The Fish

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


Now hear, O Brahmins, the ancient tale of Matsya the Fish, which is holy, purifying and life-bestowing, as it was sung by the mace-bearer, Vishnu.

Matsya Purana

 Long ago there was a good and patient king named Manu who practised abundant tapas with what may truly be called global results. Turning his affairs of state over to his son, he diligently pursued his austerities until he attained supreme yoga. After millennia Brahma noticed him and was pleased. He asked him to choose a boon as his prize, whereupon the king bowed low and requested the ultimate reward which would make him "the protector of all standing and moving creatures when the dissolution comes". "So be it!" boomed the grandfather of the gods, and a shower of flowers fell to earth from his hidden abode.

 Sometime later the king was making sacred water offerings to the gods near his hermitage, when there fell into his hands along with the water a tiny fish, which pleaded to him for protection. Moved by compassion, Manu placed it in a small jar safe from the predations of ponds, rivers and lakes. But the remarkable fish rapidly outgrew the jar and all the subsequent containers that the concerned king could provide for it. Placed in a pond, he soon languished in its insufficient basin, and rivers and lakes likewise proved to be successively inadequate. Finally, Manu placed the enormously grown creature into the ocean itself, where its continued growth filled him with astonishment and reverential awe as he realized that it could only be a manifestation of Lord Vishnu. With this recognition, the Lord rapidly began to instruct Manu, telling him how he had fought with the demon Hayagriva, who had stolen the Vedas from the sleeping Brahma. He taught the king their principles and the knowledge which should guide the human race during the present cycle of four yugas. He spoke of a coming flood which would inundate the whole world and instructed him to put all creatures and the seven Rishis of time's cycles into a boat constructed by the gods. Thus, he said, at the end of the dissolution of the world you shall be master of the creatures on earth, their all-knowing king at the beginning of the Krita Age.

 In the Satapatha Brahmana the great fish saves Manu by drawing the ark until it rests upon Mount Naubandhava (Meru in the later Puranas), where he reveals himself to be Brahma. In the later Puranic versions it is Lord Vishnu manifested in his Matsya Avatar who drew the boarded and ready ship across the flood by a serpent-rope attached to his horn, transferring safely to a new cycle the essential seeds and wisdom of the old. One may be cautioned not to take the Puranas too literally and to keep in mind that periods spoken of there refer to both minor cycles and mahakalpas. It has been suggested in various traditions that one of the keys to understanding the symbolism of the fish is to be found in the study of cycles, a subject ardently pursued by anyone wishing to unravel the mystery of the Matsya and subsequent Avatars of Vishnu. The Secret Doctrine points out that the last mahakalpa was the Padma, while the present one is the Varaha. In the series of Vishnu's manifestations, the Matsya Avatar occurred before that of the Varaha, indicating that the allegories belong to kalpas as well as minor cycles that have taken place since the reappearance of our chain of worlds. This is borne out by the fact that the Matsya Avatar is connected with Vaivasvata's deluge which took place on our earth during this Round. It therefore refers to a geologic period which reflects pre-cosmic events occurring on a far vaster scale.

 The symbolic relation of cycles to the fish in general has been associated by some with its bobbin shape. Like the spindle of the weavers of necessity in Greek myth, the fish is thought to spin out the cycle of life after the pattern of the lunar zodiac. By others its shape has been likened to a bird whom they say drifted through the watery netherworld and periodically emerged in a cycle of regeneration and resurrection. The Chaldean symbol for this was a fish with a swallow's head. The ocean it swam through was the abyss of non-being which surrounds the world of form, the great magna mater that the Greeks called chaos. The fish penetrates through these waters during its life migrations and returns to its place of beginning, where it lays vast shoals of oviparous progeny destined to persist through the next generational cycle.

