Greek Agate Scaraboid Seal with a Hero Riding a Hippocamp
Greek · 4th century B.C.
L: 2.3 cm (0.9 in)
This stunningly carved seal of a scaraboid shape (same as scarab with one convex side but lacking the beetle’s anatomy) is an extraordinary, beautiful piece of banded agate. It has several circular white bands clearly visible from all sides through the layers of dark stone. The seal is also highly important for the iconography of Greek heroes; the engraved figures represent a young man holding weapons and riding on a hippocamp (a mythological hybrid creature combining the features of a horse and a fish). The choice of the stone for this picture could not be better as it looks as if the seahorse floats over the waves imitated by the agate bands.
The hippocampi appear in the cortege of the sea god Poseidon carrying his chariot. Mounted by Nereids, they participate in the festive procession accompanying Aphrodite, the sea-born goddess. A young man in this representation could be the Greek hero Taras, son of Poseidon, a mythic founder of Taras, (Latin Tarentum, modern Taranto), a Greek colony in Magna Graecia. The story tells that Taras was shipwrecked and rescued by his father who sent him a dolphin. The dolphin brought Taras to the shore, where the hero founded the city named after him. A similar story is told on Phalanthos, who suffered a shipwreck and was brought ashore by a dolphin (Pausanias, Description of Greece X 10, 6-8; X 13, 10; Strabo Geography VI 3, 2). A leader of the Spartans, he was considered as a historical founder of Taras.
Since the Late Archaic period, the city minted coins representing Taras riding a dolphin on the obverse, some coins have a depiction of a hippocamp on the reverse. The same image of the dolphin rider is also associated with Phalanthos. The rider holds attributes, and they vary greatly: they could be symbols of his authority over the sea (a little hippocamp, cuttle-fish, polypus with tentacles, octopus), or symbols of naval victory such as an acrostalium (naval trophy), aphlastron (the upward curving stern of a warship), a figure of Nike; they could be weapons such as a shield, helmet, bow, also a whip, a trident. Here the hero is brandishing a ball-and-chain flail, which was not used as a weapon in antiquity. Most probably, the depiction is of the agricultural tool, which would not be foreign to the meaning of a divine hero as a protector and provider of the city’s prosperity (whose attribute on coins is sometimes a bunch of grapes or a corn-ear).
Ex- Swiss private collection, acquired prior to 2009
FABULOUS MONSTERS, New York, Summer 2021, no. 52