There’s a room in the Villa Farnese just outside Rome which is decorated by a fresco that details the whole of known world in 1572 plus a ceiling fresco comprising all the stories behind the creation of the twelve signs of the zodiac. In this blog post we’re talking about the origin of the star sign Pisces.
Sala del mappamondo, fresco by Giovanni di Vecchi in Villa Farnese. Image courtesy of ilturista.info
Zodiac ceiling, image courtesy of travelingintuscany.com
The mythology of Pisces generally follows a single legend which takes us back to the Titanonmachy – the battle between the Gods and Titans after Zeus has overthrown Cronos.
The baddie of the tale is a monster called Typhon who was the child of Gaia and Tartarus, conceived (poor thing) primarily to fight Zeus and the gods. He is an eclectic assortment of body parts, generally depicted with a man’s torso and snake legs, but he’s always really tall with incredibly long arms and to top it off, terrible breath that turned into fire. He terrorised the gods for a while until they dumped a mountain on his head, which inevitably became a volcano, now known as Mount Etna.
Typhon as imagined on an ancient vase – with Zeus to the left about to whack him with a thunder bolt, c. 540–530 BC, Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich, Germany
Typhon not looking particularly scary in an image by Wenceslas Hollar, a prolific graphic artist in the 17th century. The harpies on either side are his offspring in some versions of the story (Typhon’s, not Hollar’s!). Image courtesy of Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.
So, Typhon has it in for all the gods on Mount Olympus and he storms over to the mountain ready to do some damage.
Loads of the gods and goddesses see him coming and disguise themselves by turning into animals but Venus and Cupid are having a lovely walk along the river, miss all the warning signs and to avoid serious injury or death by Typhon (from which we take the modern term Typhoon), they jump into the river and turn into fish, tying their tails together to avoid becoming separated, which is what you see in the ceiling fresco, and once in the river, a couple of other fish who know their way around the place swim them away to safety.
The fish that saved them were later honoured by being placed in the heavens as a constellation. Some would argue that these fish must be Venus and Cupid but that doesn’t make sense to me as you usually disappear from earth when you become a constellation and they were both very much around after this point in Greek mythology. Either way, that’s the origin of Pisces!
This glorious image is ‘Pisces’ from the Zodiac window in Chartres Cathedral. Chartres Cathedral has 176 stained glass windows, the most complete group surviving anywhere from the Middle Ages. Several windows date to the mid-12th century CE while over 150 survive from the early 13th century CE.