 Its form continues though engulfed in a sea of dissolution, represented in human beings by the psychic nature. Within the aquatic gloom of this great omnipresent liquidity, the fish penetrates and asserts its fertile presence before being swallowed up by oblivion. Thus persisting, a fish is at the beginning of a cycle and at its end. In the annals of Quauhtitlan of ancient Mexico, each epoch was said to begin with the god Quetzalcoatl (the scaly, plumed serpent) as creator and end with a flood and the transformation of all creatures into fishes. The feminine matrix of life itself is sometimes referred to as the fiery Fish-Mother, who scatters her spawn in space (the ocean of chaos) where Motion (the great paternal breath) heats and quickens it until the grains form the curds of the manifesting universe.

FISH (fly-replete, in depth of June,
Dawdling away their wat'ry noon)
Ponder deep wisdom, dark or clear,
Each secret fishy hope or fear.
Fish say, they have their stream and pond;
But is there anything beyond?
This life cannot be all, they swear,
For how unpleasant, if it were!
One may not doubt that, somehow, good
Shall come of water and of mud;
And, sure, the reverent eye must see
A purpose in liquidity.
We darkly know, by faith we cry,
The future is not wholly dry.
Mud unto mud! - Death eddies near -
Not here the appointed end, not here!
But somewhere, beyond space and time,
Is wetter water, slimier slime!
And there (they trust) there swimmeth one Who swam ere rivers were begun,
Immense, of fishy form and mind,
Squamous, omnipotent, and kind;
And under that Almighty Fin,
The littlest fish may enter in.
Oh! never fly conceals a hook,
Fish say, in the Eternal Brook,
But more than mundane weeds are there,
And mud, celestially fair.
Fat caterpillars drift around,
And paradisal grubs are found;
Unfading moths, immortal flies,
And the worm that never dies.
And in that Heaven of all their wish,
There shall be no more land, say fish.

Rupert Brooke

 The "one who swam ere rivers were begun" looms within the mythical waters of many cultures. Some have conceived of the cosmic fish as the whole physical universe, the symbol of the progress of the world across the sea of the unformed essences of worlds dissolved or not yet manifest. Others, like the Altaic-speaking people, believed that when Ulgen created the disc of the earth upon the primordial waters, he supported it with three great fishes who could be raised or lowered by a rope attached to their gills. Held in the hand of the Bodhisattva Manjushri, a slight pulling could produce earthquakes and floods, an idea which crops up in Eastern European and Semitic lore as well. The Kirghiz notion that a bull supporting the world on his horns stands on a great fish in the world ocean is similar and suggests an interesting sequence of forms reminiscent of the Minoan bull that came from the sea. The zodiac itself holds four such pillars: the Bull, the Scorpion, the Lion and the Southern Fish, each residing at the corners of its great spiralling wheel. But it is the Fish that represents the point of transformation and cyclic change, the pillar of form which finds its base in a prior period of primordial becoming.

 Among the coastal Chincha people living west of the Andes, each province worshipped a special kind of fish which they believed to have been a manifestation of the First of all Fish, who dwells in the sky. This great fish, much like that of the Hindu tradition, warns of an impending flood and instructs his devotees to build an ark which will carry them safely through the deluge. Given the widespread occurrence of this theme, it is interesting to note that the idea of a cultural hero being swallowed by a great fish is equally ubiquitous and reveals another facet of Piscean symbolism having to do with the role of saviour from dissolution and death and also the embodiment of those fearful possibilities. Like Jonah and others of the Semitic legends, many American Indian heroes had to enter into the jaws of the abyss, the great fish which ruled the powers of the deep (like the giant sturgeon which swallowed Hiawatha), from whose maw the hero re-emerged in a triumph of light over dark and watery chaos. There is a subtle cross-over between the warning, saving fish who preserves form, and the swallowing fish which appears to be one with the waters of chaos. It is like both the double-edged symbolism and the actual effects connected with the moon, with which the fish is so intimately associated. The cyclic waxing and waning to which both are related are dangerous, but they are part of a necessary process of growth through death and resurrection.

