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object:1.09 - The Ambivalence of the Fish Symbol
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IX

THE AMBIVALENCE OF THE FISH SYMBOL

181 According to the Syrian Apocalypse of Baruch (29 : iff.), the
time preceding the coming of the Messiah falls into twelve parts,
and the Messiah will appear in the twelfth. As a time-division,
the number twelve points to the zodia, of which the twelfth is
the Fishes. Leviathan will then rise out of the sea. "The two
great sea monsters which I created on the fifth day of creation
and which I have preserved until that time shall then be food
for all who are left." 1 Since Behemoth is unquestionably not a
sea-animal, but one which, as a midrash says, "pastures on a
thousand mountains," 2 the two "sea monsters" must be a dupli-
cation of Leviathan. And as a matter of fact, he does appear to
be divided as to sex, for there is a male and a female of the
species. 3 A similar duplication is suggested in Isaiah 27:1: "In
that day, the Lord with his sore and great strong sword shall
punish Leviathan the piercing serpent, even Leviathan that
crooked serpent, and he shall slay the dragon [Vulgate: whale]
that is in the sea." This duplication gave rise in medieval
alchemy to the idea of two serpents fighting each other, one
winged, the other wingless. 4 In the Book of Job, where Levi-
athan appears only in the singular, the underlying polarity
comes to light in his opposite number, Behemoth. A poem by
Meir ben Isaac describes the battle between Leviathan and
Behemoth at the end of time, in which the two monsters wound
each other to death. Yahweh then cuts them up and serves them

1 Charles, II, p. 497, modified.

2 Midrash Tanchuma, Lev. 11:2 and Deut. 29 : 9; cited in Scheftelowitz, pp. 39L

3 Talmud, Nezikin III, Baba Bathra (BT, I, p. 296). The female Leviathan has
already been killed by Yahweh, salted, and preserved for the end of time. The
male he castrated, for otherwise they would have multiplied and swamped the
earth.

4 A typical pair of opposites. Cf. the struggle between the two dragons in
hexagram 2, line 6, in the / Ching (Wilhelm/Baynes trans., I, pp. 14-15).

as food to the devout. 5 This idea is probably connected with the
old Jewish Passover, which was celebrated in the month of Adar,
the fish. In spite of the distinct duplication of Leviathan in the
later texts, it is very likely that originally there was only one
Leviathan, authenticated at a very early date in the Ugarit texts
from Ras Shamra (c. 2000 B.C.). Virolleaud gives the following
translation:

Quand tu frapperas Ltn, le serpent brh
Tu acheveras le serpent 'qltn,
Le puissant aux sept tetes.

182 He comments: "It is remarkable that the two adjectives brh
and 'qltn are the ones which qualify, in Isaiah 27 : 1, a particu-
larly dangerous species of serpent which we call Leviathan, in
Hebrew Liviatan." 6 From this period, too, there are pictures of
a fight between Baal and the serpent Ltn, 7 remarkable in that
the conflict is between a god and a monster and not between
two monsters, as it was later.

18 3 We can see from the example of Leviathan how the great
"fish" gradually split into its opposite, after having itself been
the opposite of the highest God and hence his shadow, the
embodiment of his evil side. 8

j84 With this splitting of the monster into a new opposite, its
original opposition to God takes a back seat, and the monster is
now in conflict either with itself or with an equivalent monster
(e.g., Leviathan and Behemoth). This relieves God of his own
inner conflict, which now appears outside him in the form of a
hostile pair of brother monsters. In later Jewish tradition the
Leviathan that Yahweh fought with in Isaiah develops a tend-
ency, on the evidence cited by Scheftelowitz, to become "pure"
and be eaten as "eucharistic" food, with the result that, if one
wanted to derive the Ichthys symbol from this source, Christ as

5 Cf. the Midrash Tanchuma.

6 "Note complementaire sur le poeme de Mot et Alei'n," p. 357.

7 Virolleaud, "La legende de Baal, dieu des Pheniciens," p. ix.

8 Perhaps an echo of this psychological development may be found in the views
of Moses Maimonides, who writes that in the Book of Job (ch. 41) Yahweh
"dwells longest on the nature of the Leviathan, which possesses a combination of
bodily peculiarities found separate in different animals, in those that walk, those
that swim, and those that fly" (Guide for the Perplexed, p. 303). Accordingly
Leviathan is a kind of super-animal, just as Yahweh is a kind of superman.

