Images of the Zodiac: Contemplating Pisces


Johfra Bosschart, “Pisces”

One of the best novels I have read in my whole life is without any shadow of a doubt Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in 12 Fish by Richard Flanagan. Its narrator, William Buelow Gould, is a forger serving a sentence in a penal colony on Sarah Island (today’s Tasmania). While imprisoned there, he creates remarkable paintings of fish. In the original edition of the book, each chapter is printed in a different colour, which makes the book look extraordinary. The narrator is very unreliable and scattered: he does not tell the story in a linear fashion, but more in a circular way, jumping forwards and backwards and letting his imagination spiral and twist in all directions. The book is wonderfully irrational and one hundred per cent Piscean. The main character’s anathema is scientific classification; he says that in the world “where science knew absolutely every species and phylum and genus, … no one knew love because it had disappeared along with the fish.” He says about himself: “I am not bound to any idea of who I will be. I am not contained between my toes and my turf but am infinite as sand… my soul is in a process of constant decomposition and reinvention.” He calls the book he is writing “the story of my compost heap of a heart.” Painting fish, he muses on its elusive beauty:

“A fish is a slippery and three-dimensional monster that exists in all manner of curves, whose colouring and surfaces & translucent fins suggest the very reason & riddle of life… a fish is a truth.”

The book is Protean at heart: full of transformations, melding, mingling, opalescent shapes and other flickering gems of the author’s fancy. The narrator, while painting the fish in 12 different colours and 12 different modes, fantasizes about an audience looking at his paintings in the future:

“They would find themselves swimming in a strange ocean they could not recognise and they would feel a Great Sorrow about who they were and a Great Love for who they were not and it would be all mixed up and all clear at the same time, and they would never be able to explain any of it to anybody.”


To understand our times at the end of the Age of Pisces, we must try to understand this last Zodiac sign, which closes the Great Round of the Zodiac. In his Zodiac as the Universal Matrix, Rudhyar calls Pisces “the symbol of time fulfilled” and “a pulsating womb, gathering in social experience and synthesizing the past of a people and a culture.” We are at the moment when all that is old disintegrates, decays and crumbles, in a moment of transition, when the new is yet unborn and the old is not dead yet:

“The germinating seed must draw from the humus fertilized by the manure of thoroughly decayed leaves, if it is to grow. It is because every cycle ends loaded with refuse and failures that there must be a new cycle in order to give to these remains a new chance to reach the stage of fulfillment in the seed.”

Approaching spring, many of us will start a period of fasting during which the body feeds on its poison until it becomes purified again. Humanity is in dire need of such purification reached through the death of the old. Rudhyar warns against passivity, the anathema of Pisces, because it involves the risk of getting “polluted and overwhelmed by the refuse of the old, instead of transfiguring it into the new birth.”

The Return of the Divine Feminine is an extremely prominent theme in the Age of Pisces, as Rudhyar notices in another book, The Pulse of Life:

“In Pisces, the individual must go through the Eternal Feminine. This is the eternal Chrysalis, which is as nothing, yet which contains all potencies of renewal. It is the realm of metamorphosis and that of psychic glamour; the world of rapture and that of eternal mist; openness to God and mediumship to the phantasms of a decaying past; the martyr’s sacrifice and the ghastly Inquisitions which feed sadistic frustrations under the mask of religious work.”

The realm of Pisces eludes language and any rational description. Pisces is the last sign of the Zodiac wheel but also the source of all the signs, the fertile oceanic womb out of which all life springs. The ocean is first and foremost the realm of the goddess, and although the sign Pisces is ruled by Jupiter (traditionally) and Neptune (in modern astrology), those male deities are late arrivals and their rulership over the ocean is merely historical, associated with the advent of patriarchy, while the oceanic dominion of the goddess is primordial and atemporal. According to Liz Greene:

“In extant Sumerian tablets, the goddess Nammu, whose name is written with the ideogram “A,” meaning “sea,” is described as “the Mother who gave birth to heaven and earth.” The word ‘nammu’ or ‘namme’ is given another interpretation by Nicholas Campion; he suggests it can be roughly equated with essence, fate or destiny. The two interpretations are related, since the divine source is also the essence and destiny of all life, which emerges from and returns to it. Sumerian myth offers no explanation for the origin of the primeval sea. It just is. … In the Sumerian language, the word for water is also synonymous with the word for sperm, conception, and generation. The great Sumerian sea-mother is parthenogenic; she is both fertilizing sperm and the moist, receiving womb; she is male-female, androgynous and undifferentiated, an image both of cosmic primal chaos and of the dark unformed world of the womb.”

Ever ebbing and flowing, water as prime matter appears in all creation myths of the world. As Liz Greene also says, “it will exist even at the end of creation, containing the seeds of future worlds waiting to germinate in its depths.”

