Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations

Pisces

the Fishes


Urania's Mirror 1825

Read the Theoi Project page on The Ikhthyes (or Ichthyes) the two fishes (Pisces) who rescued Aphrodite and Eros when they were fleeing from the monster Typhoeus.

The word 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]

Grimm law in linguistics; Latin /p/ becomes Germanic /f/ as in pisces / fish; another example is pes / foot. The Greek word for fish is ikhthus.

Jesus Christ was represented in the Catacombs by two fishes. There is the famous acronym Ikhthus (= 'fish'), Iesous Khristos Theou Huios Soter: 'Jesus Christ (of) God (the) Son, Savior' [1].

Scientists believe that there were two types of fish that evolved from the same parent fish (the ostracoderms are believed to be the parent). One stayed in the sea and one moved onto land to become our ancestor. "In early legend our Piscis Austrinus was the parent of the zodiacal pair, the 'Two Fishes', Pisces" [Allen, Star Names].

In the constellation, one, the eastern fish, faces east and swims upward, vertically, north from the ecliptic, while the other, the western fish, swims west horizontally along the plane of the ecliptic. The Vernal Equinox Point, through the precession of the equinoxes (backward motion), conjoined the alpha fixed star of Pisces, Alrisha, around 122 B.C. (according to Solarfire program, although others think it to be 111 B.C.). Alrisha (now at Aries 29 degrees 28 minutes longitude), is positioned on the knot in the cord that joins the two fishes, and is the nearest star to Aries and the first star of Pisces that the vernal equinox conjuncted. The vernal equinox then precessed along the cord (maybe two degrees, or less) until it aligned with the figure of the first fish which might have been at that time of the birth of Jesus as some people think. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when this occurred because of how the feature is drawn (and if it is a correct figuring, if there is such a thing...). In her book Jung and Astrology Maggie Hyde explains:

The eastern Fish suggesting an upward ascent or a heavenly/spiritual disposition and is associated with Christ; the western Fish, a mundane/earthly alignment and is associated with the Antichrist. Around the time of Christ, the Spring Equinox Point lay between the constellations of Aries and Pisces, moving backwards out of Aries the Ram and into Pisces the Fish at the knot in the cord - Alrisha (Al Rischa). Hence Christ is associated with the closing of the Arian Age and the dawn of the Piscean Age. ... At the time of Christ, the Spring Point lay at the beginning of the first fish. ... As the Equinox Point moved through the constellation, passing through the first fish, the Church was founded and Christianity developed. It flourished as the Spring Point moved along the cord uniting the fishes but then, as the Spring Point arrived mid-way between the fish, the challenge to the Church and the predictions of Antichrist began. From this time on, during the scientific revolution of 1500-1700, an 'enantiodromian' or mirror image process set in as the Spring Point began to creep along the cord towards the second fish. In contrast to the first fish swimming upward in a 'Gothic' striving towards the heights, this second fish swims horizontally outwards. The Spring Point reached the first star in the second fish's tail, Omega Piscium, around 1817. Although this is the fish of Antichrist, its manifestations are not embodied in any one person or messiah. Rather, they are revealed in philosophies, 'damnable sects', and an 'evil and magical law', which is "utterly contrary and inimical to the law of Christ"...

We are now in the closing era of the Age of  Pisces, on, or near the cusp of the age of Aquarius. The figure of Aquarius is positioned below the ecliptic and the stream of water from the jar overlaps some of the stars of the second fish that swims along the ecliptic. Various dates have been given for Vernal Equinox's entry into the constellation of Aquarius; from 2012-2150.

The two fishes of Pisces are bound by a cord and swim in different directions. The story goes that to escape Typhon (can also mean a typhoon) both Venus/Aphrodite and Cupid/Eros changed into fishes and disappeared into the the sea. In order not to lose each other in the dark waters of the Euphrates, they tied their tails together with a long cord, the alpha star, Alrisha, representing the knot of the cord. Or, alternatively, Pisces is the two fishes that carried Venus and Cupid to safety. This escape is commemorated in Pisces. The Romans knew them as 'Venus et Cupido'. [A number of other constellations arise from the attack of the great beast Typhon, sent by the Titans to crush the Olympians in their epic war for heavenly supremacy.]

