Fish Symbolism and Meaning

Fish, underwater life.

Fish have held symbolic meaning for humanity across cultures and millennia. As one of the most ubiquitous animals on Earth, fish and fishing play an integral role in belief systems, mythology, psychology, and more.

This guide will provide a deep dive into core fish symbolism, the history behind it, key examples in religion and folklore, and tips on applying fish meaning to your own life.

The Origins of Fish Symbolism

As creatures of the water, fish symbolize fluidity, transformation, creativity, and fertility. Their meaning can be traced back over 4,000 years ago to the Phoenicians, an ancient civilization centered around maritime trade.

The Phoenicians associated fish with fertility and femininity. Fish were seen as symbols of life and renewal due to laying huge numbers of eggs. Goddesses like Atargatis and Astarte were depicted as mermaids and fish-tailed women representing that power.

Fish Symbolism

This association of fish with feminine energy, birth, and the maternal flows through many mythologies. From the fish-cloaked Greek goddess Aphrodite to mermaid stories like Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”, fish symbolize feminine mystique, emotion, and magical undersea realms.

Beyond the divine feminine, fish also play an important role in legends and folklore around masculine creativity. The salmon who swims upstream against all odds is an oft-repeated metaphor for determination in Celtic myths and Native American tribes like the Haida and Tlingit.

Overall, fish represent the lifeblood of the watery abyss – the hidden, unconscious source of being. As psychologist Carl Jung notes in his work “Aion”, fish symbolizes a deep, instinctual origin.

Key Fish Symbolism By Culture

Here are some of the major symbolic representations tied to fish across cultures and belief systems:

Christian Fish Symbolism

Ichthys by magnuscanis is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 .

In Christianity, the fish is strongly tied to Jesus Christ and his disciples. As fishermen, many early followers used the fish icon to identify themselves as Christians in contrast to pagans.

This secret symbol would be drawn in the sand or displayed to show safe meeting places during Roman persecution. Later on, the Greek word for fish, “ichthys“, became an acronym encapsulating core Christian beliefs:

  • Iesous (Jesus)
  • Christos (Christ)
  • Theou (God’s)
  • Uios (Son)
  • Soter (Savior)

So beyond just a nod to the fishermen disciples, the fish encapsulates foundational tenets of the faith.

The loaves and fishes miracle where Jesus feeds 5,000 is also iconic. Representing sustenance and abundance, the abundant fish reflect divine provision.

Buddhism and Fish

Buddhism and Fish

In Buddhism, the pair of fish symbolizes happiness and freedom. They represent shy yet playful creatures that have transcended their watery domain, liberated from the confines of their pond.

Fish were also seen as representations of Samsara – the endless cycle of birth and rebirth that Buddhists seek liberation from.

The fish iconography points towards mindfulness and awakening, swimming freely between realms without attachment.

Chinese Fish Folklore

Chinese culture has extensive symbology around fish from legends like the Dragon Gate and extensive fish-based idioms.

The fish (鱼) is pronounced “yu” making it a homynym for “affluence” or “abundance” (余). Fish are hence tied to prosperity, success, and financial luck. This connotation of fish words or fish images conferring wealth is seen across China and many Sinosphere cultures.

In myth, the Dragon Gate folktale tells of a waterfall cave called Longmen where a carp can transform into a dragon after swimming upstream against the fierce current. This legend is an inspirational story about perseverance and breaking free of limitations.

Mermaid Symbolism

Probably the most famous symbolic fish hybrid is the mermaid. Though sometimes considered harbingers of storms or ill fate by sailors, merfolk represents the allure of the unknown.

With the hypnotic yet dangerous beauty of sirens, mermaids are creatures bridging separate worlds. Their fish-like lower bodies connect them to the fluid intuition of the subconscious and magical thinking, while their human torsos allow them to lure people consciously.

From Homer’s Odyssey to pirate folklore, mermaids signify how the lurking wildness of our hidden depths can overpower logic and rationality.

Key Takeaways and Lessons

To wrap up our deep dive into fish symbolism, here are some key lessons:

  • Fish represent fluidity, emotion, creativity, and the personal or collective unconscious
  • Their connection to water associates them with intuition, dreams, the soul, and feminine energy
  • Mythological fish hybrids like mermaids symbolize liminality – being in two worlds at once
  • Abundant fish and fishing reflect the gifts of providence and divine blessings
  • Overcoming limitations, gathering strength through adversity, and achieving more than perceived possible are key lessons symbolized through fish folklore
  • Bringing the power of the hidden depths into conscious awareness is the core to embodying fish energy fully

By studying how fish show up symbolically in legends across cultures, we better understand the shared undercurrents of the human experience. Their appearance often signifies key turning points where characters must plunge into the unknown without fear to reach their destiny.

Frequently Asked Questions

fish symbolism and meaning

Here are answers to some common questions about fish symbolism:

What does a fish symbol mean in Christianity?

The fish is strongly associated with Jesus Christ and his disciples in Christianity. Early Christians used the fish symbol to covertly identify meeting places during Roman persecution. The Greek word for fish, ichthys, is also an acronym for core tenets of the faith.

Why is there a fish symbol on cars?

The Jesus fish or Darwin fish symbols are used by some drivers to signify their religious beliefs regarding evolution and human origins. They represent spiritual identification rather than anything specifically automotive.

What does catching a big fish symbolize?

In dream symbolism, the size of the fish reflects the significance of the insights being drawn from the unconscious mind. Catching a big fish represents catching a big idea or having a major realization.

What do two fish together symbolize?

Two fish often represent partnership, teamwork, balance and complementary energies. In Feng Shui, placing two fish figurines symbolizing yin/yang or male/female creates more harmonious chi energy than a solitary fish.

What does a fish tattoo symbolize?

Fish tattoos can symbolize creativity, prosperity, good luck, happiness or connection to the ocean. Celtic fish tattoos represent determination against the odds along with wisdom, instinct, and nourishment. Japanese fish tattoos (Irezumi) reflect courage, adaptability and overcoming life’s serious pitfalls.


We’ve covered a lot of ground on the extensive symbolic fish mythology extending across human civilization. From ancient goddesses and monster lore to religious acronyms and mermaids, fish occupy a unique place in our psychology.

As water-dwellers bridging the conscious and subconscious parts, they lead us to hidden treasure in our depths. By better understanding their meaning and significance, we can plunge deeper into our journey towards awakening.

And if one day you find a strange fish staring back at you with knowing eyes, you’ll understand exactly why.

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