Friday, October 5, 2012

A Great Horse Came Bounding out of the Sea

The third in my "Beasts in Books" series is the hippocampus, the Greek hybrid seahorse, with forequarters of a horse and hindquarters of a fish. The word derives from the Greek "hippos" (horse) and "kampos" (sea monster); its fantastical nature is therefore found in his very name.  Pausanius says they are part whale, Philostratus says that they are akin to dolphins, while Homer claims they were golden-hooved. 

What would a hippocampus look like? My first inclination was to make him with a fine coat from head to tail, like a seal.  I could imagine them rolling and frolicking in the surf.  But then again, I was imagining a cold water animal.  The waters of the Aegean would not befit such a suit of hair.  Would he be slick, like a dolphin? But then, we would lose his horse-like nature.  I decided to make him a true mythological hybrid, with a fish's scales and tail, but muscular, so he could propel the chariots of Poseidon.  I gave him a ridge of mane all the way down his back, in place of a dorsal fin.  I kept his surroundings fantastical, flanking him with the real (octopodes and fishes) and the imaginary (mermaids).

His text draws from the Argonautica, the text from Apollonius Rhodius, a Hellenistic poet who wrote the story of Jason and the Argonauts.  In this scene, the hippocampus rises from the surf and gallops away. His appearance is seen as an omen, and the men decide to carry the ship on their shoulders across the desert in the sea horse's wake. The speaker is Peleus, an Argonaut whose later fame came from his demigod hero son, Achilles:

"A great horse came bounding out of the sea, a monstrous animal, with his golden mane waving in the air. He shook himself, tossing off the spray in showers. Then, fast as the wind, he galloped away. Peleus was overjoyed and at once explained the portent to the others. `It is clear to me,’ he said, `that Poseidon’s loving wife has just unyoked his team. As for our mother, I take her to be none but the ship herself. Argo carried us in her womb; we have often heard her groaning in her pain. Now, we will carry her. We will hoist her on our shoulders, and never resting , never tiring, carry her across the sandy waste in the track of the galloping horse. He will not disappear inland. I am sure that his hoofprints will lead us to some bay that overlooks the sea."

"The Hippocampus" pencil. Copyright 2012 Jessica Boehman


1 comment: