Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Creature of the Month - Hippocampus - the Sea Horse by Oberon Zell-Ravenheart

It is an axiom in the medieval bestiary, the Physiologus, that the surface of the water is like Alice’s looking glass, with the world beneath being a kind of distorted reflection of the one above. Therefore it was believed that all creatures of the land had their aquatic counterparts in the sea, often distinguished by little more than fins instead of legs. Thus our marine menagerie is enriched by such wonders as Mermaids (meaning “Sea-maids”), Sea-Lions, Sea-Unicorns (Narwhals), Sea-Dogs (dogfish sharks), Sea-Cats (catfish), Sea-Bats, Sea-Anemones, Sea-Cucumbers, Sea-Hares, Sea-Goats (Capricorn), Angel-Fish, Devil-Fish, Ichthyocentaurs (“Fish-Centaurs”), Rooster-Fish, Sea-Elephants, Sea-Serpents—and Sea-Horses.

Nearly all of these creatures actually exist, though our naturalistic modern depictions may seem sadly prosaic compared to their fabulous medieval antecedents. Remarkably, however, apart from a matter of scale, the zoological seahorse more exactly resembles its mythical counterpart than any other fabled sea-monster.

The Sea-Horse

The mythical Sea-Horse or Hippocampus (“horselike sea-monster”; from Greek hippos, meaning “horse,” and kampos, meaning “sea-monster”) is an equine aquatic beast in classical Greco-Roman mythology, with the head and forelegs of a horse and the body and tail of a fanciful fish. Its equine forefeet terminate in flippers rather than hooves. It is also known as the Hydrippus ( “water-horse”) or Horse-Eel, and was a favorite art subject in Greco-Roman times, especially in Roman baths, where it is frequently found depicted in mosaic. In Roman lore, the Hippocampus was said to be the fastest creature in the ocean. It is thus the favorite steed of Poseidon (Roman Neptune), King of the Sea, and a team of them draw his chariot.

These beautiful white horses of the sea are a perfect metaphor for the plunging waves have given rise to many stories involving their exploits. They have been known to save drowning sailors, to pull ships through difficult passages and to do battle with various dread monsters of the deeps. In the ancient Phoenician and Etruscan fashion, they are sometimes depicted with wings like the statues at the famous Trevi Fountain in Rome. Poseidon’s favorite Hippocampoi was a stallion named Skylla and a mare named Sthenios.

Among the Seri Indians of northwestern Mexico, there is a legend of a man who fled into the sea to escape his pursuers, tucking his sandals into the back of his shirt above his belt. Once in the water he was transformed into a seahorse, thus explaining the origin of that animal.                    

The Sea-Horse appears in European heraldry as the Hippocampus, with webbed feet in place of hooves, and a long dorsal fin down its back. A Hippocampus is the right-hand supporter of the Isle of Wight arms, the supporters (on either side) of the crest of the city of Newcastle upon Tyne, and also the arms of the University of Newcastle, Australia.

The Havhest (“sea-horse”) is a gigantic Sea-Serpent of Scandinavian folklore, with a horselike head and a double-lobed tail like that of a fish. It has glittering yellow eyes, a long mane down its back, and forelimbs like a seal’s. Its double row of fangs may grow to six feet long. On top of all this, it also breathes fire! This sinker of ships has only been seen a few times since the 19th century.

Hippocampus is now the scientific name given to the curious little fish commonly known as the seahorse. Looking very much like the mythic beast, the largest species is only 14 inches long. This name has also been given to a part of the brain that is shaped somewhat like a seahorse. Because the cerebral hippocampus is resistant to damage from epileptic seizures, the National Society for Epilepsy chose the seahorse for its mascot. They named it Cesar, after the Roman emperor, Julius Caesar, who was believed to have had epilepsy.

The Rosmarine

Although the name “seahorse” has been given to little fishes that look remarkably similar to the mythic Hippocampus, the original Sea-Horse of legend was undoubtedly a walrus.

