Fish swim in lakes, rivers and oceans, each of which is symbolic of separate states of emotion. Accordingly, we need to analyze where a fish swims, its color, species and behavior, in order to properly determine its significance within our emotional paradigm. For instance, if a school of hungry shark(s) swim in a river under a narrow bridge which we happen to be crossing, we may be depicting an intense fear concerning a present relationship AND the course of action necessary to change this painful relationships more dangerous or harmful aspects. On the other hand, if a school of Angel fish appear in our in-ground swimming pool and circle our bodies, we may be illustrating a new emotional or spiritual love in our active waking life. In a strict literary sense, a fish may also represent our ideas and memories which swim, dive and surface in the universe of our Unconscious.
Of course fish are symbols of water, the element in which they live. They are carved on the bases of Khmer monuments to show that their foundations are in the ‘waters under the earth’, the Underworld. In this context they may be regarded as sharing the ‘chaotic’ character of their element, whence arises their ‘uncleanness’. This is the reason given by de St-Martin who also notes that their heads cannot be distinguished from their bodies. Yet, although Leviticus excludes fish from sacrificial animals, it allows them, alone of aquatic creatures, to be eaten.
As a symbol of water and the creature on which Varuna rides, fish are associated with cyclical birth or rebirth. Manifestation occurs upon the ‘face of the waters’. Fish are at one and the same time saviours and instruments of revelation. A fish (matsya) was one of Vishnu’s avatars (incarnations); it saved Manu, lawgiver of the present cycle, from the flood and then brought him the Vedas, in other words revealed to him the whole of sacred knowledge. christ himself is often depicted as a fisherman, Christians being fish since the waters of baptism are their natural element, and he himself is symbolized by a fish. Thus he is the Fish which guides the Ark of the Church, just as the Matsya-avatara guided the ark of Manu. In Kashmir, Matsyendranath, whose name undoubtedly should be translated as ‘The Fisherman’ and identified with the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, is said to have had Yoga revealed to him when he was transformed into a fish.
Sacred fish in Ancient Egypt, the Phoenician god, Dagon, and the Mesopotamian, Oannes, bear witness to identity of symbol, especially the last named who was specifically regarded as ‘the Revealer’. Oannes, indeed, has been regarded as a prefiguration of Christ. In Ancient Greece, with the legend of Amphion’s rescue by a dolphin, the theme of the dolphin-as-saviour was a commonplace. Dolphins were associated with the worship of apollo and gave Delphi its name.
Fish are, in any case, symbols of life and fertility because of their extraordinary powers of reproduction and the vast number of eggs which they lay. This is a symbol which, of course, can be transferred to the spiritual plane. In Far Eastern iconography fish are paired and thus become symbols of marriage. Muslims also associate fish with notions of fertility. Rain-making charms are known, shaped like fish, and they are also associated with prosperity, since to dream of eating fish is considered lucky.
In the iconography of Indo-European races, fish, emblem of water, are a symbol of fertility and wisdom.
Fish are a symbol of the Central American Indian MAizE-god. Hentze believes they are phallic symbols and Breuil has found them among Magdalenian bone-carvings. The Sanskrit name for the love-god was ‘he who has the Fish for a Symbol’, while fish were attributes of the love-goddesses worshipped in Syria. Aximander explains that in Ancient Asia Minor fish were forbidden as food because they were the parents of mankind. They are often associated with rhomboid shapes (see lozenge), especially on Babylonian cylinders. Marcel Griaule records that the name given to the Bozo circumcision knife is ‘the knife which cuts the fish’.
In China fishes were a symbol of luck and when accompanied by cranes (longevity), together they symbolized happiness and good luck.
In Ancient Egypt fresh or dried fish was a staple article of food, but it was forbidden to ‘all persons connected with religion’, priests or kings. According to legend, ‘the gods of Busiris were then supposed to change themselves into chromis-fish’ and this demanded a total abstinence from fish-eating. A goddess was called ‘the Chief of the Fishes’ and this was a name given to the female dolphin. Fishes were generally ambiguous creatures and silent and mysterious... hidden but glistening under the green Nile, were for ever taking part in fierce dramas. So every day in the creek at the end of the world a chromis with fins edged with pink and an abdju-fish of blue lapis took shape mysteriously and acting as pilots to Ra’s boat reported the approach of the monster Apophis.
The chromis-amulet was a lucky and protective charm.
Christianity has made wide use of fish symbolism, some applications being specific to it, others obviously to be excluded.