The making of the natural pearl commences when a grain of sand from the ocean or river floor works its way into the body of a pearl-bearing mollusk. To protect itself from this alien source of agitation, the mollusk secretes a substance (nacre, or mother-of-pearl) that slowly and cumulatively coats the foreign body until it loses its abrasive contours and becomes smooth and spherical in shape. On account of its singular origin, the pearl has been a symbol of sacred power since ancient times.
In many archaic cultures the marine shell, because of its appearance, is associated with the female genitalia, and the pearl is believed to be both the sacred product and the emblem of the feminine generative power. The pearl thus symbolizes both the life that is created and the mysterious force that begets life. One example of this reproductive symbolism is found in Beiya, a Chinese text of the eleventh century CE. The author of Beiya likens the pearl to a developing fetus and calls the oyster "the womb of the pearl." The anthropomorphic image for this sacred power is the goddess of love. In the ancient Mediterranean world, shells and pearls were often symbols for the great goddesses. In a manner analogous to the pearl's origin in an oyster, Aphrodite was born from a marine conch, and the Syrian goddess was known as the Lady of Pearls.
It is through this connection with feminine generative power that the pearl becomes a symbol for regeneration and rebirth as well. As a regenerative force, the pearl is often thought to have the power to heal or protect from harm. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the seventeenth century, a debate flourished among European physicians concerning the best way to prepare a pearl for healing purposes: Should it be ground or dissolved? In either case, an elixir containing a pearl was prescribed for numerous physical ailments. An Eastern example of the belief in the power of the pearl to protect life is found in the iconography of the bodhisattva Kṣitigarbha, who is especially venerated in Japanese Buddhism by pregnant women and young children as the protector of all weak and suffering humanity; statues and images depict Kṣitigarbha holding a pearl, his emblem, in his left hand. Because of their connection with rebirth and resurrection, pearls have been found in the tombs of rulers in lands as far apart as Egypt and the Americas. In Laos, a pearl is inserted into each orifice of a corpse to effect safe passage into the next world.
Finding and obtaining the natural pearl is both hard work and a hazardous undertaking. Pearl fishers are known to work in pairs: One dives deep into the sea while a partner stays above to hold the other end of the fisher's lifeline and, after a predetermined time, to haul both pearl fisher and catch to the surface. The difficulties of locating and harvesting the natural pearl give rise to a second level of symbolism: The pearl represents the hard-won goal of spiritual striving. For example, in the parable about the merchant who found a pearl of special value and so went to sell everything he owned in order to purchase it, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a pearl. In medieval European alchemy, one of the many names for the philosophers' stone is margarita pretiosa, or "precious pearl." In The Pearl, a Middle English tale by an anonymous author, the hero laments the disappearance of his pearl in a grassy meadow. Seeking it, he falls into another world, where he experiences spiritual renewal and regains the balance of his own inner nature. Zhuangzi, the legendary Daoist mystic, reports how the Yellow Emperor lost his "night-pearl" during an excursion to the edge of the world. He sought for it by means of every resource at hand: by science, by analysis, by logic. But only when, in despair, the emperor turned to the "emptiness" (xu) that is the ground of all things was the pearl restored to him.
The search for the pearl is also the theme of the Gnostic Hymn of the Pearl, which relates how a prince leaves his heavenly home to recover a pearl that lies buried in Egypt in the possession of a giant serpent. The prince is sent forth by his father, mother, and brother, who watch over his journey in a way reminiscent of the second fisherman who holds the lifeline at the surface of the sea. The prince inevitably succumbs to the spell that governs all Egypt (a Gnostic symbol for the illusion of cosmic existence). He loses all memory of his origins and of the pearl (i. e., he becomes spiritually ignorant or unconscious). But his watchful parents send forth a message to awaken him and to remind him of his identity and his mission to recover the pearl.
Especially in the East, from India to Japan, the pearl is often depicted in the possession of a dragon or sea monster. These mythological beings, like the serpent in the Hymn of the Pearl, are common symbols for chaos, that admixture of forces both cosmic and spiritual that oppose the establishment of a meaningful and inhabitable order. Thus, the search for the pearl often entails a heroic confrontation with the demonic.
Wherever the cultivation or liberation of the soul is regarded as the goal of spiritual striving, the pearl may symbolize the soul itself. This belief may have historical roots in the mythological thinking of the Hellenistic world, from which has come the formula "Ho sōma, hē sarx" ("The body is the tomb"). In this view, the subject of spiritual and eternal life is the immortal soul that exists within an alien and perishable body. According to the Mandaeans, the pearl's temporary home within the oyster provides an allegory for the temporary dwelling of the soul within the body. A variation of this imagery is found in the Coptic Kephalaia, a Manichaean text that relates how the soul is like a raindrop that falls into the sea and enters the body of an oyster in order to develop into a pearl. So, too, the soul acquires permanent definition and individuality by enduring life in the body. The pearl as a symbol for the actualized soul found its way into the poetry of the Ṣūfī mystic Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār:
Out of the ocean like rain clouds come and travel—
For without traveling, you will never become a pearl!