 In the arcane symbolism of the ancient Middle East, a fish swimming downward represented spiritual involution, whilst one swimming upward signified the process of spiritual evolution. Depicted together, they were like the yin and yang figure of Taoism or the two fishes, nose to tail, of the Hindus, associated with the sacred yoni. The Akkadians believed that Tiamat, the tumultuous sea, the chaotic mother of space and the incipient watery flow, was killed by the hero Marduk, who clove her body "like a fish in two parts" and fashioned from one half the heavens, from the other the earth. He organized the world thus so that the fish above was reflected in the fish below, the one curved to enter into the world, the other poised to evolve its way out of it. The Secret Doctrine teaches that the fish, along with later reptiles, birds and amphibians, is the result of astral fossils of the Third Round which were stored in the earth's aura until they manifested in the Laurentian rocks of this Round, Those who preceded physical man were bisexual, becoming heterosexual only with man's separation and fall from a more ethereal state. This idea is clearly suggested by the two fishes curving up and down, circling around one another in a continual process of involution and evolution. But the fish does not merely remain as a distinct, separate link with past phases of existence, for it regularly appears in the foetal development of all vertebrates, including that of humans, where the foetus exhibits early on a fish-like shape as well as full-blown gill clefts. Thus, human foetal growth epitomizes not only characteristics of the Fourth Root Race but of the Third as well.

 In this Round and on this earth as we know it, the earliest fishes began to develop between the Cambrian and Ordovician periods, leading to a piscean explosion in Devonian times, four hundred million years ago. Jaws, destined to become a fearful symbol of destruction among later seafaring men, evolved during this time among the ancient cartilaginous fish, of which the modern shark is a living example. Bony fishes came to dominate only in the last one hundred and eighty million years, introducing the oviparous mode of reproduction so prevalent among fish today. While fish appearing after physical man were no longer bisexual, it is not the case that they became clearly and consistently heterosexual, for there is a fairly high rate of hermaphroditism among certain species (such as the bass), and changes in sex within the lifetime of an individual fish have been observed. From the standpoint of arcane symbolism it would seem that fish, though extremely long lived as a phylum, have not only evolved in a fluidic environment, but are themselves genetically fluidic, shifting gender and assuming remarkably varying forms. Fishes today make up a huge and complex group, comparable within their own ranks to all the variations within other classes of vertebrates put together.

 Generally described, fishes are all those vertebrate animals which live in water and, by means of gills, breathe air dissolved in it; whose heart consists of a single ventricle and atrium; whose limbs, if present, are modified into fins; and whose skin is either naked or covered with osseous plates, bucklers or scales. They are immensely older than the Tetrapoda, being ancestral to all land vertebrates, but they do not exhibit any evidence of racial senescence. Instead, they greatly surpass all land vertebrates in number of species and new ones are constantly being discovered. This is undoubtedly because fishes live in a fantastic variety of habitats within bodies of water that are truly analogous to the endlessly transformational potential of the great astral sea out of which the manifest universe cyclically emerges. Within rivers, lakes and oceans, extreme variations of light and darkness, heat and cold, pressure, salinity, calmness and turbulence can be found. Seventy-five percent of the surface of our globe is water, and the diversity of size and shape of its piscean inhabitants is even greater than that of insects. There are, at the very least, twenty thousand species with hundreds of thousands of subspecies flourishing around the world and at least a few of them can be found in almost all permanent bodies of water. Some types in Southeast Asia even thrive in puddles, hopping overland to another watery home when their own little abode dries up. Big ones, little ones, there always seems to be one of their kind present even in the most amazingly small pond. Let the rains come and the fish seem to sprout up everywhere.

Calico Jam,
The little Fish swam,
Over the syllabub sea.

