Essay: An Examination of "The Tablet of the Holy Mariner"

Written by Baha’u’llah in 1863, The Tablet of the Holy Mariner is considered one of the few pieces that directly deals with the mystical side of the Baha’i Faith. Most of it is building upon pre-established concepts gathered from Gnosticism and Sufism in particular (the sea of light, the ark of belief, a multitiered heaven of which the higher levels are unattainable, the maiden of heaven, et cetera). This is actually somewhat comforting, since it indicates that the latest manifestation truly is just an update to the prior manifestations, whose Word had become muddied over time.

To give a quick summation of the story, it begins by explaining a bit of our past: namely that the faithful had been brought before heaven, where the believers had been cleansed of self and passion, and given entrance to God’s holy realm. These believers sought higher into the heavens than God had decreed for them, and he punished them with a flaming meteor, and sent them back into the mortal world, where they were ordered to abide until such a time that they were ready for that higher level. Someone called the maiden of heaven, whom had never been known to speak (“no ear through all eternity hath ever heard,” line 61), came before the Celestial Concourse and stated that only those who had achieved true faithfulness in the Arabian Youth could enter the highest heaven. She sent one of her handmaidens down into the world to look for people who had achieved this. The handmaiden returned in such despair at the lack of true faith that she released her spirit and was sent into the presence of God. The story ends with the other handmaidens grieving violently for their dead sister.

While the story itself is interesting, what is far more intriguing is the particular phrasing and specific details of the story. These details tend to leap out due to the format of the story, broken into lines separated by the phrase “Glorified be our Lord, the All-Glorious!” Because the flow of the story is broken up like this, it becomes easier to focus on each line separately. (The counterpoint to this is that it is harder to capture the piece as a whole, without writing down the lines yourself.)

Personally, I view this tablet as an interpretive story, a history-through-parable. In particular, extrapolative history, dealing with what we call “prehistory” (the period between when homo sapiens first appear and when our first recorded civilization appears). This tablet serves as a remarkable collection of information available for interpretation. Given my predisposition towards science fiction, my personal interpretation of the tablet deals primarily with the thought of Man having a prior advanced civilization, possibly space-faring. The opening line deals with an “ark of eternity” and a “Celestial Concourse,” which could be interpreted as a space-faring ship. This ship is then “launched upon the ancient sea” (again, a “sea of stars” is a common literary metaphor, and would not seem out of place in this situation), and is filled with dwellers of “divine attributes” (most religions have ties between wisdom/knowledge and a divine source). They are told not to “tarry in the snow-white spot” which could possibly be some form of faster than light travel such as “hyperspace”, and that they are free to “wing through space even as the favored birds in the realm of eternal reunion,” at which point a “burning meteor cast them out” (a meteor destroys our access to “hyperspace”, or possibly impacts our planet and decimates all life on it, destroying whatever civilization there was). Man is returned to dwell in the mortal, mundane world. After a period of time, the “maid of heaven” (another advanced race? A surviving remnant of our own species?) sends her “maidservant” (a scouting expedition?) to search out signs of the “Youth that hath been hidden within the tabernacle of light” (our prior advanced civilization?). This maidservant finds none, and dies in despair.

While this interpretation is simplified and clearly science-fiction, the basic concepts are not outside the realm of possibility. Archaeologists have been able to place the origin of homo sapiens at roughly 140,000 BC (possibly earlier), and a fairly broad dispersal of man as long ago as 40,000 BC. But the first signs of civilization we have is 7000-5000 BC (depending on who you talk to). We have very little clue what happened during the intervening millennia. There is evidence of several worldwide catastrophes, including significant volcanic activity, global flooding, possibly meteor impacts, and recent evidence to suggest that the earth’s poles shifted at least once during that time. That is all in addition to at least one massive ice age that could have quite easily blotted out any sign of prior civilization that may have otherwise survived the other disasters. Considering how much of our past has been lost purely of our own accord (book burnings, holy wars, censorship, vandalism, cities getting sacked, plagues, et cetera) this is all well within the realm of possibility. Further suggesting prior civilization is the amount of unaccounted-for time compared to how quickly we’ve built our current civilization. It somehow doesn’t ring true that given around 140,000 years, no civilization was created.

That is of course just one interpretation; there are many possibilities as to what exactly it means. Regardless of its true meaning, the Tablet of the Holy Mariner is a fascinating piece of writing, and well worth the effort to read it, if only for the marvelous ideas it presents.