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a fish would appear in place of Leviathan, the monstrous ani-
mals of tradition having meanwhile faded into mere attributes
of death and the devil.
l8 5 This split corresponds to the doubling of the shadow often
met with in dreams, where the two halves appear as different or
even as antagonistic figures. This happens when the conscious
ego-personality does not contain all the contents and components
that it could contain. Part of the personality then remains split
off and mixes with the normally unconscious shadow, the two
together forming a double - and often antagonistic - personality.
If we apply this experience from the domain of practical psy-
chology to the mythological material under discussion, we find
that God's monstrous antagonist produces a double because the
God-image is incomplete and does not contain everything it
logically ought to contain. Whereas Leviathan is a fishlike crea-
ture, primitive and cold-blooded, dwelling in the depths of the
ocean, Behemoth is a warm-blooded quadruped, presumably
something like a bull, who roams the mountains (at least in later
tradition). Hence he is related to Leviathan as a higher, superior
creature to a lower, inferior one, rather like the winged and the
wingless dragon in alchemy. All winged beings are "volatile,"
i.e., vapours and gases, in other words pneuma. Just as in Augus-
tine Christ the fish is "drawn from the deep," 9 so in II Esdras
13 : 2ff. the "man" came out of the sea like a wind. His appear-
ance was heralded by an eagle and a lion, theriomorphic sym-
bols which greatly affrighted the prophet in the same way that
Behemoth inspired chiefly terror in Job. The fish drawn from
the deep has a secret connection with Leviathan: he is the bait
with which Leviathan is lured and caught. This fish is probably
a duplication of the great fish and stands for its pneumatic
aspect. It is evident that Leviathan has such an aspect, because
he, like the Ichthys, is eucharistic food. 10 That this doubling
represents an act of conscious realization is clear from Job
26 : 12, where we are told that Yahweh smote Rahab "by his
understanding" (tebuna). Rahab, the sea monster, is cousin
german to Tiamat, whom Marduk split asunder by filling her
up with Imhullu, the north wind. 11 The word tebuna comes

9 Confessions, Sheed trans., p. 275. 10 Cf. Goodenough, V, pp. 51ft.

11 The motif of splitting is closely related to that of penetration and perforation
in alchemy. Cf. also Job 26 : 13: "His hand pierced the fleeing serpent" (RSV).

from bin, 'to separate, split, part asunder'- in other words, to
discriminate, which is the essence of conscious realization. 12 In
this sense Leviathan and Behemoth represent stages in the de-
velopment of consciousness whereby they become assimilated
and humanized. The fish changes, via the warm-blooded quad-
ruped, into a human being, and in so far as the Messiah became,
in Christianity, the second Person of the Trinity, the human
figure split off from the fish hints at God's incarnation. 13 What
was previously missing in the God-image, therefore, was the
human element.

186 The role of the fish in Jewish tradition probably has some
connections with the Syrophoenician fish cult of Atargatis. Her
temples had pools with sacred fishes in them which no one was
allowed to touch. 14 Similarly, meals of fish were ritually eaten
in the temples. "This cult and these customs, which originated
in Syria, may well have engendered the Ichthys symbolism in
Christian times," says Cumont. 15 In Lycia they worshipped the
divine fish Orphos or Diorphos, the son of Mithras and the
"sacred stone," Cybele. 16 This god is a variant of the Semitic
fish-deities we have already mentioned, such as Oannes, the
Babylonian Nun, Dagon, and Adonis, whom the Greeks called
Ichthys. Fish offerings were made to Tanit in Carthage and to
Ea and Nina in Babylon. Traces of a fish cult can be found in
Egypt too. The Egyptian priests were forbidden to eat fish, for
fishes were held to be as unclean as Typhon's sea. "All abstain
from sea-fish," observes Plutarch. According to Clement of
Alexandria, the inhabitants of Syene, Elephantine, and Oxy-
rhynchus worshipped a fish. Plutarch 17 says it was the custom
to eat a broiled fish before the door of one's house on the ninth
day of the first month. Doelger inclines to the view that this
custom paved the way for the eucharistic fish in Christianity. 18

18 7 The ambivalent attitude towards the fish is an indication of
its double nature. It is unclean and an emblem of hatred on
the one hand, but on the other it is an object of veneration. It

12 For this information I am indebted to Dr. Riwkah SchSrf.

13 II Esdras is a Jewish text written at the end of the ist cent. a.d.

14 Cumont, Les Religions orientales, p. 255.

15 Ibid., pp. 108-9, 2 56- 16 Eisler, Orpheus- The Fisher, p. 20.

17 De hide et Osiride, cap. VII (Babbitt trans., V, p. 19).

18 'IXGT2, I, p. 126. The risen Christ ate of a broiled fish (Luke 24 : 42).

