Fish Food For Thought

Sarpa salpa

Can you pronounce Ichthyoallyeinotoxism, or use it in a sentence, boys and girls?  It means fish poisoning. Certain species of fish, including Sarpa salpa, pictured above, contain a hallucinogen which can affect the human nervous system within minutes of ingestion, and the symptoms last for days. People who have eaten these fish report visual and auditory hallucinations similar to the effects of LSD. During Roman times, these fish were deliberately eaten to have a hallucinogenic trip. The Arabs called them “the fish that make dreams.” Scientists have concluded that it is not the actual flesh of these fishes that are the culprit, but likely a bacteria in the plankton the fish eat that creates the toxin. (In future posts I will go into more  detail on the connection between micro-organisms and certain theological ideas.)

Suffice it to say that learning about hallucinogenic fish has changed my perspective on certain legends of fish-gods. According to ancient Babylonian historians, civilization (written language, agriculture, and mathematics among other things) was taught to mankind by a fish-man names Oannes who emerged from the sea one day.


Hallucinogens are known to bring about revelation and insight. The participants in the Eleusianian Mysteries of Greece imbibed a psycedelic of some sort that caused personality change and a loss of the fear of death. Many scholars like John Allergro have hypothesized that Christianity and other religions are based on the revelations brought on by ingesting the hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita muscaria. So I think it isn’t farfetched to imagine that many of the early ideas of civilization were in fact creative hallucinations in the minds of Meditarranean fishermen who were eating “the fish that make dreams.”

Before Oannes came, it is said, the people lived in total ignorance and barbarism. Written language and mathematics of course require an ability to abstract. Abstract thinking is enhanced by hallucinogens.  Fish, in legend and folk tales, are frequently associated with wisdom, inspiration, and secret knowledge. The salmon is actually named for the King of Wisdom, Solomon.

Aha, so this is why your Mom always told you fish was a brain food!

And here’s an interesting little story: On June 23, 1626, a fishwife cut open a fresh codfish to find a book wrapped in sail-cloth inside the fish’s gut.  The book turned out to be a theological work by a John Frith, who was at the time in prison for promoting religious tolerance in England. In fact, Frith’s prison was a fish storage cellar where the fish smell was reportendly so strong some of his fellow prisoners had died from it. His book was returned to circulation under the title “Vox Piscis or the Book-Fish.”

Wisdom from a fish. June 23, by the way, is the summer solstice, a day the Celtic druids used for divination, often at sacred pools where they held oracular fish.


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