What is Omega-3?
Omega-3 is a class of fatty acids. Fatty acids are the building blocks of fat. There are at least four Omega-3 fatty acids – EPA, DHA, DPA, and ALA. Omega-3 is “essential,” meaning we need it to survive, but we have to get it from our food. We can’t manufacture it in our bodies. (We do convert some forms of Omega-3 to other forms.)
EPA and DHA are the most bio-available for us, and they are produced in certain kinds of algae. DPA also comes from algae, but less is known about it as yet. ALA is manufactured by land plants.
At this time, the best and most common source for us of EPA and DHA is the fish who eat the algae. Fish oil capsules are currently booming in the marketplace. Algae oil capsules are up and coming.
Omega-3 is the bricks and mortar of the entire nervous system as well as serving many vital functions in other body systems, including the cardiovascular system, liver, and skin. It is anti-inflammatory – inflammation being the basis of most disease. It has anti-cancer properties.
It seems to have many different mechanisms of action, the most talked about being that it makes cell walls more flexible, which improves their functioning.
New research is coming out every day about Omega-3’s health benefits and mechanisms of action.
Why is Omega-3 currently the subject of such intensive research? Why is it flooding the marketplace, not only as a capsule supplement but as a selling point for natural and processed foods?
There is some evidence that we are in a nearly global dietary crisis of grossly imbalanced Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio. Omega-6 is another class of essential fatty acids. We need Omega-6, and it has various functions, including being necessary to trigger an immune response, including necessary inflammation. However, research suggests that humans evolved on a diet that had a 1:1 ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3. Today, around the globe, the Omega-6:Omega-3 ratio measures 5:1 to 50:1, usually worst in the industrialized countries (Simopoulos, 2002b; Simopoulos & Cleland, 2003). There is little doubt that this dietary ratio is contributing to the global burden of disease.
The three countries that have the highest consumption of fish and thus Omega-3 are Malaysia, Japan, and Iceland. The U.S. falls in the lower half of 38 countries studied. The average American would have to supplement with 3,667 mg Omega-3 per day just to equal the dietary intake of the average Japanese (see chart http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/83/6/S1483/T2.expansion.html, Hibbeln et al., 2006b).
In this essay, we are going to focus on the neuroprotective and psychoactive properties of Omega-3. We will sample some of the recent research evidence, and then survey the historical evidence that humans have intuitively recognized the health properties of Omega-3-containing fish.
A sampling of the research on Omega-3’s neuroprotective and psychoactive effects
There are hundreds of research studies and anecdotal reports about how Omega-3 may prevent or heal neurological and psychological problems. Here is just a very small sampling.
Neuroprotective and neuroreparative effects
Dementia and Alzheimer’s
New research is rapidly emerging about the apparent benefit of high Omega-3 intake for preventing or repairing dementia, Alzheimer’s, and cognitive decline in the elderly.
A comprehensive review of the literature conducted by Loef and Walach at the Viadrina European University in Frankfurt, and published in January 2013, found that, in both animal and human studies, there was a link between the dietary Omega-6 / Omega-3 ratio, cognitive decline, and incidence of dementia (Loef & Walach, 2013).
In another recent paper, Dacks, Shineman, and Fillet at the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation in New York point out that epidemiology indicates a higher risk of cognitive decline in people in the lower quartile of Omega-3 intake or blood levels (Dacks et al., 2013).
A 2012 meta-analysis of human studies measuring Omega-3 blood levels, conducted by Lin, Chiu, Huang, and Su at the Kaohsiung Chang Gung Memorial Hospital and Chang Gung University College of Medicine, Kaohsiung, Taiwan, found that overall Omega-3 level, EPA level, and DHA level were significantly lower in people with dementia, while only the EPA level was significantly lower in people with predementia syndrome (Lin et al., 2012).
In a study published February 2013, Fiala et al. at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA identified key genes and signalizing networks that might explain how vitamin D and Omega-3 enhance the immune system’s ability to clear the brain of amyloid-beta plaques, which are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s. The supplements helped macrophages in vitro to expunge amyloid-beta (5 Feb 2013 UCLA press release). This immune function is yet another mechanism by which Omega-3 may help the brain, in addition to making neuron walls more flexible and building myelin.
Another recently published study by Lee et al. out of the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and Universiti Sains Malaysia compared elderly people with mild cognitive impairment to healthy elderly people. The results suggested a correlation between low Omega-3 blood level, high level of oxidative stress, and mild cognitive impairment. High Omega-3 level correlated with better attention, short term memory, and recall (Lee et al., 2013).
There have been studies that observed that some cultural groups, such as Greenland Inuits and Japanese, have a diet high in Omega-3, and have a very low incidence of multiple sclerosis, which is a disease that involves loss of the myelin sheath around neurons. The studies focused on the anti-inflammatory benefits of Omega-3, but it is acknowledged that Omega-3 works via many different mechanisms (Kromann & Green, 1980; Simopoulos, 2002a). It’s worth noting that one of the functions of Omega-3 is to build and repair myelin (Tremblay, 2011).
