“But the pearls were accidents, and the finding of one was luck, a little pat on the back by God or the gods both.”
– John Steinbeck, The Pearl
Genuine pearls are rare and unusual. They also are used as metaphor in much religious writing, and are interwoven into art and in literature, like in John Steinbeck’s book, The Pearl. They are accidental gifts. Treasure. Luck. Blessing. The prize. They symbolize redemption, love, constancy, and purity. They are also multicolored, and they shimmer with irredescence. And they are round, with no beginning and no end. “When (God) inscribed a circle on the face of the deep, I (wisdom) was there.” – from the book of Proverbs.
Growing up in the 1960’s in the South, proper young women were expected to embrace certain traditions, those passed down from generations before us. One of them is wearing pearls. Pearls are worn around the neck for all proper occasions. Little baby girls are given a necklace that we add pearls to every year so that when she is grown, she will have her own strand. At weddings and funerals, we pull out our good pearls to wrap around our necks. They have even made their appearance in some of my earlier figurative paintings about family, and they always stood for the way things were done and I poked a little fun at those traditions, at the rigidity, perhaps, of my Cotillion days of white gloved dances and perfect little shoes.Not until I became a serious student of South Carolina history did I understand how very local a tradition is, how it goes back to the earliest stories of Carolina, and of the Native Americans even of Edisto Island, who buried their dead adorned with pearls, and who decorated their bodies with these jewels that used to be abundant and local. Some of the Earl of Shaftsbury’s favorite items were those made of Mother of Pearl.
“On Friday, the last day of April (1540)…the Governor took some on horseback and went toward Cofitachequi (a large and sophisticated Native American chiefdom near Camden). On the way there Indians were captured who declared that the chieftainess of that land had already heard of the Christians and was awaiting them in her towns. He sent (Captain) Juan de Anasco with some on horseback to try to have some interpreters and canoes ready in order to cross the river. “Cofitachique (or “Eupaha” according to the Indian boy, Perico, was on the bank of a river. Some Indians brought (the Lady of) Cofitachequi on a litter with much prestige. And she sent a message to us that she was delighted that we had come to her land, and that she would give us whatever she could, and she sent a string of pearls of five or six strands to the Governor. Another account says, “She was young and of fine appearance, and she removed a string of pearls that she wore about her neck and put it on the Governor’s neck.”
Seeing with fresh eyes is the gift, and I am delighted being able to connect the tradition that stands today to the Lady of Coftachique. Can’t you just picture that Governor on horseback with his neck laden with pearls? (Think Mark Sandford with a necklace of five or six strands of fat shiny pearls around his neck about now.)
Today, I can’t wait to adorn my newest little grand daughter with her own, like the ones I gave my first born, older grand daughter, last Christmas. Traditions in the South carry resonance if you get to the real beginning of the story. The Lady of Cofitachique’s tale involving such an early history of pearls in South Carolina is a rich and deep one that I can’t wait to retell when that little girl gets her first strand.