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The Ichthys

The IchthysThe Ichthys

The symbol of the fish is most commonly encountered as an emblem of Christianity, but its origins lie even further back than the birth of Christ. Carl Gustav Jung notes in Symbols of Transformation that the son of the Syrian fish-goddess, Atargatis, was named Ichthys (Greek for fish), and even the stylized form of a fish constructed from intersecting arcs has its roots in the sacred geometry of Pythagoras.

The earliest known literary reference to the ichthys as a symbol of primitive Christianity was made by Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215), but the ichthys is also seen in first century catacombs in Rome. It was used as a secret code in the early days of Christianity, when Christians were suffering persecution, to enable them to determine friend from foe. When talking to someone they were not sure about, a Christian would draw one half of the ichthys in the dirt, and if the other person completed the figure, they were assumed to be trustworthy. The symbol is still used today to show that the bearer is a practicing Christian, and latterly it has spawned numerous variations as a reaction against fundamentalist Christianity, the most notable of which is the "Darwin fish," which has evolved legs.

Some of Christ's disciples were fishermen, and a number of his miracles involved fish, so it is not such a surprising symbol to choose - meaningful to those in the know, yet sufficiently obscure to confuse outsiders. The principle reason for this choice of symbol, however, is likely to be that "ichthys" is a rebus hiding a statement of Christian faith:

Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior).

Matsya - first avatara of Vishnu The fish is also associated with the Hindu deity Vishnu, the Preserver. Vishnu's first avatara or incarnation on earth was, according to the Shataoatha-Brahmana, as a fish known as Matsya (the Sanskrit word for fish). In a story that has strong parallels with the Biblical story of Noah and the Flood in the book of Genesis, Vishnu incarnates as Matsya to save Manu (Sanskrit for man), the first man and law-giver, from the great deluge. Manu rescued a small fish and protected it as it grew to such a vast size that only the ocean could hold it. After recognizing the fish as Lord Vishnu, Manu was warned of the coming flood and told to build a ship to hold himself and the seeds of all living beings. Matsya held the ship safely over the waters until the flood finally receded. Later, Matsya slew the demon Hayagriva to retrieve the Veda ("sacred knowledge") that had been stolen from Brahma (God in his aspect as Creator), as depicted in this eighteenth-century illustration, left.

One interesting aspect of the ichthys involves the astrological ages. Due to a phenomenon known as the precession of the equinoxes, the astrological sign the sun appears in at the vernal equinox moves backwards through the zodiac over time. This gives rise to the astrological ages, each approximately 2100 years in length, and this is the meaning behind the oft-heard New Age concept that we entering the "Age of Aquarius" (i.e. we are entering that period in which the sun appears in Aquarius at the vernal equinox). But how does all this relate to the ichthys? The dawn of Christianity happened at the start of the current astrological age, and it has exerted a profound influence throughout this age, which is soon to pass away. The era of Christianity has been the Age of Pisces, the sign of the fish.