I think Johfra’s depiction of Pisces is beautiful. On the bottom of the ocean two fish form a yin/yang symbol. They are lovingly held by a powerful male sage who is operating in the oceanic womb of the great mother. The ocean is home to breathtaking diversity and abundance of life forms, which are exquisitely presented by Johfra in their metaphysical, otherworldly beauty. Look at the fertile and luscious ripeness of the fish, the muscular arms of the god: these attributes speak of strength and power that this, often underrated, sign possesses in abundance. This is what Johfra himself wrote about the two fish:

“The red fish which represents the active part of the person points downwards, diving into its inner world. The blue fish, the passive part, represents the outside world because man has no more interest in the world of phenomena; it has become unreal to him. His only reality is the immeasurable kingdom of the primordial oceans of his inner world.”

I am quite fond of Johfra’s choice to present the two fish as an uroboros or as an image of the yin/yang equilibrium. In his celebrated book Aion, Carl Gustav Jung proposes an interesting thesis that the two fish swimming in opposite directions is a recent, Christian depiction of a primordial, pagan symbol. At the heart of Christianity lies a tension of opposites, he claims. I hope you do not mind me quoting a longer passage, which shows that his thesis is tentative, although quite compelling:

“There would be some justification for drawing a parallel between the tension of opposites in early Christian psychology and the fact the zodiacal sign for Pisces frequently shows two fishes moving in opposite directions, but only if it could be proved that their contrary movement dates from pre-Christian times or is at least contemporary with Christ. Unfortunately, I know of no pictorial representation from this period that would give us any information about the position of the fishes. In the fine bas-relief of the zodiac from the Little Metropolis in Athens, Pisces and Aquarius are missing. There is one representation of the fishes, near the beginning of our era, that is certainly free from Christian influence. This is the globe of the heavens from the Farnese Atlas in Naples. The first fish, depicted north of the equator, is vertical, with its head pointing to the celestial Pole; the second fish, south of the equator, is horizontal, with its head pointing West. The picture follows the astronomical configuration and is therefore naturalistic. The zodiac from the temple of Hathor at Denderah shows the fishes, but they both face the same way. The planisphere of Timochares, mentioned by Hipparchus, has only one fish where Pisces should be. On coins and gems from the time of the emperors, and also on Mithraic monuments the fishes are shown either facing the same way or moving in opposite directions. The polarity which the fishes later acquired may perhaps be due to the fact that the astronomical constellation shows the first (northerly) fish as vertical, and the second (southerly) fish as horizontal. … This countermovement, which was unknown to the majority of the oldest sources, was much emphasized in Christian times, and this leads one to suspect a certain tendentiousness.”

In Buddhism, a pair of golden fish is one of the eight sacred symbols of the Buddha. They stand vertically with their heads turned towards each other.


Western depiction of Pisces


Tibetan pair of golden fish

They symbolize the two sacred rivers of India, Ganges and Yamuna. Perhaps the fish that swim in different directions are symbolic of a radical western dualism, the irreconcilability of opposites and constant tensions and conflicts that are at the heart of our civilization. The Western mind is used to thinking in either/or categories, differentiating and drawing sharp distinctions in our judgements. The Chinese yin and yang symbol with its gentle curves shows a unity of opposites, their mutual penetrability and relatedness. Jaeger writes:

“The white area of the Yin-Yang symbol is typically called Yang. It begins at the winter solstice and indicates a beginning dominance of daylight over darkness, which is the reason why the ancient Chinese associated it with the sun (or male). Accordingly, the dark area of the Yin-Yang symbol represents Yin, which begins with the summer solstice. Yin indicates a beginning dominance of darkness over daylight. The ancient Chinese therefore associated it with the moon (or female).”


image via

Typically, mythical figures associated with Pisces transcend all self-made limits, especially gender. One of such androgynous deities is Dionysus, known as “he of the sea,” another, the Egyptian Hapi, a Nile-god called “the Primeval One,” imagined as a man with long hair and large breasts: a personification of the male and female life creating forces of the cyclically overflowing Nile.



The fish has also an interesting part to play in the Egyptian myth. Liz Greene makes a compelling analysis of the myth of Osiris, “Egypt’s great mythic victim-redeemer.” She writes:

“Osiris was dismembered by the dark god Set, portrayed as a great river-snake or crocodile – the Egyptian version of Leviathan, the destructive phallic face of the sea-mother – and his penis was swallowed by a fish. Although he was put back together again, the penis was never found, and one made of clay had to be substituted instead.

This story suggests, on one level, that the phallus of the god was thus the only mortal or corruptible part of him, since it was made of clay – the substance out of which the artisan-god Ptah formed human beings on his potter’s wheel. Osiris, although he is divine, is therefore vulnerable through his sexuality. … For it is through our sexuality that we are most vulnerable to the inundation of the waters … The encroachment of the deep is all too often through genital, rather than spiritual, feeling although the physical union which initially seems such a desirable aspect of Neptunian romantic entanglements is usually anticipated as a mere gateway to the more important soul-union that lies beyond. … Thus Osiris … remained for the Egyptians a bittersweet and poignant god of the underworld, promising a redemption which could occur only in the afterlife, but never in mortal form.”