There is some research that suggests that Omega-3 may be effective in reducing the risk of stroke in humans, and there is also some preliminary research with animals suggesting that it might turn out to be helpful in recovery from stroke.
Here are a couple of studies about prevention –
In a study of 79,839 women followed for 14 years, eating fish two or more times a week was associated with a reduced risk of lacunar infarction (occlusion of a deep brain artery), and women in the highest quintile of omega-3 fatty acid intake had a reduced risk of total stroke compared with women in the lowest quintile (Iso et al., 2001; http://www.medicine.ox.ac.uk/bandolier/booth/hliving/fishstro.html).
A study of Japanese who had had a stroke and had high cholesterol found that taking Omega-3 with a statin drug reduced the risk of recurrent stroke 20% better than did a statin alone (Tanaka et al., 2008; Uzoma, K. 2011).
And here are several animal studies suggesting the reparative effect of Omega-3 after stroke –
Mice were subjected to hypoxic-ischemic brain injury. In the ones who were then injected with Omega-3 within a few hours after the stroke, the area of dead brain tissue was reduced by 50% (Williams et al., 2013).
The effects of the omega-3 fatty acids include increasing the production of natural neuroprotectants in the brain, reducing inflammation and cell death, and activating genes that may protect brain cells. Omega-3 fatty acids also markedly reduce the release of harmful oxidants into the brain after stroke. "In most clinical trials in the past, the compounds tested affected only one pathway. Omega-3 fatty acids, in contrast, are very bioactive molecules that target multiple mechanisms involved in brain death after stroke," [study co-author] Dr. Deckelbaum said (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130220184723.htm).
In another study, mice were given either an Omega-3 enriched diet, an Omega-3 impoverished diet, or a control diet for three months. They were then subjected to middle cerebral artery occlusion. The Omega-3 fed mice did better on many markers, with a 25% overall reduction of brain damage (Lalancette-Hébert et al., 2011; http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110825102250.htm).
One more study subjected rats to an induced acute ischemic stroke. Omega-3 was then administered some time after the incident. When Omega-3 was administered three hours after the stroke, the result was 40% less destroyed tissue. If the Omega-3 was administered four hours post-incident, there was 66% less damage. At five hours post-incident, there was 59% less damage (Belayev et al., 2011; Uzoma, 2011).
Traumatic Brain Injury and coma
An area where the neuroreparative effects of Omega-3 are being avidly explored right now is traumatic brain injury (TBI) of any type, including that resulting in coma.
There have been two well-documented, recent cases of people suffering from massive traumatic brain damage and in a coma, who recovered after receiving mega-dose Omega-3.
In the first case, in 2006, Randal McCloy, had been injured and trapped in a mining accident and was in a coma. His neurosurgeon Julian Bailes, M.D. administered 20 grams per day of “Omega-3 fish oil….The damage to McCloy's brain was profound, according to Bailes. Not only did it experience massive cell death, the protective sheath around McCloy's nerve cells had been stripped during the hours of exposure to toxic gases. That sheath, called myelin, allows brain cells to communicate with one another….Less than three weeks after the mine disaster, McCloy was emerging from his coma. Three months after that, he was walking and speaking” (Smith, 2012).
Something similar happened in the case of Bobby Ghassemi, who was injured in a car accident in 2010. His doctor Michael Lewis, M.D. convinced the family that there was no hope of spontaneous recovery and to give mega-dose Omega-3 a try based on McCloy’s dramatic recovery.
Here’s what happened –
Two weeks after beginning the regimen, Ghassemi was emerging from his coma.
"We saw hand movements on the left side," Peter Ghassemi said. "Around the fifth or sixth week, there was some movement, and then his hands started moving more, the leg was moving more."
Soon after that, Bobby began to show signs of recognizing his family and his dog and of discerning things like colors and numbers. Slowly, his brain was recovering, and his family ardently believes that the high-dose fish oil is the reason why.
"His brain was still recovering, but with (omega-3), it recovered much faster and in a shorter amount of time," Peter Ghassemi said. "His brain was damaged, and this was food for the brain."
Three months after his accident, Bobby Ghassemi was well enough to attend his high school graduation (Smith, 2012).
Now, cutting-edge research is going on into the question of whether Omega-3 supplementation can be used *preventively* to beef up people’s resilience to potential future head injuries in war and sports. The need is urgent. The harmfulness of repeated concussions in sports is becoming more and more apparent. And TBI is the signature injury of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. As of Fall 2012, almost a quarter of a million servicemembers had sustained TBIs. A handful of vanguard researchers are urging the US Department of Defense to start thinking of Omega-3 both as treatment and prophylaxis for TBI (Lewis & Bailes, 2011; Barringer & Conkright, 2012).
