Astro Journal · Mythology

Zodiac Myths: The Story Behind Pisces

We’ve reached the final post in the series as the water carrier dissolves into the ocean of eternal life. As a mutable water sign, Pisces unites all previous experience to embrace the whole of life and complete the circle. Its transcendent vision marks the end of the Zodiac and the start of the next turn of the wheel.

Pisces is a feminine sign ruled by Jupiter and Neptune, and is balanced and complemented by the opposite sign of Virgo, ruled by Mercury. Immediately we have a problem: a profoundly feminine sign ruled by two male gods. Something is amiss, but as we’ll see, it comes down to the usual tale of patriarchal gods taking over from the earlier goddess cultures. This usurpation is also reflected in the symbols of Pisces.

The glyph represents two fish lying back-to-back and joined across the middle, reflecting the dual nature of the sign. Along with fish, Pisces symbols include dolphins, whales and other sea mammals, and the dove. Non-animal symbols include wine and the vine, and the ichthys – which was used by both Christianity and pagan cults, as well as some ancient cultures of pre-history.

The ichthys was adopted by early Christians as a secret sign of their faith but the symbol pre-dates Christianity. The word means ‘fish’ in Greek and was later turned into an acrostic (I. CH. TH. U. S.) which translates as ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.’

The symbol comes from the Vesica Piscis which means ‘bladder of a fish.’ This is derived from the intersection of two circles and represents the joining of two worlds: the divine and the human. The figure of Christ is an obvious example of that union, but the symbol originally represented the Great Mother goddess. It stands for the yoni, the entrance to the womb, which is also the entrance to the afterlife or spirit world.

Pisces represents the waters from which life originated and has its roots in the same source as Cancer – the primordial Mother, the goddess of chaos who births all beings into existence and then receives them home into eternity.

Let’s dive into the ocean and swim with the fishes…

Pisces Myths – Pre-History

Up until recently, the earliest depiction of the Pisces constellation was on an Egyptian coffin lid that dates to c. 2,300 BCE. But that has now been shattered with an incredible discovery in India of petroglyphs that date to c. 10,000 BCE. Various images have been found carved into rocks at Ratnagiri, including this:

Petroglyph of Pisces…possibly? (source)

It doesn’t represent the constellation as seen in the sky, but it does show two fish back-to-back joined by a band or cord. There’s another petroglyph that looks remarkably like the constellation of Aquarius, including fish. You can read more about the implications of this find on the Myths, Symbols and Mysteries blog here.

Obviously, we don’t know what this symbol meant to the people who carved it, but the later Indus Valley civilisation used fish to symbolise the divine source of life. Fish that resemble the ichthys with little fins or wings can be seen on many Indus Valley seals. They appear to represent the soul of ancestors, connecting the idea of fish with the afterlife and the gods.

This connection is also found in the Nommo, the ancestral spirits of the Dogon who we met briefly in Gemini Myths. The Nommo were described as amphibious fish-like creatures and were depicted with human bodies and a fish-tail. They were the first beings to be created by the sky god Amma, who sacrificed one of them and dismembered his body, scattering the parts around the world.

Meanwhile in Serbia, statues and figurines of river goddesses have been found in a settlement called Lepenski Vir. Dated between 9,500 and 6,000 BCE, it’s described as the first city in Europe which thrived on the banks of the Danube river where the people fished. The egg-shaped statue below is called ‘Foremother’ and may represent a primeval Mother goddess, dating to c. 7,000 BCE. She has a fish-like mouth and stands about half a metre high and was built into the stone floor of a house shrine.

A mournful river goddess

Pisces Myths – Sumer

The Babylonians represented the Pisces constellation as a bird and a fish connected by a cord. The bird was known as ‘The Swallow’ and followed the line of the ecliptic, while the fish swam upwards. Together they were known as ‘The Tails’ or the ‘Tail of the Swallow.’ The fish was also identified with Anunitum, the ‘Lady of Heaven’, related to Ishtar (or Inanna), and sometimes depicted as a mermaid.

The curious inclusion of the bird comes from a Syrian myth, although in this case the bird is a dove. The story goes that two fish found an egg in the Euphrates and pushed it onto the land. A dove settled on the egg and it hatched, and out came Astarte, the Syrian version of Ishtar. In another version, the goddess who emerged from the egg was Atargatis.

Atargatis was the Syrian fish goddess of water and fertility, and was also often depicted as a mermaid. Fish and doves were her sacred animals, and she had a son called Ichthys who was also a fish. She was worshipped with ecstatic rites by priests who did violence to themselves, like biting or cutting their own arms. They also castrated themselves and dressed as women.

Atargatis holds the egg of life

This coin shows Atargatis as a fish holding the egg out of which hatched Astarte. The second fish isn’t shown, but would have been her son, Ichthys. This story was later adopted and adapted by the Greeks, who turned Atargatis and her son into Aphrodite and Eros.

