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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
Ichthys is the Greek word for fish, and also an acrostic of the phrase Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. During times of persecution in ancient Rome, it is believed that early Christians used the symbol as a secret sign of identification among believers.
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.
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.
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.
Meaning and Symbolism of Ichthys Symbol
The ichthys symbol has been reinterpreted and incorporated into Christian faith. Here are some of its symbolic meanings:
- “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” – The ichthys symbol is believed to be the acrostic of the Greek phrase Jesus Christ, Song of God, Savior, but the origin of this is not clear since it is not found in the Bible, nor referenced by the Ancient Greeks.
- 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. Some of them include the fact that Jesus was born again in the waters of Jordan and He called his disciples as “fishers of men”. Some believe that early Christians used it as a symbol of their faith during persecution.
- Abundance and Miracles – 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.
- Pagan Beliefs – In a case study of early Christian fish symbolism, the importance of various ideas about fish including death, sexuality and prophecy, astrological ideas about Pisces, gods metamorphosing into fish and so on were analyzed. Some scholars, historians and philosophers believe that Greco-Roman and other pagan beliefs probably influenced the Christian interpretation of the ichthys symbol.
Ichthys Symbol in Jewelry and Fashion
The ichthys symbol has become a modern representation of Christianity and a common religious motif in t-shirts, jackets, sweaters, dresses, key chains, and jewelry designs. Some devoted Christians even flaunt the symbol on their tattoos or as nameplate decoration on their cars.
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. Below is a list of the editor’s top picks featuring the ichthys symbol.
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.