The hippocamp or hippocampus, often called a sea-horse in English, is a mythological creature shared by Phoenician and Greek mythology.
They were depicted as hybrid creatures with the head and fore-parts of a horse and the serpentine tail of a fish. In mosaic art they were often covered with green scales and had fish-fin manes and appendages. The ancients believed they were the adult-form of the fish we call the "sea-horse".
The horse appears in the Homeric poems as the symbol of Poseidon, whose chariot was drawn over the surface of the sea by swift horses. The later poets and artists conceived and represented the horses of Poseidon and other marine divinities as a combination of a horse and a fish. (Hom. Il. xlii. 24, 29; Eurip. Androm. 1012; Virg. Georg. iv. 389; Philostr. Imag . i. 8; Stat. Theb. ii. 45.). In Hellenistic and Roman imagery, Poseidon (or Roman Neptune) as well as nereids often drives a sea-chariot drawn by hippocamps.
Other fish-tailed land animals which appear in Greek and Etruscan art include the "Leokampos" (fish-tailed lion), "Taurokampos" (fish-tailed bull), "Pardalokampos" (fish-tailed leopard), and "Aigikampos" (fish-tailed goat). The last was the form of the constellation Capricorn. Fabulous creatures of this type were also believed to inhabit the Indian Ocean.
- Hippocamps appear with the first Orientalizing 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.
- Later 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).
- 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 we call a seahorse, and the terms seahorse and sea-horse refer to the mythological creature.
In modern fantasy, this creature is a part of various universes, including the stories of Harry Potter and the many fictional worlds of Dungeons & Dragons. In both these examples, the Latin hippocampus is the form of the name which is used.
- 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.
- William Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology
- Theoi.com: Hippocamps Assembles the classical references.
- A gold fibula, part of the "Lydian treasures" found in the former Lydian kingdom, made in the second half of the sixth century BCE.