Creature of myth and fantasy, symbol of the imagination and creative spirit, the sea horse got its name fromÂ the ancient GreeksÂ who calledÂ it Hippocampus (horse + sea monster). This benign sea-dwelling animal has a head with obvious equine features, but it derives its ‘monster’ aspect from its bony armour, its two eyes that are able to look in different directions simultaneously, and its prehensile tail that it uses to gripÂ sea weed and other objects like a monkey. Quite coincidentally, the part ofthe human brainÂ associated with memory is called the ‘hippocampus’, and perhaps for this reason the sea horse came by its association with the creativity.
The eyes of the sea horse – seeing independently of each other – have made it a symbol of vigilance. For many cultures, it represents grace and confidence.
Poseidon, god of the ocean, rides his chariot drawn by giant sea horses. Are white-capped waves visible at sea? That’s Poseidon and his teams of sea horses assessing conditions for sailing, cautioning sailors to ‘stand steady at the helm.’ The sea horse is also a symbol of strength, guidance and transformation.
In Irish Celtic tradition, the sea horse is known as the symbol of courage and forbearance at sea. The 16th century Irish heroine, Grace O’Malley, flew a sea horse flag on her seafaring expeditions. Her ancestors still fly the sea horse flag, today.
Tales of sea-nymphs riding herds of sea horses to rescue sailors in distress gave rise to the seaÂ horse becoming a symbol of good luck for sailors. As an emblem of ‘safe travel’, the sea horse appeared on flags and ensigns. In 1748, an English frigate was named ‘HMS Sea Horse’.
Sea horses have been made into charms honouring fatherhood, since it is the male of the species that becomes pregnant. The female deposits her eggs in a pouch in the male’s tail, where they gestate for up to six weeks. For this reason, men may take on a sea horse tattoo when they become fathers for the first time. Otherwise, the sea horse tattoo is largely considered a female fashion statement, in part because it works well as aÂ small designÂ almost anywhere on the body. Its feminine, elegant, free-floating existence has earned it theÂ connotationÂ of ‘free spirit’.
Past civilizations revered the sea horse as aÂ therapeuticÂ animal with magical and mystical powers. Its image graced the tiles and mosaics in ancient temples and bathing places.
Sea horses range in size from a quarter of an inch to a foot. Their habitat is amongst the sea grasses and coral reefs of temperate tropical waters. It ‘snorts’ its food – tiny sea-shrimp – through its snout, passing the remains out through its fins. It is also known as the chameleon of the ocean, due to its ability to change colour when sensing danger, thereby blending in with its surroundings.
Zebra sea horses are so named for their black-and-white striped heads. Others may be white, amber, or brown.