Hippocampus (mythology)

The hippocampus or hippocamp, also hippokampos (plural: hippocampi or hippocamps; Greek: ἱππόκαμπος, from ἵππος, "horse" and κάμπος, "sea monster"[1]), often called a sea-horse[2] in English, is a mythological creature shared by Phoenician,[3] Etruscan, Pictish, Roman and Greek mythology, though its name has a Greek origin. The hippocampus has typically been depicted as having the upper body of a horse with the lower body of a fish.

Hippocamp and Dolphins Kansas City-City Hall
Winged hippocamp in an Art Deco fountain, Kansas City, Missouri, (1937)


Coins minted at Tyre around the 4th century BC show the patron god Melqart riding on a winged hippocampus and accompanied by dolphins.[3] Coins of the same period from Byblos show a hippocampus diving under a galley.[4][5]

A gold sea-horse was discovered in a hoard from the kingdom of Lydia in Asia minor, dating to the 6th century BC.[6]

Greek and Roman

Roman Baths, Bath - Sea Horse Mosaic
Hippocampus in Roman mosaic in the thermae at Aquae Sulis (Bath)

In the Iliad, Homer describes Poseidon, god of horses, earthquakes, and the sea, driving a chariot drawn by brazen-hoofed horses over the sea's surface,[7] and Apollonius of Rhodes, describes the horse of Poseidon emerging from the sea and galloping across the Libyan sands.[8] This compares to the specifically "two-hoofed" hippocampi of Gaius Valerius Flaccus in his Argonautica: "Orion when grasping his father’s reins heaves the sea with the snorting of his two-hooved horses."[9] In Hellenistic and Roman imagery, however, Poseidon (or Roman Neptune) often drives a sea-chariot drawn by hippocampi. Thus hippocampi sport with this god in both ancient depictions and much more modern ones, such as in the waters of the 18th-century Trevi Fountain in Rome surveyed by Neptune from his niche above.

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 into account the condensation of atmospheric water as rain to replenish the water table, but imagined the waters of the sea oozing back landwards through vast underground caverns and aquifers, rising replenished and freshened in springs.[10]

Piazza di trevi - fontana di trevi hippocampus crop
Tritons and winged hippocampi in the Trevi Fountain, Rome

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.[11] When an earthquake suddenly submerged the city, the temple's bronze Poseidon accompanied by hippocampi continued to snag fishermens' nets.[12] Likewise, the hippocampus was considered an appropriate decoration for mosaics in Roman thermae or public baths, as at Aquae Sulis modern day Bath in Britannia.

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 2nd century AD (Geography of Greece ii.1.7-.8):

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 has been wrought a Sea holding up the young Aphrodite, and on either side are the nymphs called Nereids.


Hippocampi appear with the first Oriental-phase of Etruscan civilization: they remain a theme in Etruscan tomb wall-paintings and reliefs,[13] 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.[14]


The sea-horse also appears in Pictish stone carvings in Scotland. The symbolism of the carving (also known as "Pictish Beast" or "Kelpie") is unknown. Although similar but not identical to Roman sea-horse images, it is unclear whether this depiction originates from images brought over by the Romans, or had a place in earlier Pictish mythology.[15]

Medieval, Renaissance, and Modern

Complete Guide to Heraldry Fig364
The "sea-horse" in medieval heraldry was a legendary creature that was part horse and part fish, not to be confused with the later heraldic hippocampus, which was a natural seahorse.
Hippocampus, Dublin
Hippocampi in Dublin, Ireland.

The mythic hippocampus 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.[16]

The sea-horse is also a common image in Renaissance and post-renaissance art, for example, in the Trevi fountain, dating to 1732.

A winged hippocampus has been used as a symbol for Air France since its establishment in 1933 (inherited from its predecessor Air Orient); it appears today on the engine nacelles of Air France aircraft.

Bronze hippokampoi appear in Dublin, Leinster, Ireland on lampposts next to a statue of Henry Grattan and on Grattan Bridge.