The streamlined fishes depicted in Pisces evolved in the Devonian geologic period which is known as the Age of Fishes, about 400 million years ago. Named after Devon, England, where rocks from this period were first studied. Also during the Devonian Period the first fish evolved feet from fish fins (see Tiktaalik) and started to walk on land (before legs evolved; the word leg is cognate with Lacerta, lizard). The feet of human embryos taking shape in the womb reveal links to prehistoric fish [2]. Feet evolved from fish and traditional astrology says that Pisces rules the feet, and shoes hold a special attraction to Pisceans (perhaps suggesting this particular area of the feet enclosed by the shoe is ruled by Pisces). The Indo-European root *peisk-, fish, does not offer any clues to related words. I suggest that there must be a relationship between the word Pisces and Latin pes, foot? Latin pes, foot, resembles the Italian variation pesce, fish. Latin pes, foot, and English foot, from Indo-European root *ped- 'Foot'.

Or another translation:

“Fish (piscis) are named from the same source as livestock (pecus), that is, from 'grazing' (pascere).” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.259.]

This sentence embraces three Indo-European roots: Pisces from *peisk- 'Fish'; pecus from *peku- 'Wealth, movable property'; and pascere, from *pá- 'To protect, feed'. The Book of Beasts [p.71] says the ancients commonly used 'pecora' or 'pecudes' to indicate all animals-whether they were creatures to eat, like sheep, or creatures which were named thus because they grazed (a pascendo).

Varro, an ancient Roman etymologist, says pes, foot, is related to pecus (cattle or food) Latin pes, foot, is from Indo-European root *ped-:

"Because the herdsmen's pecunia ‘wealth’ then lay in their pecus ‘flocks’ and the base for standing is a pes ‘foot’ and a man who has founded a business is said to have established his pes ‘footing ', from pes ‘foot’ they gave the name pecus, pecudis ‘one head of cattle,' just as from the same they said pedica ‘fetter’ and pedisequus ‘footman’ and peculianae ‘privately owned’ sheep or anything else: for this was the first private property. Hence they called it a peculatus ‘peculation’ from the state in the beginning, when a fine was imposed in pecus ‘cattle’ and there was a collection into the state treasury, of what had been diverted." [Varro: On The Latin Language, p.91].

The astrological influences of the constellation given by Manilius:

The folk engendered by the two Fishes, the last of the signs, will possess a love of the sea; they will entrust their lives to the deep, will provide ships or gear for ships and everything that the sea requires for activity connected with it. The consequent skills are numberless: so many are the components of even a small ship that there are scarcely enough names for things. There is also the art of navigation, which has reached out to the stars and binds the sea to heaven. The pilot must have sound knowledge of the earth, its rivers and havens, its climate and winds; how on the one hand to ply the mobile helm this way and that, and brake the ship and spread apart the waves, and how on the other to drive the ship by rowing and to feather the lingering blades. The Fishes further impart to their son the desire to sweep tranquil waters with dragnets and to display on shores which are their own the captive peoples of the deep, either by hiding the hook within the bait or the guile within the weel. Naval warfare too is of their gift, battles afloat, and blood-stained waves at sea. The children of this sign are endowed with fertile offspring, a friendly disposition, swiftness of movement, and lives in which everything is ever apt to change. [Astronomica, Manilius, 1st century AD, book 4, p.243.]

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Pisces
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 2000 Lat Mag Sp
omega (ω) 01ARI12 02ARI35 23h 59m 18.7s +6° 51' 48" +06 21 51 4.03 F3
delta (δ) 12ARI46 14ARI09 0h 48m 41s +7° 35' 6" +02 10 32 4.55 K5
epsilon (ε) 16ARI09 17ARI32 1h 2m 56.6s +7° 53' 24" +01 05 26 4.45 G5
nu (ν) 24ARI08 25ARI31 1h 41m 25.9s +5° 29' 15" -04 41 52 4.68 K4
Al Pherg eta (η) 25ARI25 26ARI49 1h 31m 29s +15° 20' 45" +05 22 28 3.72 G3
sigma (σ) 25ARI50 27ARI13 1h 2m 49.1s +31° 48' 16" +23 04 41 5.46 B9
xi (ξ) 26ARI08 27ARI31 1h 53m 33.3s +3° 11' 15" -07 55 31 4.84 G7
omicron (ο) 26ARI22 27ARI45 1h 45m 23.6s +9° 9' 28" -01 37 26 4.50 C6
tau (τ) 26ARI56 28ARI19 1h 11m 39.6s +30° 5' 23" +20 44 11 4.70 K1
upsilon (υ) 27ARI24 28ARI47 1h 19m 28s +27° 15' 51" +17 27 44 4.67 A2
Alrisha alpha (α) 27ARI59 29ARI23 2h 2m 2.8s +2° 45' 49" -09 03 52 3.94 A2
beta (β) 17PIS12 18PIS35 23h 3m 52.6s +3° 49' 12" +09 03 15 4.58 B5
gamma (γ) 20PIS04 21PIS27 23h 17m 9.9s +3° 16' 56" +07 15 42 3.85 G5
kappa (κ) 21PIS31 22PIS54 23h 26m 56s +1° 15' 20" +04 26 04 4.94 A3
theta (θ) 23PIS49 25PIS12 23h 27m 58.1s +6° 22' 44" +09 02 00 4.45 K0
lambda (λ) 25PIS13 26PIS36 23h 42m 2.8s +1° 46' 48" +03 25 07 4.61 A5
iota (ι) 26PIS16 27PIS39 23h 39m 57s +5° 37' 35" +07 09 40 4.28 F5

