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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Vesica Piscis: The Tale of a Fish

This is the tale of a fish. This particular fish can be found swimming in the most unlikely and unexpected seas, and its territory is expansive enough to cover radically differing beliefs and worldviews. So you will realise that one thing that this fish is very good at doing is surviving. In our own 21st-century world, it frequently can be seen swimming happily along in traffic on the [1]bumper of many a car whose occupants choose to signal their allegiance to the Christian faith. It’s use as a Christian symbol is usually assumed to date back to the beginnings of that religion, and for adherents of that faith is perhaps second only to the Christian cross in symbolic significance.

The truth, as generally happens, is something different. The Christian fish stems from an anagram in Greek – the language of the Gospel texts – formed from the first letters of the phrase ‘Jesus Christ of God, Son, Savior’, which spell out the word ‘ICTHYS’, meaning ‘fish’. While this appropriately references various passages in scripture, and the written word in Greek was used by followers of the new faith, the actual use of the stylised fish symbol is absent. So the story that it was used as a secret sign among early Christians seems to be no more than that. Instead, an eight-spoked wheel was used (below), sometimes with the letters written within the spokes of the wheel. Surprisingly, the first use of the currently-familiar Christian fish formed from a double arc seems to date, not from a historical source, but from its appearance in a mid 20th-century [2]Hollywood Biblical epic, and it has gained in popularity since then.

Clearly the way in which this stylised fish is drawn must have come from somewhere. The prototype of all the various current bumper sticker and key ring fishes can be traced back to a diagram which has been known since antiquity as the Vesica piscis (literally: ‘vessel of the fish’). Formed simply-enough from two circles which overlap at their centers, this basic diagram can be expanded upon in a number of intriguing ways. In the diagram below left, a line is drawn between the centers of the two east-west larger circles (which contain six-sided hexagons). The sizes of the two smaller north-south circles are determined by this same line, but this time containing the line not six times but five, making a polygon. And now, out of the overlapping area of the two smaller circles… the fish emerges! Voila!

This involved-looking diagram can be drawn with nothing more fancy than a basic pair of compasses and a straight edge of some kind – simple tools and methods whose use has been known for millennia. Just how far back in time we can push things is seen in the image below. This time, we enclose a second Vesica piscis within the first, bounded by the overlap. Simply by using the north-south points of overlap as the apex and base, we now join the dots to construct a triangle – which, having an exact base [3]angle of 51°51', is a perfect match for the angle of slope of the Great Pyramid of Giza! And where the two inner dotted lines meet the intersecting circles, another triangle with an exact base angle of 60° is formed – which in turn gives the exact proportions of each of the pyramid’s four sides. If there is one thing that plays no role in all which the Great Pyramid involves, it is chance.

If we view the overlapping area of the Vesica piscis on it own, we now have a shape known as the [4]mandorla. The mandorla is truly ubiquitous, and can be seen in both Islamic and Christian illuminated manuscripts (below), and even in the cards of the Tarot (below center, which at its corners repeats the same four evangelical symbols seen in its Christian neighbour). As part of the Vesica piscis its form is found in [5]architecture, on Masonic symbols, and on secular city crests, and designed variations also can be seen on company logos such as those of CBS and Gucci. The Vesica piscis and its mandorla clearly are forms which speaks powerfully to the human mind.

To come to a deeper understanding of the Vesica piscis and its power, we need to reach beyond those beliefs which burden themselves with sin and guilt, and the way in which they regard the human body as something intrinsically shameful. The traditional carved figure known as a Sheela na gig (below, left), which seems to be Celtic in origin, shows a little goggle-eyed female displaying her open vulva. The vulva is in the form of a mandorla, and her goggle eyes echo this form. Over a hundred of these figures are found in churches and castles throughout Ireland, and a few scattered examples are still to be seen in England, although most were defaced by prudish minds in the intervening centuries. The meaning of these little figures is disputed, although they were possibly associated with birth and fertility, or to ward off evil. The goddess [6]Isis-Aphrodite, an early Egyptian-Greek hybrid deity (below, right), seems to radiate the secret harmonics of the Vesica piscis in her proportions.

Enclosing the mandorla of the pentagon (the same mandorla used for the ‘fish’) within the mandorla of the Vesica piscis (below) reveals a form which mirrors the female [7]vulva. The word used in Sanskrit is yoni, which is interpreted as meaning the source of life: of a divine passage, in the sense of being a passage of the soul from spirit to matter. From the yoni emerges new life – a powerful symbol for the spirit of the feminine, for the cosmic goddess, and for the journey from the womb which we all have made to come into this world.

