Is The Christian Fish Symbol Pagan? Nope, Here’s Why

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By J.P. Holding| Our piece this time is a little unusual. It’s not a defense of a Biblical matter, but of a later Christian symbol; and thus also it is not as scholarly in orientation, but is written somewhat tongue in cheek.

A couple of recent inquirers asked me to look into claims made that the famous Christian “fish” symbol found its source in pagan religious symbolism. The following claims are taken from an atheistic site (the link is now defunct), but I have seen them repeated in other places, including a Satanist discussion board.

The claims, which usually find their root in Barbara Walker’s Women’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects (a fountain of misinformation if there ever was one, but we’ll save that for later) are that the fish predated Christianity as a religious symbol, and that Christians merely copied it.

Among the alleged sources:

  • ” Ichthys was the offspring son of the ancient Sea goddess Atargatis, and was known in various mythic systems as Tirgata, Aphrodite, Pelagia or Delphine.”
  • “The fish also a central element in other stories, including the Goddess of Ephesus (who has a fish amulet covering her genital region), as well as the tale of the fish that swallowed the penis of Osiris, and was also considered a symbol of the vulva of Isis.”
  • “…the fish also has been identified in certain cultures with reincarnation and the life force.”
  • “…before Christianity, the fish symbol was known as ‘the Great Mother’…link[ed] to fertility, birth, feminine sexuality and the natural force of women…”

The article concludes that the church “appropriated the metaphors of earlier pagan religions, grafting them into its own account of the creation and beyond…”

Now after some time now of addressing similar claims, I hardly need to put any scholarly weight on these arguments, even if they are all true (which I will simply assume for the sake of argument, that they are).

the fish symbol for Christians found its origins, independently, in the theme of Jesus’ disciples as “fishers of men” and that the Greek word for “fish” made an acronym that spelled out a title for Jesus Christ.

So what, then, of all of these paganist claims? “So what?” indeed. That’s really all the reply that is deserved. Is any genetic link demonstrated here? In other words, is there any evidence given of the disciples of Jesus going to India, seeing this use of a fish, and copying it or “appropriating the metaphors” for that matter (I.e., where in Christianity is that fish vested with sexual symbolism, for example? Sorry, if you happen to find any syncretism by 3rd-century pagans, that doesn’t count.)

Is a “fishlike deity” a valid parallel to the use of the fish as a non-deified symbol? Is it shown that the fish depicted was the same essential design, simply two curved lines intersecting?

In other words, do these claims really mean a thing at all? No, they don’t. All the argument does is say, “Here’s a fish. There’s a fish. The later must be a copy of the earlier.” That’s not an argument, that’s a blatant and baseless assumption without any detailed data-backup. Let’s bring the point home with a modern analogy.

Kellogg’s and Exxon both use tigers

In one of our articles I jokingly asked if Exxon or Frosted Flakes ought to be charged with copycatting because both used a tiger. Little did I know that this was an actual issue (of sorts) the past few years. Kellogg’s actually did sue Exxon over the use of their cartoon tiger. The gist of what happened is this. Kellogg’s tiger debuted in 1952; Exxon’s tiger debuted in 1964. Exxon within the last few years had adopted a more cartoony look for their tiger in coordination with selling things in convenience stores.

Kellogg’s cried foul, alleging that consumers (yes, they really think you are this dumb) would confuse the trademarks. (Though it is not, as one Exxon rep said, as though people were going into stores asking for Kellogg’s gasoline or Exxon cereal.)

Note that the issue here wasn’t even that Kellogg’s thought that Exxon stole (copycatted) the tiger. No one charged that; their charge was along the lines that Exxon should have checked trademarks more carefully. So now ask this: Would the average ancient consumer of religion been “confused” by the Christian use of the fish? Would they have looked at it and seen an appropriation of a symbol from another religion, and vested it with the wrong meaning?

Now if you are normal, you are sharing with me the conception that Kellogg’s has had its head under the milk a little too long. But personally, if I were Kellogg’s, I would hire a copycat theorist as my attorney and really get on the case of a few people, notably:

  1. Porto Pitters wine — they used two tigers as a symbol; but then again, they were there first. Too bad, someone might think Tony had dipped into too much wine and gone wild
  2. Tigger of Winnie the Pooh fame — people might think Tony had plastic surgery and was taking hyperactivity medication
  3. Tiger Woods
  4. the Detroit Tigers — or maybe they and Woods should sue Kellogg’s; the latest Frosted Flakes commercials depict Tony as a more athletic sort; Tiger Woods, who does well on Wheaties boxes, might also take offense that Tony gets his “supercharge” shortly after eating his cereal
  5. the Phantom Tigers 74 Squadron — who wants Tony associated with these warlike people?
  6. As well as, as many folks using tigers to represent food products as possible, including Tiger Cheese, Tiger Chai Tea, Tiger Beverages, Tiger Rice, Tiger’s Milk bars, Tiger Chi vitamin supplements, Tiger Crunchies, Tiger Island foods, Tiger Paws candy, Tiger Pops candy, Tiger Stripe ice cream, to say nothing of the dozens of other non-food companies using “Tiger” in their brand name (see Companies and Their Brands, 18th ed., p. 2152).

The point of all of this is to say: animal figures are common motifs and are no one’s intellectual property in and of themselves, because animals are a part of universal experience.

Christians had every right to select a fish as a symbol, and it is irrelevant who used it previously and how; and it is doubtful if anyone but the most stupid (as Kellogg’s supposes of you, the consumer!) would have made anything extraordinary, or assumed a “pagan connection,” by Christian use of the fish.

Even if the Christians know of these other uses (or cared — either of which is doubtful), they invested the fish with meaning germane to their own faith. (Interestingly, one complaint from the ACLU argued exactly from the opposite perspective — that the fish is a uniquely Christian symbol. Maybe the ACLU needs some help from Walker as well.)

The “copycat” claims (like all we have seen) are without genetic foundation, and are meaningless; and it is not as though Christians would have to (or care to) scour the ancient trademark records to make sure they found an original symbol, or that they had to say, “Darn, we can’t use the fish, the Great Mother already did.”

The fish in other places symbolized fertility. For Christians it symbolized salvation and evangelism. Just because Christians use a fish doesn’t mean they are copying pagan religions any more than Tiger Woods copied Kellogg’s.

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