Meaning of the Christian Fish Symbol
Adopted from Paganism?
The Christian Fish. (Huh? Can fish be Christian?)1
An ancient symbol that has seen a revival in Christian circles, although not universally.
The Christian Fish Symbol
also called 'The Jesus Fish'
also called 'The Jesus Fish'
The Christian fish symbol is usually just two simple curved lines. Modern looking and sleek, incorporated in several church emblems and often seen on car bumpers, it gives many people the impression that it's a new symbol. In fact, its history goes back even further than the cross as a symbol used by Christians.
As early as the 2nd century Titus Flavius Clemens (St. Clement of Alexandria), suggested that Christians identify themselves with a seal depicting a fish or dove2. Even before that time, inscriptions on monuments3 suggest that the fish symbol was familiar to Christians.
Why the fish and not the cross?
As in the miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, the fish is a symbol of baptism and as such, an appropriate symbol for Christians to adopt. Fish swim in deep water yet do not drown; indeed, they need to be immersed in water in order to survive. Similarly for us to survive spiritually, we need to be baptised by immersion into the waters of Christ's love; the love he showed by dying on the cross.
After Christ's Crucifixion his followers were persecuted and the fish symbol was used as an identifying symbol that fellow Christians would recognise, but others would not. Therefore Christians could connect with each other through a secret code, such as a fish symbol, without revealing themselves to the oppressors.
The fish was considered important enough to be mentioned many times in the Bible and more recently there have been several additional thoughts about the early use of this symbol. Carl Liungman wrote in his magisterial volume 'Dictionary of Symbols'4:
Phoenician symbol for 'fish'
"... 'Virgo' is based on the Hebraic letter 'mem' and the Phoenician symbol meaning 'fish'. It became, early on, a sign representing Jesus and the mystery of His virginal birth."
As with the nimbus or mandorla this sign may be surrounded by the aurelia or gloria, emitting rays of light and is, heraldically, limited to surrounding the Trinity or any member of the Trinity, most often Jesus. (Images of Mary may be seen surrounded by a mandorla but only if she holds the Christ Child in some way.)
Three of these interwoven shapes form a triquetra; a symbol of the Trinity. The triquetra is the basis of the Carolingian Cross.
What is "Ichthys"?
|(* pronounced Iios -|
with emphasis on the 'o')
So in addition to the simple and easily recognisable symbol, there is also a motto that describes Jesus as Christ, God's Son, and Saviour.
This use of the fish might also have been partly a protest against the Pagan emperors of the time, who named themselves Theou Yios (God's sons), which appears on Alexandrian coins minted during of the reign of Domitian, 11th Emperor of the Roman Empire, 81-96 AD.
What else is associated with the fish?
The Greek character for alpha (α) is similar to the fish symbol, as is the Omega (Ω) if rotated 90°. This may also have had some influence on the decision for Christians to adopt the symbol, since Jesus calls himself "the Alpha and the Omega"6 – the beginning and the end. (See also Alpha and Omega Cross.)
And if we rotate the Runic character for "O" (ᛟ) by 90°, it doesn't take too much imagination to see "X" and "P" in the symbol, which form the monogram of Christ. (See also Chi-Rho Cross.)
Sink or swim
In the 4th century, the cross became a more popular symbol for Christians, and the symbolism of the fish gradually disappeared.
In recent years, however, some Christian groups have attempted to give their religion a fresh new look by reviving the fish as an alternative symbol. Some argue that this is a healthy 'downgrading' of the cross, which they say should not be treated as a god (being mindful not to give reverence the fish symbol7). Other groups prefer the cross, because the fish symbol doesn't directly reflect Christ's sacrifice. Fortunately for Christians, they can make their own choices.
So it's a wake-up call for fish, but...
Do fish sleep?
Yes, fish sleep. But they don't close their eyes, they don't snore, and they don't steal their partner's blanket. If they dream, we don't know what they dream about. Fish sleep differs from human sleep; they simply reduce their activity and metabolism, although many keep moving to maintain the flow of oxygenated water through the gills, allowing them to breathe.
