Ichthys

Ichthys [ik-thees], from the Koine Greek word for fish, is 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, used by early Christians as a secret Christian symbol and now known colloquially as the ‘sign of the fish’ or the ‘Jesus fish.’

It is sometimes a subject of satire, especially when adorning the bumpers or trunks of automobiles. The most notable is the ‘Darwin Fish,’ an ichthys symbol with ‘evolved’ legs and feet attached. Rhetorical scholar Thomas Lessl conducted a survey of users of the Darwin fish emblem. Based on their responses, he interprets the symbol as scientific ‘blackface,’ a parody that is one part mockery and one part imitation. While users frequently explain the symbol as a rebuke against Creationism, Lessl suggests that the emblem represents a metaphor for cultural progress.

Fish are mentioned and given symbolic meaning several times in the Gospels. Several of Jesus’ twelve Apostles were fishermen. He commissions them with the words ‘I will make you fishers of men.’ At the feeding of the five thousand, a boy is brought to Jesus with ‘five small loaves and two fish.’ The question is asked, ‘But what are they, among so many?’ Jesus multiplies the loaves and fish to feed the multitude. In the Parable of Drawing in the Net, 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. In Matthew 17:24-27, upon being asked if his Teacher pays the temple (or two-drachma) tax, Simon Peter answers yes. Christ tells Peter to go to the water and cast a line, saying that a coin sufficient for both of them will be found in the fish’s mouth. Peter does this and finds the coin.

Ancient Christians, during their persecution by the Roman Empire in the first few centuries after Christ, used the fish symbol to mark meeting places and tombs, or to distinguish friends from foes: ‘According to one ancient story, when a Christian met a stranger in the road, the Christian sometimes drew one arc of the simple fish outline in the dirt. If the stranger drew the other arc, both believers knew they were in good company. Current bumper-sticker and business-card uses of the fish hearken back to this practice.’

There are several other hypotheses as to why the fish was chosen. 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. However, it can be inferred from Roman monumental sources such as the Cappella Greca and the Sacrament Chapels of the catacomb of St. Callistus that the fish symbol was known to Christians much earlier. Still another explanation could be the reference to the sign of Jonah. Just like he was in the belly of a big fish, so Christ was crucified, entombed for three days, and then rose from the dead.

The ‘Jesus Fish’ was rebirthed in the early 70s to become an icon of modern Christianity recognized around the world. It was caused through a chain of circumstances. First the Vietnam War caused distrust and peaceful rebellion within the younger generations of Americans and Australians. In 1973 they brought the symbol and message to the Aquarius Rock Festival in Nimbin Australia. From there it became a household symbol around the world. Today, it can be seen as a decal or emblem on the rear of automobiles or as pendants or necklaces as a sign that the owner is a Christian. It is incorporated into business logos or in business advertisements and listings in telephone books.

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