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Seahorses in Myth, Legend & Art

The Lydian seahorse

The Lydian seahorse

Written by Dr. Nigella Hillgarth, Birch Aquarium at Scripps executive director

I remember being spellbound when I saw my first seahorse as a child. It seemed as exotic and remote as the seahorses of myth and legend and equally enthralling. Ever since, these extraordinary fish, and their relatives, have fascinated me. Seahorses have captured the imagination of humans for thousands of years and have a powerful presence in myth and legend.

First depictions

Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, known as Neptune to the Romans, traveled in a chariot drawn by fierce seahorses with heads of a horse and tails of a fish. For more than 2,000 years, sculptures, drawings, paintings, and mosaics have depicted Poseidon’s seahorses with glorious imagination.

In Ancient Turkey around the 7th century B.C., a master craftsman from the Lydian culture made a beautiful gold broach that was placed in a tomb and not discovered again until the 1960s. It is a beautiful, classic representation of a winged seahorse. You can read details of the dramatic history of the broach, as well as other seahorse myths, in Helen Scales’ wonderful book, “Poseidon’s Steed,” on sale in the Birch Aquarium Book & Gift Shop.

Pictish sandstone carving from the Aberlemno churchyard.

Seahorse mosaic in the famous Roman baths.

The Romans and Picts

To the left is an image of a beautiful seahorse mosaic found in the famous Roman baths in Bath, England, from about 2,000 years ago. A few centuries after its creation, the Picts, a confederation of tribes in Scotland, carved beautiful, mythical seahorses in sandstone. Some of these sculptures remain intact, although the history of the Picts is still shrouded in mystery.

It is possible they saw Roman depictions of seahorses, or they may have actually seen real ones. Some of the sculptures are similar to the Greek and Roman depictions with horses’ heads, forelimbs and wings, and long, thick scaly tails. Others are much more seahorse-like with curly tails, upturned snouts, and no limbs.

Ornamental fillet by Daniel Hofper

Seahorses in etching

A few hundred years later, in the late 15th century, Daniel Hofper from Germany was probably the first person to use etching in printmaking. He was trained to engrave armor in the manor of the age with delicate and intricate designs, and he realized that he could transfer this technique to metal plates that were used to produce etchings for early prints.  Among his designs is a depiction of a classical seahorse (to the right). The fluidity and motion in this ornamental fillet is delightful.

Seahorse and mermaid by Frederick Stuart Church

Accuracy in images

By the 19th century, illustrations of seahorses were common and considerably more accurate as the public became better aware of real seahorses. Frederick Stuart Church, a 19th century American painter and illustrator, created an etching of a mermaid atop a seahorse  that is a good example of what people of that time thought about seahorses.

As seawater aquariums were developed, more seahorses could be kept and studied as objects of fascination – animals with heads like horses and tails like monkeys were considered strange, indeed! So it’s not surprising that a mythical mermaid is depicted riding this wonderful beast in a mixture of biology and myth.

Seahorse relatives such as seadragons, pipefish, and pipehorses have almost certainly played their part in the development of seahorse myths. Rock paintings found in parts of Australia depict sea snakes resembling these seahorse relatives. These rainbow serpents, as they were called, have appendages much like those of pipehorses and seadragons found off the western coast of Australia.

Weedy Seadragon by Richard Lydekker

To the right is a fascinating 19th century print by Richard Lydekker depicting a weedy seadragon in its natural habitat. The specimen appears almost dried; perhaps it was by the time the artist drew it. This print is from “The Royal Natural History of 1896” and shows deliberate care to be scientifically correct.  It is beautifully drawn and the composition with the seaweed on the left complements the seadragon perfectly.

Seahorses today

Today, seahorse images are used extensively in art and decoration. Next time you catch a glimpse of a seahorse in a picture or alive at Birch Aquarium at Scripps, remember the depth of legend and art that surround these fascinating fish.

Is there a seahorse picture or artwork that you absolutely love? Leave us a comment and let us know about it! To see more than a dozen species of living seahorses, visit our new exhibit, There’s Something About Seahorses.

7 comments to Seahorses in Myth, Legend & Art

  • I’ve always been fascinated by seahorses too but had no idea they’d been that popular in artwork throughout the ages. Thanks so much for all your research!

  • The number of young released by the male seahorse averages 100-200 for most species, but may be as low as 5 for the smaller species, or as high as 1500, with pregnancy lasting from two to four weeks, depending on the species.

  • Seahorses have always fascinated me.
    The way it moves and etc is just so nice.
    It is unlike any other creature in the sea.

  • I found your site by accident, but was really intrigued when I saw it. Your opening line, “I remember being spellbound when I saw my first seahorse as a child.” brought back childhood memories for me. I too was fascinated by seahorses and still am – I just needed a reminder!

    I even wrote a report on them when I was in grade school. I remember seeing an ad to buy a kit to watch them hatch. Luckily my mother thought better and didn’t let me get one. I don’t think that would have been fair to the seahorses.

    They really are magical creatures, it is no wonder they have been included in artwork throughout the ages.

  • I guess seahorses do have a strange ‘hybrid’ quality as if two different creatures had been put together – you can see how they would have had a mythological quality to people who believed in hybrid and fantastical creatures and monsters

  • FearlessJoy

    This article/story was helpful in a school project in which i (who am doing seahorses) had to get a myth or legend about a seahorse. Thank You so much!

  • ZEKE

    i loooooooooooooooooove seahorses!!!!!!!!!!

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