Bardesan’s Hymn of the Soul

While I was yet but a little child in the House of my Father,
Brought up in luxury, well content with the life of the Palace,
Far from the East, our home, my Parents sent me to travel,
And from the royal Hoard they prepared me a load for the journey,
Precious it was yet light, that alone I carried the burden.
Median gold it contained and silver from Atropatene,
Garnet and ruby from Hindostan and Bactrian agate,
Adamant harness was girded upon me stronger than iron;
But my Robe they took off wherewith their love had adorned me,
And the bright Tunic woven of scarlet and wrought to my stature.
For they decreed, and wrote on my heart that I should not forget it:
‘If thou go down and bring for Egypt the Pearl, the unique one,
‘Guarded there in the Sea that envelopes the loud-hissing Serpent,
‘Thou shalt be clothed again with thy Robe and the Tunic of scarlet,
‘And with thy Brother, the Prince, shalt thou inherit the Kingdom.’
So I quitted the East, two Guardians guiding me downwards,
Hard was the way for a child and a dangerous journey to travel,
Soon I had passed Maishán, the mart of Eastern merchants,
Over the soil of Babylon then I hurried my footsteps,
And my companions left me within the borders of Egypt.
Straight to the Serpent I went and near him settled my dwelling,
Till he should slumber and sleep, and the Pearl I could snatch from his keeping,
I was alone, an exile under a foreign dominion,
None did I see of the free-born race of the Easterns,
Save one youth, a son of Maishán, who became my companion.
He was my friend to whom I told the tale of my venture,
Warned him against the Egyptians and all their ways of uncleanness;
Yet in their dress I clothed myself to escape recognition,
Being afraid lest when they saw that I was a stranger
Come from afar for the Pearl, they would rouse the Serpent against me.
It was from him perchance they learnt I was none of their kindred,
And in their guile they gave me to eat of their unclean dainties;
Thus I forgot my race and I served the King of the country,
Nay, I forgot the Pearl for which my parents had sent me,
While from their poisonous food I sank into slumber unconconscious.
All that had chanced my Parents knew and they grieved for me sorely,
Through the land the proclaimed for all at our Gate to assemble—
Parthian Princes and Kings, and all the Eastern Chieftains—
There they devised an escape that I should not perish in Egypt,
Writing a letter signed in the name of each of the Chieftains.
‘From thy Father, the King of Kings,—from the Queen, thy Mother,—
‘And from thy Brother,—to thee, our Son in Egypt, be greeting!
‘Up and arise from sleep, and hear the words of our Letter!
‘Thou art a son of Kings: by whom art thou held in bondage?
‘Think of the Pearl for which thou wast sent to sojourn in Egypt.
‘Think of thy shining Robe and remember thy glorious Tunic;
‘These thou shalt wear when thy name is enrolled in the list of the heroes,
‘And with thy Brother Viceroy thou shalt be in the Kingdom.’
This was my Letter, sealed with the King’s own Seal on the cover,
Lest it should fall in the hands of the fierce Babylonian demons.
High it flew as the Eagle, King of the birds of the heaven,
Flew and alighted beside me, and spoke in the speech of my country,
Then at the sound of its tones I started and rose from my slumber;
Taking it up I kissed and broke the Seal that was on it,
And like the words engraved on my heart were the words of the Letter.
So I remembered my Royal race and my free-born nature,
So I remembered the Pearl, for which they had sent me to Egypt,
And I began to charm the terrible loud-hissing Serpent:
Down he sank into sleep at the sound of the Name of my Father
And at my Brother’s name, and the Name of the Queen, my Mother.
Then I seized the Pearl and homewards started to journey,
Leaving the unclean garb I had worn in Egypt behind me;
Straight for the East I set my course, to the light of the home-land,
And on the way in front I found the Letter that roused me—
Once it awakened me, now it became a Light to my pathway.
For with its silken folds it shone on the road I must travel,
And with its voice and leading cheered my hurrying footsteps,
Drawing me on in love across the perilous passage,
Till I had left the land of Babylon safely behind me
And I had reached Maishán, the sea-washed haven of merchants.
What I had worn of old, my Robe with its Tunic of scarlet,
Thither my Parents sent from the far Hyrcanian mountains,
Brought by the hand of the faithful warders who had it in keeping;
I was a child when I left it nor could its fashion remember,
But when I looked, the Robe had received my form and my likeness.
It was myself I saw before me as in a mirror;
Two in number we stood, yet only one in appearance,
Not less alike than the strange twin guardian figures
Bringing my Robe, each marked with the royal Escutcheon,
Servants both of the King whose troth restored me my Treasure.
Truly a royal Treasure appeared my Robe in its glory,
Gay it shone with beryl and gold, sardonyx and ruby,
Over its varied hues there flashed the colour of sapphire,
All its seams with stones of adamant firmly fastened,
And upon all the King of Kings Himself was depicted.
While I gazed it sprang into life as a sentient creature,
Even as if endowed with speech and hearing I saw it,
Then I heard the tones of its voice as it cried to the keepers:
‘He, the Champion, he for whom I was reared by the Father—
‘Hast thou not marked me, how my stature grew with his labours?’
All the while with a kingly mien my Robe was advancing,
Flowing towards me as if impatient with those who bore it;
I too longed for it, ran to it, grasped it, put it upon me,
Once again I was clothed in my Robe and adorned with its beauty,
And the bright many-hued Tunic again was gathered about me.
Clad in the Robe I betook me up to the Gate of the Palace,
Bowing my head to the glorious Sign of my Father that had sent it;
I had performed His behest and He had fulfilled what He promised,
So in the Satraps’ Court I joined the throng of the Chieftains—
He with favour received me and near Him I dwell in the Kingdom
      Such is the Hymn of the Soul. Our MS. adds a fragment of yet another stanza, but the faulty metre warns us that the text has been ill preserved. It shows us however that the Prince who has returned to his Home looks forward yet to a great Day, when he will present his Pearl before the King of Kings, his Father. In that day, to change the imagery into S. Paul’s more familiar language, God will be all in all.
from F. Crawford Burkitt, Early Eastern Christianity. St Margaret’s Lectures 1904, on the Syriac-Speaking Church (London: John Murray, 1904), 218-223
The hymn appears in the “Acts of Thomas”, see M. R. James The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1924) and was also treated separately by the Theosophist G. R. S. Mead in The Hymn of the Robe of Glory (London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1908), which was listed in the Yeatses’ 1920s library.

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