Pisces Myths – Greece

In Greece, the Pisces constellation was said to represent the two fishes known as the Ichthyes who rescued Aphrodite and Eros. The goddess and her son jumped into the ocean to escape the monster Typhon who was rampaging around Mount Olympus. In different versions they either disguised themselves as fish or were rescued by fish. But either way, they had the foresight to tie their tails together so they wouldn’t become separated. Eventually, Zeus killed Typhon and Aphrodite and Eros returned to their original forms. Aphrodite put the Ichthyes into the sky in gratitude for their help.

Later on the myth evolved again and the Ichthyes were re-imagined as Aphros and Bythos, the fish-tailed Ichthyocentaurs, or sea-centaurs, who brought Aphrodite to shore after she was born from the sea foam.

The ruler of Pisces is Neptune (for Romans) or Poseidon in Greece. Neither of these gods are good representations of the Pisces archetype but there’s an obvious reason.

Poseidon was originally an earthy fertility god and only later became associated with the sea. His other domains included earthquakes, floods, drought, and horses. Dolphins were his sacred animal and he was depicted with a trident on a chariot pulled by two hippocampi – horses with a fish-tail. He was known as the ‘husband of Earth’, in other words, the consort of the Mother goddess, which gives us a clue as to what happened.

In Mycenaean inscriptions, Poseidon is sometimes referred to in the feminine as Posedeia. This might indicate a consort, but he also had a wife called Amphitrite who was the goddess of the sea. Hesiod described her as a Nereid, but others said she was the personification of the saltwater ocean. Amphitrite gave birth to the seals and dolphins, and ruled the sea with the Nereids – until Zeus gave dominion of the sea to his brother, Poseidon, and she was demoted to wife status.

This votive tablet dated c. 575 BCE shows Amphitrite carrying a trident, the symbol of her power over the oceans.

Amphitrite rules the waves

Nerieds are a type of Undine, elementary beings, or nymphs, associated with water. These also include mermaids and naiads, and are usually female. The Nereids are sea nymphs who hang out with Amphitrite and Poseidon, and are often depicted as dolphins and hippocampi. Nereids are generally helpful to sailors, but other undines are less trustworthy. Naiads are fresh water nymphs and can be dangerous thanks to a jealous streak. They’re bound to their local spring or river so if it dries up, they die.

Undines look human but don’t have a human soul, so to achieve immortality they have to marry a human. This usually turns out badly for the hapless man because he dies if he’s unfaithful. To stay with your undine lover means to embrace a watery death.

Although she doesn’t come from Greece, another sea goddess worth mentioning is Sedna, the Inuit mistress of sea creatures who lives in the underworld. She was thrown into the sea by her father, the creator god, because she was getting too big and kept eating everything – including one of his arms! She clung to the side of his kayak, but he cut off her fingers, which became the seals, sea-lions, and whales hunted by the Inuit.

Finally, we come to the best representation of the Pisces archetype in Greek mythology: Dionysus (or Bacchus, if you’re Roman). Dionysus was the god of fertility, the vine and wine, ecstasy, madness, and theatre. He was the son of Zeus and had a terrible time of it because Hera kept trying to kill him. He was dismembered several times but was always reborn. Eventually Hera drove him mad and he wandered the world teaching the art of wine-making, along with a company of satyrs and maenads.

Evidence for the worship of Dionysus has been found in a tablet from Mycenaean Greece dated to c. 1,300 BCE. The text refers to him as ‘di-wo-nu-so’ and describes the gifts of honey given to the god. Elsewhere, he’s called ‘Dionysus the Liberator’ and ‘Dionysus Psilax’, which means ‘he who gave men’s minds wings.’

Dionysus transgressed the boundaries between human and divine, women and men, the civilised and the wild. He was often depicted as androgynous or effeminate, and was worshipped with orgiastic mystery rites. His maenads were known for their tendency to go mad and tear wild animals to pieces with their bare hands.

As a redeemer who brought life after death, he has been linked with other gods, including Osiris, and Christ. There’s even a mosaic in Cyprus that shows Bacchus as a child, sitting on the lap of Hermes with a halo, like Christ. His cult was so popular that Jesus had to assert, “I am the true vine” to convince people to leave the old rites behind.

The Epiphany of Dionysus

The Meaning of Pisces

Pisces stands at the end of a cycle of experience and absorbs all the previous signs into its embrace. It represents the end of the soul’s journey into wholeness where the seeds are planted for the next cycle. This openness to life makes Pisces difficult to pin down – it flows and shape shifts, following invisible currents in the waters of the unconscious.

The ocean of Pisces is the collective unconscious and includes everything from the transcendent to the demonic. This Dionysian realm is paradoxical and prone to extremes. It can be creative and imaginative, as well as dark and destructive. Dionysus was, after all, the god of both ecstasy and savagery, of mystics and murderers. But to deny the god was dangerous, as Pentheus discovered when he was torn apart by his own mother in a Bacchic frenzy.

Being this close to the abyss would make anybody nervous and Pisces often tries to avoid a confrontation with the unconscious by retreating into the intellect. They may deny the spiritual and embrace materialism and rationality. But the chaotic realm is still there, lurking in the unconscious, always threatening to overwhelm the ordered structures of life.