Edward Lear

 Throughout their long history the lives of fish have been dominated by the incompressibility of water. It has imposed upon them the general shape of the basic vertebrate: a hollow cylinder open at both ends with a vertebral column, a food canal and nerve cord running the length, the latter enlarged at the front end to form the brain. This aquadynamic shape, the method of locomotion and means of breathing, feeding and reproducing, are all adaptive responses to the fluidity, buoyancy, more constant temperature, penetrability and incompressibility of water. To move in it requires that it be displaced, shoved aside, so to speak, by a streamlined form which can wiggle through it in a serpentine motion. Along the tapering flanks of such a form, the water flows back, closing at the tail and pushing the fish forward. Thus, the fish's shape most easily penetrates the watery world, being able not only to cut through it but to use it as a means of further propulsion. Nonetheless, within the parameters of this general form, the thousands of species of fish illustrate the most dramatic variations of shape and size. The sea serpents of Aristotle and Pliny are not very fantastic-seeming when compared with oar or ribbon fish, whose heads look like those of horses, with red manes flowing in rhythm to their undulating motion. One grown to the stupendous length of fifty-six feet was cast up on the shore at Orkney in 1808!

I never lost a little fish - yes I am
free to say ,
It always was the biggest fish I caught
that got away.

Eugene Feeld

 With whale sharks at sixty feet and basking sharks at forty, monsters of the deep seem real enough. Even the halibut can attain eight feet and a weight of four hundred pounds or more, while the sleeker, fifteen-foot freshwater Arapaima gigas of the Amazon can reach an equal weight. Alongside the one-half-inch goby of Luzon, such giants would appear to belong to another dimension of existence rather than to the same family. An enormous pike was captured in a lake at Wurttemberg in 1497 which had a copper ring fixed in its gill, telling that it had been put into the lake by Frederick II in 1230. Besides being two hundred and sixty-seven years old, it was said to have been nineteen feet long and weighed five hundred and fifty pounds! Whether one finds this fishy or not, the report certainly indicates that fabulous tales of piscean splendour have flourished for a very long time. There is something, perhaps, about drawing up on a line a prize from the hidden deep that is thrilling to human beings: a conquest and discovery of a very different order from what is experienced by hunters of land animals or birds of the air. One is not quite sure what is down there, or if a giant or minnow will nibble one's bait. The uncertainty, however, has not deterred fishermen who take thirty-eight million tons of fish from the world's seas every year.

 The disinterested desire to understand fish and their watery kingdom for their own sake has engaged only a small percentage of mankind. The majority who undertake this study do so in order to better exploit them for food and other products. With such a pressing motivation we have learnt a great deal about the vast migrations of albacore who travel from Southern California to Japan and back, and sardines who journey from San Diego to British Columbia over a period of six months. We know all about the wonderful cycle of the salmon, who swim upstream to their birthplace in order to spawn and die, and we catch them en route by the multitude. Sportsmen learn of thousand-pound black marlin fifteen feet long for the thrill of it, while fishermen comb the waves for eighteen-hundred-pound bluefin tuna for the fill of it. But some are simply mad for mackerel, balmy for barracuda or soft on sharks for their own sake. Their painstaking investigations have revealed wonderful details about piscean life. From them we have learnt something of the sixth sense possessed by all fish which enables them to remain delicately in tune with all movements around them and with currents in the water. Along a visible lateral line on the fish's sides, a highly sensitized nerve canal monitors flow and is responsible for the lightning-like dart of a coral fish into a tiny crevice it cannot possibly see with its eyes. It is also responsible for vast shoals of fish being able to hold their formation in perfectly aligned schools. The studies of ichthyological enthusiasts have also revealed much about the remarkable relationships existing between parent fish and their offspring, of fish to each other in the food chain, in schools or pods and in cleaner-client associations. The bitterling emits its eggs through a tube into a mussel, where they are fertilized by the lurking male as the mussel feeds. The stickleback simply constructs a nest and drives the female into it to deposit eggs. Most mother fish nonchalantly swim off, leaving the care of the shoal of eggs to the father. The male Tilapia of Indonesia fasts for a fortnight while incubating the eggs in his mouth. He, like most other piscean pops, then carries on with the job of rearing the small fry until they are able to get along on their own.