In one animal study, rats were given either no Omega-3, a small amount, a medium amount, or a large amount for 30 days. Then they were subjected to impact acceleration brain trauma. Then, they were measured on a maze test, then sacrificed and studied anatomically and cellularly. There was some benefit at the lower two doses, but the rats who had received the highest dose of Omega-3 did better on every measure of brain damage than rats who had received no Omega-3 prophylaxis (Mills et al., 2011).
Finally, there is another reason to expect that Omega-3 supplementation would be neuroprotective and neuro-reparative for any kind of neurological problem. There are studies that suggest that the body produces its own Omega-3 in response to brain injury.
During the restoration of blood flow after blockage in rat brains and in oxidative stress-challenged human retinal cells, endogenous DHA (an Omega-3) is promptly released and converted into neuroprotectin D1 which serves many, many neuroprotective functions. In other words, there is an endogenous, automatic self-protective mechanism that involves Omega-3 which is triggered by the onset of brain injury (Bazan, 2005; Bazan et al., 2005; Bazan, 2006; Bazan et al., 2011).
Now let us do a brief sampling of the psychoactive properties of Omega-3.
One cross-national study of 36 countries found that –
“Cross-national ecological data indicate that there is an inverse relationship between seafood consumption, a surrogate of omega-3 intake, and rates of death by homicide (r 0.63, p <0.0006, n 36 countries) (Hibbeln, 2001)” (Hibbeln et al., 2006a).
Omega-6 opposes Omega-3 and increases inflammation. One of the Omega-6’s is linoleic acid. Another study of five Western countries found that –
“In addition, greater linoleic acid consumption, estimated from economic disappearance data, has been found to have a direct relationship with homicide rates across five countries (r 0.93, p <1 10^40) between 1960 and 1999 (Hibbeln, Nieminen, & Lands, 2004.)” (Hibbeln et al., 2006a).
In a retrospective study of 800 US military personnel who committed suicide compared with 800 matched servicemember control subjects, low Omega-3 level was correlated with a 62% higher risk of suicide. Each standard deviation lower of Omega-3 carried a 14% higher risk of suicide (Lewis et al., 2011).
A meta-analysis of 10 studies showed that Omega-3 had significant antidepressant efficacy (Lin & Su, 2007). And another meta-analysis of 15 studies showed that a particular Omega-3 – EPA – when higher than DHA, was correlated with the best antidepressant effect (Sublette et al., 2011).
In another study, medically healthy adults who did not rise to the level of being diagnosable with a psychiatric disorder showed that a higher Omega-6:Omega-3 ratio correlated with greater depressive symptomology and neuroticism. In other words, high Omega-6 and low Omega-3 correlated with more psychological distress even in a sub-clinical population (Conklin et al., 2007).
The Inuit or Eskimos of Greenland may have had the highest known daily Omega-3 consumption, at least in the past. Pioneering research was done by Hugh Sinclair of the UK and Hans Olaf Bang and Jørn Dyerberg of Denmark in the 1940’s through 1970’s. They traveled by dog sled across the tundra in a race to collect Inuit blood samples and record their diet before outside influences changed their traditional lifestyle. They were trying to understand why the Inuit had a mysteriously low level of cardiovascular disease despite a diet full of blubber. At least one reason turned out to be that they ate approximately 14 g / day of Omega-3 (British Journal of Cardiology, 2004).
Sadly, the Inuit lifestyle has been changed by outside influences. An analysis of survey results taken in 2004 from 746 Inuit adults showed that those who scored higher on a test of mood disorders had, on average, lower Omega-3 and higher Omega-6. Furthermore, psychological distress was inversely correlated with Omega-3 level (Lucas et al., 2010).
Omega-3 has also been found to be effective for post-partum depression. Pregnant women donate a lot of Omega-3 to their fetuses, which is very important for fetal neurological development. If the women don’t get enough dietary Omega-3, they become depleted, and more vulnerable to post-partum depression. One 23-country study compared rates of post-partum depression, levels of Omega-3 in mothers’ milk, and seafood consumption. The study found a correlation between higher level of the Omega-3 DHA, greater seafood consumption, and lower prevalence of post-partum depression (Hibbeln, 2002).
In a now famous study at McClean Hospital, Harvard Medical School, people with Bipolar Disorder were given 9.6 grams of Omega-3 per day for four months. Analysis showed “that the omega3 fatty acid patient group had a significantly longer period of remission than the placebo group (P = .002; Mantel-Cox). In addition, for nearly every other outcome measure, the omega3 fatty acid group performed better than the placebo group” (Stoll et al., 1999).
A cross-national study which compared 8 – 14 countries (depending on which diagnosis was looked at) found a robust correlation between greater seafood consumption and lower incidence of Bipolar I, Bipolar II, and Bipolar Spectrum Disorder (Noaghiul & Hibbeln, 2003).
