Friday, 23 May 2008

The gates of heaven

In every civilisation, there is always some pre-history of gods, of legends, of larger than life ancestors, of indeterminate, ghostly pre-life. The oyster has always managed to associate with such illustrious company. Gods, mighty warriors, heroes, beautiful sirens, fearsome, lithe, fire breathing creatures, fantastical epics, glorious kings and queens…the oyster has been an iconic must-have in the myths of great wealth and devil-fearing, in different manifestations whatever the religion, whatever part of the world, whatever the century even.. Oysters were in essence an idea. And that idea is most potent with the miracle of the pearl.

Revered not just through centuries, but across millennia, continents and cultures, the pearl has enjoyed the ultimate social status, notwithstanding, or possibly because of the enormous cruelty and endeavour that has been associated with its discovery and gathering. Almost of equal significance, and in some cases value, also has been the mother-of-pearl from which it is formed.

In the Bible the gates of heaven are each made from a single pearl. In Genesis God gives Adam and Eve coats as “beautiful as pearls”.

The pearl is enshrined in the Koranic description of Paradise:

"The stones are pearls and jacinths; the fruits of the trees are pearls and emeralds; and each person admitted to the delights of the celestial kingdom is provided with a tent of pearls, jacinths, and emeralds; is crowned with pearls of incomparable lustre, and is attended by beautiful maidens resembling hidden pearls."

The jacinth is red or purple, possibly a hyacinth but often used to describe gems and stones of the same colour.

Much earlier still, the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabbarata both talk of pearls. The Ramayana tells of a necklace of 27 orbs and says pearl drillers were drafted to travel with the army. Krishna dragged a pearl from the ocean to give to his daughter Pandaia for her wedding.

Further east in China, the earliest of books the Shu King dating as early as 2350 BC says that in the 23rd century BC Yu was given pearls from the river Hwai. Another source around 2800BC says pearls came from the Shen-si province on the western frontier. A man sized sculpture of an open mouthed dragon made completely from oyster shells was unearthed nearby at a Hou-kang Yang-shao in Honan. It has been dated to 4460BC.