Poseidon's Steed: The Story of Seahorses, From Myth to Reality
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A fascinating journey with the sea creature that has captured human imagination for thousands of years
Poseidon?s Steed trails the seahorse through secluded waters across the globe in a kaleidoscopic history that mirrors man?s centuries-old fascination with the animal, sweeping from the reefs of Indonesia, through the back streets of Hong Kong, and back in time to ancient Greece and Rome. Over time, seahorses have surfaced in some unlikely places. We see them immortalized in the decorative arts; in tribal folklore, literature, and ancient myth; and even on the pages of the earliest medical texts, prescribed to treat everything from skin complaints to baldness to flagging libido. Marine biologist Helen Scales eloquently shows that seahorses are indeed fish, though scientists have long puzzled over their exotic anatomy, and their very strange sex lives?male seahorses are the only males in the animal world that experience childbirth!
Our first seahorse imaginings appeared six thousand years ago on cave walls in Australia. The ancient Greeks called the seahorse hippocampus (half-horse, half-fish) and sent it galloping through the oceans of mythology, pulling the sea god Poseidon?s golden chariot. The seahorse has even been the center of a modern-day international art scandal: A two-thousand-year-old winged seahorse brooch was plundered by Turkish tomb raiders and sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
A book that is as charming as the seahorse itself, Poseidon?s Steed brings to life an aquatic treasure.
Seahorses lead quiet lives, tucked away out of sight on the seafloor. It is rare to catch a glimpse of a seahorse in its natural habitat. But even if few have seen one live, these exotic, seemingly prehistoric creatures exist quite vividly in our imaginations and they have mesmerized scientists, artists, and storytellers throughout time with their otherworldly rarity.
Poseidon?s Steed is a sweeping journey that takes us from the coral reefs and seagrass meadows of Indonesia where many seahorses makes their natural habitat to the back streets of Hong Kong where a thriving black market seahorse trade is concealed. Throughout history, seahorses have surfaced in some unexpected places and Scales also follows the seahorse back in time, from our most rudimentary seahorse imaginings six thousand years ago on cave walls in Australia, to the myths of ancient Greece.
Scientists have long puzzled over seahorses? unusual anatomy and their very strange sex lives. And male seahorses are the only males in the animal world that experience childbirth! Seahorses are not what scientists call a ?keystone? species. They rely on a healthy ocean to survive, but the marine ecosystem does not rely on them. But their delicate beauty reminds us that we rely on the seas not only to fill our dinner plates, but also to feed our imaginations.
along cresting waves across the Irish Sea, where Manannán mac Lir presided deep down on his conch shell throne.27 Many legends tell of water spirits that take the form of horses. Kelpies are supernatural beings that supposedly haunt rivers and freshwater lochs in Scotland and Ireland. If you mount a kelpie, it will leap into the water and try to drown you. Similar malicious beasts were called nuggles in the Orkney Isles, shoopiltees in the Shetlands, and across Scandinavia stories were told of
are without potency.”11 Despite having a long history of herbal medicines, it is not obvious exactly why the Chinese started using seahorses as a natural remedy. What we do know is that they were probably not the first people to do so. Long before the idea caught on in Asia, ancient Europeans plucked seahorses from the shores of the Mediterranean and made them into a range of medical concoctions. During the reign of the Roman Empire, supernatural imaginings of Hippocampus spilled over into real
samples from seahorses in curio stores and Chinese pharmacies in the San Francisco Bay Area and used the DNA to identify which species were present. It was quite a surprise to discover that most of the seahorses were not—as was expected—from Asia but were actually from much closer to home. Previously, Pacific seahorses were only rarely traded, but now that has changed; two out of three seahorses on sale in California in 2005 were Pacifics.35 Regular genetic screening would not only provide
A cheaper version of Gosse’s The Aquarium without color plates was released and other writers joined in with dozens of “how-to” aquarium guides and beach companions, all of them extolling the wild entertainment that could be pursued at the coast. “The wonders of the ocean do not reveal themselves to vulgar eyes,” warned H. Noel Humphreys in his 1857 book Ocean Gardens. “None but the initiated can see the myriad miracles that each receding tide reveals on the ocean floor.” Initiation, however, was
first surgeon general sent to the then-British colony of New South Wales in the 1780s.52 White didn’t much like Australia but was passionate about the wildlife he found there, describing many new species in his Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales. He assumed the seahorse he saw there was the same one Linnaeus had recently described from Europe, writing, “This animal, like the Flying Fish, being commonly known, a description is not necessary.”53 Seventy years later, Bleeker thought differently