In a recent study, adolescents and young adults deemed to be at ultra high risk for having a first psychotic episode were given 1.2 g Omega-3 for 12 weeks, and then monitored for 40 weeks. In the group which had received placebo, 11 of 40 had a psychotic episode. In the Omega-3 group, 2 of 41 had a psychotic episode. This was a statistically significant difference. Omega-3 was also correlated with lower symptomology and better functioning (Amminger et al., 2010; Amminger & McGorryl, 2012).
Another study showed that, compared to control subjects, people having a first episode of schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder, and who had not been exposed to antipsychotic medication, had significantly lower Omega-3 blood levels (Reddy at al., 2004).
This concludes our cursory demonstration of how effective Omega-3 is – either in supplement form or directly from eating fish – for many neurological and psychological problems.
Now we are going to survey the cultural history of fish in order to show that, for thousands of years, humans have associated fish – the primary dietary source of Omega-3 – with desirable qualities.
Cultural history of fish
In a fascinating article entitled, “Cultural symbolism of fish and the psychotropic properties of omega-3 fatty acids,” Biologist L.C. Reis and psychiatrist and lipid biochemist Joseph Hibbeln (whose epidemiological work on Omega-3 has been quoted liberally above) make the case that throughout history cultures around the world show signs of having recognized the desirable psychoactive and physically healing properties of fish.
Here is an abbreviated version of their compelling hypothesis, directly from their article –
“…due to its abundance of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, fish is food with the psychotropic properties of reducing depression and aggression” (Reis & Hibbeln, 2006, p. 228).
“Because seafood is a uniquely rich source of these psychoactive molecules, we posit that, over the course of human history, symbols of fish and seafood have become associated with the emotional states induced by long-chain omega-3s” (Reis & Hibbeln, 2006, p. 228).
“Jung posited that an entire culture can collectively understand the meaning of a symbol and that individuals inherit symbol-meaning pairs from their cultures . We posit that the mental states of calmness and peace have become linked to symbols of fish and seafood through conscious and unconscious associative pairing” (Reis & Hibbeln, 2006, p. 228).
“If omega-3 fatty acids found in fish have significant psychotropic properties then it would seem reasonable that a multitude of people across time would have created these associations prior to modern neuroscience” (Reis & Hibbeln, 2006, p. 229).
“Thus, we propose that the antidepressive, anxiolytic and calming, psychotropic properties of long-chain omega-3s, have been linked symbols of fish in cultural paradigms including: food purity, physical health, mental well-being and cultural identity. This manuscript tests this proposition by examining if fish consumption or symbols of fish are consistently associated with healing mental illness, purifying physical
illness, or as core symbols of cultural or religious identity among the world’s major medical and religious traditions” (Reis & Hibbeln, 2006 p. 229).
Now, we will look primarily at spiritual traditions, and some healing traditions, from around the world that demonstrate how overwhelmingly fish has come to symbolize deeply meaningful and positively slanted themes.
The Taoist yin-yang symbol, the taijitu, can be traced to around 1000 CE and represents the interplay of opposites which is essential to nature. It is also called the fish symbol, or double fish symbol, and looks like two fish wrapped around each other, complete with eyes (Reis & Hibbeln, 2006, p. 230, Bolwell, nd, Wiki).
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Traditional Chinese Medicine and Feng Shui
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, whose roots go back to at least 3000 BCE: “When a person becomes too aggressive or agitated by an excess of yang energy, seafood, which carries abundant yin energy, is prescribed” (H.C. Lu in Reis & Hibbeln, 2006, p. 230).
Feng Shui is an ancient Chinese system that combines astronomy and landscape features to determine the most propitious time to do things and the most propitious way to build things. Its roots go back at least to 4000 BCE (Wiki).
In Feng Shui, fish are associated with prosperity, abundance, success, good fortune, love, fidelity, and fertility.
The Arowana fish is used in Chinese iconography to symbolize prosperity. It has physical features reminiscent of a dragon, and is a very expensive, highly valued fish (anamikas.hubpages.com).
Shinto is the indigenous spiritual practice of Japan, first recorded in the 8th c. CE (Wiki). According to Reis and Hibbeln --
“Ebisu is a Shinto deity that brings joy, luck, and prosperity. He is thought to have come from the sea, and he carries a large fish, a sea bream, under his arm. Paintings and sculptures depict him exuding happiness and joviality. He carries with him happiness, luck, prosperity, and symbolically linked with his beneficence, a fish” (Reis & Hibbeln, 2006, p. 234).
Reis and Hibbeln write –
“There are at least two important fish deities in the Hindu pantheon, and both are associated with peace and benevolence. The first is Matsya. There are ten
incarnations of the Lord Vishnu, the first of which is Matsya, a fish. Matsya is humanity’s savior, as he saved Manu, the first human, from a great flood. The second,
Ganga, is the goddess of the Ganges, and she rides a vehicle, the makara, that is half crocodile and half fish” (Reis & Hibbeln, 2006, p. 234).
