Secret Symbols: Fish (Vesica Pisces)
The symbol of the “Jesus fish,” (or vesica pisces) is held as the ultimate representation of the Christian faith, with many followers proudly boasting the symbol on everything from bumper stickers to keychains. However, what is now so commonly viewed to represent the meaning of the fish in the New Testament did not always carry such restrictive religious meaning, even for early Christians. Its supposed origins are derived from the Greek emblem É×ÈÕÓ, or Ichthys.
For Christians, it was St Augustine who gave the symbol a particular meaning, after he applied the kabbalistic decoding technique of notarikon to the word. This revealed that the symbol was an acrostic of “Jesus Christ, God’s son, savior.” Here is how the word breaks down:
- I is the first letter of the word Jesus in Greek
- CH are the first letters of the word Christos, Greek for Christ
- TH are the first letters of the word
- Theou, Greek for God
- Y is the first letter for Yios, Greek for son.
- S is the first letter for Soter, Greek for savior.
Intriguingly, early depictions of Jesus show him as an infant with the vesica or mandorla (meaning “almond-shaped”) representing Mary’s womb as well as the union of heaven and earth in the body of Christ.
The idea that the fish was connected to reproduction reflects even earlier pagan representations of female fertility and sexuality. Ichthys was also the name of the daughter of the Sea goddess Atargatis, also known as Tirgata, Aphrodite, Pelagia, or Delphine. The term also meant “womb” and “dolphin,” the latter of which is exemplified in early depictions of mermaids.
In addition, the fish also figures in other pre-Christian fables, including the Middle-Eastern tale of the Goddess Ephesus, whose genitalia are covered by a fish amulet. A fish was also responsible for swallowing Osiris’ sexual organs, while simultaneously representing those of Isis. It is these explicitly female sexual meanings that would fail to be appropriated by the Christians later on.
Perhaps what is most interesting about the symbol of the fish is its Pythagorean origins. The Pythagoreans – followers of Pythagoras of Samos (c. 582–507 B.C.E.) held that creation was premised on numbers. Therefore, by studying them one could attain spiritual emancipation. The symbol of the fish is derived from the Pythagorean “measure of the fish,” or the intersection of two circles, which was itself a symbol of the intersection of the divine and the physical and hence, the beginning of creation. Within the vesica other ancient symbols can be found, including the chevron.
Some cite the canonical Gospel of John (21:11) as the secret revelation of the numerical formula for the vesica pisces: “Simon Peter went up, and drew the net to land full of great fishes, an hundred and fifty and three: and for all there were so many, yet was not the net broken.”