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Ichthys Symbolism: From Pagan Origins to Christianity

One of the earliest symbols of Christianity, the “ichthys” or “ichthus” consists of two intersecting arcs, creating a fish shape. However, the fish symbol is believed to have been used in earlier times before the Christian era. Let’s take a look at its rich history and symbolism.

History of the Ichthys Symbol

Christian Fish Reclaimed Wood Wall Art
The Christian Fish. See it here.

Ichthys is the Greek word for fish, and is also an acrostic of the phrase Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior in Greek. During times of persecution in ancient Rome, it is believed that early Christians used the symbol as a secret sign of identification among believers.

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When a Christian met a stranger, he would draw one arc of the fish on a sand or stone. If the stranger was a Christian, he would recognize the symbol and would draw the other arc. The ichthys was used to mark secret gathering places, catacombs, and homes of believers.

Early Uses of the Ichthys

However, the use of the fish symbol pre-dates Christianity, and was widely used in pagan art and rituals long before Christians used it. The Egyptians used animals as representations for their deities, and even the cult of Isis, which was devoted to Egyptian deities Isis and Osiris, had previously used the fish symbol in their worship.

When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 B.C., the worship of Isis, along with other Egyptian beliefs and rituals, were adapted by and flourished in Greece and Rome in pagan rituals. The ichthys symbol was used as a representation of sexuality and fertility in some of these rituals.

The earliest known literary reference to the ichthys as a symbol of Christianity was made by Clement of Alexandria around the year 200 C.E. when he instructed Christians to use images of fish or doves on their seal rings, integrating the Greek beliefs with Christian faith.

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The ichthys symbol also gained prominence when Tertullian, a Christian theologian, associated it with water baptism and the fact that Christ called his disciples “fishers of men.” During the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine I, Christianity became the religion of the empire. Since the threat of persecution had passed, the use of ichthys symbol declined —until it was revived in modern times.

Symbolism of Ichthys Symbol

Ichthys Handmade 14K Gold Men Signet Ring
Handmade item of Ichthys symbol. See it here.

The ichthys symbol has been reinterpreted and incorporated into Christian faith. Here are some of its symbolic meanings:

1. Acrostic Reference to Jesus Christ

The term ‘ichthys’ serves as an acronym for the Greek phrase “Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr,” which translates to “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” The use of acrostics was a common practice in ancient cultures, employed for various purposes, including mnemonic aids or hidden meanings. Though this specific reference is not explicitly mentioned in biblical texts nor by ancient Greeks, it’s widely recognized in Christian tradition.

2. A Symbol of Christianity

“Ichthys” is the Greek word for “fish”, and considering that there are many references to fish and fishermen in the Bible, the associations to Christianity seems relevant. Jesus’ baptism in the waters of the Jordan River and His reference to his disciples as “fishers of men” further emphasize the symbolic connection between Christ, His teachings, and the imagery of the fish.

3. Abundance and Miracles

The New Testament contains several references linking fish to miracles and blessings. In the Bible, Jesus miraculously fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish, which associated the symbol of the fish with blessings and abundance. Some believers even associate the symbol of the ichthys with the story of Tobias, who used the bile of a fish to cure his blind father.

4. Pagan Beliefs

Fish symbolism is not exclusive to Christianity. Scholars have noted the prominence of fish in various ancient cultures, often representing ideas about death, fertility, sexuality, and even prophecy. The zodiac sign Pisces, the fish, and myths where gods transform into fish are elements present in Greco-Roman tradition. Some historians posit that these pre-existing beliefs might have influenced, or at least been integrated into, the early Christian interpretation of the ichthys symbol.

What About the Darwin Fish?

Darwin fish by Al Seckel, John Edwards, PD.

The “Darwin Fish” is a parody of the ichthys that incorporates two legs extending from the bottom of the fish shape, referencing the process of evolution. The name “Darwin” is typically inscribed inside the fish, in homage to Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory.

The Darwin Fish is often used as a symbol for secularism, atheism, or acceptance of the theory of evolution. Some people place Darwin Fish symbols on their cars, often as a form of satirical commentary on the ichthys bumper stickers.

The two legs on the fish references the evolution of fish to tetrapods. It also symbolizes the steps that had to take place for fish to eventually come to land and evolve into land-dwelling vertebrates.

Ichthys for Christians Today

Ichthys Necklace
Opal and Eilat stone cross inside Ichthys. See it here.

For many Christians, the ichthys symbol is a succinct and recognizable representation of their faith. Displaying the symbol can be a way to openly identify as a Christian and to express solidarity with Christian teachings and community.

The ichthys has become a modern representation of Christianity and a common religious motif in t-shirts, jackets, sweaters, dresses, key chains, and jewelry designs. It’s a popular bumper sticker.

Christian jewelry features the fish symbol on necklace pendants, dog tags, earrings, bracelet with charms, and rings. Some variations even decorate the symbol with gemstones or combine it with other symbols such as the cross, or national flag, as well as words like faith, Jesus, ΙΧΘΥΣ (Greek for ichthys) and even initials.

In Brief

The ichthys symbol has a long history—and was a way for early Christians to identify their fellow believers during times of persecution in the first few centuries of Christianity. Nowadays, it is typically used as an emblem on clothing and jewelry to proclaim an affiliation with Christianity.

Ichthys symbol meaning

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Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.