Hevelius, Firmamentum, 1690

from Star Names, 1889, Richard H. Allen

Pisces, the Fishes, are the German Fische, the Italian Pesci, the French Poissons, the Anglo-Norman Peisun, and the Anglo-Saxon Fixas. The Alfonsine Tables of {Page 337} 1521 had Pesces, and the Almagest of 1515 Echiguen, Bayer's Ichiguen, a word that has defied commentators unless Caesius has explained it as being a corruption of Greek Ichthues.

And here fantastic fishes duskly float,

Using the calm for waters, while their fires

Throb out quick rhythms along the shallow air.

 —  Mrs. Browning's A Drama of Exile.

The figures are widely separated in the sky, the northeastern one lying just south of beta Andromedae, headed towards it, and the southwestern one east from and headed towards Aquarius and Pegasus, the lucida (Alrisha) marking the knot of the connecting bands. Both are north of the ecliptic, the first culminating on the 28th of November, and the second about three weeks earlier. In early days they were shown close together, one above the other, but in reversed directions, although united as now.

By reason of precession this constellation is now the first of the zodiac, but entirely within its boundaries lies the sign Aries; the vernal equinox being located in a comparatively starless region south of omega in the tail of the southwestern Fish, and about 2° west of "a line from alpha Andromedae through gamma Pegasi continued as far again." This equinoctial point is known as the First of Aries, and the Greenwich of the Sky; and from their containing it, the Fishes are called the Leaders of the Celestial Host.

The Greeks knew them as Ikhthue, and Ikhthues (ichthys in borrowed words), in the dual and plural; the Romans as we do, often designating them as Imbrifer Duo Pisces, Gemini Pisces, and Piscis Gemellus. Classic authors said Aquilonius, sometimes Aquilonaris; and very appropriately, for the Aquilo of the Romans, perhaps derived from agua, or aquilus, signified a rain-bringing wind from the north, and well represented the supposed watery character of the constellation, as also its northerly position. Ampelius, however, ascribed Aquilo to Gemini, and Eurus, or Vulturnus, the Southeast Wind, to Pisces.

Miss Clerke thinks that the dual form of this constellation recalls the additional month which every six years was inserted into the Babylonian calendar of 360 days; and Sayce, agreeing in this opinion, translates the early title for these stars as the Fishes of Hea or Ia. It has also been found on Euphratean remains as Nuni, the Fishes, a supposed equivalent of its other title, Zib, of the later Graeco-Babylonian astronomy; although this last word may mean "Boundary" as being at the end of the zodiac. Another signification is the Water, which we have already seen with Aratos for this part of the sky; this also is the meaning of the word Atl, the Aztecs' name for Pisces.

It was the Babylonian Nunu, the Syriac Nuno, the Persian Mahik, and the Turkish Balik, all translated "Fish"; while Kircher cited, from Coptic Egypt, Pikotorion, Piscis Hori, which Brown translates "Protection," but claims for a Coptic lunar asterism formed by beta and gamma Arietis.

In earliest Chinese astronomy, with Aquarius, Capricornus, and a part of {Page 338} Sagittarius, it was the northern one of the four quarters of the zodiac, the Dark Warrior, or the residence of the Dark, or Northern, Emperor; but later, in their zodiac of twelve figures, it was the Pig, Tseu Tsze; and, after the Jesuits, Shwang Yu, the Two Fishes.

With the Arabians it was Al Samakah, — Chilmead's Alsemcha, — or, in the dual, Al Samakatain; and Al Hut, the Fish, referring to the southern one, the Vernal Fish, as marking that equinox; the northern being confounded with Andromeda's stars and so not associated with the zodiac. From these came Sameh, Haut, El Haut, and Elhautine in Bayer's Uranometria.

Dante combined the two in his Celeste Lasca, the Celestial Roach or Mullet, saying that here and in Aquarius geomancers saw their Fortuna Major; and thus described I Pesci:

quivering are the Fishes on the horizon,

And the Wain wholly over Caurus lies.

