This is but a brief inquiry into the origins of something generally taken for granted. To get to the essence or root of the signs, we do well to study the Creation myths of a given culture. We will find that there is a great deal more commonality across cultures than was once imagined, There has also been an erosion of essential significance over time in several cases.
The interpretation of Pisces is, by and large, cliched and vague. This is in no small part due to the modern astrological mis-association that replaces Jupiter for Neptune as the ruler of Pisces. This is a regrettable development and I find that even some traditional astrologers have not been able to shake off all this misinformation. It ought to be clear that a sign ruled by the Greater Benefic (Jupiter) and exalted in the Lesser Benefic (Venus) must have better qualities than are usually assigned to Pisces.
There has always seemed to be something not quite right about the assumption and teaching that the Fishes are bound together, causing all manner of difficulties, including psychological and spiritual pathology. Note the emphasis on imagined psychologies, rather than any serious attempt to present a coherent description of what the sign actually is. I recently read comments on Pisces which claimed that the upper fish was Christ and the other, Antichrist. At least, the bound fish represent conflicting natures that almost always work against each other, in a never-ending tug of war, while the venerable Vettius Valens also tells us that Pisces is “in conflict with itself because one Fish is northern, the other southern.” (Anthologies, Book I. p.6). In the same paragraph, however, he states that the sign is ” scaley, sinewy, humpbacked [and] leprous.” He by no means stops there. He adds “lewd, with some limbs missing” to his description. While admitting the great value of his Anthologies in the study of Classical Astrology, I think most of us are baffled by this and numerous other passages in his work. It doesn’t engender great faith in his views regarding the Sign. One has the sense that he’s actually referring to something else or he chose to write like this to put off the casual reader.
Moreover, there is no particular myth that would insist on the binding of the fishes. The Pisces myths most familiar to us are variations on one Greek myth. The essence of all the variations is for all intents and purposes the same.
According to different versions of this legend, either Aphrodite and Eros turn into fish, two fish approach them and swim them away to safety, or they turn into fish AND two other fish take them to safety. Whichever version you prefer, truth be told, it doesn’t really matter. One way or another, the two escape from Typhon, thanks to two fish. Surely, that is core to the story of Ichthus.
The Greeks were also familiar with the original Syrian story in which the fish of Pisces assisted at the birth of Astarte. The theme of Venus born from the sea foam is most famously portrayed in Botticelli’s Nascita di Venere. In other versions of the myth, Aphrodite and Eros are specifically on the shores of the Nile when Typhon, a chthonic force. tried to take them. This points again to the oriental origin of the story. Zeus is in an eternal struggle with Typhon.
Typhon corresponds to a significant extent to Seth, an Egyptian god associated with winds, storms, chaos, evil, darkness, strength, war and conflict. Zeus as a perpetual adversary of Typhon Ra shares many of the attributes of Zeus, such as being credited as the creator of all things. He was also the father of other gods like Zeus.
The name for the constellation that has come down to us as Pisces comes from the Indo-European root *peisk– ‘Fish’. Derivatives: fish (from Old English fisc, fish). Suffixed form *pisk–i; piscary, piscatorial, Pisces, pisci-, piscina. [Pokorny peisk– 796. Watkins]
As Ovid recounts the tale in his Fasti, a wok somewhat in the same spirit as Hesiod’s Work and Days”:
Now the light Water-Carrier (Aquarius) sets with
his tilted urn : next in turn do thou, O Fish, receive
the heavenly steeds. They say that thou and thy
brother (for ye are constellations that sparkle side
by side) did support twain gods upon your backs.
Once on a time Dione, fleeing from the dreadful
Typhon, when Jupiter bore arms in defence of
heaven, came to the Euphrates, accompanied by
the little Cupid, and sat down by the brink of the
Palestinian water. Poplars and reeds crowned the
top of the banks, and willows offered hope that the
fugitives also could find covert there. While she
lay hid, the grove rustled in the wind. She turned
pale with fear and thought that bands of foes were
near. Holding her child in her lap, ” To the rescue,
nymphs! ” she said, ** and to two deities bring
help ! ” Without delay, she sprang forward. Twin
fish received her on their backs, wherefore they now
possess the stars, a guerdon meet. Hence scrupulous
Syrians count it sin to serve up such fry upon the
table, and will not defile their mouths with fish. :( Trans J. G. Frazer II. 454-480.)
There’s not a cord in sight.
The associations of Babylonia, Sumerian, Assyrian, Greek, Persian Indian, Persian, and Greek were highly significant. We are perhaps only now realizing the full extent of this exchange, adoption, adaptation and assimilation. The meaning of Pisces actually becomes clearer the further back we go. In doing so, it becomes increasingly apparent that the Ichthus with an unbreakable cord forever holding it in thrall is probably apocryphal as well as misleading.
“There is every reason to believe that the idea of the cord would only have been applied to these stars in the latter half of the 1st millennium when they came to mark the position of the spring equinox. Before this time the two component parts of the cord would have been envisioned as the two great rivers of Mesopotamia, the Tigris, and the Euphrates. The origin of the ‘knot’ that unites the two cords represents the Shat-al-Arab where the two great rivers join together before flowing into the Gulf of Bahrain.” (White, Gavin. Babylonian Star-Lore p 216)
Ancient cultures understood that whatever appeared or happened on the Earth corresponded to the heavens. I have mentioned that the Egyptians referred to the Milky Way as the true Nile. Hindus believe the same of the Ganges. The Tigris and the Euphrates are of up-most importance for creating a fertile land that was home to some of the most ancient civilizations and believed to be the location of the Garden of Eden, variations of which abound in ancient narratives.
The place of the confluence of the two rivers corresponds to the Fishes, with the fixed star at the point of contact. None of the stars in Pisces are particularly bright. but if you know where to look, this star should be easy enough to find. The name that has come down to us through Arabic means the knot, but the image we usually see of Pisces with two fishes yoked and swimming in different directions is only one interpretation, unfounded in any definitive source.
However, if we remember that the cord is actually two rivers supporting civilizations and a great variety of agricultural endeavours, we see that this makes clear the essence of Ichthus.
The symbol of the Cosmic Fish is ubiquitous. I personally `find explorations of how such symbols manifest in various cultures, and even more so of those cultures have influenced one another. The Fish is recognizable from Babylonian Cosmology, Greek Myth, and symbols in Hindu Metaphysics. From there, we can take a deeper, more informed understanding of the Sign and Constellation of Ichthus
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” – T.S. Eliot: