fish, fish Ichthus

Tue, 16 May 1995 10:18:01 EST

I have not seen the "Darwin fish," but the description of it
as fish-with-feet hardly sounds like the Ichthus image so
dear to the legend of poor, beleagured early Christians
leaving coded signals for another. In any event.....

The Ichthus icon associated with early Christianity is made of
two crescent moons which are conjoined at one end and crossed at
the other. The Greek letters do indeed translate as "Christ,
Son of God, saviour." The icon, itself, you may have guessed,
is older, much older and has other meanings. Nothing unusual
about the words being Greek, either, for the time. Not only
was Greek the language of educated people, it was also the
language of many of the mystery faiths which came from the
eastern part of the empire--Byzantiuum--and today it remains
the church language of eastern rite Christianity.

Astarte's son, in Greek, was called Ichthus, "young sun" (a nice
pun). One of the mystery cults in honour of Astarte/Aphrodite
required the eating of fish on Fridays. Friday was known as
Venus's day (Astarte/Aphrodite). Fish (especially shellfish,
oysters for example) were eaten on Fridays as an aphrodisiac.
I tell my students there is a reason why champagne and oysters
are not only sophisticated choices for a romantic meal, but...
they work. (Only the older ones believe me because they...know.)

Christianity was built on a solid foundation of secrecy--gnostic
thought stemming from both the mystery religions prevalent in
its first centuries and its initial status as yet another sect
of Judaism. I don't know whether the tale of secret Christians
identifying themselves by one drawing a crescent moon and the
other completing it is apocryphal or not for secret Christians.
I do know that the icon once signified the womb of the goddessd18

By the third century, Tertullian was certainly melding goddess
beliefs with the developing Christian traditions when he wrote:
"But we small fishes, thus named after our great Ichthys, Jesus
Christ, are born in water and only by remaining in water can we

One of the most popular of the parables at the outset was
the one told of Jesus feeding a multitude with loaves and
fishes. The image of fish and bread together shows up soon
in catecomb paintings. The problem for historians is few
of these images or rituals are exclusive to Christianity and
all have muddied records. Mithraic ritual for example used
bread and wine. What looks "Christian" might be the
trappings for rituals devoted to Isis, Dionysus, Mithra..etc.

Christianity came under state protection in Rome in 313 with
Constantine's Edict of Milan. Not long after, it was decreed
THE state religion and to be other was to be subject to perse-
cution. Lots of rites and beliefs are gathered in pell-mell
from other mystery faiths as fast as could churches be built on
top of Mithraeums.

..... I've just finished teaching the second half of world
religions, and it happened I had nifty notes at hand.

Now will somebody send me a drawing of this fish-with-feet?
I doubt its no more an Ichthus than a fish handing over the
fishmonger's shop is one either. However, I'd love one for
my office door,too!


Maureen Korp, PhD
Religious Studies
University of Ottawa
Ottawa, Canada K1N 6N5