God’s fish

When the inspector calls, the chief weapon of fundamentalist fishermen–particularly those with long white beards–is Genesis 1:26-28:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

These and similar verses may be taken as restricting imperial intervention to commercial fishery, but Caesar does not lack in determination.

The first English reference to royal fishery rights (albeit written in French) of which I am aware is in Britton (more early legal texts here), dated in 1865 by Francis Morgan Nichols to 1291-2, in the reign of Edward I, and possibly written under the influence of Alfonso el Sabio of Castile and Leon:

Et ausi apent a lour [ie the coroners] office de enquere de viel tresor trové en terre, et de wrek de meer, et de estorgon et de baleyne, quant hom lour fra de ceo a saver ; et de fere prendre et mettre par meynprise les trovours et les alienours, et lour nouns fere enbrever, et a nostre oes sauver. Et voloms qe nos viscountes et nos baillifs soint entendauntz a eux et a lour maundementz.

Thus the king lays claim to treasure trove, wrecks, whales and sturgeon; of God, however, no word. That’s why it’s fascinating to note the paradox of a curse, God’s fish, arising as euphemism for God’s Flesh, without God actually at the time having had a fish of his own. This rank injustice becomes the more unpalatable when we consider Tristam Shandy, in which, following a massacre of prescriptive grammarians, it is suggested that

all the oaths and imprecations, which we have been puffing off upon the world for these two hundred and fifty years last past, as originals, —- except St. Paul’s thumb, —- God’s flesh and God’s fish, which were oaths monarchical, and, considering who made them, not much amiss ; and as kings oaths, ’tis not much matter whether they were fish or flesh; —- else, I say, there is not an oath, or at least a curse amongst them, which has not been copied over and over again out of Ernulphus, a thousand times

While Laurence Sterne seems to be suggesting that only kings could swear using expressions like God’s fishodds-fish is the commonest variant–, as we already know, poor old God didn’t even have a fish. Into this pond I would like to introduce the only royal, fishy curses on record from around Sterne’s time. Charles II emits all three; unfortunately he is much too early and the sources are much too late to be of any value, but do note that in none does the king introduce the name of the deity:

  1. There is a tale, probably apocryphal, told of that notoriously merry monarch Charles II. There was a dinner to commemorate the foundation of the Royal Society. At the end of the evening, ‘with the peculiar gravity of countenance which he usually wore on such occasions,” he put a challenge to the Fellows. ‘Suppose two pails of water were fixed in two different scales that were equally poised, and which weighted equally alike, and that two live bream, or small fish, were put into either of these pails.’ he wanted to know the reason why that pail, with such additions should not weigh more than the other pail which stood against it. Many suggested possible explanations, and argued for their own suggestions with more or less vigour. But at last one who perhaps remembered that the motto of that great society is ‘Nullium in verba’ (Take no man’s word for it!) denied the assumption: “It would weigh more.” The King was delighted: ‘Odds fish, brother, you are in the right.’ (Isaac D’Israeli, The Quarrels of Authors (London, 1814))
  2. A report of the condemned malefactors [ie victims of Judge Jeffries] being once made to him, one mobleman [sic; =furniture man?] interceded for one, another for another, until they were all pardoned excepting one. The King, looking round upon the council, asked of them if nobody would speak in behalf of this man? They all keeping silence, his majesty said, ‘”Cod’s fish, My lords! this is some poor devil who has, I suppose, neither money nor friends: come, I’ll be his friend myself!”‘ by which they were all saved. And it turned out afterwards, to his majesty’s great consolation, that the man whom he had pardoned by his own royal motive proved an object more worthy of compassion than any of the others. (James Holbert Wilson, Temple Bar: The City Golgatha.: A narrative of the historical occurances of a criminal character associated with the present bar (London, 1853))
  3. D’Artagnan, delighted at the turn things were taking, but not for a moment losing his self-possession, replied, – “Sire, your majesty has no occasion to be alarmed. When I had the good fortune to take his grace, M. Monk was only a general; it is therefore only a general’s ransom that is due to me. But if the general will have the kindness to deliver me his sword, I shall consider myself paid; for there is nothing in the world but the general’s sword which is worth as much as himself.”
    “Odds fish! as my father said,” cried Charles. “That is a gallant proposal, and a gallant man, is he not, duke?”
    “Upon my honor, yes, sire,” and he drew his sword. “Monsieur,” said he to D’Artagnan, “here is what you demand. Many have handled a better blade; but however modest mine may be, I have never surrendered it to any one.” (Alexandre Dumas, The Vicomte de Bragelonne (Translation date?))

A brief trawl of the Go®pus would suggest to the statistically challenged that royal and divine fish do not get on, for while Scarlet Pimpernel-type oaths drop out of sight in the late nineteenth century, the twentieth century sees the emergence–principally in the United States, never kind on kings–of holy fish. This is true both of the fishing industry:

Gulf of Maine cod – once called “God’s fish” because of its plentiful history – would not get bought and traded to an American market on this day

as well as of its Californian evangelical counterpart, the urbanite’s magic mushrooms:

Catching God’s Fish
Devotional for Monday, April 15, 2002 by Tracy Sunshine
Mark 1:17 – “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” (NIV)

God has been giving me this analogy lately because the following situation exists in my life. When Christians go fishing after their families and friends who have rejected them and Jesus time and time again, it becomes unproductive. The Christians get put down so much by them that they can’t even witness to other people effectively, because they are so upset by the reactions of these people. The Christian’s friends and family can sometimes be their worst enemies and be very discouraging. Even the Bible tells us that truth.

But there is good news. Peter went fishing one day, and, letting down his net on one side of his boat, he caught nothing. Then, at the command of Jesus, he let down his net on the other side of his boat, and caught many, many fish. Do you know what happened to the fish on the first side (the family) of the boat? When they saw all the commotion on the other side of the boat, they swam to see what was happening and they got caught too! Do you get the point?
When they see the works God is doing through you, they will follow! Wow, what great news! We don’t even have to do anything to catch these fish. Just go where God tells us to go, and the fish will be just waiting to jump in the boat! And the fish that were tarrying (the family and sceptics) on the other side will come around too!
What a blessing! So, don’t worry about our family or friends if they have rejected us. Just send up our prayers to our heavenly Father, God. He hears them all.
Prayer: Dear heavenly Father, please help us to catch all the fish you want us to catch for you, and to give you the glory, honour, and thanks for leading us to success in being good fishers of men for you. We pray that you will make us useful, and fill us to overflowing with your Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ precious and holy name we pray. Amen.
Tracy Sunshine [email removed]
Sylmar, California, USA

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  1. Non secateur: gardening term for vegetation which you don’t bother to prune because it’s going to disintegrate anyway.

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