It is an axiom in the medieval bestiary, the Physiologus, that the surface of the water is like
’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. Alice
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 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
, 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. Mexico
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.
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
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. Canada
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.
A Wizard's Bestiary, Grimoire for the Apprentice Wizard, Companion for the Apprentice Wizard, Creating Circles & Ceremonies, and Green Egg Omelette.