A History of Goldfish in Mythology [Updated]

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A History of Goldfish in Mythology, Myth & Legend [Updated]

Goldfish swimming underwater
Goldfish have rounded bodies and seemingly decorative fins that make them slow swimmers. Image by Juan Carlos Palau Díaz from Pixabay

Goldfish are humble creatures that have touched the lives of so many people across the globe. You may have had one as a first pet. Maybe you were once teased for having a memory of a goldfish. You may have even seen one dramatically get flushed into a toilet in the movies! Whatever your experience with this attractive animal, it’s certainly a fish you can visualize in a heartbeat.

Goldfish are a favorite aquarium and pond fish for good reason. Their round bodies and seemingly decorative fins make them slow swimmers that are quite peaceful to watch. Today, there are enough unique breeds and color patterns to make one question just how “gold” this fish is supposed to be. Regardless of shape, size, or pattern, they all belong to one species with its origins as the typical “golden” fish.

The scientific name of domesticated goldfish is Carassius auratus. This species belongs to the carp family (Cyprinidae) and is close cousins with the equally popular koi (Cyprinus rubrofuscus). Goldfish originated from Far East Asia, where they were once selectively bred from wild populations of crucian carp and common carp.

This well-loved fish has a rich history and is the subject of many bedtime stories and modern myths. To understand its rich global journey, we must first trace its origins and recount its appearances in lore.  

The Origins of Goldfish

A 19th-century glass aquarium with goldfish.
Goldfish were brought to Japan and Europe in the 17th century. Shirley Hibberd, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The ancestors of goldfish populated cool, freshwater systems in China. About a thousand years ago, Chinese fish farmers first noticed that some wild carp, which were largely silver or grey in color, developed red scales. They took these fish and began raising them in ornamental ponds. Throughout the Tang, Song, and Ming dynasties, yellow varieties were increasingly selected for and bred to produce newer variations with more consistent colors, fin configurations, eye morphologies, and body shapes.

China continued breeding goldfish, which eventually became symbols of the imperial families, and later introduced them to other countries. In the 17th century, goldfish were brought to Japan and Europe. They were brought to North America about a century later, at which point their popularity placed them on the world stage.

Before they became the cute, bright orange fish that you’re bound to meet in every aquarium store or pet shop, goldfish were once bred for consumption! They were reared to a much larger size, were a table staple, and were collectively the most common fish species in China. Today, we regard them with adoration and reverence and have attached a higher value to the most modern and bizarre variations. Oftentimes, food is the last thing on our minds when we contemplate the symbolism of this unsuspecting fish!

Golden Fish as Symbols of Wealth and Life

Yellow goldfish swimming underwater
In China, emperors and their descendants believed that yellow goldfish would bring wealth and prosperity to their families. Yaroslava Kotenko, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Many myths from around the globe describe a “golden” fish that is often valued for its resemblance to the most precious of metals: gold. In China, emperors and their descendants believed that rearing yellow-colored varieties of this fish would bring wealth and prosperity to their families.

Anyone who wasn’t part of the royal family was forbidden from having yellow goldfish and had to settle for orange or red individuals. Goldfish became an extremely popular image in the Chinese print industry. Their association with royal heritage made them auspicious symbols for success in life.

Oftentimes, these imperial fish were cared for by Buddhist monks and scholars. Legend has it that one goldfish pond became known as the “Pond of Mercy” as Buddhists believed that rare animals should be set free. This resulted in throes of colorful carp being spared from an unfortunate death in the kitchen. More and more rare mutations were deposited into ponds. These bred with one another to produce colorful goldfish.

Descendants of a Golden Dragon

Hukou Waterfall, a part of the Yellow River in China
Ancient carp, from which goldfish descended, feature in many mythological stories about bodies of freshwater, like the Yellow River pictured above. Leruswing, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Chinese have a very popular myth about ancient carp, from which both koi and goldfish descended. Centuries ago, a school of carp was said to be swimming energetically in the Yellow River. They swam upstream, against a current, until they reached a waterfall. Many of the fish were initially undeterred by the waterfall and were determined to leap to the top. Over time, most of the carp grew weary and gave in to the strength of the current. These fish were carried away by the river, leaving a few steadfast individuals at the foot of the waterfall.

Day after day, the determined carp tried to jump to the top of the waterfall, but their efforts remained futile. A group of demons took notice of them and decided to make a joke of their endeavors. They raised the height of the waterfall, making it virtually impossible for any fish to reach the top. Still, a few fish were determined enough to keep trying. After a hundred years, one finally made it to the top of the waterfall! The gods took notice of this remarkable individual and turned it into a golden dragon. This legend, called ‘The Dragon Gate’, sheds light on why carp and their descendants are culturally revered.

Feng Shui and Goldfish

Black goldfish in an aquarium
According to Feng Shui, having a black goldfish in your tank can ward off bad luck. Image by Walter Navarro from Pixabay

Fish in an aquarium or pond are highly symbolic in the realm of Feng Shui. Even the number of goldfish and the color of each fish have meaning. Water itself represents abundance and good fortune, so the intensity of good energy is elevated when fish are brought into the mix. The graceful movements of goldfish are said to spread positive vibes to the fish’s surroundings. 

Traditionally, a water feature should contain 9 (or multiples of 9) fish as this is considered a “complete number”. Eight goldfish in one tank is also beneficial as this number is associated with positivity. If you’d like to bring harmony into your life, a small tank with a pair of goldfish might just do the trick! Given their typical color, goldfish are believed to bring wealth into your home. If you would also like to ward off bad luck (for good measure), you ought to include one black goldfish in your tank.  

It’s likely that these beliefs spring from the sense of ease many people feel when they look into a pond, listen to the sound of water in an aquarium, or take time to rest their eyes on calmly swimming fish. Interaction with fish in an aquarium supposedly helps reduce stress levels. Focusing one’s attention on their movements can reduce blood pressure and significantly improve one’s mood. This explains why many doctors have goldfish aquariums in their waiting rooms!

Modern-Day Goldfish Myths

Goldfish in a fish tank
Goldfish are much more intelligent and sensitive than we give them credit for. They deserve to be reared in diverse tanks where they can socialize with other fish. Image by kaori from Pixabay

Perhaps the most common modern-day myth about goldfish has to do with their memory capacity. Contrary to popular belief, goldfish actually have remarkably good memories! If you’ve interacted with them for quite some time, even a full year’s absence may not coax them to forget you. Turns out that when you make fun of someone for having a goldfish’s memory, you could essentially be paying them a compliment!

Another common myth revolves around the idea that releasing a goldfish into the wild will make it grow to be a giant. This, in part, can be true, but only in the sense that access to more water and a wide variation of food will allow them to grow to their maximum size. It may be tempting to release your goldfish into the wild if you find that you can no longer care for them. As much as possible, you must refrain from doing so as they can end up being pests in public water systems. Goldfish are highly adaptable fish; small populations can quickly breed to outcompete native species.

Goldfish are much more intelligent and sensitive than we give them credit for. They definitely aren’t made to live in tiny fishbowls with hardly any entertainment. These misunderstood creatures deserve to be reared in diverse tanks where they can socialize with other fish and enjoy swimming towards their food. Keep in mind that the happier they are, the longer they’ll live to bring you joy… and some much-needed luck, perhaps!

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