Because their eyes are always surrounded by water, they don't need to moisten them as we do when we blink, so most fish have no eyelids8. The association of the fish with religion is that with constantly open eyes, the fish reminds us that God is always watching what we do.
What do you call a fish with no eyes?
Which way does the fish swim?
The 'Jesus Fish' is conventionally shown swimming from right to left. And there are two likely reasons for this:
There are many fish in the sea and Christianity doesn't have a monopoly on the symbol:
The Pagan fish symbol
Let's go back to a time even before St. Clement, since Paganism has been around much longer than Christianity.
Neopagans are often quick to point out, that the fish is not a Christian-owned symbol at all, but was derived from a sexually related image.
The New Age fish symbol
Astrologers are often quick to point out, that the fish is not only a Christian symbol, but indicative of the Age of Pisces, which began at the time of Jesus' birth. This is surely more than a coincidence.
The Indian Hindu fish symbol
Hinduism is another religion that's a few thousand years older than Christianity, and one of their symbols is a fish. One appeared as an avatar (incarnation or physical bodily manifestation) of Vishnu to save mankind from the Great Flood.
The Sanskrit for fish is Matsya and he is usually shown with four arms and a fish tail.
The Chinese Taoist fish symbol
The symbol of the cosmic philosophy or religion of Tao is yin-yang. This symbol is also popular with New Age followers and shows a couple of fish, Yin and Yang, where Yin's eye is in the Yang fish, and Yang's eye is in the Yin fish (raising the question of narcissism if one fish winks to the other!)
The Buddhist fish symbol
In Japan and elsewhere, the fish means well-being, happiness and freedom. It is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols used in Buddhism imported from China. The fish symbolises living in a state of fearlessness, without danger of drowning in the ocean of sufferings, and migrating from place to place freely and spontaneously.
Because of this strong relationship between the fish and Buddhism, the Christian fish symbol is not common in countries where Buddhism is widespread.
The Unicode fish symbol
In case you're wondering what the Unicode character is for the fish symbol used on our Pagan Symbols page, well at the moment (summer 2015) there isn't one. A proposal has been logged with the International Organization for Standardization to add one to the list, but until they take the bait, we have to make do with either an image file or a combination of "<", ">" and "<" symbols.
Unfortunately that usually produces a symbol with little gaps (< > <), so to avoid any suggestion of something being broken in the symbolism, it's preferable to shunt the second and third symbol to the left a bit.
The HTML is: <<span style="margin-left:-0.1em;">></span><span style="margin-left:-0.1em;"><</span> and if possible should all appear on the same text line in your source code.
But back to the symbolism...
So is the fish symbol Christian, or is it from a much older religion such as Paganism, Buddhism, Taoism, or Hinduism?
We pointed out above that the Age of Pisces coincides with the time of Jesus' birth. But this is no coincidence. Like the cross, the fish is evidence of God's prefiguring, to prepare humanity for the great sacrifice of Jesus.
|1:||See also the Christian Bear, the Christian Horse and the Christian Pooch|
|2:||Paedagogus, III, xi. See also Dove Cross|
|3:||Early examples of the fish symbol: Capella Greca in the Roman catacomb of St. Priscilla and the Sacrament Chapels of the catacomb of St. Callistus|
|4:||1991, W W Norton & Company, New York. p38|
|5:||Source: Antiquities of the Christian Church, 3. Peculiarities of the Christian System.|
|6:||Alpha and Omega: John 1:1-14, Rev. 1:8, 21:6, 22:13|
|7:||Fish symbolism warning: Deut. 4:15-18|
|8:||Some sharks have eyelids called the nictitating membrane, which they use to protect their eyes when attacking prey. You might say they are closing their eyes to pray as we do when saying grace before a meal. But as far as we know, unlike the Christian Bear mentioned above1, sharks are not particularly religious.|