Ichthys (Greek: ἰχθύς, capitalized ΙΧΘΥΣ; also transliterated and Latinized as icthus, ichthus or ikhthus), is the Ancient and Classical Greek word for "fish." In English, it refers to a symbol consisting of two intersecting arcs, the ends of the right side extending beyond the meeting point so as to resemble the profile of a fish, said to have been used by early Christians as a secret symbol and now known colloquially as the "sign of the fish" or the "Jesus fish." Several biblical passages associate Jesus with fish or fishing. For example, Jesus calls his disciples as "fishers of men" (e.g., Mark 1:17) and he miraculously feeds 5,000 people with fish and bread (Matthew 14:15-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:12-17, and John 6:4-13).
Within astrology, the symbol of the fish has the meaning of the sign of Pisces. According to some astrologists, Jesus Christ represents the central figure of the Age of Pisces, which is now giving way to the Age of Aquarius. The Ages go backwards through the signs of the Zodiac. Prior to the birth of Christ, there was the Age of Aries and before that Taurus. Each Age lasts approximately 2,000 years.
The use of the Ichthys symbol by early Christians appears to date from the end of the first century C.E. Ichthus (ΙΧΘΥΣ, Greek for fish) is an acronym, a word formed from the first letters of several words. It stands for "Jesus Christ God's Son Saviour," in ancient Greek "Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ."
Historically, twentieth century use of the ichthys motif is an adaptation based on an Early Christian symbol which included a small cross for the eye or the Greek letters "ΙΧΘΥΣ." An ancient adaptation of ichthus is a wheel which contains the letters ΙΧΘΥΣ superimposed such that the result resembles an eight-spoked wheel.
Fish are mentioned and given symbolic meaning several times in the Gospels:
First, several of Jesus' twelve disciples were fishermen. He commissions them with the words "I will make you fishers of men."
Second, at the feeding of the five thousand, a boy is brought to Jesus with "five small loaves and two fishes." The question is asked, "But what are they, among so many?" Jesus multiplies the loaves and fish to feed the multitude.
Third, in Matthew 13:47-50, Jesus compares God's decision on who will go to heaven or to hell ("the fiery furnace") at the end of this world to fishers sorting out their catch, keeping the good fish and throwing the bad fish away.
Fourth, in the John 21:11, it is related that the disciples fished all night but caught nothing. Jesus instructed them to cast the nets on the other side of the boat, and they drew in 153 fish. It has been observed that, like many other numbers given in the Bible, this number is associated with a mystic property, in this case the vertical ratio of the shape known as the vesica piscis.
Finally, a less commonly cited use of fish may be found in the words of Matthew 17:24-27, in which, upon being asked if his Teacher does not pay the temple (two-drachma) tax, Simon Peter answers, "Yes." Christ tells Peter to go to the water and cast a line. He says that a coin sufficient for the tax will be found in the fish's mouth. Peter does as told, and does find the coin.
Societies of Christians in Hellenistic Greece and Roman Greece, prior to the Edict of Milan, protected their congregations by keeping their meetings secret. In order to point the way to ever-changing meeting places, they developed a symbol which adherents would readily recognize, and which they could scratch on rocks, walls and the like, in advance of a meeting. At the time, a similar symbol was used by Greeks to mark the location of a funeral, so using the ichthys also gave an apparent legitimate reason for Christians to gather. Christians, when threatened by Romans in the first centuries after Christ, used the fish symbol to mark meeting places and tombs, or to distinguish friends from foes. The publication cites one ancient explanation, still popular today:
According to Robert Mills, the earliest known literary reference to the ichthys as a symbol of primitive Christianity was made by Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215). Some sources indicate that the earliest literary references came from the recommendation of Clement of Alexandria to his readers to engrave their seals with the dove or fish (Paedagogus, III, xi). However, it can be inferred from Roman monumental sources such as the Capella Greca and the Sacrament Chapels of the catacomb of St. Callistus that the fish symbol was known to Christians much earlier. This Christian symbol might well have been intended to oppose or protest the pagan apotheosis of the Roman emperor during the reign of Domitian (81 - 96 C.E.). Coins found in Alexandria referred to him as Theou Huios (Son of God). In fact, even earlier, since the death and deification of Julius Caesar, Augustus (Octavian) already styled himself as divi filius, son of the divine (Julius), and struck coins to that effect. This practice was also carried on by some of the later emperors. Another probable explanation is that it is a reference to the scripture in which Jesus miraculously feeds 5,000 people with fish and bread (Matthew 14:15-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:12-17, and John 6:4-13). The ichthys may also relate to Jesus or his disciples as "fishers of men" (e.g., Mark 1:17).
Other theories about the Historicity of Jesus suggest that Christianity adopted certain beliefs and practices as a syncretism of certain mystery religions such as Mithraism, and that this may be the origin of the ichthys in Christian circles. For example, Barbara Walker hypothesizes in her book, The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects, that the Ichthys was the son of the pagan sea goddess Atargatis. She also posits that the Ichthys symbol was a representation of sexuality and fertility. However, Christian websites have asserted that Walker's claims are false.
The "Jesus Fish" has become an icon of modern Christianity. Today, it can be seen as a decal or emblem on the rear of automobiles or as pendants or necklaces as a sign to the world that the owner is a Christian. It is incorporated into business logos or in business advertisements and listings in telephone books. It is also seen on clothing. Versions of this include an Ichthys with "Jesus" or "ΙΧΘΥΣ" in the center, or simply the Ichthys outline by itself. This badge may also be seen in e-mail signatures with the symbols "<><."
Distortions of the Ichthus symbol in popular culture rely on its use as a symbol of Christianity.:
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