Although it may seem odd to us that anyone could have equated the ungainly walrus with the graceful horse, keep in mind that hippopotamus means “river horse” in Greek. Ancient peoples did not have as wide an acquaintance with large, four-footed animals as we do, so their basis for descriptive comparisons was limited. If you are encountering a large beast for the first time and trying to describe it to someone else, you have to do so in terms the other will understand. Now, if I’d been in that position, I think I’d have likened the hippo to a giant pig—which would have been more zoologically correct. But perhaps horses were more familiar to whoever assigned that name to the hippopotamus, and so we’ve all been stuck with it ever since.

It is a similar situation with the Sea-Horse, Merhorse, or Morse. In British and Scandinavian folklore, this is described as a giant fish having the head, mane, and foreparts of a horse, and cloven hooves. Equally at home on land or sea, it was often seen basking on ice floes. And early English explorers of northern Canada reported a beast they called Equus Bipes (Latin, “two-footed horse”). They described it much as they would a Hippocampus: with the body and great, fanlike tail of a monstrous fish and the foreparts of a horse. These creatures were certainly walruses.

The Rosmarine (also called Rosmarus or Rosmer; all meaning “horse of the sea”) was a fantastical depiction of the walrus, shown with tusks pointing upward rather than downward as they are in reality. In Norwegian waters the same giant sea-monster was called Roshwalr (“horse-whale”), Ruszor, or Cetus Dentatus (“toothed whale”), and described as having a bulky, smooth body like a whale’s and the head of a horse. A severed head was sent to Pope Leo X in 1520; it was drawn at the time and later described by Paré. It has been clearly identified as a walrus, which has been given the scientific name of Odobenus rosmarus

Oberon Zell has accomplished many things in his long and colorful career. A modern Renaissance man, Oberon is a transpersonal psychologist, metaphysician, naturalist, theologian, shaman, author, artist, sculptor, lecturer, teacher, and ordained Priest of the Earth-Mother, Gaia. Those who know him well consider him to be a true Wizard in the traditional sense. He is also an initiate in the Egyptian Church of the Eternal Source, a Priest in the Fellowship of Isis, and an initiate in several different Traditions of Witchcraft. He holds academic degrees in sociology, anthropology, clinical psychology, teaching, and theology. He was most recently featured as a guest on Coast to Coast with George Noory. His books include A Wizard's BestiaryGrimoire for the Apprentice Wizard, Companion for the Apprentice Wizard, Creating Circles & Ceremonies, and Green Egg Omelette.


  1. I have know Tim 'Oberon' Zell since I was 15yrs old. He is just a fun guy to be around. All the hoopla makes him seem like he belongs at 'Hogwarts'. He is just a charming man....I love you Tim.

    1. Wow--a secret admirer! Well, thanks! Whoever you are! BB-OZ

    2. i love greek mythology and mythical creatures there for i love your blog i hope you succeed ;)

  2. I do not see the connection between the hippocampus and the walrus at all. I see more of a connection between the hippocampus and the hippopotamus, horse-like creatures that swim in the waters. I think the hippocampus and hippopotamus are symbolic antitheses, though the hippopotamus is closer to the crocodile and lion in Egyptian myth, and similar creatures to the hippocampus are the kelpie (generally malicious, also a horse-like swimming creature), the sea lion (not the scientific sea lion), and Capricorn (the sea goat).

    1. Certainly I would have to agree that the walrus and the hippopotamus look more like each other than either looks like a horse! But the root "hippo" in both hippopotamus and hippocampus does mean "horse" in Greek. There is, however, no Hippocampus in Egyptian mythology. And plenty of mariner's maps show horse-headed sea monsters in the Arctic regions, where the Norse word wal-rus literally means "horse of the sea."

      However the Kelpie, despite its equine associations, is not marine, but a Lake Monster--the subject of a future column! Meanwhile, you can read all about these critters in my book, A Wizard's Bestiary.