“Concupiscentia,” Jung notices, is the shadow side of Pisces – the quality of being “ambitious, libidinous, voracious, avaricious, lascivious.” The womb of the great mother, voracious as it may be, is also a baptismal font, where the baptized are purified and swim like fish. Jung quotes St Augustine from his Confessions: “But [the earth] eats the fish that was drawn from the deep, at the table which you have prepared for them that believe; for the fish was drawn from the deep in order to nourish the needy ones of the earth.” As a symbol of Christianity, fish, like Corpus Christi, is soul nourishment, satisfying the most acute hunger of all: the spiritual one. The highest expression of Piscean energy is pure compassion. Says Rudhyar in The Pulse of Life: “Here we see the great Personage whose being is full to overflowing, because he has absorbed the wholeness of his race’s experience. … Compassion is the heart of reality, because reality is based on the experience of organic wholeness…” Rudhyar shows the connection between the words “compassion” and “encompass” to further emphasize the all-inclusiveness of the sign of Pisces. Rudhyar had his Mercury in Pisces, therefore his words that I am going to quote now as a conclusion sound like an inspired prayer to me:

“And this is the last blessing of the closing cycle, the eternal promise of all cyclic consummation: that the constant dualism of ever-changing life can be integrated in organic wholes ceaselessly more encompassing, through the creative behavior of Personalities ever more compassionate and more deeply integrated; that Day and Night may be realized as the two complementary poles of life and consciousness, in moments of human perception so lucid and so rich with universal contents that such illuminations may remain as beacon lights to be guidance and joy to ever vaster reaches of life. It is the promise of eternal rebirth, which leaves nothing unredeemed and excludes no one; the promise of the everlasting and timeless Presence of God in the man who fully welcomes the total integration of all that brought him to his present consummation; in whom, therefore, is accomplished the synthesis of past and future in the fullness and glory of moments that are the “eternal Now.”

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Johfra Bosschart, Astrology

Liz Greene, The Astrological Neptune and the Quest for Redemption

Stefan Jaeger, “A Geomedical Approach to Chinese Medicine: The Origin of the Yin-Yang Symbol”

Carl Gustav Jung, Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self

Dane Rudhyar, The Pulse of Life: New Dynamics in Astrology (

Dane Rudhyar, The Zodiac as the Universal Matrix

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27 Responses to Images of the Zodiac: Contemplating Pisces

  1. cat says:

    My deceased daughter was a picses … I read about this sign a lot … fish are silent … I never forget the day she went silent … besides the point, I know, but that’s what comes to mind … and anyway, you’ve got so many mindboggling points …


  2. renatembell says:

    This is wonderful. I must read Gould’s Book of Fish! Thank you for bringing it to our attention in another fully-loaded post!


  3. Wow. Gould’s Book of Fish sounds amazing. I’ve never even heard of it. I will add it to my ever expanding list of books to read.


  4. Rick says:

    I ran across Dali’s zodiac, you’ve probably seen it. If not you might like it.


  5. Rick says:

    Sorry …left wrong web address before


  6. ptero9 says:

    Great post Monika! I was not aware of the Piscean quality of androgyny. Makes sense though. I have always had an attraction to androgynous, twilighted and ambiguous images, perhaps because they point to an underlying wholeness of our being and the world.
    …and yes, the book sounds wonderful!


    • Yes, I am also extremely attracted to androgyny. Perhaps you remember the post on Dionysus and Pisces that I have reblogged recently. There were many references to the androgyny of Dionysus.


  7. kimfalconer says:

    Reblogged this on The 11th House and commented:
    A wonderful post on all things Fishy! Thank you Symbol Reader. This is such a treasure.
    “A fish is a slippery and three-dimensional monster that exists in all manner of curves, whose colouring and surfaces & translucent fins suggest the very reason & riddle of life… a fish is a truth.” – Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in 12 Fish by Richard Flanagan


  8. Pingback: Images of the Zodiac: Contemplating Pisces | The 11th House

  9. Monika, I was born at the end of the age of Pisces. With need and intrigue, I read your entire post. And I am compelled to read the Flanagan/Gould book. I now feel a strange kindred spirit with Dionysus. You always share such riveting history, contrast, and information. Thank you!


  10. I love your Astrological Contemplation post. Great artwork accompanying your great writing.


  11. who doesn’t like learning about themselves? jammed packed with useful information!!!
    need to follow up on some of your sources; thank you!
    great post Monika


    • Dear Eddie, how great that you are a Pisces, that just goes so well with the energy of your blog. Thank you for taking the time to read this long post. Your comment made me very happy.


  12. Karin Van den Bergh says:

    Wonderful post Monika! I so much recognize a lot of my mother in this one. lol. I so much loved the very last part .. “Compassion is the heart of reality, because reality is based on the experience of organic wholeness”.. absolutely brilliant and inspiring prayer from Rudhyar. I might want to save this one. Thanks Monika.


    • Thank you very much, Karin, especially for reading the whole post in its long wholeness. I often wonder if wordpress readers have the patience but I feel at least some of them do. Thank you again.


  13. H3nry J3kyll says:

    Wow! Nice share Monika. The Rudhyar conclusion was inspirational indeed.


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