Capricornus and related mythical animals

Closely related to the hippocampus is the "sea goat", represented by Capricorn, a mythical creature with the front half of a goat and the rear half of a fish. 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.[17] Brody describes her thus:[18]

... a semi-nude female figure appears riding on a sea-goat, accompanied by a dolphin and a Triton. This is the goddess Aphrodite herself, shown here not in her distinctive local guise but in a more traditionally Hellenistic style. She is the marine aspect of Aphrodite, known to the Greeks as Aphrodite Pelagia .... She rides on a fantastic marine creature with the body and tail of a fish and the forepart of a goat. This sea-goat moves to the right and turns his head back to look at the goddess. This group also appears on Aphrodisian coins from the 3rd century A.D.

Aside from aigikampoi, the fish-tailed goats representing Capricorn,[17] other fish-tailed animals rarely appeared in Greek art, but are more characteristic of the Etruscans. These include leokampoi (fish-tailed lions), taurokampoi (fish-tailed bulls) or pardalokampoi (fish-tailed leopards).[19]


In 2019, a small moon of Neptune was named Hippocamp, after the creature.[20]

See also



  1. ^ Word origin of Hippocampus at reference.com; compare the nameless monster Campe.
  2. ^ The hyphen distinguishes from the seahorse, a real fish.
  3. ^ a b Israel Antiquities Authority, Yizre'el Valley silver hoard (retrieved Jan 10 2013)
  4. ^ Stater of Byblos with galley | Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
  5. ^ Byblos at NumisBids
  6. ^ Sharon Waxman, Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World, Chapter 6; excerpt in Smithsonian, Nov. 14, 2008 (retrieved Jan 10 2013).
  7. ^ Homer, Iliad xlii. 24, 29;
  8. ^ Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica (iv.1353ff)
  9. ^ Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 2.507.
  10. ^ 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 outlined by the Roman Epicurean Lucretius' De rerum natura (vi.631-38).
  11. ^ Strabo: "The sea was raised by an earthquake and it submerged Helike and also the temple of Poseidon Helikonios..." (Geography 8.7.2).
  12. ^ According to Eratosthenes, noted by Strabo (loc. cit.).
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ Katharine Shepard, The Fish-Tailed Monster in Greek and Etruscan Art, 1940, pp 25ff; 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.
  15. ^ Nigella Hillgarth, Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, in Myth, Legend & Art, January 8, 2010 (retrieved January 10, 2013)
  16. ^ Fox-Davies, Arthur Charles. Complete Guide to Heraldry, 1978.
  17. ^ a b Imhoof-Blümer, Kleinasiatische Müntzen plate IV, no 14, noted in Elderkin 1941:307
  18. ^ Lisa R. Brody, under the direction of Christopher Ratté, "The Iconography and Cult of the Aphrodite of Aphrodisias" (dead link- archive version here), New York University, Institute of Fine Arts, 1999. (google books link)
  19. ^ Ippokampoi at Theoi Project (retrieved Jan. 11, 2013); see also Booson 1986.
  20. ^ Scientists reveal Neptune's tiny new moon, Hippocamp


  • Classical references: Homer, Iliad xlii. 24, 29; Euripides, Andromache 1012; Virgil Georgics iv. 389; Philostratus Imagines i. 8; Statius Thebaid ii. 45 and Achilleid 1.25.
  • PD-icon.svg This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSmith, William, ed. (1870). "article name needed. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Murray.

External links


Capricornus is one of the constellations of the zodiac. Its name is Latin for "horned goat" or "goat horn" or "having horns like a goat's", and it is commonly represented in the form of a sea-goat: a mythical creature that is half goat, half fish. Its symbol is (Unicode ♑).

Capricornus is one of the 88 modern constellations, and was also one of the 48 constellations listed by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy. Under its modern boundaries it is bordered by Aquila, Sagittarius, Microscopium, Piscis Austrinus, and Aquarius. The constellation is located in an area of sky called the Sea or the Water, consisting of many water-related constellations such as Aquarius, Pisces and Eridanus. It is the smallest constellation in the zodiac.