121



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even seems to have been regarded as a symbol for the soul, if we
are to judge by a painting on a late Hellenistic sarcophagus.
The mummy lies on a lion-shaped bier, and under the bier are
the four Canopic jars, the lids representing the four sons of
Horus, three of them with animal heads and one with a human
head. Over the mummy there floats a fish, 19 instead of the usual
soul-bird. It is clear from the painting that the fish is an oxyrhyn-
chus, or barbel, one of the three most abominated fishes, which
was said to have devoured the phallus of Osiris after he had
been dismembered by Typhon (Set). 20 Barbels were sacred to
Typhon, who is "that part of the soul which is passionate, im-
pulsive, irrational, and truculent." 21 Because of their voracious-
ness, fishes were regarded in the Middle Ages as an allegory of
the damned. 22 The fish as an Egyptian soul-symbol is therefore
all the more remarkable. The same ambivalence can be seen in
the figure of Typhon /Set. In later times he was a god of death,
destruction, and the desert, the treacherous opponent of his
brother Osiris. But earlier he was closely connected with Horus
and was a friend and helper of the dead. In one of the Pyramid
Texts he and Heru-ur (the "older Horus") help Osiris to climb
up to heaven. The floor of heaven consists of an iron plate,
which in places is so close to the tops of the mountains that one
can climb up to heaven with the help of a ladder. The four
corners of the iron plate rest on four pillars, corresponding to
the four cardinal points. In the Pyramid Texts of Pepi I, a song
of praise is addressed to the "ladder of the twin gods," and the
Unas text says: "Unas cometh forth upon the Ladder which his
father Ra hath made for him, and Horus and Set take the hand
of Unas, and they lead him into the Tuat." 23 Other texts show
that there was enmity between Heru-ur and Set because one was
a god of the day and the other a god of the night. The hiero-
glyph for Set has as a determinative the sign for a stone, or else

19 Spiegelberg, "Der Fisch als Symbol der Seele," p. 574. Cf. Goodenough, V, fig. 9,
where the mummy appears in the form of a fish.

20 The oxyrhynchus fish was regarded as sacred all over Egypt. Cf. Budge, The
Gods of the Egyptians, II, p. 382; Plutarch, De Iside, cap. XLIX (Babbitt trans.,
V.p. 19).

21 Ibid. (pp. i2of.).

22 Picinellus, Mundus symbolicus, Lib. VI, cap. I.

23 Budge, II, pp. 24 if. Cf. Christ's transfiguration in the presence of Moses and
Elias (Matt. 17 : 4), and the "Saviour of the twins" in Pistis Sophia.

the unidentified Set-animal with long ears. There are paintings
showing the heads of Heru-ur and Set growing out of the same
body, from which we may infer the identity of the opposites
they represent. Budge says: "The attributes of Heru-ur changed
somewhat in early dynastic times, but they were always the
opposite of those of Set, whether we regard the two gods as per-
sonifications of two powers of nature, i.e., Light and Darkness,
Day and Night, or as Kosmos and Chaos, or as Life and Death,
or as Good and Evil." 24

188 This pair of gods represent the latent opposites contained in
Osiris, the higher divinity, just as Behemoth and Leviathan do
in relation to Yahweh. It is significant that the opposites have
to work together for a common purpose when it comes to help-
ing the one god, Osiris, to reach the heavenly quaternity. This
quaternity is also personified by the four sons of Horus: Mestha,
Hapi, Tuamutef, and Qebhsennuf, who are said to dwell "be-
hind the thigh of the northern heaven," that is, behind the
thigh of Set, whose seat is in the constellation of the Great Bear.
The four sons of Horus are Set's enemies, but on the other hand
they are closely connected with him. They are an analogy of the
four pillars of heaven which support the four-cornered iron
plate. Since three of the sons are often shown with animal heads,
and one with a human head, we may point to a similar state of
affairs in the visions of Ezekiel, from whose cherubim-figures the
well-known symbols of the evangelists (three animals, one angel)
are derived. 25 Ezekiel says, furthermore (1 : 22): "Over the heads
of the living creatures [the cherubim] there was the likeness of
a solid plate, shining like terrible crystal, spread out above their
heads," and (1 : 26, RSV): "And above the solid plate that was
over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appear-
ance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was
a likeness as it were of a human form."

