Three Fish With One Head

Allen Ginsberg’s sketch of three fish with one head, from Indian Journals (1982) & Harry Smith’s design of the same motif, based on Ginsberg’s sketch, Allen’s official logo, published on the front cover of his Collected Poems (1985) and subsequent HarperCollins volumes, both images (c) the Allen Ginsberg Estate.

Pausing today to revisit an old post and update it courtesy the remarkable research of Annabel Teh Gallop, head of the Southeast Asia section of the British Library here and, most pertinent to our context, here.  Her two postings on the three-fish-with-one-head symbol, Allen’s symbol, may have been missed (they were posted at the very end of the year and are very much worthy of your attention).

Three fish with one head, in a Javanese manuscript from Mataraman, Batavia, containing mystical texts, dated AH 1205 (AD 1790/1).  British Library, MSS Jav 77, f. 16v

As we noted in our original posting, in the Indian Journals, Allen locates it as “the Buddha’s footprint” that he glimpsed while in Bodh Gaya, India, in 1962, later writing in 1967, in The Catholic Worker:

“I saw the three fish one head, carved on insole of naked Buddha Footprint stone at Bodh-Gaya under the Bo-tree. Large – 6 or 10 foot size – feet or soles made of stone are a traditional form of votive marker. Mythologically the 32 signs – stigmata, like—of the Buddha include chakras (magic wheels symbolic of energy) on hands and feet. This is a sort of a fish chakra. So antique artists used to sculpt big feet as symbolic of the illumined man – before Greeks brought in human-face representation of Buddha. They never used to have statues of him – umbrellas, Bo-trees, or feet instead – before Alexander came to India.”

Annabel Teh Gallop in her extensive research on the subject quotes these words of Allen’s but intriguingly points out:

“There are (however) many unanswered questions…for while the fish by itself or in pairs is commonly encountered in Buddhist iconography, the three fish with one head is not a standard Buddhist symbol, and the footprint at Bodh Gaya does not appear to be firmly established in the scholarly literature. Nor is the ‘three fish’ symbol mentioned in a study of footprints of the Buddha by Anna Quagliotti (Buddhapadas: An Essay on the Representations of the Footprints of the Buddha (1998), who found no early stone footprints of the Buddha in Indonesia.

“In fact”, she goes on, “a different origin altogether for Allen Ginsberg’s logo is asserted by Malay Roy Chaudhury, one of the Bengali ‘Hungryalist’ poets of the 1960s who influenced Ginsberg during his Indian travels.  According to Roy Choudhury, it was he who pointed out to Ginsberg the design of three fishes with one head on the floor of the tomb of the Mughal emperor Akbar, and they later saw the same design in Patna Khuda Bakhsh Library on the leather cover of a Persian book on Akbar’s ‘composite’ faith, Din-i Ilahi, combining the major tenets of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. However, these references to the motif on the floor of Akbar’s mausoleum and on the book binding appear just as elusive as the Buddha footprint at Bodh Gaya, for no corroborative documentation can be found.”

Gallop continues with a cross-cultural examination. Here’s the three fish with one head in an Egyptian bowl

Three fish with one head, on an Egyptian bowl, New Kingdom, 16th-11th centuries BC (Image source: G. Maspero, L’archeologie egyptienne. Paris: Maison Quantin, 1887; p. 255, fig. 228)

and here’s a jar with the motif of the three fish on a brown-glazed stoneware jar excavated at Hancheng City, and now on display in Xi’an at the Shaanxi History Museum:

Jar with motif of three fish, Yuan dynasty, on display in Shaanxi History Museum, Xi’an, 2011 – Photograph: John Hill

‘The earliest known manifestation of the three-fish-one-head symbol”, Gallop writes, is in ancient Egypt, where it was a familar motif on ceramic dishes from the New Kingdom period between the 16th to 11th centuries BC. Representing the tilapia fish and found together with depictions of the lotus, it is associated with the Goddess Hathor” But, though it “may have originated in ancient Egypt, (it) appears to have so been universally appreciated as such a perfect graphical manifestation of threefold unity that at certain times and in certain places it has been appropriated by almost every great world religion – Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam” – yet (elusively), without ever having evolved into a recognized essential component of the respective religious iconography”.

One comment

  1. Allen Ginsberg was kind enough to sign a number of books and periodicals for me in 1962. I published one of his poems in a magazine a few years later. He drew the ‘three fish’ design in my copy of Howl. He also signed Yugen 7 at the page of ‘The End’. The poem begins “I am I, Old Father Fisheye that begat the ocean..” I would like to suggest that he is referring to the glyph, and by extension, in his understanding, The Buddha. After his signature he noted that the poem was “written under the influence of Ayahuaxcia (sic)- 61 ?”

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