Ichthys: History and Symbolism

by Jennie Murphy

Photo by Jennifer SosaNot a day goes by without my seeing a “Jesus” fish on the back of a vehicle. And while my husband and I have one on our own car, how many Christians really know the history or the statement they are making with this symbol?

Deep in the catacombs of Rome, the symbol of the fish adorns the tombs of the buried Christians. These catacombs date back to the time of the first few decades in the second century. One of the earliest writings that the Church possesses regarding the use of the fish as a Christian symbol comes from Clement of Alexandria.  It was in this document that he requested to his readers that they make their seals in the image of a fish or dove.[i]

It was also during this time period that the Christians underwent great persecution from the Roman Empire. In order to distinguish friend from foe, meeting places were often marked with the symbol of the fish so that other Christians knew that it was a safe place for them to meet. Tradition also tells us that when a Christian met someone in a public place they would often draw the top arch of the fish in the dirt and wait for the other person to draw the second arch, showing themselves to also be a Christian. One of the modern depictions of this is found in the 1951 film, Quo Vadis. In the movie, the beautiful Ligia, daughter of the deceased king of Ligians, falls for Marcus Vinicius, who is a Roman patrician. On an occasion of meeting Marcus in the garden, Ligia, a Christian, draws the symbol of the fish in the sand. She becomes deeply sadden as Marcus has no reaction to her drawing this symbol.

Now, the question that remains: why use a fish as a Christian symbol?

There are different beliefs as to the origin of the fish as a Christian symbol. Some obvious examples would be that of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes or Christ calling Apostles the fishers of men, which we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel. A lesser-known explanation may be a result of the Emperor Domitian. During his reign, Domitian had a coin produced with the words Theou Yios inscribed on it. In Greek, Theou Yios means Son of God, a title Domitian was claiming for himself. As a form of protest, the Greek Christians formed a phrase in response to Domitian’s blasphemous claim. The phrase that was created was Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, which means “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” The beginning letters of each word in this phrase created an acrostic in the form of ΙΧΘΥΣ (Ichthys) which was the Greek word meaning fish.

In knowing the history and true symbolism we must ask ourselves if we are truly professing the symbol we so readily plaster on everything we own from our cars, shirts, etc. This symbol is not simply a cute little sticker or something “cool” to do if you’re a Christian. Rather, it is a profession of our faith that we believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God the Savior of mankind.


[i] New Advent: Catholic Encyclopedia (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06083a.htm)

12 Comments

  1. I would note that I have yet to find a source that notes the claim that gets repeated that “when a Christian met someone in a public place they would often draw the top arch of the fish in the dirt and wait for the other person to draw the second arch, showing themselves to also be a Christian. One of the modern depictions of this is found in the 1951 film, Quo Vadis.” Such may have been a “fictional” creation.

    I will also note that I have yet to see any ancient uses of the fish in that form. Rather all the ones I have seen from the Catecombes and signet rings as well as other uses have all been “real fishes” or the spelling out of the letters IXOYC (or both). I think the form mentioned of just an curved outline is only a modern invention…and the ‘story’ of the drawing of the fish in the sand is just that a story.

    Having said that I am one who loves the the early symbols such as the fish and have a copy from the catecombes on my wall..and have had signet ring modeled after early rings with the IXOYC on it. It is wonderful to use the actual form of the fish as used by the early Christians!

    • I think that, regardless of its origins, it is a beautiful and pious tradition of some of the faithful to repeat the legend of the symbol as a sort of Christian handshake.

      • Noting of course the possible (likly) “fiction” aspect…

        Also noting that the fish was certainly used by the early Christians for the “Jesus Christ Son of God Savior” and was used a very great deal! One might have a mosaic of an actual fish on your floor instead of the “cave canus” one would often see in Roman homes…and those who where Christians would know what one meant…or have it as a signet ring. But remember these were “real fish” not two curves…and/or the IXOYC written out….

    • Jennie /

      As to the tradition of drawing a fish in the sand, this was taught to me by two Professors while attending Franciscan University, now while it may not be a big T tradition, which was never claimed, it seems quite possible to be that of pious tradition however late or early it may have been used. And from my knowledge the Church does not find offense in pious tradition or legend, St. Christopher comes to mind.

      Also, yes, you’re correct the arch like fish that we use today is not how it is depicted on the walls of the catacombs, nor is that what I claimed. In fact, I said, “the symbol of the fish adorns the tombs of the buried Christians”, which does not specify as the exact form the fish was depicted whether it be arched or anatomically correct. If memory serves me correctly the Catacombs of San Callisto has a fresco of the loaves and fishes, correct? And the fish depicted in that fresco is more of a anatomically correct form. However, there are some carving that depict the Christian symbol of the fish with very little detail such as the catacomb of Domitilla in Rome which has carved fish with extremely basic lines which our modern depiction could have very well been inspired from.

      Regardless of detail or shape, the symbol of the fish does not lose it’s meaning. Just as a Cross whether it be ornate in detail or two simple lines drawn by a child – the meaning and profession still remains.

      • Yes I have those fish on my wall and drew one of them on the holy card I made for my sons baptism :) They are still though more “like real fish” not at all like the “bumper sticker”.

        These are not them..but are similar: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/24/Stele_Licinia_Amias_Terme_67646.jpg

        I agree whole heartedly of their importance! I would like though the bumper sticker version of them to be replaced by what was actually used :)

        Now as I noted above I have not found any such evidence of drawing in the sand of fish…but perhaps such did happen..I do not know…I noted that I have not seen any beyond the fictional references.

        Certainly the early Christians used drawings in the catecombs etc that looked more like the real fish (though it still at times was not fully real..though others were more so). As our mutual beloved Professors at Franciscan University of Steubenville will affirm no doubt..(as to Christians drawing fish in the sand… perhaps they have a source I have not found as to the use in the sand..it may have been that they were reading you Quo Vadis or referencing that work –if you happen to ask them let me know).

        But yes the early Christian use of the fish is a very important profession indeed!

        • Jennie /

          Kevin,

          I’ll be happy to ask one of them whom I’m in contact with and will let you know his sources, if any. I do not believe it was Quo Vadis though, I only learned of the reference to Quo Vadis when my husband happened to mention the reference a few weeks ago while I was working on an article for children about this very topic.

  2. One can see on here: http://www.domitilla.info/idx.htm?var1=docs/gallery2.htm but one has to scroll more than half way down through the pictures….around 70′ something if you want to count.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Stele_Licinia_Amias_Terme_67646.jpg

    Also: http://www.earlychristians.org/catacombs/symbols.html

  3. The acts of the Martyrs too would make a great subject for an article.

    http://www.earlychristians.org/testimonies_martyrs.html

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