There are also several religious and social ceremonies that involve eating fish as symbolic of social harmony (Reis & Hibbeln, 2006, p. 234).
Yoga positions, used for physical, mental, and spiritual development, have roots going back to at least the 3rd millenium BCE (Wiki). One of the positions is called Fish Pose or Matsyasana, named after Matsya.
Matsyasana is the destroyer of all diseases (Wilkinson, 2009). “Just as Matsya rebalanced earth and ocean, so practicing Fish Pose can be a way of reestablishing your focus and giving you resiliency when you feel gravity laden” (Lee, 2010).
In addition to the obvious benefits of this position to spine, neck, chest, and stomach, it is said to relieve stress and irritation, regulate emotion, lighten mood, and lift and stimulate the heart chakra (cnyhealingarts.com; Lee, 2010; yoga108.org).
It increases circulation, aids breathing, digestion and metabolism, boosts the immune system, supports the thyroid, and tones the nervous system, the pelvic organs and the nerves connected with sexual functions. It also helps prevent and repair reproductive system disorders. (Lee, 2010; yoga108.org; Wilkinson, 2009). Interestingly, these are all health benefits of Omega-3.
Reis & Hibbeln –
“….[F]ish are designated as one of the eight auspicious symbols of Buddha. Of the eight auspicious symbols, the only one that represents a physical aspect of the Buddha is a symbol of two golden fish, which represent his eyes with which he gazes at the world with compassion. It is interesting to note that DHA is selectively concentrated in the retina, and DHA deficiency is associated with poor visual acuity” (Reis & Hibbeln, 2006, p. 234).
The set of eight auspicious symbols is called the Ashtamangala, and is shared by Buddhism with other south Asian religions. The two fish also represent “the state of fearless suspension in a harmless ocean of samsara,” and as buddha-eyes they symbolize “the auspiciousness of all sentient beings in a state of fearlessness without danger of drowning in the Samsaric Ocean of Suffering, and migrating from place to place and teaching to teaching freely and spontaneously just as fish swim freely without fear through water” (Wiki). The two fish symbolize the sacred Ganges and Yamuna rivers of India (ancient-symbols.com, Wiki).
There is a creation myth in Mali in West Africa in which Mangala, the creator, tries several times unsuccessfully to bring forth things from within himself and to plant seeds. In some versions, he only becomes successful when the seeds transform into twin fish. Fish are symbols of fertility and creation in the culture, and Mangala is the name of an expensive, desirable fish in West Africa (epsb.com, whats-your-sign.com, dickinsg.intrasun.tcnj.edu, bu.edu, Wiki).
Reis and Hibbeln --
“Ancient Babylonians, Assyrians, Phoenicians, and Philistines all worshiped the half-fish, half-man god referred to in the Bible as Dagon. The root of his biblical name is dag, the Hebrew word for fish, but he was also called Oannes, Ea, and other names. In all of these traditions, Dagon is depicted as a half-fish god, and his priests are often shown wearing huge fish as hats and robes. This ancient tradition of fish reverence may have influenced the development of fish symbolism and rituals of fish consumption in Judaism and Christianity” (Reis & Hibbeln, 2006, p. 234).
In Greek mythology, Aphrodite and Eros must escape from Typhon, and, depending on the version, they either transform themselves into a pair of fish or are rescued by a pair of fish. In this case, fish are said to be symbolic of transformation and generative powers. Aphrodite is also accompanied by Ikhthyokentauroi – sea centaurs with fish tails -- when she is born from the sea (mythindex.com, whats-your-sign.com, theoi.com).
Aphrodite is not the only goddess associated with fish. There are several goddesses with an association to fish, fertility, sexuality, and – interestingly – some of them also to Fridays. The Roman goddess Venus is an example, as is the Scandinavian goddess Freya. (More on Fridays and fish in Christianity below). Other goddesses associated with fish were the Syrian goddess Atargatis, and the goddess of Ephesus (who went by various names) (albatrus.org, glbet-el.org, cracked.com, Wiki).
“Delphus” is an ancient Greek word for “womb.” It’s a homophone for “delphis”, the word for dolphin, and they are probably etymologically connected (constellationsofwords.com).
Note that fish is considered an “aphrodisiac,” and thus pertains to Aphrodite (britannica.com).
The vesica piscis (Latin for fish’s bladder) is a pointed oval shape that can be found all over the ancient world, not just the Mediterranean. It is the shape formed by two overlapping circles of the same size, where the center of each circle lies on the perimeter of the other (Wiki).
The ancient Greek mathematician and mystic Pythagoras (born 580 BCE) used the vesica piscis as the source shape from which all other shapes could be created (jwilson.coe.uga.edu).