The forces of the unconscious are usually only dangerous when they’re repressed or denied. But that doesn’t mean you should blindly express every desire and irrational impulse. There’s a reason the Greeks made Dionysus share a temple with Apollo at Delphi. Apollo is a sun god and represents rational thought, and provides a necessary balance to Dionysus. But he also took the form of a dolphin – an animal associated with Pisces and Dionysus. So these gods appear bound together, like the two fish – where one goes, the other is sure to be around somewhere.

(Aside: my first novel, Addled: Adventures of a Reluctant Mystic, was written in honour of Dionysus after an ambiguous encounter in a dream that involved gold grapes. You can find out more in the book here!)

The two fish swim in opposite directions and represent the endless paradoxes of Pisces: the spiritual fish and the material fish, rational and irrational, victim and redeemer. The cord that binds them, shows they can’t be separated because they’re interdependent. The opposites are two parts of one whole so you have to honour both.

Pisces is where the human and the divine intersect and the challenge is to find a way to unite the opposites in a synthesis that includes and transcends both. In other words: To be in the world but not of it.

This isn’t easy because the extremes are so… extreme. The dark side of Pisces can get pretty dark, so how do you honour a god like Dionysus?

You do it by giving space to the feminine side of life: feelings, subjectivity, the body and instincts, empathy and compassion. This is the realm of the Mother goddess and the realm that Dionysus serves. He represents the life force that constantly renews itself, living and dying in an endless cycle. But the life force itself is indestructible – it is eternal life.

Eternal life is transcendent and immanent. So to honour the transcendent means to recognise the essential reality that underpins the world. You come from the waters of the Mother and then you return. But you never really leave her. You’re always bound to her, like the fishes’ tails.

Friend of Dionysus and Apollo – and you!

When you’re in touch with the unconscious, you can produce great imaginative and artistic work, but you can also get pulled under into dissolution and madness. If you deny the reality of the Mother, she becomes vengeful and erupts as delusion, escapism, addiction, and self-destructiveness – all the things we see running rampant in our culture today.

The dark side of Pisces is the darkest part of the collective unconscious – the chaotic sea monster that devours life. This is the savage side of nature that doesn’t give two shits about your personal survival or happiness. Of course, Mother nature also keeps us alive and nurtures and supports us. But you can’t have light without darkness.

You can see this struggle between transcendence and destructiveness in the stories of certain mystics who tormented themselves with extreme austerities in order to attain union with God. And in the image of Christ himself, suffering on the cross for the sake of mankind.

The dark side of Pisces can be truly demonic, but its highest expression is enlightenment and sainthood. However, renouncing the world doesn’t mean turning your back on it or escaping into a mystical trance. It means plunging into the world with open hands ready to serve with compassion.

The crucifixion of Christ represents the sacrifice of the small self, or ego. It’s a shamanic initiation of dissolution and dismemberment, and the suffering this causes may destroy you. But it can also lead to great compassion because underneath it all, is the joy of eternal life.

The cross is the world of matter and this can feel like a prison to your soul. But the crucifixion opens your eyes to the truth of the illusion of duality and the presence of the divine in all things.

In Buddhism, one of the eight auspicious symbols is the two Golden Fish, usually depicted nose to nose, which represent fertility and abundance. The fish are a symbol of spiritual liberation because they show the happiness and freedom of the soul swimming in the waters of nirvana.

In Pisces, you swim in the ocean of samsara, or illusion, until you remember your divine source. Then you know that samsara is nirvana. There’s no need to struggle or swim against the tide.

You can go with the flow of eternal life.

Pisces on Film

Films that represent the Pisces archetype include stories about the sea and its creatures, mermaids, music, movies, the arts, dance, and fashion. Visionary or inspirational films about transcendence, faith and mysticism, as well as dreams and imagination. And on the dark side, films about illusion, deception, addiction, and madness. You’ll have your own favourites, but here are a few examples of Pisces on film:

  • For a movie about movies (and illusion), you can’t beat the all-singing, all-dancing glory of Singing in the Rain.
  • For a mermaid, you have Madison struggling to be human in Splash.
  • Dom Cobb implanting dreams and perhaps getting trapped in his own in Inception.
  • John Baxter, who doesn’t realise he’s psychic and is drawn to his death in Don’t Look Now.
  • Charlie Parker, the jazz legend, helping to create bebop and struggling with addiction in Bird.
  • The novelist Iris Murdoch who slowly succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease in Iris.
  • Fashion editor, Jean-Dominique Bauby, writing his account of locked-in syndrome in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
  • Tom Creo searching for the secret of eternal life to save his dying wife across parallel lives in The Fountain.

More on the mystical world of The Fountain here. Read the rest of the Zodiac Myths here.

If you enjoyed this epic series, you can help me to create more good stuff by making a donation. Either PayPal Me or donate here. Thank you!

More on Pisces:

Images: Pisces; Foremother; Atargatis; Amphitrite; Dionysus

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