    2. Thank you for the response and the clarification, I am going to get a copy of your book and read it.

      I figured since the hippopotamus resembles a horse, and the hippocampus and hippopotamus are both symbolically water horses that their symbolic significances are the same, but as you said, since the hippopotamus resides in Egyptian myth, and the hippocampus in contrast relates to Roman/Greek myth that the only thing they seem to have in common are their names.

      The hippopotamus is horse-like, but it is closer in symbolic significance to the crocodile/alligator and the lion. I thought the lion and the hippopotamus were symbolic antitheses, but I think the tiger is the antithesis of the lion. I do not know about the hippopotamus, but perhaps if I read more symbolism books I will get a better perception of my answer. Thanks again for the response, and I will try to get a hold of a copy of your book.

    3. Well, as I said above, equating either a walrus or a hippopotamus with a horse seems odd to me, too. But that's the etymology of their names!

    4. I have seen the hippocampus I think it is a large Conger Ell

  3. I was looking at "the Bestiary of Christ" by Louis Charbonneau-Lassay, and I found a creature called the Pistrix, malevolent instead of benevolent like the Hippocampus. The Pistrix is basically the same, except dragon headed instead of horse headed. It is noted as the same creature as Cetus the Whale, the whale Poseidon released to eat Andromeda, the princess of Ethopia.

    I was wondering, does your book have any information on the Pistrix? I cannot find much other info on the internet about it.

    And, do you mention the Sea Lion in it? In "the Bestiary of Christ", there is a creature called the Sea Lion. In its heraldic figure, it is somewhat similar to the Manticore, except it has no stingers, and its body is scaly.

    1. Thank you for this. The Pistrix is new to me; something I've never heard of before. If you find out more about it, please let me know!

      The closest critter I know to this is the Piranu--an Argentinian water-monster in the form of a great black fish with the head of a horse and large eyes. It lives in deep rivers and overturns boats that intrude upon its territory.

      There is also a malevolent seahorse called the Tangie (Danish, "seaweed") said to inhabit Britain's Sheeetland and Orkney Islands. It resembles a scruffy pony with a long shaggy mane of sea-wrack. It terrorizes lone travelers along the lochs at night--especially young women, whom it abducts and devours.

      And on the Isle of Man, fishermen fear a horse-headed sea monster they call Yn Beisht Kione ("the beast with the black head").

      Other malevolenty "seahorses" I know of include the Scandinavian Havhest and the Wihwin of Honduras--both vicious beasts with huge fangs.

      But I've never heard of the Pistrix.

      And yes, I've included the Heraldic Sea-Lion in my Bestiary.

    2. I found a book, "Le Bestiaire Du Christ: volume 1", re-written in English as "the Bestiary of Christ." Unfortunately, I could not find one to buy, but that is (not) the same version of "the Bestiary of Christ", which I own, it is an extended version (which I am hoping to get someday), which includes other beasts, such as the hippocampus and pistrix, the worm, the squid, the partridge and the quail, the hoopoe, the cuckoo, and more. Unfortunately, it does not include the elephant or hippopotamus. If you can find a copy of this book, let me know, so I can buy a copy as well, and I hope this can help you understand more about the pistrix. Sadly, the only current information I know about it is the information that I already gave you.

  4. I happened to stumble across the book, "The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures", by John and Caitlin Matthews. It has some water horses that I have not even heard of, one being the Sabgarifya, it is the Egyptian form of a Hippocampus. It has about six or seven others. I still need to check out your book, but check this one out too, it is a very interesting read, and it is good for reading more about water horses, as well as tons of other mystical creatures in general. (Note though, the Sabgarifya is a very rare creature, but there are one or two sites available on the internet to gain knowledge about it)

  5. Hoωԁy! I could have sworn I've beеn to this sіte before but aftеr checking thгough ѕome of the post
    I reаlizеd іt'ѕ neω to me.

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  6. Hi Tim, trying to trace the origin of the insignia of my sports club in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The club club was founded by a group of British expats in 1898, they used a 'winged' depiction of the Hydrippus. The wings are quite large. I am unable to find this creature's origin. Any ideas sir?

  7. I would have to see the image you are referring to in order to comment on it.


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