The vesica piscis has been used horizontally to symbolize Christianity and is called the sign of the fish. Vertically, it has been used by Christianity to symbolize, among other things, the passage between heaven and earth (philomuse.com, sandplay.org).
Several authors claim that prior to Christianity, the shape represented a vulva, and was associated with many goddesses (Walker, 1983, p. 134; Biedermann, 1994; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk%3AVesica_piscis)
A possible transitional figure between the pre-Christian symbolism of the vesica piscis and the Christian symbolism is the sheela na gig. These are architectural figures of squatting women with exaggeratedly open vulvas, often a pointed oval shape that mirrors the vesica piscis.
Although the sheela na gig term has been reserved for figures found in Europe, these figures are probably part of a continuum of similar figures found all over the world and throughout history. Note that there is a yoga position, used for birthing, called the Kali asana, named for the Hindu goddess, which mirrors the position of these European sheela na gigs. These figures have probably held various meanings over time, including messages pro and con sexuality, fertility, and warding off evil (Wiki).
The oldest known sheela na gig is found at Göbekli Tepe, a temple complex in Turkey that is 11,000 years old (Wiki; Ruyle, 2009; cambriapress.com). There is still controversy about the earliest dating and meaning of the figures in Western Europe, but it is agreed that, although many of the figures are found on Christian churches, they were originally from different, older structures (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Sheela_na_gig).
Let us look at just one more ancient cultural artifact that links goddesses, female genitals, fish, and beneficent qualities – the Yoni mudra. Yoni is the Sanskrit word for vagina, womb, source, home, and divine passage, among other things, and there are stone-carved yonis at ancient archeological sites. The yoni is symbolic of Shakti and Devi, goddesses who represent the the female aspect of the divine (Wiki).
Mudras are ancient hand gestures with specific meanings, the use of which promote different healing effects in the body (Wiki). The Yoni mudra mirrors the vesica piscis form. It’s effect is to detach the practitioner from the external world, to calm and relax, and to return one to the quasi-uterine environment of the divine mother (Wiki; 100megsfree.com; suite101.com; yogawiz.com).
In astrology, the millenias-old, worldwide traditions of analysing correspondences between astronomical and earthly events, the influence of the Pisces constellation shows us more associations between fish and beneficial qualities. The symbol for Pisces is two fish connected by a band, stylized as two half-circles with a band.
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"Pisces" is the Latin word for "Fish." It is one of the earliest zodiac signs on record, with the two fish appearing as far back as c. 2300 BCE on an Egyptian coffin lid….
“According to British astrologer Alan Leo, the Pisces, along with Scorpio and Cancer, compose the triplicity for water signs, also known as "mutable signs." The mutability is key to the ever-changing element of water, found in several different forms, much like the transformative aspects…found in Christ and Piscean nature. Additionally, these three are considered to be the most fruitful signs, who serve a fertilizing function in nature. He also groups Pisces under the "negative pole;" naturally adept to the astral and psychic worlds. This is [symbolized] in the sign for Pisces, which is composed of two half-circles and a band, signifying the dual nature of man in both the physical world and the unseen realm. According to 20th century astrologer Robert Hand, the fish facing upwards away from the ecliptic is swimming towards the heavens, or is seeking spiritual illumination. The other fish swims along the ecliptic, concerning itself with material matters.
The last sign of the Zodiac, the Pisces symbol has been said to be a representation of the difficulty in extracting the good from that which appears bad. The moral of the symbol for Pisces is said to be that "the severe season has passed; though your flocks, as yet, do not yield their store, the ocean and rivers are open to you, their inhabitants are placed within your power." It is generally considered a feminine sign….The body parts associated with Pisces are the feet….astrologists also associate various diseases of the body with the zodiac, and Pisces' diseases are those of the feet (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pisces_%28astrology%29).
The other astrological sign that involves fish is Capricorn, which is represented as a goat with a fish’s tail. This sign is supposed to cross the pragmatic, ambitious, material aspects of the goat with the intuitive and occult wisdom and knowledge of the depths of the fish (Houlding, 2003; Wade, 2009). The sign is associated with Ea (mentioned above), an ancient Mediterranean god (a version of Enki), whose symbols were the goat and fish (Wiki; Wade, 2009).
In Judaism, fish has been a symbol for righteousness and protection from the evil eye. Their being covered by water is part of what protected them. Reis and Hibbeln write –
“Fish is protected from the evil eye, which conceptually divides it from evil. The omega-3 fatty acids in fish may physiologically protect people from states of being and behaviors that are conceptualized as evil, such as impulsivity, hostility and aggression. Using fish as a symbol for protection from evil could have partially originated from the associative pairing of fish consumption and a decrease in such behaviors (Reis & Hibbeln, 2006, p. 233).