This was on a Saturday morning, and the positions of the constellations indicate that the time was just before sunrise in the month of April; Caurus, or Corus, the Northwest Wind, symbolizing that quarter of the heavens.

Varaha Mihira mentioned the constellation as Ittha, in which the Greek word appears; but before his day it was Anta, Jitu, and Mina or Minam in the Tamil dialect.

The 26th nakshatra, Revati, Abundant or Wealthy, lay here in the thirty-two stars from zeta northwards, figured as a Drum or Tabor. But the manzil (Moon Mansion), Batn al Hut, the Fish's Belly, or Al Risha’, the Cord, and the corresponding sieu, Koei, or Kwei, Striding Legs, were formed by sixteen stars in a figure 8 from psi Piscium to nu Andromeda, and mainly lay in this constellation, although beta and zeta, in Andromeda seem to have been their determinant points. All of these stations, however, may have been even more extended, for there certainly is "a perplexing disagreement in detail among the three systems."

Al Biruni asserted that "the name of the sign in all languages signifies only one fish," and it is probable that the original asterism was such, for, according to Eratosthenes, it symbolized the great Syrian goddess Derke or Derketo, and so, later, was named Dea Syria, Dercis, Dercetis, Dercete, Proles Dercia, and Phacetis. The Greeks called this Atargatis [Allen notes: Allusion was made to this Atargatis in the apocryphal 2nd Book of Maccabees. xii, 26; and gems now in the British Museum show the fish-god with a star or other astronomical symbol. ] and from a supposed derivation of this word from Adir and Dag (Great and' Fish) it was drawn with a woman's head upon a huge fish's body. In this manner it was connected with the Syrian Dagon and the Jews' Dagaim, their {Page 339} title for the Two Fishes, — Riccioli's Dagiotho. Avienus called the constellation Bombycii Hierapolitani; Grotius correcting the error in orthography to Bambycii, as Derke was worshiped at Bambyce, — the Mabog of Mesopotamia, or Hierapolis, — on the borders of Syria. Thus, too, it was Dii Syrii.

But the Greeks confounded this divinity with another Syrian goddess, Astarte, identified with Aphrodite (Venus), who precipitated herself, with her son Eros (Cupid), into the Euphrates when frightened by the attack of the monster Typhon; these becoming two fishes that afterwards were placed in the zodiac. Latin classical authors, with the same groundwork of the story, made Pisces the fishes that carried Venus and her boy out of danger, so that, as Manilius said,

Venus owed her Safety to their Shape.

The constellation was thus known as Venus et Cupido, Venus Syria cum Cupidine, Venus cum Adone, Dione, and Veneris Mater; and it has been Ourania and Urania, the Sarmatian Aphrodite. All this, perhaps, was the foundation of the Syrians' idea that fish were divine, so that they abstained from them as an article of food; Ovid repeating this in the Fasti, in Gower's rendering:

Hence Syrians hate to eat that kind of fishes;

Nor is it fit to make their gods their dishes.

But Xenophon limited this restriction to the fish of the river Chalos.

A scholiast on Aratos, commented on by Grotius, said that the "Chaldaeans" called the northernmost Fish Khelidonias Ikhthus; shown with the head of a swallow, a representation that Scaliger attributed to the appearance of the bird in the spring, when the sun is in this region of the sky. Dupuis had much to say about this changed figure, calling it l’Hirondelle (swallows are of the family Hirundinidae,), but as of the Arabs; and this idea has led to confusion in the Piscine titles already noticed under Apus. The Greek word, however, was common for a Tunny (tuna), so that there is reason enough for its application to either of the Pisces in their normal shape. This northern Fish has sometimes been considered as representing the monster sent to devour Andromeda, and its proximity to the latter would render this more appropriate than the comparatively distant Cetus; in fact, ketos, was as often used by the Greeks for the Tunny (tuna) as it was for the Whale.

Some of the Jews ascribed the joint constellation to the joint tribes of Simeon and Levi, whose sanguinary character Jacob on his death-bed so vividly portrayed; others, to Gad the Marauder. Perhaps it was from {Page 340} this that Pisces was considered of such malignant influence in human affairs, — "a dull, treacherous, and phlegmatic sign"; yet this opinion, doubtless, was anterior to the patriarch's time, for the Egyptians, the instructors of the Hebrews in astrology, are said to have abstained from eating sea-fish out of dread and abhorrence; and when they would express anything odious, represented a fish in their hieroglyphics. Pliny, too, asserted that the appearance of a comet here indicated great trouble from religious differences besides war and pestilence; but this became the common reputation of comets wherever they showed themselves.

