Pisces - the two fish - is the largest of the constellations and features in ancient mythology, the earliest known example of its symbol found on an Egyptian coffin lid c. 2300 BC. Many thousand years later, the fishes appear on the coinage of the Mogul Emperor, Jahangir: he believed in divination to guide his actions so astrological symbols were an essential part of his environment.
Mogul gold coin from c. 1569 - 1627
In classical Greek myth, the two fish represent Aphrodite and Eros, escaping into the river Euphrates (like Pan or Capricorn) from the giant Typhon, and are usually shown joined with ribbons. I rather liked this cheerful image from a 14th century manuscript:
Breviari d'amor, French early 1300s, M. Ermengau
© British Library
The Pisces myth seems to be closely linked with two great rivers of the ancient world, the Nile and the Euphrates, along with many ancient stories of magic fish. In the biblical Apocrypha the Euphrates was where Tobias, guided by his angel, caught his giant fish; and the Euphrates runs through regions which were the source of many stories gathered together in the The Thousand and One Nights. Based on a lost book of Persian tales, the Hazar Asfanah, Antoine Galland's French translation from a ninth century Arabic version was published early in the eighteenth century.
Edwardian children would have read these stories in Andrew Lang's famous fairy books, particularly The Arabian Nights Entertainments published in 1898. The books are also known for their dramatic and detailed illustrations by Henry Justice Ford.
Colour-plate illustration for "The Girl-Fish" by H.J. Ford, from The Orange Fairy Book
Here is one of Ford's line drawings illustrating the tale of magic fish in "The Vizir who was Punished" from the Arabian tales. "When the cook was about to turn them on the other side, the wall opened, the damsel appeared, addressed the same words to the fish ['Fish, fish, are you doing your duty?'], received the same answer, and then overturned the pan, and disappeared."
Even in this poorly scanned image you can sense the drama and see Ford's wonderful evocation of exotic eastern palaces, in the Princess's Egyptian-style dress and the Islamic tiled fireplace.
"The Girl Upsets the Frying Pan" in Lang's The Arabian Nights Entertainments, H. J. Ford 1898
Henry Justice Ford was born into a London solicitor's family on 5th February 1861 (not quite a Piscean) and after leaving Cambridge with a classics degree he studied art at the Slade and then at Hubert von Herkomer's Art School. Between 1894 and 1916 his studio was in Edwardes Square, Kensington, a short walk from the Victoria and Albert Museum, where he could have seen this Turkish fireplace, acquired in 1891.
Tiled fireplace, possibly from the palace of Fuad Pasha, Istanbul, c. 1731
© Victoria and Albert Museum
© Victoria and Albert Museum
The detail in Ford's drawing even indicates a frieze of arabic writing just above the chimney opening.
In the V&A's fireplace, seven cartouche tiles list the names of the legendary seven Sleepers of Ephesus, another story from the Near East found in Christian and Islamic legend. Similar stories of heroes sleeping under the earth to be awakened, cross many ages and cultures and, like tales of enchanted fish, inspire artists and writers.
"But come now, it's time to leave;
the Fish glitter on the horizon,
the Bear is right over Caurus
and over there we can climb down."
Dante, Inferno, Canto XI (trans. © Steve Ellis)