Hippocamp, back
Hippocamp, detail of head

29. Pendant: Hippocamp

Accession Number78.AO.286.1
Date575–550 B.C.
DimensionsHeight (i.e., length along major axis): 70 mm; width: 43 mm; depth: 27 mm; Weight: 39.6 g
SubjectsAnimals; Etruscan culture; Inclusions
View in Collection


–1978, Gordon McLendon (Dallas, TX), donated to the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1978.


Although the surface of the pendant is in poor condition (with an extensive loss of surface detail), it is intact minus a triangular break in the mane. There is extensive flaking on the surface. A surface coating may have been applied before it entered the Getty Museum. This piece is opaque, but part of its surface retains some of the original integument, which is tan-brown; the rest of the surface is darker reddish brown. Illuminated with transmitted light, the amber is translucent and orange-red. Several areas have small inclusions.


The pendant, carved fully in the round, represents a dormant hippocamp. The head is resting on the coiled body and tail. On the obverse are the head, the neck, the right lower leg, and, by implication, the upper body of the sea horse and a section of its tail, which loops in a counterclockwise fashion. On the reverse are the left front leg and the tail end of the coils, which curl in a clockwise direction. The ruffled edge on the tail must be a section of the dorsal fin.

In profile view, the head is long, and it has a straight muzzle and jawline, a large, almond-shaped eye (in profile), and a full, rounded nose and mouth. The top of the upright, pointed ear is visible at the poll. On the forehead lies a petal-shaped lock of hair. Behind it is an even ridge of short-cut mane that surmounts the arched neck, the hair depicted by regular, straight striations.

The obverse is convex, the reverse slightly concave. On the obverse at the lower right are two smoothed craters, apparently resulting from the removal of faults. One is hemispherical, 7 mm in diameter, and the other oblong, 10 mm across and 8 mm deep at its widest point.

The object has two sets of perforations: one, 3 mm in diameter, passes through the piece from the top of the forelock to the middle of the mane. The second, 2 mm in diameter, has exits in the mane (near the first perforation) and near the coronet of the leg. A short perforation, 2 mm in diameter, intersects with the latter one from a hole near the pastern. When the pendant was suspended, the nose would have been nearly vertical. The perforation holes would have forced the pendant to face obverse side out when suspended.


This pendant is one of four amber pendants of hippocamps. A pendant in London (British Museum 73)1 shares with 78.AO.286.1 the same basic configuration of a coiled monster, but its style is different. BM 73 does not have the strong forelegs of the Getty Museum hippocamp. It is more snakelike and less subtly modeled, described instead with engraved lines. Both the London and Getty pendants have two sets of suspension perforations at the rostral end. When the pendants are suspended, the creatures’ heads are in a vertical position.2 An amber hippocamp pendant in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is perforated so that it hangs in a sejant position, much like that of a seahorse in motion.3 One of six amber pendants, now lost, which was excavated at Marzabotto in the nineteenth century, was thought to be a hippocamp.4 A hippocamp also may be represented on one side of an exceptionally large amber pendant in London (BM 38), the subject(s) of which remains unexplained. On the main side is a charioteer driving a four-horse chariot. The head of the distant horse on one side corresponds with that of the hippocamp(?) on the other. On the reverse is a male figure (perhaps nude) who is similar to the charioteer, perhaps struggling with a hippocamp, perhaps pulling in the creature, using his legs and feet to secure the slack in a thick rope, or, more likely, half-astride the creature, holding on for a wild ride.5 The subjects must be related, since when the amber was newly carved, the image on one side would have been visible on the other, and there do not appear to be pre-Roman ambers with unrelated subjects. Do both sides show aspects of the cycle of the sun, the infant sun drawn by the charioteer (Apollo?) on the main side, and the nighttime passage of the sun beneath the ocean, drawn by the hippocamp, on the reverse? The use of amber, a solar material with a waterborne phase in its formation, augments the iconography and magic of the image; this may help to explain the existence of other hippocampic carved ambers.

The horse part of 78.AO.286.1 is generally similar in style and type to horses painted on Middle and Late Corinthian vases and Early Attic black-figure ware. They share common features: heavy forelock, large profile eye with carefully outlined rims, full, rounded nose and mouth, large nostril, and diagonal grooves above the nose. The amber mane is shorter, however, than those of the horses on the painted examples. Illustrative sculpted parallels that bring out the Etruscanness of 78.AO.286.1 are the protomes (with perhaps hippocamp rather than equine forepart?) on various bronze, bucchero, and terracotta works. From the same family are the horse protomes of two bronze braziers from the Vulcian “Isis Tomb,” British Museum 436 and 437, dated by P. J. Riis to the second quarter of the sixth century,6 and other Vulcian bronze horse protomes, among them attachments to the tripod in Cap d’Agde.7 Comparison can also be drawn with the protomes of various bucchero vessels and offering trays (focolare)8 and with a terracotta of a horse head in Basel.9 The Getty Hippocamp shares with the protome type of BM 437 the same rounded, curving neck, the short mane worked with fine striations, and a comparable form of eye. The head shape of 78.AO.286.1 is closer to that of BM 436. When suspended, the London and Getty ambers have a position identical to that of the Vulcian brazier protomes.