In early astrology the constellation appropriately was under the care of the sea-god Neptune, and so the Neptuni Sidus of Manilius; and it was the Exaltation of Venus, as Chaucer said in the Wyf of'Bathes Tale,

In Pisces where Venus is exalted, —

which Sir Thomas Browne, the author-physician of the 17th century, thus commented upon:

Who will not commend the wit of astrology ? Venus, born out of the sea, hath her exaltation in Pisces.

Thus it naturally ruled the Euphrates, Tigris, and the Red Sea, and Parthia; but in later days was assigned to the guardianship of Jupiter, whose House it was, reigning over Egypt, Calabria, Galicia, Normandy, Portugal, Spain, and Ratisbon. It was predominant in influence with mariners, and had charge of the human feet; the designated color being a glistening white, as of fish just out of the water; and it was fruitful, like its namesakes, for, according to Manilius. "Pisces fill the Flood."

Ptolemy distinguished the members of the constellation as epomenos," the rear or eastern," and egoumenos, "the front or western "; the Southern Fish being his notios; a precaution rendered necessary by the frequent confounding of these three by classical writers. A notable instance of this is seen in the Poeticon Astronomicon, where our Pisces are made to receive the water from the Urn. In Humboldt's Cosmos they are Pisces Boreales.

The constellation is popularly thought to have taken its name from its coincidence with the sun during the rainy season; and the symbol for the sign, , to represent the two Fishes joined; but Sayce thinks it the Hittite determinative affix of plurality.

Postellus asserted that the Fishes represented those with which Christ fed "about five thousand men, beside women and children"; and Caesius, that they were the Iesous Khristos Theou Huios Soter: ["Jesus Christ (of) God (the) Son, Saviour"], a fish {Page 341} always being the symbol of the early Christians' faith; but when the old twelve figures were turned into those of the apostles, these became Saint Matthias, successor to the traitor Judas.

The Fishes were changed to a Dolphin in the zodiac sculptured on the wall of Merton College, taken from the armorial bearings of Fitz James, bishop of London, and warden of the college from 1482 to 1508; a dolphin being of as sacred significance among pagans as a fish was among Christians.

Within their boundaries took place the three distinct conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn in the year 747 of Rome, — the year to which for a long time was assigned Christ's birth; these phenomena strikingly agreeing in some of their details with Saint Matthew's account of the Star of Bethlehem. The opinion that these appearances guided the Magi in their visit to Judaea was first advanced and advocated by the celebrated Kepler, and worked out in 1826 by Ideler, and in 1831 by Encke. [Allen notes at bottom of page 341: More recent determinations, by the late Reverend Mr. Charles Pritchard of Oxford, have somewhat altered the previous conclusions, while our chronologists, meanwhile, have changed the date of the Nativity, so that the time-honored identification of the Star of the Magi with these planetary conjunctions now seems to be discarded. ] It is noticeable that the Rabbis held the tradition, recorded by Abrabanel in the 15th century, that a similar conjunction took place in Pisces three years previous to the birth of Moses, and they anticipated another at their Messiah's advent. Thus the Fishes were considered the national constellation of the Jews, as well as a tribal symbol. Jupiter and Saturn were again together here in February, 1881, Venus being added to the group, — a well remembered and most beautiful sight.

Here, too, was the seat of the predicted conjunction of three planets that Stoffler said would cause another Deluge in 1524, — an announcement that created universal consternation; but, unfortunately for the prophet's reputation, the season was unusually dry.

It was in Pisces, on the 2nd of September, 1804, that Harding, of Lilienthal in Hanover, discovered the minor planet Juno.

In his Shepheard's Kalendar for November, Edmund Spenser thus described the constellation's place in the sky:

But nowe sadde Winter welked hath the day,

And Phoebus, weary of his yerely taske,

Ystabled hath his steedes in lowly laye,

And taken up his ynne in Fishes haske.

La Lande, quoting indirectly from Firmicus, mentioned as from the Egyptian sphere of Petosiris:

au nord des Poissons, il place Ie Cerf, & une autre constellation du Lievre;

{Page 342} but this second Hare I cannot trace, although Bayer had Cerva as a title for Cassiopeia "north of the Fishes."

There is a sprinkling of indistinct stars between the Fishes and the Whale (Cetus) that Vitruvius called Ermedone, explained by Hesychios as the Stream of Faint Stars, but by some French commentator as les delices de Mercure, whatever that may be. Riccioli, calling it Hermidone, said that it was effusio Aquarii, the classical designation for the Stream from the Urn; but Baldus, with Scaliger, said that the word was Arpedone, the Cord, although this seems equally inapplicable here. These stars may be the proposed new Testudo noted under beta Ceti.

[Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Richard H. Allen, 1889.]