The Mythical Hippocampus
In Phoenecian and Greek mythology the hippocamp is a sea-horse in the literal sense of the word, with the tail of a fish (or sometimes a dragon) and head and forequarters of a horse (see classical descriptions here).
"Hippo" means horse and "kampus" refers to a monster that lives in the sea. The hippocamp has several less well known fish tales equivalents including the leocampus (sea-lion), taurocampus (sea-bull) aigicampus (sea-goat) and pardalocampus (sea-leopard).
(p.s. The part of the brain called the hippocampus takes its name from the normal seahorse not the mythical creature--based in its shape. the use of the alternative 'hippocamp'--see wikipedia--can help disambiguate references).
In art the hippocamp is most often depicted pulling the chariot of Poseidon/Neptune--god of the sea. This is logical because Poseidon was also acknowledged as the god of horses. he is sometime shown as being accompanied by his wife Amphitrite/Salacia. The hippocamp was also sometimes being ridden by a sea nymph (called 'trites' or 'nerieds')
When Poseidon came to the rescue he was normally described as being catried by hippocampuses. Thus they appear in classic tales such as the Argonautica
Also known as:
- Heraldic Sea-Horse, Hippocampus, Hydrippus, Merhorse.
~4 BC Flying Hippocamp Pendant
Perhaps the most famous hippocamp-shaped artifact is this gold and glass necklace pendant, which depicts a hippocamp with wings. It is a little hard to image the native environment of an equid that is part fish and part bird. This piece is pictured from the collection of the Usak Museum in Turkey.
This hippocamp pendant is part of the Lydian treaure that was looted from a site in Turkey, aquired by the Metropolitan Museum, won back by the Turkish government via the courts, and again stolen and replaced by a duplicate which remains on display to this day.
It is only one of many losses to theft from the many under-funded and poorly protected Turkish museum.
~3 (AD) Cupid and Hippocampus
In the bottom of this mosaic cupid is depicted with a hippocampus. In the group of figures above the on to the right is Poseidon (a.k.a. Neptune) the god the the sea. The hippocamp drew Poseidon's chariot. Ths mosaci is housed in the Sousse Museum in Tunisia along with other mosiacs from the same period, some of which also depict hippocampi.
The hippocamp appears in a number of ancient bestiaries including:
- De Natura Rerum (Things of Nature) by Saint Albertus Magnus (13thc)
As well as their modern equivalents such as Theoi.
In decorative art:
The hippocampus is a popular variant on the more typical carousel horse. They appear frequently in fountain sculpture.
1950s Jarra "Sea Horse" TV Lamp
Jarra Ceramics made this attractive hippocamp TV lamp in several different colors. If I ever saw one of these on sale I would snap it up. They seem to be very rare.
Seahorses of this type appear in other ceramic produces such as this Belleek flower vase.
Halshippus olai-magni (1968)
Bernard Heuvelmans described seven types of sea serpent including the Halshippus olai-magni which had a long neck and head like a horse. Some cryptozoologists still believe they may exist.
Hasbro's 'My Little Pony' toys include hippocampi, vintage examples are called "sea ponies" and current models are "mermaid ponies". The hippocampus also appears in the Harry Potter books.
In contemporary art and crafts the hippocamp is derived from a range of sea creature rather than just a generic fishy tale. Hippocamps are photo-shopped from orcas, and modeled from seals. Not to mention hybrids that also includes humans, zebras and other animals. These days, pretty much anything goes.
The hippocamp is the symbol of the Royal Tournament and the city of Dublin.
Learn more at:
More by this Author
Is there any such thing as unicorns? Not really. But a few of these come very close!
Two-tailed mermaids, sirens and melusines.
What is cuter than a furry animal? A furry animal with spots! Here are some unusual spotted animals from species that don't usually have those markings.