Returning to the scriptural setting with which I began this post, in the [8]Gospel of John we read how the risen Christ asks Simon-Peter to bring his net bursting with ‘great fishes’. In what seems to be a curiously-precise detail, the Gospel tells us that there were exactly ‘an hundred and fifty and three’. Why is the specific number of the catch given? It seems irrelevant alongside the greater message of the story. But seemingly-irrelevant details often conceal greater truths within them. The number 153 relates directly to the Gnostic mystery schools and to [9]Pythagorean teachings, and the proportion known from that time as the [10]‘Measure of the Fish’.

As with Pythagoras’ famed [11]theorem, the proportions of the mandorla within the Vesica piscis are constant, and always can be measured as 265 units high by, yes… 153 units wide (that is: the length of the fish’s body). These figures express the square root of three – for millennia regarded as the sacred Trinity. All these ideas pre-date the Gospels by centuries. The Church fathers thought to expunge these secret teachings completely from scripture. The fact is that such Gnostic knowledge is so deeply embedded in scriptural texts that the only way to eradicate it completely, as the frenzied zeal of the [12]early Church fathers strived so hard to do, would be to scrap the whole Bible and start again from scratch. And this mystic number 153 apparently flew under the radar of the uncomprehending early Gospel editors to land in the orthodox canon, and in the words of Jesus himself, to be read, interpreted and understood in a mystic sacred language ‘for those with ears to hear’.

One person who apparently has ears to hear is the author Margaret Starbird. She has calculated that the numerical value of the Greek letters which spell out η Μαγδαληνή (the Magdalene) also total exactly 153 (also remembering that the lingual root of the name Mary means ‘the Sea’). This system of ascribing numerical values to letters was known as gematria: a logical practice in written languages (such as Hebrew and Greek) which had no numbers. The true role of the Magdalene is a subject which I’ll leave for another post, but Dan Brown aside, she clearly was someone considerably more than the simplistic redeemed scarlet woman, as orthodoxy would have us believe. And the true worth of the disciples’ [13]catch was clearly something more significant than the going market value of fish, otherwise stipulating such a specific number would serve no purpose.

The Vesica piscis is itself so deeply embedded in world culture that at times it appears to become a door, with the two circles representing the worlds of matter and spirit, and their mandorla becoming an opening between these, creating a portal between different realities or dimensions (above). And perhaps, having read this post, you will never see that bumper sticker fish in quite the same way again!

If you would like to read and see more about the Yoni and the Chalice Well and their associations with the Vesica piscis, you are welcome to visit the post on Emma's blog: The Goddess in the Well.

[1] The now-familiar bumper sticker whose stylised form has its origins in the sacred geometry of the pre-Christian Gnostic mystery schools and in the vulva of the cosmic goddess. This sticker (left) is in the exact same proportions as the female labia of the yoni and the fish mandorla shown in my above images.

[2] Incredibly, the earliest example which I have been able to trace of the stylised fish symbol being used as a secret sign by early Christians is not a historical source, but one that was used in the 1951 Hollywood Biblical epic Quo Vadis?, in a scene (right) in which Deborah Kerr as the pagan-to-Christian convert Lygia draws the symbol in the sand. It is both startling and sobering to realize that the whole Christian bumper sticker tradition apparently began as the idea of a Hollywood scriptwriter!

[3] This angle is quoted from the text of John Michell’s book The View Over Atlantis. Other sources give the angle either as 51°50' or 52°, but chapter 2 of Michell’s book explains why the correct angle is so critical. It is difficult to over-estimate the insights which this book offers. I still have the now rather worn paperback edition which I bought thirty five years ago, and it has influenced my thinking ever since. A revised edition titled The New View Over Atlantis is currently available. Mind-bending stuff.

[4] From the Italian, meaning ‘almond’.

[5] The famous chalice well cover in the gardens below Glastonbury Abbey has done much to raise contemporary awareness of the Vesica piscis. It was designed in 1919 by Frederick Bligh Bond, and copies are now widely seen on jewellery (right) and other items. The Vesica piscis is utilized in various other philosophies and beliefs, such as the Jewish Kabbalah’s Sephirot, or Tree of Life, and the overlapping Vesica piscis circles comprising the figure known as the Flower of Life, seen in the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. 

[6] Please see my post The Emperor and the Eye of Horus for more about Isis-Aphrodite and other hybrid gods and goddesses.

