thing we leave behind. Our growing is as much about growing less as it is about growing more. And so, one day, the parents sat down and said, ‘We must do something. He shall not be left alone in a foreign land.”
And so, they set out to write a letter to him, and in the letter
And the letter took the form of an eagle, the king of birds, and flew across mountain and desert to the Land of the South.
No, that is not quite right. That is not how the story goes. The eagle WAS the letter and the letter was an eagle – the two were one, indivisible entity. And the eagle flew on his powerful wings straight to the Land of the South and to the child who was sleeping alone in a world he had no place in. The child awoke and took the eagle in his arms, kissing his head, and he read his parents’ words. As he read, it was as if his blanket of slumber fell away from his body and mind and he remembered. He remembered the one pearl and the loud breathing serpent. But most of all he remembered the splendid robe that he used to wear and how it was waiting for him to return. He could feel the weight of it once more upon his shoulders, and the warmth it gave him on cold winter nights, when he would wrap it tightly around his small body and hug it close. Once more, as if the clouds had suddenly parted and the full moon shone brightly down, the world was, again, filled with music and song. Once again, he could hear most clearly the song of the stars and the whispering of the reeds on the banks of the great River. At the same time, he realised that that song had never ceased and that he had always known its melody deep within him. These songs, these awakenings, are never easy and often painful. There is often such deep sadness in their melodies. As he sat, his tears flowed, wetting the back and wings of the eagle – the eagle that had flown to him with a message that he had forgotten but always forever knew. And he understood. He understood why he could never really felt at home and, even among his new friends (whom he dearly loved), never really felt part of them. As if he had been thrown and cast adrift in a land that could not make sense.
Perhaps, for the first time, he could see the true value of the robe was not in its fine threads and encrusted jewels, but that his parents had wrought that beauty from nowhere else than from himself and woven it together with their love.
And the story tells us how the boy, dived to the ocean deeps to the place where the loud breathing serpent guarded the one single pearl. And there he enchanted the serpent into a deep sleep – for these were the days before dragons were things thought to be conquered and slaughtered – and he took the one single pearl from the coils of her body and brought it home.
And that is how it always is. That which can speak only to that which remains young within us, the strange, enchanted letter that calls deep unto deep, will always come like this. Not as a letter, but a letter lived out. Unexpected encounters that become charged with significance and weight.
It may be a silent meeting with a heron, in whose eyes you recognise something of you. The sound of a flight of wild geese that stings a memory of something old, older than you. A crow’s call that challenges deep within. A flicker of light through silver birch leaves. The warm, welcoming, scent of an old oak tree in the rain. Dawn light breaking through a misty glade, a breeze that touches something much deeper than your skin.
A moment in time that jolts you awake and you remember once more who you really are. Reminding you that you are much more than who you have become and who those around see. And that slowly it begins to make sense why you feel like you have awoken in the wrong universe, out of time, out of place. Why you feel at a loss and so dislocated, and that things make little sense.
And once more, you remember that, although you might feel far away, you do have a place called home. That you are not lost or alone; you are loved, you belong. A message sent straight to you, eagle straight, that helps you to make sense of the lost songs that you hear the stars and the reed sing in your dreams.
That you have journeyed and journeyed far – travel-stained and tired. And the quest for the pearl is nearing its end and the splendid robe is warming by the fire. Waiting for you to put it on and to walk this earth knowing you are home. See, look up to the sky where it is dark blue, almost indigo, there is the eagle winging its way back to your waiting parents. Bringing news back to them. “Soon, soon, your child will return.”
This is the narrowboat Erica signing off for the night and wishing you a very restful, peaceful night filled with good, wise dreams. Good night.