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The Fish of Fertility

A Pocket Tale

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The Fish of Fertility
Yamada Taro/Getty Images

SYMBOLS AND GESTURES, I’ve noticed, can be misunderstood. For example, last Friday as I hurried through the kitchen on my way out of the house on some errand or another I was momentarily brought up short by my wife, who was standing in front of the open refrigerator with a fish in her hand. She turned and shook the fish in my face. That may have been my cue, I’m still not sure — my lovely wife was in a sheer nightie at the time. In any case, I failed to improve the moment and sped out the door.

Now in some cultures a fish can be a potent sign of fertility, signifying abundance, movement and creativity. For example, in Roman mythology a fish can be a symbol of love — fetching Venus to mind — or of the power of the waters, mighty Neptune. Fish in baskets — as in meals of plenty, bread and wine, the foods of redemption — and fish in association with an ax, seen in Assyria and Crete; or perhaps with moon shapes in many of the fishing cultures, all represent blessings and confer magic fertility on the catch or upon the whole community.

A single fish, however, might simply be a bachelor, a little lingam, lonely fellow, as in China. While in Egypt a fish is the phallus of Osiris, valiant and strong. But two fish together are nearly universally regarded as representing marriage, the joys of union, sex and reproduction. In Hindu symbology two fish, touching head to tail, can be suggestive of the yoni … an open invitation. You see, last Friday, if my wife had been holding two fish….

We use objects from the world to represent our ideas about the world, and to confer magic or attempt to influence in our favor the many gods and the powers that be. Fish — at their best — can call into being the arcane principle; they submerge into mysteries, and through them we can access the inscrutable. Three fishies together, especially sharing one head, are the Trinity in Christian tradition, or if intertwined they represent baptism under the Trinity. Fish deities demonstrate freedom of motion, gracefulness; a whole sea of possibilities.

But we begin to stray a bit far offshore here.

We must recall, after all, that even the homely coconut is a symbol of fertility and can be used in wedding ceremonies, or presented to a woman who wants to become a mother. This is done sometimes in India. They can also be used to launch a ship (to sail amongst the fish) by being broken upon the bow, instead of a bottle of champagne as in other traditions. The point is that with symbols, things are not always crystal clear or as they first seem to be. A rainbow, incidentally, can also represent fertility, and do it well, but I didn’t see one in the kitchen.

My wife maintains that I over-think these things. It’s easy for her to say! I ask you, last week, was she upset because the fish had not yet defrosted in the fridge? I’m not sure. There were no coconuts in sight. Might she have been trying to seduce me? That nightie. The fish. I just don’t know.

The next time somebody waves a fish in your face, I suggest you might stop and consider the matter carefully. Piquant possibilities may be in the air.

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