One of the things I find endlessly charming about the 1658 edition of “Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes” by Edward Topsell is the author’s absolute determination to believe the wildest rumors he comes across. The Sea-Horse is a perfect example. Topsell never saw a sea-horse himself, and he writes that he would easily agree with everyone who says it doesn’t actually exist, except it was recently reported in Constantinople, so therefore it must exist. His logic tickles me. To my modern eyes, the Sea-Horse looks like a hippo (and apparently the ancient Greeks agree with me, based on their name for it), but Topsell’s description of the animal is wildly speculative. I love his illustration, too. The way the Sea-horse stands on the water, caught in the moment of chomping on a crocodile’s tail, apparently scaring it stiff. (I always imagine it giving a little squawk.)
Topsell wrote his book in Old English, back when the lowercase “s” was sometimes written as an “f.” Do yourself a favor and read this section on the Sea-Horse aloud, using the “f” sound where it’s written. If you’re having a rough day, I guarantee it will cheer you up immensely.
“The Sea-horffe, called in Greeke Hippotomos, and in Latine Fquus Fluuiatilis; It is a moft vgly and filthy beaft, fo called becaufe in his voice and mane he refembleth a Horffe, but in his head an Oxe or a Calfe; in the refidue of his body a Swine, for which caufe fome Graecians call him fomtimes a Sea-horffe, and fometimes a Sea-oxe, which thing hath mouved many learned men in our time to affirme, that a Sea-horffe was neuer feene; whereunto I would eafily fubfcribe were it not that the auncient figures of a Sea-horffe, altogether refembled that which is here expreffed; and was lately to bee feene at Conftantinople, from whom this picture was taken. It liueth fo the moft part in Nilus, yet is it of a doubtful life, for it brings forth and breedeth on the land, and by the proportion of the Legges it feemeth rather to bee made for going, then for fwimming: for in the night time it eateth both Hay and frutes, foraging into corne fieldes, and deuouring whatfoeuer commeth in the way; And therefore I thought it fit to be inferted into this ftory. As for the Sea-calfe, which commeth fometimes to land onely to take fleepe, I did not judge it to belong in this dicourfe, becaufe it feedeth onely in the waters.”