Also known as Bar-Daisan. A Gnostic Christian poet from the Syrian city-state of Edessa (now called Urfa, or Sanliurfa, in southern Turkey), possibly of the Valentinian lineage. Some scholars refer to him as "the last of the Gnostics" because he may have been the last major teacher to attempt to disseminate Gnosticism within the ordinary Christian community. Other scholars doubt whether he was a Gnostic at all. Certainly, Bardesanes was instrumental in the introduction of Christianity into the region of Edessa, and was considered heretical by the Christians who came after him.
Bardesanes was born in Edessa to Persian parents, and obtained an excellent Persian/Greek education at the court of Edessa. He was also tutored by a priest of the Syrian Goddess Atergatis, and became familiar with the various religious traditions of the Middle East and of India. When twenty-five years old, he heard the preaching of the bishop Hystapes and converted to Christianity. He soon converted his friend king Abgar IX of Edessa (179-216 e.v.), who established Bardesanian Christianity as the Edessan state religion. When Edessa was conquered by the Roman Emperor Caracalla in 216 e.v., Bardesanes fled to Armenia, where he continued his teachings.
As with most early heretics, most of what we know of the doctrines of Bardesanes comes from the writings of his enemies, notably Ephraim Syrus of Edessa. Bardesanes wrote 150 hymns in Syriac, only a few scraps of the words of these hymns survive, but Ephraim plagiarized the music of Bardesanes for his own hymns. One extant book, The Dialogue Concerning Fate, or, the Book of the Laws of Countries, was written by one of his disciples and purports to expound Bardesanes's doctrines regarding Free Will, Fortune, and Fate. According to what can be reconstructed of the teachings of Bardesanes, his system shows considerable influence from Gnosticism, including Hermeticism, and from Chaldean mythology and astrology. He believed in a Divine Mother as well as a Divine Father. His cosmology was based on a primal dualism of God and Darkness (Hylê), with the four elements (water, air, fire and light) suspended between them. The genesis of the world occurred when these elements, through a breach of the original order, became mingled with Darkness. Salvation was accomplished by the Gnosis of Christ (his Christ was docetic: a pure spirit in the apparent form of a man), which separated the pure elements once again from the Darkness, and allowed them to rise with the assistance of the Holy Spirit into the "Bridal Chamber." To Bardesanes, the separation of the soul from the body was a blessing, and the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh was an absurd blasphemy.
Most modern scholars have abandoned the theory that Bardesanes was the author of that masterpiece of religious poetry, the "Hymn of the Pearl," also known as "The Hymn of the Soul" or "The Hymn of the Robe of Glory", which was included in the apocryphal Acts of Judas Thomas. However, G.R.S. Mead was a strong advocate of the theory that he was its author, and Mead was Crowley's primary source on Gnosticism. Regardless of its authorship, the "Hymn of the Pearl" contains some exceptionally lucid Gnostic allegory.
The Hymn tells the story of a Prince, who, as a Child, enjoyed the Wealth and Glories of his Royal Home in the East. His Parents, the King of Kings and the Queen of the East, then sent him on a Journey to Egypt, divesting him of his Robe of Glory and his Purple Mantle, and loading him with provisions. They promised him that if he would bring to them from Egypt the "Pearl that lies in the Sea, hard by the loud-breathing Serpent," that he would again wear his Robe of Glory and the Purple Mantle, and would be Heir to their Kingdom. He set forth on his Mission, travelling down through a series of Foreign Lands ruled by Tyrants, finally arriving in the Land of Egypt. He encamped next to the lodging of the Serpent, and assumed the garb of the Egyptians as a Disguise. He encountered a fellow countryman, who warned him against the trickery of the Egyptians. Nevertheless, the Egyptians gradually gained his confidence, and gave him of their Food to eat. Immediately upon eating the Food of the Egyptians, he fell into a waking Sleep, forgetting his Royal Origins and his Mission, and became a slave to the Egyptian King. His Parents perceived his trouble, and sent him a Magical Letter to remind him of his Origin and his Task, and of his Glorious Robe. The Letter flew to him like an Eagle, it alit beside him and spoke to him its Message. Recovering his memory, he succeeded in charming the Serpent to sleep by repeating to it the names of his Royal Family; and while it slept, he snatched away the Pearl. Immediately, he turned to the House of his Parents, leaving the filthy garments of the Egyptians behind him. The Letter which he had received from his Parents flew before him, guiding his way home through the Foreign Lands. Upon seeing his approach, his Parents sent Messengers to welcome him home, and to clothe him in his Glorious Robe of many colors, embroidered with the Image of his Father and bespangled with jewels, with its purple mantle to cover it. The Robe itself seemed to call out to him, and he took it joyously and wrapped it around himself. He then ascended to the Gate of the City, where he greeted his fellow Princes, and soon proceeded to the chamber of his Father, there to be received by him, to do him proper homage, and to present him with the Pearl.
This Gnostic hymn appeared later, slightly modified, as a Sufi teaching story titled "The King's Son", attributed to Amir Sultan, Sheikh of Bokhara, who taught in Istanbul and died in 1429 e.v.
Mead, G.R.S.; Fragments of a Faith Forgotten , University Books, NY
Mead, G.R.S.; "The Hymn of the Robe of Glory" in The Complete Echoes from the Gnosis [1906-1908], Chthonios Books, Hastings 1987
Jackson, Samuel McCauley (Ed. in Chief); The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI 1953
Laetscher, Lefferts A. (Ed. in Chief); The Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, an Extension of the New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI 1955
Rudolph, Kurt; Gnosis; Harper & Rowe, San Francisco, 1977
Shah, Idries; Tales of the Dervishes, Dutton, NY 1970
Originally published in Red Flame No. 2 -- Mystery of Mystery: A Primer of Thelemic Ecclesiastical Gnosticism by Tau Apiryon and Helena; Berkeley, CA 1995 e.v.