Hippocampus (disambiguation)

Hippocampus may refer to:

Hippocampus, an anatomical subdivision of the brain, so named for its physical resemblance to a seahorse (genus Hippocampus).

Hippocampus (Dungeons & Dragons), a type of magical beast

Hippocampus (genus), the seahorse genus

Hippocampus (journal)

Hippocampus (mythology) or hippocamp, a mythological sea-horse

Hippo Campus, an American indie rock band


In late poetical Greek mythology, ichthyocentaurs (Greek: Ιχθυοκένταυρος, plural: Ιχθυοκένταυροι), were a race of centaurine sea gods with the upper body of a human, the lower front of a horse, the tail of a fish, and lobster-claw horns on their heads. The best-known members of this race were Aphros and Bythos, two half-brothers of the wise centaur Chiron and the sons of the Titan Cronus and Nymph Philyra. Though little remembered, they were set in the sky as the astronomical constellation Pisces.

The twin ichthyocentaurs appear together in several works of art. A first- or second-century mosaic from Zeugma, Commagene, (Z10.1), depicting the birth of Aphrodite, is inscribed with the names of Bythos ("Sea-Depths" or "Depth of Profundity") and Aphros ("Sea-Foam"), who are lifting the goddess' cockle-shell out of the sea. Aphros was perhaps regarded as her foster-father, given their similarity in names.

The sea-centaurs were probably derived from the divine fish of Syrian mythology (possibly identified with Dagon) that carried Astarte ashore following her watery birth.


Kelpie, or water kelpie, is the Scots name given to a shape-shifting water spirit inhabiting the lochs and pools of Scotland. It has usually been described as appearing as a horse, but is able to adopt human form. Some accounts state that the kelpie retains its hooves when appearing as a human, leading to its association with the Christian idea of Satan as alluded to by Robert Burns in his 1786 poem "Address to the Devil".

Almost every sizeable body of water in Scotland has an associated kelpie story, but the most extensively reported is that of Loch Ness. Parallels to the general Germanic neck or nixie and the Scandinavian bäckahäst have been observed. More widely, the wihwin of Central America and the Australian bunyip have been seen as counterparts. The origin of the belief in malevolent water horses has been proposed as originating in human sacrifices once made to appease gods associated with water, but narratives about the kelpie also served a practical purpose in keeping children away from dangerous stretches of water, and warning young women to be wary of handsome strangers.

Kelpies have been portrayed in their various forms in art and literature, including recently as two 30-metre (98 ft) high steel sculptures in Falkirk, The Kelpies, completed in October 2013.


Mamlambo is a deity in South African and Zulu mythology, the "goddess of rivers", described as a large snake-like creature.The myth of the Mamlambo became of interest to cryptozoologists in 1997, when South African newspapers (including Johannesburg's The Star and Cape Town's Cape Argus) reported on sightings of a "giant reptile" monster in the Mzintlava River near Mount Ayliff in South Africa. Villagers in the area claimed that the creature was 20 meters (67 feet) long, had the head of a horse, the lower body of a fish, short legs, and the neck of a snake, and that it shined with a green light at night. During the period between January and April 1997, as many as nine deaths had been attributed to the Mamlambo. According to police, the victims had been in the water a while and had the soft parts of their heads and neck eaten by crabs; local villagers, on the other hand, claimed that these mutilations had been caused by the Mamlambo's habit of eating faces and brains. For this reason, the Mamlambo is often referred to as "the Brain Sucker".

Regatta of the Historical Marine Republics

The Regatta of the Historical Maritime Republics (or Palio of the Historical Maritime Republics) is a sporting event of historical re-enactment, established in 1955 with the aim of recalling the rivalry of the most famous Italian maritime republics: those of Amalfi, Pisa, Genoa and Venice, during which four rowing crews representing each of the republics compete against each other. This event, held under the patronage of the President of the Italian Republic, takes place every year on a day between the end of May and the beginning of July, and is hosted in rotation between these cities. The regatta is preceded by a historical procession, during which parade through the streets of the city organizing some figures that play the role of ancient characters that characterized each republic.



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