 Some fry may belong to one of the several species that act as groomers of larger fish and grow up to enter into a cleaner-client relationship with them. All fish, especially large fish, acquire wounds, sores, growths and other potentially infectious problems. Cleaner-fish rid their bodies of unwanted bacterial growths and many clients obligingly take on a deeper colour so as to show up the sore spots and help them on with the job. There is a small wrasse who "goes into a customer's mouth, works over the teeth and proceeds right down to the gullet until its client signifies, by snapping its jaws a few times, that it is satisfied." One cleaner off the California coast was observed to handle three hundred clients in a matter of six hours! There was a veritable line of impatient swimmers backed up and waiting their turn, some slyly sneaking around for a second scrubbing.

And the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee.

Job 12: 8

 Fascinating as these relations may be, one might pause to wonder how they bear upon the symbolism associated with the fish. How do the migration, reproduction and social patterns of fishes relate to the mystery of the Matsya Avatar, to cycles or the idea found in Buddhism, for instance, wherein Buddha is called a Fisher of Men? In the Gospel According to Matthew (4:19) Jesus said to his new-found disciples, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." Is the Fisher of Men the same Saviour as the great fish who towed the ark? Is there something about the relationship between all fishes in their cycles of generation that points to the nature of this piscean Saviour, this man-fish, as some have called him? Or is it her? For the carp is the emblem of Kwan-Yin, who vowed never to seek salvation before all that lives had achieved their deliverance. So closely is her compassion associated with this beautiful fish in Japan that the word for love is a homophone of the word for carp.

  Similar to the Buddhists and Christians, the ancient Greeks referred to Orpheus as a Fisher of Men. His disciples, like those of Buddha and Christ, were little fishes swimming in the waters of life, to be saved by one big fish. The anagram for Christ in primitive Christianity, ΙΧΘΥΣ (Ichthys), was the Greek for 'fish', which, when spelt out, stood for the epithet Ιησου Χριστος, Θεου Υιος, Σωτηρ (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour). Here the fish takes on a solar symbolism associated with the soul rising from the waters of chaotic matter in the piscean form, which the Chaldeans called the Intelligent One, Ea, the father of Marduk, the purveyor of Soul upon the waters. The sign of ΙΧΘΥΣ thus relates to all world reformers. It is the sign of Jonas marking the rebirth of the sun in Pisces, the rising out of the waters of Oannes, Ea, Quetzalcoatl and other man-fish for the enlightenment of the world. They are like Thjodvitnir's fish (the sun) which swims in the River Thund (the sky) that surrounds Odin's Valhalla. Periodically they emerge from their astral realm of rest to quicken the reflected fire of spirit which lies hidden in the world of form.

 Ea was the man-fish who rose out of the Persian Gulf. The Babylonians called the astrological phase from Capricorn to Pisces the Field of Ea and believed that it was in this sign that man was instructed in that which would make him truly human. The earlier Sumerians had associated this idea with the god Enki of Eridu, the lord of the manifest lower world identified with the sea. When officiating at his ritual worship, priests clothed in fish garments were believed to have the power of purification and protection attributed to the god. (Their fish headdress became the mitre of Christian bishops.) Enki became Ea of the Akkadian texts, whom Greek writers knew as 'Ao' in Damascius and Οαννης (Oannes) in Berossus. According to the Greek record, men had lived in a lawless and bestial manner before the flood when Oannes appeared from the sea. He had the body of a fish and his feet were like those of a man subjoined to the tail. Under the fish's head he had another, a human head, from the mouth of which he spoke as he passed among men, teaching them letters, science, arts, geometry and agriculture. It is said that he instructed humanity by day but retired to the sea by night. Altogether, Oannes made four appearances as a man-fish at intervals of enormous duration (exceeding thirty thousand years) in different reigns of the pre-diluvian kings.

