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The Myth and Lore of Pearl: June's Birthstone

Mar 28, 2008
I know of no treatise on the secret lives of oysters, the fleshy creature that lives in the depths. Is that grain inside its shell that forms the pearl like a sore that is slow to heal, or is it merely an "irritant" as it is described in the gem trade-like having a small rock in our shoe?

The lore of pearls can fill volumes, starting with the Romans. Roman writers described pearls as the "dews of heaven" that would tumble into the sea. The nefarious emperor, Caligula wore pearl slippers. Favored by the goddess of love, Venus, pearls were often dissolved in a chalice of wine which offered to one's lover. Pearls assured success in love.

Religious symbolism around pearls spans east to west. The omniscient third eye of the Buddha was said (among other gems) to be a pearl. John, the Apostle, wrote that the gates of New Jerusalem are colossal pearls. Pearls were considered a Christian symbol of the purity of Mary or the soul within the body. When kings were crowned they were covered in gold and pearls.

Lore from the orient described that on the twenty-forth month of the year, oysters would rise up, their shells open, to receive the precious rain. The Chinese believed that pearls tumbled from the mouths of dragons. (Kuntz p. 161)

Dragons symbolize the primordial power of the elements, particularly the clouds, sky, thunder and lightning. The air, the sky, in ancient alchemical texts symbolizes the mind, while the ocean represents the watery emotions. The early symbolism suggests that pearls bridge both thought and feeling.

The spherical shape of the pearl is in itself representational of completeness. The planets, the sun, perhaps the cosmos itself are spherical. They are whole, complete and unified like cells in the universe. Spheres are circles cast into the third dimensional complexity of time and space.

Spheres represent community, interdependent relationships, dynamic change and harmony. The very shape of the pearl itself is a microcosm of some greater blue print behind the existence and movement of all things.

The richness behind the meaning of pearls, however, is not limited to its shape and beauty. They are miraculous symbols of the healing processes. The oyster, living in pure waters, transforms what is not part of itself, that small alien grain, into something entirely different which lovers of pearls might call divine.

No one can avoid what Hamlet described as the, "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." We find ourselves velcroed into the fantastical fabric of our existence. Fate and free are intertwined like the double helix of our DNA. We walk through life as life walks through us - with all it pleasures, irritants and tragedies.

Our control of events is limited, but how we choose to work with our situation determines our character, as Viktor Emil Frankl described so aptly in his classic text describing his experience surviving Auschwitz. Our very nature and all that we are is determined by what we do with those grains, small and large once they get under our skin.

Ignored, the wounds have the potential to become monsters in the center of labyrinths that can cause us to limp or even become paralyzed. Turned into objects of beauty, they become numinous experiences that bring us insight into the depths of what it truly means to be human, in all its tragic glory.

No wonder, then that the pearl has long been recognized for its medicinal values. Pearls were not for the liver, blood or kidneys, but for ailments of the heart. "A great help in the palpitation of the heart, and those who are sad or timid are helped in every sickness which is caused by melancholia," wrote the thirteen century writer, Alfonso X. (Kuntz p. 162)

To understand the pearl is to understand how time's dimensionality causes a kind of layering in our psyche. Chevalier Jean de Manderville noted that, "Pearls are a stone called onion, because they are of many layers, they have several surfaces, one after another." (Kuntz p. 163).

Those who are in the process of healing their heart talk about it as peeling away the layers of an onion. The labyrinthine memories twist mysterious events that seem to be, like the layers of a pearl, hardened and fully material. They become part of us, a tension in our emotional bodies and life pathways that become normal until one goes back to experience the trauma.
Long ago, when I was in such a process, I penned these lines, part of a longer poem:

Acceptance is the fold of calcified time:
Wounds carried through lives so long
The notes of them, the mystery of the Fall
Attain an elemental purity-
Though the black pearl
With perfect magnesium nacre
Floats in the heart's cavity
Dangerously delicate to bare.

Courage, the lion's heart, is needed to enter into those dark places and transform the wound and realize the divinity in the wound. As the Jungian James Hillman wrote, the gods are wounded. The wounds themselves are divine. If this is true, then pearls represent the healing power of process and the perfection of the end; the dues of heaven and the mysterious currents of our journey deep in the heart, the ocean of our existence.

References: Most of the historical content, myth and lore referenced in this article came from two books, both of which are in print and available on line:

George Frederick Kunz, The Curious Lore of Precious Stones, New York; Dover Publications, Inc. 1913, 1971 edition.

Bruce Knuth, Gems In Myth, Legends And Lore; Parachute, Colorado, Jewelers Press, 2007.
About the Author
Marc Choyt is President of Reflective Images, a designer jewelry company, that sells pearls and ethically sourced jewelry at www.artisanweddingrings.com. His company produces eco-friendly, conflict free diamond jewelry. Marc also authors www.fairjewelry.org supporting green, fair trade, socially responsible jewelry practices.
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