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Goldfish: The Untold Story

The metal known as gold takes its name from the goldfish (Carassius auratus aurum) and for centuries live goldfish were the only currency used by human beings. In this history lies the secret power of goldfish burial ceremonies, A. A. Milne’s pivotal role in the popularity of hula, and insight into the instinctive yearning dogs have to eat things that make them puke.

The ancient Egyptians were the first to trade live goldfish for goods and services. A 3,000-year-old hieroglyph found near Giza has been translated as, “I’ll give six goldfish to anyone who rubs my feet.” This hieroglyph points out two important facts about life at the time: goldfish were highly prized and a skilled foot masseuse could easily afford a second camel.

Pharaohs were buried in water-filled sarcophagi in which dozens of live goldfish swam. This led to the expression, “He swims with the fishes,” and the lesser known, “It smells like Tutankhamun in here!”

In Egypt, dead goldfish were ceremoniously deposited in the river Nile in the hopes that the sacred waters would restore their life. Garbage was dumped in the river in the hopes that it would float downstream and become someone else’s problem.

Armenian crusaders brought the ritual of depositing dead goldfish into bodies of water to England in the 14h Century, inspiring Chaucer’s immortal poem:

            Flushe not awaye my love
            But let her floate
            She is of purest golde
            Let’s put her in the moate!

It was while studying Chaucer at Trinity College that A. A. Milne first read this poem and decided to make the study of ritual goldfish burial his life’s work – that and finding himself a proper first name.

In his first draft of Winnie-the-Pooh: Bear of Gold, Milne portrayed Pooh as a devout practitioner of hula, a dance intended by its Polynesian creators to draw goldfish from the water with alluring sound and movement. However, Milne’s editor rejected the manuscript arguing,

“little boys mayn’t be apt to buy a book about a bear that dances salaciously in a grass skirt and coconut shell bra and talks to fish!” He then yelled at Milne to “stop playing that damned ukulele!” Tragically, this incident caused Milne a severe depression during which he inadvertently wrote his autobiography in the third person.

Modern toiletcentric goldfish burials involve elements taken from the Egyptian as well as other traditions. The presence of “Gods in a ring” about the lip of the toilet bowl – figures such as Pooh and other deity – represents the Chinese ideal of companions for the dead, and stands as the only time it is okay to leave the lid up.

In homage to the importance afforded dogs by ancient Egyptians, canines are often featured in modern goldfish burials.  A movement in 1980s Greece to include goldfish among the mourners at dog funerals never caught on. The dog in Egypt was seen as the “bearer of the soul” who “carried the dead to their ancestors,” whereas modern society tends to view a dog as the “one who ruins the carpet.”

Nevertheless, dogs are often trained to remove a single mourner at a goldfish burial. This is to symbolize loss and to satisfy the dog’s need to chew and swallow things that will make it sick and lead to enormous vet bills.


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