 In the Arthurian romance the Fisher King plays a similar role, and on the path to the Grail the rich fisherman caught a fish that satisfied the hunger of all. Here the man-fish, fisherman and fish overlap and the conception unites what may initially have appeared as three separate ideas. Seen as one complex symbol, the notion of fishing for men can be addressed in psychological terms, where the bait is cast by the fisherman into the watery depths of his or her innermost nature in order to catch (save) the soul (little fish to be saved by one great fish) which one really is. The fully conscious Adept is one with that awakened soul, being fisher, fish and subsequent Fisher of Men. Adept-Saviours are essentially solar in nature, bringing to the material darkness of the world the light of self-realization. But they descend into the world cyclically, through the cycles of coming and going associated with the tides, the moon and the reproductive generations in the watery astral realm. Through the sacrifice of the Logoic light, the pregnant astral realms are penetrated and the impulse of spiritual awakening reaches the heart of even the hardest stone. Through soma, connecting the highest spirit (cosmically and in man) with the astral nature, consciousness can soar above the physical and participate in the bliss of heaven.

Enlil saw the eclipse of
The hero Sin in Heaven, and
The Lord hailed his messenger Nusku.
Tidings of my son Sin who in Heaven
has been woefully darkened,
Repeat to Ea in the Deep . . .

The Akkadian Utukke Limnuti

 Fish, Sin and soma together make the symbol of the Immortal Being. Sin is the moon, which is fearfully eclipsed in the incantation and whose influence is necessary for the life and growth which can lead either to enlightenment or to ignorance, evil and the wages of sin. The fish of spiritual involution, swimming downward into the water, curves like the lunar crescent of the waxing moon. It descends into the astral sea of matter, its bright scales dancing sparks of light throughout the darkness. It swims within the soup of life, eats, is eaten, cleans, is cleansed, spawns, dies and lives again. Just so, the soul descends into matter time and time again. But the time comes when the fish begins to undulate upward, curving like the crescent of the waning moon, splashing forth upon the surface like the Rishi's ark that carried the spawn of spiritual life. Its upward course was powered by the reflected light of highest Spirit, the soma-power coursing through the whole of Nature, making it one with the fish of spiritual evolution, the heaven-bound soul. It is from such rich occult symbolism that people have evolved their notions of sacred meals wherein fish and soma or wine play such key roles.

  The man-fish penetrates with the undulating motion of the Logos into the invisible (to most) astral ocean that anticipates the realm of physical form. There he swims at rest and from there he emerges into the material world. He allows himself to become subject to the waxing and waning cycles of the world while retaining the powers of transmutation and endless adaptation so typical of the watery world. In his periods of rest, he can take on ideas and shapes our world has never seen. He is the arcane hermaphrodite, who can manifest in totally unexpected ways. He swims and emerges, living as a compassionate link joining the spiritual with the astral and physical realms. Disciples struggling as little fishes go through piscean cycles over and over again. Their sixth sense begins to awaken in them not merely an instantaneous knowledge of a route to escape physical death, but an awareness of the radical unity existing within, between the self which 'catches' the soul and the universal Soul symbolized by the cosmic fish, who tells of the flood and draws the essence of life and wisdom safely through to the next cycle. The tiny sliver of lunar light almost eclipsed between periods of manifestation is the umbilical thread of reflected spirit which never dies. In the darkest depths of the sea its silver curve glistens as it rhythmically undulates along. When struggling disciples learn to follow this path unerringly, like the little fry their parent, they will have conquered the astral realm and learnt to use it as a means of further propulsion. They will have come to realize the sacrificial nature of the immortal soul's path within their own heart and they will aspire to become Fishers of Men, to rise up out of the depths and become part of that sacred school which swims in the wake of the Avatar.

Suffer little fishes
Floundered out at sea,
Sharks and deadly wishes
Have made a meal of thee.
Strike your finny course
Up Ganga's sacred aisle
And come onto the source
That gave Meenakshi's smile.