The hippocamp first appeared in Etruria during the Orientalizing period and gained greater popularity in the Archaic.10 The monster as found in ancient art must owe something to the appearance of the tiny fish Hippocampus antiquorum, common in warm seas. There are far more representations of the hippocamp in the art of Etruria and South Italy than in that of the mainland and East Greece. Throughout the sixth century and into the fifth, the hippocamp appears in tomb paintings and on bronze vessels and stands, cinerary urns, and sarcophagi. It joins other sea monsters on Caeretan ceramics of the mid-sixth century. At first, marine creatures like the hippocamp and the sea dragon are dreadful and powerful monsters, inhabiting an unknown and dangerous place. Only heroes like Herakles or Perseus can defeat such marine monsters. This changes during the sixth century, when the hippocamp becomes an ally of humans and gods. In later times, the hippocamp is associated with Thetis, the daughter of Nereus, mother of Achilles, and wife of Peleus. In Italian Hellenistic-period representations, the hippocamp is Thetis’s mount when she descends into the oceans to get the armor of Achilles. (Is there a connection between Thetis’s steed and safe travel across the ocean to the Blessed Isles?)

The significant part played by the hippocamp in Etruscan and other Italian sepulchral symbolism is underlined by its frequent appearance on objects made purely for funerary purposes. The outstanding examples in Etruscan art date from the middle of the sixth century to the middle of the fifth and include the Etruscan stone figures of hippocamp riders, such as the famous example from Vulci in the Villa Giulia, of about 550;11 the hippocamps of Etruscan black-figure amphorae; and the images of hippocamps in Etruscan painted tombs. The best visual explanation of the amber hippocamps’ meaning may be found in the Tomb of the Bulls’ pedimental, heraldic composition of hippocamp riders racing toward a central island.12 In the fifth century in Etruria and elsewhere on the peninsula, hippocampic imagery is joined by that of other hybrid beings of the sea. The message is the same, too, in fourth-century South Italian red-figure vases, Canosan vases,13 and the gilded terracotta reliefs once ornamenting Tarantine sarcophagi.

For the Etruscans, the hippocamp ferries the dead to the afterworld beyond the ocean. In tomb paintings, the hippocampic scenes are not simple allusions to the sea, as Jean-René Jannot emphasizes: “Painters used dolphins to evoke that element.… It is highly probable that the hippocamps … served the function in Etruscan imagery of psychopompoi, guides for the dead.… These representations show death as a voyage toward an island Afterworld. The hinthial [soul, shade] rides the sea monsters across the sea (or ocean) toward a land where he will dwell.”14

Why a pendant in the form of a hippocamp? The subject’s Bronze Age antecedents (Mycenaean rather than Minoan) show how important the subject was for adornment and for seals—and for the grave. “The sea-horse is frequently found in the Mediterranean, and is mentioned by several ancient authors because of medicinal (or poisonous) properties that were imputed to it,” as Campbell Bonner writes.15 This must account in part for its presence on representations with (unexplained) magical significance. It might be assumed that the lore of the sea horse predated writing about it by Dioscorides and Galen. Whether worn in life or in death, a hippocamp carved from amber would bring together two aqueous and magical subjects. Amber, being naturally buoyant in ordinary water, could float in saltwater, and the hippocamp’s home was the salty sea. No matter which of the amber origin stories were current in sixth-century southern Etruria (where 78.AO.286.1 was likely carved, or where it was buried), the amber was believed to have been produced by the action of solar powers combined with falling into a river or the ocean before being carried onward. Amber, before carving, had already experienced a successful watery voyage.

The undulating forms of both the Getty and British Museum hippocamp pendants recall both the natural form of the fossil resin and the movement of water and suggest that the carver incorporated the original shape of the raw amber into the carving. The subject may even have originated in the appearance of the nodule. The New York hippocamp, in contrast, is much more like contemporary sculpted and painted examples. When newly worked, 78.AO.286.1 would have been an arresting sight: because of the waterlike translucency of the amber, the head, front legs, and long tail would have been visible all at the same time. Worn on the body, a couchant hippocamp, its eyes open in quiet watchfulness, might have conjured up the sea, its myriad dangers, and the necessity of a guardian monster. The hippocamp, as a demonic creature, was a protective, danger-averting subject that could work on the amuletic principle of “like banishes like.” Additionally, the hippocampic pendants might have functioned by assimilation—that is, they were worn with the hope of acquiring the nature of the hippocamp and thus gaining access to its characteristics and particular powers. As a sea creature, the hippocamp was likely believed to have the gift of prophecy, as Emily Vermeule reminds us:

Almost all sea-creatures have the gift of prophecy. It may be minor and limited, but some who were born with the beginning of the world, older than the Olympian gods (Hesiod, Theogony 131, 233), had vast aboriginal experience combined with knowledge of the intense constant changes of the sea under wind and sun, and their prophetic power had an authority which land oracles and newer gods could not rival. It was a knowledge of multiple possibilities, of transformations, mutations, and grandeur because it was not limited to the simple affairs of men on land.16


  1. , pp. 79–80, no. 73 (“Snake [?]”), pl. XXIX. Strong found the interpretation of the amber problematic. This author interprets the grooves and hatching of the top edge as the dorsal fin. The form and pattern of the skinny neck and the thin, closely striated mane hairs are similar to the finely incised manes of a number of seventh-century B.C. ivory horse heads from the Temple of Artemis Orthia at Sparta (, pl. CXLIX, 1–2) and to a mid-seventh-century Etruscan ivory arm ring from Tivoli in Oxford (Ashmolean Museum Pr. 323: , p. 33, pl. III).
  2. , p. 71, refers to G. Gozzadini, Di ulteriori scoperte nell’antica necropoli a Marzabotto nel Bolognese (Bologna, 1870), pl. 15. The amber hippocamp(?) was found with amber rams’ heads and frontal and profile female head-pendants.
  3. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1992.11.23, Purchase, Renée and Robert A. Belfer Philanthropic Fund, Patti Cadby Birch, and The Joseph Rosen Foundation Inc. Gifts, and Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1992: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Annual Report (1991–92), p. 37.
  4. , p. 64.
  5. Ibid., no. 38, pl. XVIII. Strong thought the youth on the reverse side to be nude, riding the hippocamp, and unrelated to the subject of the main side. He considered the style to be “closely connected with Etruscan work and this may be explained … if we suppose it was made in Campania or under the influence of Etrusco-Campanian art.” For this author, the amber reveals a close link with the art of Southern Etruria, and is characteristic of “Ionian” works from the last quarter of the sixth century B.C. The hippocamp tamer evokes both Iolaos grasping one of the Hydra’s necks on the Getty Caeretan hydria (83.AE.346) and some of the cavorting comasts on the Getty “Campana” Group dinos (83.AE.249), both wares “probably the product of East Greek (Ionian) artists working in southern Etruria”: R. De Puma, , United States of America, fasc. 31, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, fasc. 6 (Malibu, 1996), p. 31.
  6. , pp. 22–25, 121 (with bibl.). As Riis has argued, relatives of the two London protome types are found on other bronzework produced in the same active Vulcian workshop.
  7. Cap d’Agde, Musée de l’Éphèbe ME 1171: O. Bérard-Azzouz, Les bronzes antiques du musée de l’Éphèbe: Collections sous-marines (Agde, 1997), pp. 40–42.
  8. For the bucchero horse protomes, see , Getty 6 (in n. 5, above), pl. 304 (with extensive bibl.).
  9. A. Bignasca, in her catalogue entry for the publication of the horse protome in Basel (Antikenmuseum, Collection Ludwig BO 153, Orient und frühes Griechenland: Kunstwerke der Sammlung H. und T. Bosshard, ed. P. Blome [Basel, 1990], pp. 115–16, no. 172), establishes links with South Italian works such as the Grumento horse and rider (see cat. no. 55, n. 7). Bignasca’s comparisons are significant also for this amber, 78.AO.286.1.
  10. For the hippocamp, see, for example, M. Boosen, Etruskische Meermischwesen: Untersuchen zu Typologie und Bedeutung (Rome, 1986); and K. Shepherd, The Fish-Tailed Monster in Greek and Etruscan Art (New York, 1940). The significance in Etruscan funerary art of the hippocamp in the afterworld is outlined in F. Roncalli, “Iconographie funéraire et topographie de l’au-delà en Étrurie,” in , pp. 37–54; and , esp. chap. 4.
  11. For the stone rider, see A. Hus, Vulci étrusque et étrusco-romaine (Paris, 1971), p. 76, pl. 4.
  12. For the Tomb of the Bulls, see , passim.
  13. See, for example, A. Rinuy, F. van der Wielen, P. Hartmann, and F. Schweitzer, “Céramique insolite de l’Italie du Sud: Les vases hellénistiques de Canosa,” Genava 26 (1978): 141–69.
  14. , pp. 60–61.
  15. , p. 142.
  16. , p. 190, n. 16.


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