Fish, Symbolism of
FISH, SYMBOLISM OF
The fish as a food and as a symbol occupies an important position in the history of religions and in the cults of the gods and of the dead. In many cases the fish appeared as an article prohibited in the diet because of its sacral nature. Thus the liturgical laws of Egyptian priests demanded abstention from it. The venerators of Onuris, Hatmehit, Hathor, and Neith regarded the fish as sacred. The Syrian goddess Atargatis (identified with the Magna Mater ) was honored with a fish-offering, and her priests sanctified themselves by eating it. The people, who were not permitted to eat it, offered fishes of gold and silver.
Pre-Christian Cults. In Syrian culture the fish became a symbol of happiness and life. The votaries of the Babylonian fish-god Oannes appear on monuments clad in a garment imitating a fish. Funeral repasts on Syrian monuments show the fish as an offering in the cult of the dead. Among the Carthaginians, the fish was used as a sacrifice to Tanit, Baal Hammon, and the Punic Saturnus. Punic-Roman altars have been discovered that show the fish as a votive offering. The Etruscans and Romans knew of a propitiatory offering of fish to ward off lightning. Fish was a sacrificial gift in the cult of Dea Tacita on the Roman Feast for the Dead, and fish offerings were well known in the cult of Hecate.
There was a strict prohibition against eating fish in the mystery cult of Eleusis, and the statutes of the Pythagoreans insisted on abstinence from it. Popular medicine forbade fish for the diet of those suffering from epilepsy, the "sacred sickness." Among the Greeks it was customary to honor the goddess of the dead with a fish-offering, but not the gods of heaven. The burning of a fish sacrifice constituted the usual commemoration of the dead. There are a great number of inscriptions, monuments, and literary sources to prove this for the period between 2000 b.c. and Christian times, extending from Babylon, the Hetites Asia Minor, Macedonia, and the Greek Islands, to Punic Latin Africa, Gaul, Italy, Dalmatia, and the Danube provinces. The Jews regarded fish as the preferred food for the cena pura, the supper preceding the Sabbath with which the solemnity began.
Christian Symbolism. In Christian art and literature, the fish appears as an acrostic and as a symbol (see ichthus). The abbreviation ΙΧΘϒΣ, for Ἰησο[symbol omitted]ς Χριστὸς, Θεο[symbol omitted] ϒἱὸς Σωτήρ (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior), was current by the end of the 2d century. The Sibylline Oracles (8.217–280) refer to it, and Lactantius (Div. inst. 7.16–20), Eusebius (Vita Constant. 5.18), and Augustine (Civ. 18.23) also employ it. It can be seen on a great number of Christian sepulchral monuments, such as the inscription of Licinia Amias in Rome, the famous inscription of pectorius in Autun, the inscription of Eutychianus at Perugia, and the silver plaque on the sarcophagus of St. paulinus at Trier. It was used as a phylactery at the doors of Christian houses and tombs and as an amulet on gems, medals, and rings; it is found also in the mosaics of Christian basilicas, such as the Constantinian church of the Nativity at Bethlehem and S. Apollinare in Classe at Ravenna.
Symbol of Christ. Side by side with this acrostic, the fish appears as a symbol of Christ in inscriptions, art, and
literature. The East and West knew it at the end of the 2d century, as is proved by the much discussed inscription of abercius of Asia Minor and by tertullian (De baptismo 1). The fish is seen also as a food in banquet scenes on frescoes in the catacombs of Rome, including those of Peter and Marcellinus, Priscilla, and St. Callistus; it decorates Christian sarcophagi such as that of Livia Primitiva in the Louvre and that in the tomb of St. Matthias in Trier, and it appears in pictures showing Christ and the Apostles at the Last Supper, e.g., in the mosaic in S. Apollinare Nuovo at Ravenna, on the ivory of Count Stroganoff in the Walters Art Gallery at Baltimore, and in the Cathedral of Milan.
There are Christian lamps bearing the image of the fish, and some have its form. It has its place on Christian glasses and cups, on Eucharistic spoons, on epitaphs such as those in the catacombs of St. Agnes and St. Sebastian, and in the Coemeterium Soteris in Rome, in Christian baptisteries such as that of Cuicul in Numidia, and in basilicas such as that of Parenzo. The corpus of archeological material collected and published by F. J. dÖlger shows the far-reaching influence and extent of the acrostic and the symbol.