*89 In view of the close ties between Israel and Egypt an inter-
mingling of symbols is not unlikely. What is remarkable, how-
ever, is that in Arab tradition the region round the heavenly
Pole is seen in the form of a fish. Qazvini says: "The Pole can

24 Budge, II, p. 243.

25 Daniel 3 : 25 may be of relevance in this connection: the three men in the
burning fiery furnace, who were joined by a fourth, a "son of God."

123



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be seen. Round it are the smaller Benat na'sh 26 and dark stars,
which together form the picture of a fish, and in its midst is the
Pole." 27 This means that the Pole, which in ancient Egypt
denoted the region of Set and was at the same time the abode of
the four sons of Horus, was contained, so to speak, in the body
of a fish. According to Babylonian tradition Anu has his seat in
the northern heaven; likewise Marduk, as the highest god,
world-creator and ruler of its courses, is the Pole. The Enuma
Elish says of him: "He who fixes the course of the stars of heaven,
like sheep shall pasture the gods all together." 28

*9 At the northern point of the ecliptic is the region of fire
(purgatory and the entrance to the Anu-heaven). Hence the
northern corner of the temple built around the tower at Nippur
was called the kibla (point of orientation). In like manner the
Sabaeans and Mandaeans, when praying, turn towards the
north. 29 We might also mention the Mithraic liturgy in this
connection: in the final vision Mithras appears, "holding the
golden shoulder of a young bull. This is the constellation of the
Bear, which moves and turns the heavens round." The text piles
endless fire-attributes on this god, who obviously hails from the
north. 30

19 1 These Babylonian ideas about the significance of the north
make it easier for us to understand why Ezekiel's vision of God
came from that quarter, despite the fact that it is the birthplace
of all evil. The coincidence of opposites is the normal thing in
a primitive conception of God, since God, not being an object
of reflection, is simply taken for granted. At the level of con-
scious reflection, however, the coincidence of opposites becomes
a major problem, which we do everything possible to circum-
vent. That is why the position of the devil in Christian dogma
is so very unsatisfactory. When there are such gaps in our collec-
tive ideas, in the dominants of our conscious orientation, we
can count with absolute certainty on the existence of comple-
mentary or- to be more precise- compensatory developments in
the unconscious. These compensating ideas can be found in the
speculations of alchemy. We can hardly suppose that ideas of

26 Lit., 'daughters of the bier', presumably mourning women who walk ahead of
the coffin. Cf. Ideler, Untersuchungen iiber den Ursprung und die Bedeutung der
Sternnamen, p. 11. 27 Ibid., p. 15. 28 Jeremias, p. 22.

29 Ibid., p. 33. 30 Dieterich, Eine Mithrasliturgie, pp. 8ff.

this sort remained totally unconscious so far as the adepts were
concerned. What they were aiming at was a more or less con-
scious restoration of the primitive God-image. Hence they were
able to propound paradoxes as shocking as that of God's love
glowing in the midst of hell-fire, 31 which is represented as being
no more than the Christian conception of God in a new but
necessary relation to everything hell stands for. Above all it
was Jakob Bohme who, influenced by alchemy and the Cabala
equally, envisaged a paradoxical God-image in which the good
and the bad aspects appertain to the same divine being in a way
that bears comparison with the views of Clement of Rome.
'92 Ancient history gives us a divided picture of the region to
the north: it is the seat of the highest gods and also of the ad-
versary; thither men direct their prayers, and from thence blows
an evil pneuma, the Aquilo, "by the name whereof is to be
understood the evil spirit"; 32 and finally, it is the navel of the
world and at the same time hell. Bernard of Clairvaux apos-
trophizes Lucifer thus: "And dost thou strive perversely to-
wards the north? The more thou dost hasten toward the heights,
the more speedily shalt thou go down to thy setting." 33 The
"king of the North" in Nostradamus has to be understood in
the light of this passage. At the same time, it is clear from
St. Bernard's words that the heights of power to which Lucifer
strives are still associated with the north. 34

31 Cf. Psychology and Alchemy, par. 446.

32 Garnerius, in Migne, P.L., vol. 193, col. 49.

33 Tractatus de gradibus superbiae, in Migne, P.L., vol. 182, col. 961.

34 One of the bad qualities of the north wind ("The north wind numbs with
cold" = the numbness of the evil spirit, who "hardens the hearts of the wicked"),
was responsibl


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