Ichthys - The Christian Fish or Jesus Fish
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Ichthys or Ikhthus (Greek: ἰχθύς, capitalized ΙΧΘΥΣ or ΙΧΘΥC) is the ancient and classical Greek word for "fish." In English it refers to a symbol consisting of two intersecting arcs, the ends of the right side extending beyond the meeting point so as to resemble the profile of a fish, said to have been used by early Christians as a secret symbol and now known colloquially as the "sign of the fish" or the "Jesus fish."
Ichthys as a Christian symbol
The use of the Ichthys symbol by early Christians. Ichthus (ΙΧΘΥΣ, Greek for fish) can be read as an acrostic, a word formed from the first letters of several words. It compiles to "Jesus, God's son, savior," in ancient Greek "Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ", Iēsous Khristos Theou Huios, Sōtēr.
Historians say the twentieth century use of the ichthys motif is an adaptation based on an Early Christian symbol which included a small cross for the eye or the Greek letters "ΙΧΘΥC".
An ancient adaptation of ichthus is a wheel which contains the letters ΙΧΘΥΣ superimposed such that the result resembles an eight-spoked wheel.
Fish in the Gospels
Fish are mentioned and given symbolic meaning several times in the Gospels. Several of Jesus' twelve disciples were fishermen. He commissions them with the words "I will make you fishers of men."
At the feeding of the five thousand, a boy is brought to Jesus with "five small loaves and two fishes". The question is asked, "But what are they, among so many?" Jesus multiplies the loaves and fish to feed the multitude.
In Matthew 13:47-50, Jesus compares God's decision on who will go to heaven or to hell ("the fiery furnace") at the end of this world to fishers sorting out their catch, keeping the good fish and throwing the bad fish away.
In the John 21:11, it is related that the disciples fished all night but caught nothing. Jesus instructed them to cast the nets on the other side of the boat, and they drew in 153 fish.
A less commonly cited use of fish in Christ's life may be found in the words of Matthew 17:24-27, in which, upon being asked if his Teacher does not pay the temple (two-drachma) tax, Simon Peter answers, "Yes." Christ tells Peter to go to the water and cast a line. He says that a coin sufficient for the tax will be found in the fish's mouth. Peter does as told and finds the coin.
The early Christian church
The ichthys is seen in first century catacombs in Rome.
Modern Christians pass on alleged stories about their ancient predecessors, when threatened by Romans in the first centuries after Christ, using the fish symbol to mark meeting places and tombs, or to distinguish friends from foes. The periodical Christianity Today, for instance, has taken part in this tradition:
There are several other hypotheses as to why the fish was chosen. Some sources indicate that the earliest literary references came from the recommendation of Clement of Alexandria to his readers (Paedagogus, III, xi) to engrave their seals with the dove or fish. However, it can be inferred from Roman monumental sources such as the Capella Greca and the Sacrament Chapels of the catacomb of St. Callistus that the fish symbol was known to Christians much earlier. This Christian symbol might well have been intended to oppose or protest the apotheosis of the Roman emperor during the reign of Domitian (AD 81 - AD 96). Coins found in Alexandria referred to him as Theou Huios (Son of God). In fact, even earlier, since the death and deification of Julius Caesar, Augustus (Octavian) already styled himself as divi filius, son of the divine (Julius), and struck coins to that effect. This practice was also carried on by some of the later emperors. Another probable explanation is that it is a reference to the scripture in which Jesus miraculously feeds 5,000 people with fish and bread (Matthew 14:15-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:12-17, and John 6:4-13). The ichthys may also relate to Jesus or his disciples as "fishers of men" (e.g., Mark 1:17). Tertullian, in his treatise On Baptism, makes a pun on the word, writing that "we, little fishes, after the example of our ΙΧΘΥΣ Jesus Christ, are born in water."
There are a large number of historians[who?] who note that the fish symbol existed before Christianity in the same geographical area, and represented several goddesses. The fish symbol can literally refer to a dolphin or fish (as a fish-shaped amulet or fish as a symbol of fertility, much like Easter eggs and rice at weddings are used today). The Ichthys symbol also referred to sexuality and the womb. The fish symbol has been associated with Aphrodite, Atargatis, Dagon, Ephesus, the vulva of Isis, and the myths and traditions surrounding Delphine and Pelagia.
Barbara Walker in particular hypothesizes in her book, The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects, that the Ichthys was the son of the pagan sea goddess Atargatis. She also posits that the Ichthys symbol was a representation of sexuality and fertility. Some Christians accept this hypothesis, while others disagree. As early Christians occasionally appropriated pagan symbols, re-defining them in Christian terms, some Christians do not see this as pagan influence upon Christianity, rather as Christianity attempting to claim for itself a "true" usage of what would have been considered false symbolism.
Revival and adaptations of the symbol
The Fish Mission
The 20th century popular revival of the ichthys symbol dates from 1965. At this time the Evangelical Union at Sydney University, a branch of the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students, confronted by the disenchantment of students brought on by the Vietnam War and a perceived anti-Christian sentiment within the university, held a mission to students. The committee in charge of the promotions of the activity looked for a symbol which was distinctly Christian and which might excite curiosity by its apparent novelty and decided upon this ancient sign, which was drawn simply with two arcs, and no inscription.
Traditionally, up-coming events at the university were advertised in chalk on the bitumen paths. The campaign for the Fish Mission began by drawing the ichthus symbol on pavements all around the university.  Silk-screen prints in bright colours on a white background were stuck with flour glue to the rises of walkway stairs throughout the campus. The unexplained early campaign provoked much speculation and interest. Querulous cartoons appeared in the student newspaper Honi Soit. As the advertising campaign progressed, more information was revealed.
Following the success of the Fish Mission publicity campaign, the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students used the symbol more widely on campuses around Australia. From Christian Unions of students it quickly spread to the churches.
The bumper sticker
Members of the University of Queensland Evangelical Union used the ichthys symbol when they formed a temporary Christian commune to be a witnessing presence at the Aquarius Rock Festival at Nimbin in May, 1973. From this time the display of the ichthys symbol, sometimes in combination with an Aquarius Festival sticker in the rear window of Kombi vans became common. The car bumper sticker followed quickly.
The symbol was rapidly adopted for use by other Christian bodies within Australia such as the Church Mission Society from whose shop near St. Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney could be purchased small items of jewelry with the ichthus motif. From Sydney the use of the motif was taken to Asia by university students who had been resident at International House which had close ties with the A.F.E.S.. The ichthys symbol was soon in use among Christians across the world.
Numerous parody bumper stickers and badges have also appeared (see below).
Ichthys in popular culture
The "Jesus Fish" has become an icon of modern Christianity. Today, it can be seen as a decal or emblem on the rear of automobiles or as pendants or necklaces as a sign to the world that the owner is a Christian. It is incorporated into business logos or in business advertisements and listings in telephone books. It is also seen on clothing. Versions of this include an Ichthys with "Jesus" or "ΙΧΘΥΣ" in the center, or simply the Ichthys outline by itself.
Ichthus is the name of an annual large outdoor Christian music festival is held every year in mid-June in the town of Wilmore, Kentucky.
Other links of interest