hippocamp

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HIPPOCAMPUS [aka HIPPOCAMP]

[noun]

1. the genus for seahorses. “Hippocampus” comes from the Ancient Greek hippos meaning “horse” and kampos meaning “sea monster”. Seahorses are mainly found in shallow tropical and temperate waters throughout the world, and prefer to live in sheltered areas such as seagrass beds, estuaries, coral reefs, or mangroves.

2. a mythological creature shared by Phoenician and Greek mythology, though the name by which it is recognised is purely Greek; it became part of Etruscan mythology. It has typically been depicted as a horse in its forepart with a coiling, scaly, fishlike hindquarter.

3. a major component of the brains of humans and other vertebrates. It belongs to the limbic system and plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory and spatial navigation.

[Susan Seddon-Boulet]

NB: featured again so quickly due to popular request. Click here for previous entry.

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Greek Gold Ring with a Siren, Sphinx and Hippocamp, 6th Century BC

In Greek mythology Sirens were dangerous yet beautiful creatures, portrayed as femmes fatales who lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island.

A sphinx was a female monster with the body of a lion, the breast and head of a woman, eagle’s wings and sometimes a serpent-headed tail. She was sent by the gods to plague the town of Thebes as punishment for some ancient crime. There she preyed on the youths of the land, devouring all those who failed to solve her riddle.

Hippocampoi were the horses of the sea. They were depicted with the head and fore-parts of a horse and the serpentine tail of a fish. The ancients believed they were the adult-form of the fish we call the seahorse. Hippocampoi were the steeds of Nereid nymphs and sea-gods. Poseidon drove a chariot drawn by two or four of the creatures.

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Gold ring with siren, sphinx, and hippocamp. Etruscan, second half of 6th century B.C. J. Paul Getty Museum. 

From the Getty:

The cartouche-shaped ring form was especially popular in Etruria in the later 500s B.C., where immigrant Greek goldsmiths from Ionia introduced it. The choice of motifs and style of decoration on this ring are also found on objects in other media produced by these Ionian immigrant artists.

All Greek and Etruscan metal rings with engraved bezels ultimately derive from Egyptian and Phoenician cartouche rings. The influence is clearest on those rings with a long, straight-sided bezel with rounded ends. Artisans adapted the arrangement of the decoration into three rows, as well as the manufacturing technique of a separately attached bezel, from the Phoenicians.

Greek Silver Shekel from Tyre, Phoenicia c. 425-394 BC

This coin, struck under an uncertain king, shows Melkart holding a bow and reigns while riding a hippocamp with a dolphin swimming in the waves below. The reverse shows an owl in front of a crook and flail.

Melkart or Melqart was the tutelary god of Tyre. Melqart was often titled Ba‘l Sūr  meaning “Lord of Tyre”, and considered to be the ancestor of the Tyrian royal family. In Greek, by interpretatio graeca, he was identified with Heracles and referred to as the Tyrian Herakles. As Tyrian trade and colonization expanded, Melqart became venerated in Phoenician and Punic cultures from Syria to Spain.

Egyptian style Sphinx on a unique Silver Shekel from Byblos (Phoenicia) c. 450-410 BC

Sphinx crouching wearing double-crown of Egypt. On the reverse, a hippocamp and Punic inscription all in an incuse square and dotted frame. Unique and unrecorded.

It has been suggested that the Punic characters on the reverse, equating ‘M’ and ‘G’, could abbreviate ‘King of Byblos’ since Gebal or Gibel was the ancient Phoenician name for the city the Greeks called Byblus. Such an identification seems likely considering the hippocampus was a prominent feature on later silver coins of Byblus and the obverse finds exact parallels to coins found at the site. Even more convincing is the vast body of numismatic and archaeological evidence that testifies to the strong Egyptian influence in Byblus – hence the importance of the sphinx obverse.

Legend provides the city with strong ties to Isis, who at one point is said to have been in service to its king and queen; we are also told that Osiris’ coffin landed at Byblus. Furthermore, the sphinx on this shekel and its related issues is not the standard Greco-Roman version, but is distinctly Egyptian in appearance: it wears the Nemes headcloth, upon which is placed the dual crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, with the bottom crown representing Lower Egypt (the Delta) and the top part representing Upper Egypt. Its right forepaw may be raised above a lotus flower, and its serpent-like tail may represent the snake Agathodaeomon.

Founded more than seven thousand years ago, Byblos is one of the eldest cities in the world that is still inhabited; its influence is due to its trade with the Egypt of the Pharaohs, to whom it supplied Lebanese wood.

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