Also, from Reis & Hibbeln –
“’From no orthodox table is fish absent at one or more of the Sabbath meals, however difficult it may be to procure.’ This may be a precursor to the Christian tradition of eating fish on Fridays. In the Talmud, many folk remedies involve fish, and its professed effects associate it with peacefulness and calm, alongside general health and well-being” (jewishencyclopedia.com in Reis & Hibbeln, 2006, p. 232).
Reis & Hibbeln –
“Christianity unambiguously regards fish as a sacred food that Christians should eat to maintain their faith. The sacredness of fish in Christianity is repeatedly shown by its association with Jesus and His miracles in the New Testament. The symbol of the fish is a representation of Jesus and Christianity that predates the crucifix, and for centuries it was more common than the crucifix. The use of the fish symbol began earlier than the second century AD, at which time Clement of Alexandria declared it to be an identifier of Christians. Saint Augustine (AD 354–430) exalted the fish symbol in his writings and instructed all Christians to regard it as a sacred symbol of Christ. Augustine justified the choice of fish as Christ’s symbol by explaining that the Greek word for fish, ΙΧΘΥΣ, is an acrostic for the Greek ‘‘Jesus Christ the Son of God the Savior.’’
The equation of fish with Jesus is not only iconographic. In the New Testament, there are numerous passages in which Jesus is in close contact with fish, and He and His disciples are called ‘fishers of men’ (Mark 1)” (Reis & Hibbeln, 2006, p. 231).
Jesus famously multiplies loaves and fishes to feed a multitude. He uses fishing analogies a lot in his teachings. He helps his disciples to catch 153 fish in one try. And, at another point, he tells a disciple to go catch one fish, which turns out to have a coin in its mouth, which is exactly what they need to pay admittance to the temple. The fish symbol is believed to have been used by early Christians to communicate among themselves secretly (Wiki).
Christians were supposed to eat only fish on Fridays, a custom observed by Catholics until Vatican II in the 1960s. In a fun NPR piece entitled “Lust, Lies And Empire: The Fishy Tale Behind Eating Fish On Friday,” Maria Godoy writes --
“Let's start with a quick lesson in theology: According to Christian teaching, Jesus died on a Friday, and his death redeemed a sinful world. People have written of fasting on Friday to commemorate this sacrifice as early as the first century.
Technically, it's the flesh of warmblooded animals that's off limits — an animal "that, in a sense, sacrificed its life for us, if you will," explains Michael Foley, an associate professor at Baylor University and author of Why Do Catholics Eat Fish On Friday?
Fish are coldblooded, so they're considered fair game. "If you were inclined to eat a reptile on Friday," Foley tells The Salt, "you could do that, too."
Alas, Christendom never really developed a hankering for snake. But fish — well, they'd been associated with sacred holidays even in pre-Christian times” (Godoy, 2012).
Now, just because it’s so interesting, here’s a sidebar on the political and economic factors that also propelled this custom down through the centuries.
In a fascinating re-interpretation of the Medieval European discovery of the Americas, Anthropologist Brian Fagan shows us that, once again, there is nothing new under the sun – there was over-fishing and climate change in the Middle Ages.
“It was fish, not spices, that led to the discovery of North America," speculates anthropologist Fagan. From 1495 to 1525, he tells us, the monks at Westminster Abbey consumed almost 11,000 kilograms of fish per year. The sheer enormity of this piscine cuisine offers a snapshot of the exalted place fish held in the life of religious communities. Fagan…regales readers with a….tale of Christianity's role in the development of fishing and fisheries as commercial ventures. By the fourth century, fish had become the center of Christian fast days and holy feasts. Early forms of aquaculture were developed to meet the demand, but eventually, as Fagan points out, Europe's rapidly growing Catholic population and its demand for fish on Fridays and fast days led, as early as the Middle Ages, to a North Atlantic fishing industry providing herring and cod and developing salting and smoking to preserve the fish for the transatlantic trip. But the onset of the Little Ice Age forced fishermen further south, and eventually they followed cod down to their winter waters off the coast of Maine” (Publisher’s Weekly review, Amazon, Fagan, 2006).
And Godoy expands on the political and economic machinations of fish on Fridays. When Henry VIII broke with the Pope in Rome around 1532, eating fish came to be seen as “popish” and out of favor. The fishing industry suffered. When his young son Edward VI and his advisors took over in 1547, they found it politically and economically expedient to reinstate the Friday fish requirement by force of law (Godoy, 2012).
According to Reis and Hibbeln –
“From the years 1242 to 1966, there were approximately 140 days of Abstinence
every year on which Catholics were required to abstain from meat other than fish. These included Wednesdays, Fridays, Lent, Ember days (the beginning of each season), Christmas and Pentecost vigils, All Saints’ Day, and Assumption” (Reis & Hibbeln, 2006, p. 232).
