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Hippocampus drawn from a fresco in Pompeii.
Croesus' Treasure From Lydia

The hippocamp or hippocampus (plural: hippocampi; Greek: ἱπποκαμπος, from ἵππος, "horse" and κάμπος , "monster"[1]), often called a sea-horse[2] in English, is a mythological creature shared by Phoenician[3] and Greek mythology, though the name by which it is recognised is purely Greek; it became part of Etruscan mythology. It has typically been depicted as a horse in its forepart with a coiling, scaly, fishlike hindquarter.



Hippocamp in Roman mosaic in the thermae at Aquae Sulis (Bath).

Homer described Poseidon, who was god of horses (Poseidon Hippios) as well as of the sea, drawn by "brazen-hoofed" horses over the sea's surface, and Apollonius of Rhodes, being consciously archaic in Argonautica (iv.1353ff), describes the horse of Poseidon emerging from the sea and galloping away across the Libyan sands.[4] In Hellenistic and Roman imagery, however, Poseidon (or Roman Neptune) often drives a sea-chariot drawn by hippocampi. Thus hippocamps sport with this god in both ancient depictions and much more modern ones, such as in the waters of the eighteenth-century Trevi Fountain in Rome surveyed by Neptune from his niche above. (illustration, left below)

Tritons and winged hippocampi in the Trevi Fountain, Rome

The appearance of hippocampi in both freshwater and saltwater is counter-intuitive to a modern audience, though not to an ancient one. The Greek picture of the natural hydrological cycle did not take account of the condensation of atmospheric water as rain to replenish the water table, but imagined the refreshening of the waters of the sea oozing back landwards through vast underground caverns and aquifers, rising replenished and freshened in springs.[5]

Thus it was natural for a temple at Helike in the coastal plain of Achaea to be dedicated to Poseidon Helikonios, (the Poseidon of Helicon), the sacred spring of Boeotian Helikon. [6] When an earthquake suddenly submerged the city, the temple's bronze Poseidon accompanied by hippocampi continued to snag fishermens' nets.[7]

Likewise, the hippocamp was considered an appropriate decoration for mosaics in Roman thermae or public baths, as at Aquae Sulis modern day Bath in Britannia (illustration, below).

A sea-lion mosaic in the Baths of Neptune, Ostia Antica.

Poseidon's horses, which were included in the elaborate sculptural program of gilt-bronze and ivory, added by a Roman client to the temple of Poseidon at Corinth, are likely to have been hippocampi; the Romanised Greek Pausanias described the rich ensemble in the later second century AD (Geography of Greece ii.1.7-.8):

"Within the sanctuary of the god stand on the one side portrait statues of athletes who have won victories at the Isthmian games, on the other side pine trees growing in a row, the greater number of them rising up straight. On the temple, which is not very large, stand bronze Tritons. In the fore-temple are images, two of Poseidon, a third of Amphitrite, and a Sea, which also is of bronze. The offerings inside were dedicated in our time by Herodes Atticus, four horses, gilded except for the hoofs, which are of ivory, and two gold Tritons beside the horses, with the parts below the waist of ivory. On the car stand Amphitrite and Poseidon, and there is the boy Palaemon upright upon a dolphin. These too are made of ivory and gold. On the middle of the base on which the car is has been wrought a Sea holding up the young Aphrodite, and on either side are the nymphs called Nereids.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Arion on a Sea Horse (1855).

Hippocamps appear with the first Orientalising phase of Etruscan civilization: they remain a theme in Etruscan tomb wall-paintings and reliefs, where they are sometimes provided with wings, as they are in the Trevi fountain. Katharine Shepard found in the theme an Etruscan belief in a sea-voyage to the other world[8]

Aside from aigikampoi, the fish-tailed goats representing Capricorn or Aegeus ("goat-man")[9] other fish-tailed animals rarely appearing in Greek art but more characteristic of the Etruscans included leokampoi (fish-tailed lions), taurokampoi (fish-tailed bulls) or pardalokampoi (fish-tailed leopards).[10]

The mythic hippocamp has been used as a heraldic charge, particularly since the Renaissance, most often in the armorial bearings of people and places with maritime associations. However, in a blazon, the terms hippocamp and hippocampus now refer to the real animal called a seahorse, and the terms seahorse and sea-horse refer to the mythological creature. The above-mentioned fish hybrids are seen less frequently.[11]

Hippocamp Art Deco fountain, Kansas City, Missouri, (1937).


  1. ^ Compare the nameless monster Kampe
  2. ^ The hyphen distinguishes from the seahorse, a real fish.
  3. ^ Coins minted at Tyre show the patron god Melqart riding on a winged hippocamp: see the fourth century BC Yizre'el Valley silver hoard.
  4. ^ Compare the specifically "two-hoofed" hippocampi of Valerius Flaccus in his Argonautica: "Orion when grasping his father’s reins he heaves the sea with the snorting of his two-hooved horses." (Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 2.507).
  5. ^ This made credible the mythic undersea passage of the fountain nymph Arethusa from Greece to Sicily. The summary given of the ancients' view of the hydrological cycle is taken from the Roman Epicurean Lucretius' De rerum natura (vi.631-38).
  6. ^ Strabo: "The sea was raised by an earthquake and it submerged Helike and also the temple of Poseidon Helikonios..." (Geography 8.7.2).
  7. ^ According to Eratosthenes, noted by Strabo (loc. cit.).
  8. ^ Her self-published thesis The Fish-Tailed Monster in Greek and Etruscan Art, 1940, pp 25ff discusses hippocamps; the thesis was, exceptionally, reviewed (by G.W. Elderkin) in American Journal of Archaeology 45.2 (April 1941), pp. 307-308: available on-line through JSTOR. Etruscan sea creatures, including a range of hippocampi, are set in cultural context and ordered by typology in Monika Boosen, Etruskische Meeresmischwesen: Untersuchungen zur Typologie u. Bedeutung (Archaeologica 59) (Rome:Bretschneider) 1986.
  9. ^ Canonical figures, most of which were not themselves cult images, and coins of the Carian goddess associated with Aphrodite as the Aphrodite of Aphrodisias through interpretatio graeca, show the goddess riding on a sea-goat. Imhoof-Blümer, Kleinasiatische Müntzen plate IV, no 14, noted in Elderkin 1941:3o7; Lisa R. Brody, under the direction of Christopher Ratté, "The Iconography and Cult of the Aphrodite of Aphrodisias"
  10. ^ Ippokampoi at Theoi Project; see also Booson 1986.
  11. ^ Fox-Davies, Arthur Charles. Complete Guide to Heraldry, 1978 edition.


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