Acrostic and Eucharistic Symbol. Several interesting questions in this regard have still to be answered. Is the acrostic older than the symbol? Is the symbol derived from the acrostic, or vice versa? What is the origin of the symbol? How is one to explain the Eucharistic meaning that clings to the symbol from its earliest appearance to the end of its use among Christian types. Of all the symbols in which the early Christians attempted to embody, and at the same time perhaps to conceal, the concepts of their faith, the fish is the most obscure in point of origin.V. Schultze, H. Achelis, and C. R. Morey derive the fish-symbol from the acrostic. Dölger derives the acrostic from the symbol. There seems to be a twofold root beneath the theology of the fish in Christian antiquity. The acrostic most probably goes back to Gnostic circles with their fondness for alphabetic mysticism and magic formulas. The origin of the symbol should perhaps be sought in the long history of the fish as a sacral food in the cults of the ancient world. Achelis's theory, according to which the fish-symbol grew out of the recognition of Christ as the Son of God on the occasion of His Baptism, rests entirely on the phrase of Tertullian (De baptismo 1): Nos pisciculi secundum ΙΧΘϒΝ nostrum Jesum Christum in aqua nascimur ; this theory is not satisfactory.
Theory of Indian Origin. The theories of Pischel and C. Schmidt, who derived the Christian type from the savior-fish in Indian mythology, have not found the approval of scholars. A thorough review of the relations of primitive Christianity with India shows that a contact may have been established with Indian religion and symbolism in northwest India as early as the 1st century. But such a relation could not have been of sufficient intimacy or duration to justify the derivation of the Christian symbol from Indian sources. Moreover, the parallel between the Indian savior-fish and the Christian symbol is not a striking one.
F. Münter's and A. Jeremias's derivation of the fishsymbol from a putative Jewish symbolical association of the zodiacal sign of the fishes with the Messiah does not deserve confidence. Schultze's reference of the symbol to Mt 7.9–10 ("Or if he ask for a fish, will he give him a serpent?") is not convincing because the figure is so natural that a symbolical interpretation seems forced. Heuser's attempt to connect the symbol in its Eucharistic aspect with the "Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes" and the "Supper on the Sea of Tiberias" fails because the citations from the Fathers that he adduces are all after Augustine (d. 430).
A careful examination of ancient customs concerning the use of fish as a sacral food discounts the theories of S. Reinach, A. Dufourcq, and F. Cumont, according to whom the Christian symbol arose out of, or was strongly influenced by, the sacral repasts of the priests and worshipers of Atargatis and Derketo. In eating fish that was the incarnation of their divinity these cultists identified themselves with the object of their worship. The contrast between the pagan banquets and the Christian Eucharist is too strong. The eating of the sacral fish by worshipers, contrary to the assumption of the theories mentioned above, is nowhere found in pagan cults. In some cases it was practiced by priests, but for the most part the fish appeared in pagan religions as an article prohibited in the diet on account of its sacral nature.
One may contrast with this the fish offered by faith "to the friends" in the epitaph of Abercius. It is important to note that this epitaph, with the first instance of the Christian Eucharistic fish-symbol, was found in Phrygian Hieropolis in the middle of Asia Minor, where the Syrian goddess Atargatis, identified with the Magna Mater, was honored with a fish-offering. Dölger believes it natural to see the Christian fish-symbol here as an unusually apt opposition to pagan usages devised in the interest of propaganda and especially aimed at the cult of Atargatis and the cult of the Kabeiroi or Thracian Horsemen.
While there cannot be any doubt that the post-Constantinian Church employed such practices, everything known of the Church of the 2d century is sharply contradictory to the assumption that it permitted itself such devices on pivotal points of faith. Where such parallels existed, the apologists, e.g., justin martyr, explained them as pagan imitations of Christian usages. Though they were mistaken, one can see how they judged such matters.
Goodenough has recently expressed the opinion that the symbolism of the fish originated in pagan cults, was adopted by the Jewish religion, and passed from there to Christian usage. Though both the acrostic and the symbol appear almost at the same time in the sources, it seems that the symbol, fish=Christ, originated before the acrostic.
Bibliography: h. achelis, Das Symbol des Fisches und die Fischdenkmäler der römischen Katakomben (Marburg 1888). r. pischel, Der Ursprung des christlichen Fischsymbols (Berlin 1905). c. r. morey, "The Origin of the Fish-Symbol," Princeton Theological Review 8 (1910) 93–106, 231–246, 401–432; 9 (1911) 268–289. f. j. dÖlger, ΙΧΘϒΣ, 5 v. (Rome-Münster 1910–27; 2d ed. Münster 1928–43). i. scheftelowitz, "Das Fischsymbol im Judentum und Christentum," Archiv für Religionswissenschaft 14 (1911) 1–53. v. schultze, ΙΧΘϒΣ (Griefswald 1912). f. cumont, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. 9.1 (1914) 844–850. e. r. goodenough, Jewish Symbols, v. 5 (Bollingen Ser. 37; New York 1956) 3–61. j. quasten, Patrology, 4 v. (Westminster, Md. 1950–86) 1:171–175, literature.