According to Reis and Hibbeln, “Through the Prophet Muhammad, Allah specifically declared fish of all kinds Halal, or clean and acceptable to eat” (Reis & Hibbeln, 2006, p. 232).
The Moorish government of Málaga struck coins with fish on them in 1017 CE, and the reason for these fish has been debated by scholars. In a wonderful paper entitled “The Quranic symbol of fish on Hammudid coins: al Khidr and the holy geography of the Straits of Gibraltar,” the Andalusian linguistic scholars Salvador Peña Martín and Miguel Vega Martín cite a passage from the Quran about the meeting between Moses and the mystical Islamic prophet al Khidr.
Moses was instructed by God to search for al Khidr, who would teach him secret knowledge. Moses asked how he would meet al Khidr, and God answered, “put a fish in a basket, and where you lose it, everything will happen” (Peña & Vega, 2006, p. 274).
Moses and his companion Joshua travel, forget about the salted fish they carry, later remember it, find al Khidr who brings the fish back to life, and al Khidr instructs Moses on “the unknown” (Peña & Vega, 2006, pp. 273-5). The crucial moment takes place at the meeting of two seas, which has been interpreted as being the Straits of Gibraltar. And the meeting between the two prophets symbolizes the meeting of Moses’ religious law, science, and the material world with al Khidr’s gnosis (mystical insight) and philosophical idealism (Peña & Vega, 2006, pp. 273-5).
The fish is interpreted as signifying this meeting of two systems of thought, as well as spiritual leadership. The authors propose that the rulers of Málaga coined the fish to invoke these meanings (Peña & Vega, 2006, pp. 277).
Religion professor Irfan Omar, PhD expands on this Quranic episode. The fish symbolizes knowledge. It is salted and forgotten by Moses and his companion, and even disappears for awhile on their quest to find a servant of Allah from whom Moses will learn secret, divine knowledge. During this phase, the dead fish represents only exoteric knowledge. But, once they meet the prophet al Khidr, the fish is brought back to life by the addition of esoteric knowledge (Omar, 1993).
The Maori of New Zealand are descended from Polynesians who arrived in New Zealand around 1250 CE (Wiki). Fish and seafood have been traditionally of central importance, and the Maori have had many ecologically sound practices for the maintenance of their fisheries (genuinemaoricuisine.com). In an interesting departure from the widespread use of the fish as symbol, the Maori focused on the fish hook.
The Maori fish hook or hei matau has a unique shape which is reminiscent both of a jawbone and a bay on the North Island of New Zealand. These correspondences feature in a Maori creation myth in which the mythological figure Maui is born premature, but nurtured by the sea, and becomes a consummate fisherman. He uses his enchanted fish hook to snare not only vast quantities of fish, but also new land, and the sun (Wiki, maori.info).
This fish hook is a very popular amulet and tattoo that has come to symbolize good luck, prosperity, abundance, fertility, good health, power, authority, respect for the sea, sea life, and the god of the sea, and safety on the sea (Wiki, maori.info, squiddoo.com)
In the Mesoamerican Maya culture, the K’iche’ Maya creation myth tells the story of Hero Twins who are faced with many extreme challenges, and eventually killed by the gods of the underworld. Their bones are ground up and thrown in the water, where they are reconstituted as two fish or fish-men. They then defeat the gods of the underworld, including the lords of death (Grofe, 2009; Wiki; chapala.com).
“Following their resurrection as fish-men…the Hero Twins develop a special talent for being able to bring themselves and others back to life, and to raise buildings that have been burned down” (Grofe, 2009, p. 56). Finally, they ascend to the sky, where they become the sun and moon.
In this story and other myths from the same culture, fish symbolize sacrificial death and mystical rebirth, fertility, resurrection and transformation (Grofe, 2009; Wiki; chapala.com).
Conclusion of Part I
This concludes the survey of the cultural history of fish. This is not an exhaustive review. For example, if you would like to learn more about ancient Norse and Celtic beliefs in the wisdom-giving properties of salmon, here is a nice essay I discovered late in my research that has that and more –
Symbolic meaning of fish. (2012). http://newsonhistory.blogspot.com/2009/10/symbolic-meaning-of-fish.html
In the present essay we sampled some of the research evidence that suggests that Omega-3 protects and repairs neurological and psychological problems, and we surveyed some ancient cultural narratives to back up Reis and Hibbeln’s contention that throughout history and around the world people have intuited the connection between fish consumption and mental and physical health.
They conclude –
“….the gods represented by fish are peaceful gods….We believe there is substantial evidence that the psychoactive properties of fish caused people around the world to independently identify fish as a food that calms aggression, reduces distressful emotions and promotes peacefulness in conscious and unconscious associations…We may be only catching up with the ancients in the promotion of fish consumption as a public health tool…” (Reis & Hibbeln, 2006, p. 234)
In Part 2, we will talk about another possible benefit of Omega-3.
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Female display figure from Gobekli Tepe --
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