[7] To be clear: I am here comparing the form of the yoni with the two mandorlas of my text. The Sanskrit yoni actually has its own symbols, of which the one here (left) is a widely-used example. It could be my over-heated imagination, but does anyone else notice its (presumably coincidental) resemblance to a certain popular spaceship? J

[8] John 21:10-11. This appearance of Jesus is his fifth appearance after the resurrection.

[9] We now tend to think of Pythagoras of Samos, who lived several centuries before the events of the Gospels, primarily as a mathematician. But in his day he was seen as a profound sage and mystic. His ideas, both spiritual, philosophical and intellectual, have impacted Western thought ever since. It is possible that the term philosophy, meaning ‘lover of Sophia’ (Wisdom personified as the goddess) was actually coined by Pythagoras. The word philosophy as well has subtly changed it meaning through the ages. In ancient times it was a worldview, a way of life in which the striving after a true perception of things could lead to an experience of the divine.

[10] The number 153 in the Measure of the Fish is therefore the exact length (right) of the fish’s body. Remember: this is the identical fish which appears above on the Christian bumper sticker, whose source lies in an ancient pagan past stemming from the Gnostic mystery schools.

[11] As every schoolboy can (or should be able to) quote: ‘The square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides’.   When constructed using the Vesica piscis, it gives the perfect proportions of 3:4:5 (left), and is known as the Sacred Triangle. This triangle and its measurements, as with so much that is associated with the Vesica piscis, can among other places be found not only in the proportions of the Great Pyramid, but also in the ground plans of Stonehenge and Glastonbury Abbey.

[12] Please see my posts The Gospel According to Somebody and The New Church.

[13] Of the various commentaries which I have read about the Gospel’s inclusion of this number, none mentions the apparently overlooked fact that, for a haul which the Gospel describes as so great that it was surprising that the fishermen’s net did not burst from the weight, one hundred and fifty three fish is hardly a large quantity. The number of fish caught does not match the description of the haul which, if we were not given the number, we would assume to be a catch of several hundred. The specific number given must therefore be for reasons other than mere description. And the net did not break, because it was - and is - the unbroken net of life (above), and of the cosmos itself. Like the Buddhist Indra’s Net, each pearl of water at the intersection of the weave perfectly reflects the completeness of all the other parts of the net. The net is an image of the Gnostic ‘many in One’. A net which remains mysteriously intact, the inclusion of the specific number 153, are both examples of secret Gnostic knowledge 'hidden in plain sight' in orthodox scripture. 

John Michell: The View Over Atlantis.
Margaret Starbird: Magdalene’s Lost Legacy: Symbolic Numbers and the Sacred Union in Christianity.
David R. Fideler: Jesus Christ, Sun of God: Ancient Cosmology and Early Christian Symbolism.

Fishermen's boat on Lake Tiberius, Galilee, from U.S. Historical Archive. Dead Sea scroll: Great Isaiah scroll from the Shrine of the Book Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Sheela na gig: replica of the original from a church in Kilpeck, Herefordshire, England. Isis-Aphrodite: a Roman statue from Egypt, 2nd-3rd-centuries, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Tarot card: Arcanum 21: The World, from the Marseille Tarot, reissued in 1930 by Paul Marteau from an earlier 18th-century deck, facsimile edition published by ©U.S. Games Systems. Millennium Falcon spaceship from Star Wars by Lucasfilms. Quo Vadis? film still from M.G.M. Photo of the bust of Pythagoras from the Science Photo Library, with the background of a Greek manuscript on Pythagorean calculations from the Vatican Library. Portrait of Mary Magdalene by Bernadino Luini, with the background of a fragment of the Gospel of Mary in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and a rosette from the 18th-century Order of the Magdalene engraved by Hugh Clark. Portal entity created with Chaoscope and Mehdi software. Thanks to my wife for the use of her chalice well pendant! All graphics and other artwork © Hawkwood.


  1. Wow, you connect all the dots with perfect alacrity! Thank you for the excellent read!

    1. Thank you so much, Alex, I hope you continue to enjoy things here. Some of the conclusions I reach are as surprising to me as anyone else. When I began to research this particular post I had no idea that the Christian 'fish' sign would turn out to be the brainchild of a Hollywood scriptwriter!

  2. A very illuminating read. However the Greek word for FISH is mis-spelled. A theta (circle with horizontal diameter) needs to replace the letter phi (which has a vertical diameter). When superimposed, the 5 Greek letters of the word "ichthys" produce the eight-spoked wheel symbol.


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