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Are Mermaid Myths Inspired by a Rare Medical Condition?

Are Mermaid Myths Inspired by a Rare Medical Condition?


Mermaids have occupied our imagination for thousands of years. The mesmerizing aquatic creatures, hybrid half-human and half-fish beings, have been spotted in seas around the world and appear in literature and folklore in diverse cultures. Idolized and feared in equal measure, according to legend the beauty of mermaids was said to lure people to a watery grave. But could it be that these supposedly mythical water spirits, described at different times as sirens, monsters, or even cryptids, were actually inspired by a real life medical condition?

In legends and folklore, mermaids have been idolized and feared in equal measure throughout history. (Public domain)

The Mermaid in Ancient Mythology

The mermaid originated in ancient Assyria, now northern Syria, with the legend of the goddess Atargatis, whose worship later spread to Greece and Rome. In one account, Atargatis transforms herself into a half-human and half-fish being when she drowns herself out of shame for accidentally killing her human lover. However, in other accounts, Atargatis is a goddess of fertility who is associated with a fish-bodied goddess at Ascalon. It is thought that worship of Atargatis and Ascalon eventually merged into one, leading to the description of one mermaid goddess.

Throughout history, mermaids have been connected with hazardous events in European, African, and Asian culture, including floods, storms, shipwrecks, and drowning. Homer called them sirens in the  Odyssey, claiming that they lured sailors to their deaths. They have been depicted in Etrurian sculptures, Greek epics, and bas-reliefs in Roman tombs.

The reverse of a coin of Demetrius III depicts fish-bodied Atargatis

A depiction of Atargatis, the first mermaid on record, on the reverse of a coin of Demetrius III, King of Syria from 96–87 BC. (Public domain)

In 1493, Christopher Columbus reported seeing three mermaids near Haiti on his voyage to the Caribbean. In his ship log Columbus wrote “they are not so beautiful as they are painted, though to some extent they have the form of a human face.” These days, scientists claim that his description is actually the first written record of a manatee sighting, a marine mammal with which the Italian would have been unfamiliar. These giant sea cows have now been classified as Sirenia, named after the sirens of Greek mythology.

Sirenomelia: The History of the Mermaid Syndrome

What if, however, the idea of the mermaid originated in a visible medical disorder? Sirenomelia, named after the mythical Greek sirens, and also known as the “mermaid syndrome,” is a rare and fatal congenital malformation characterized by the fusion of the lower limbs. The condition results in what looks like a single limb, resembling a fish tail - leading some to question whether ancient cases of the condition may have influenced legends of the past. It is known, for example, that ancient descriptions of sea monsters derived from sightings of species, unknown at the time, such as whales, giant squid, and walruses, which were rarely seen and little understood.

Images of a clinical case of sirenomelia, or Mermaid Syndrome, reported in 1902 edition of the Maryland Medical Journal. (Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of the State of Maryland)

After tracing back references of the medical condition in historical texts, the medical historian Lindsey Fitzharris, creator of the Smithsonian Channel series The Curious Life and Death Of…, published an article about the disturbing mermaid disorder in her blog The Chirurgeon's Apprentice. While she managed to track down a selection of specimens at the National Museum of Health & Medicine in Washington D.C., the Anatomical Museum of the Second University of Naples, and the Vrolik Museum in Amsterdam. However, the earliest known mention she could find was in a copy of Human Monstrosities, a four-volume atlas published in 1891. There is nothing that hints at how medical practitioners understood sirenomelia in earlier eras.

Modern-Day Sirenomelia Survivors

In an article published in the Journal of Clinical Neonatology, Kshirsagar et. al explain that sirenomelia occurs when the umbilical cord fails to form two arteries, leaving only enough blood supply for one limb. The occurrence is extremely rare, with an incidence of 0.8-1 case/100,000 births. Sadly, due to severe urogenital and gastrointestinal malformations, babies born with the disorder rarely survive longer than a few days. However, with advances in surgical techniques, there have now been a few cases of subjects living past early childhood.

One of the most well-known examples of sirenomelia survivors is Tiffany Yorks from Florida, USA. Having undergone surgery to separate her legs when she was just one, Tiffany lived until 27 years of age, albeit with mobility issues, making her the longest survivor of the rare medical condition. Shiloh Pepin, dubbed the Mermaid Girl, became well known for her condition, particularly after she took part in a TLC documentary which followed her and her family as they dealt with the reality of sirenomelia.

Born without internal organs, Shiloh Jade Pepin was born in Maine in the United States. Her body was fused from the waist down and she had no genitals and no rectum. The family had opted not to separate her conjoined legs. Unfortunately, she passed away at the age of 10.

Also among the survivors of the rare condition was a Peruvian girl named Milagros Cerrón, whose first name translates as “miracles.” Friends and family affectionately referred to her as “the Little Mermaid.” In 2006, a team of specialists successfully separated the legs of the then two-year-old. While she lived a full and active life, she needed ongoing surgery to correct complications associated with her kidneys, digestive, and urogenital systems. Milagros survived until the age of 15, when she passed away due to renal insufficiency.

The ‘Little Mermaid’

Milagros Cerrón, known as The Little Mermaid, before and after surgery performed to correct her sirenomelia condition in Peru. (CC BY NC SA 4.0)

Whether or not the congenital condition influenced the genesis of mermaid mythology will never really be known. Nevertheless, the likeness between the fabled women with fish-like tails and those born with sirenomelia has had one positive effect: it has helped children suffering from sirenomelia to feel proud of their resemblance to the beautiful and mythical beings from our ancient past whose reputation has persisted through popular media up until the present day.

Stunning depiction of a mermaid by Howard Pyle. (Public domain)

Top image: Could it be that mermaids, the mythical water spirits, were actually inspired by a real life medical condition called sirenomelia? Source: Duhamel / Arch Dis Child

By Joanna Gillan

Updated on March 26, 2021.



PiratesCut's picture

Sumarian tablets....

3 out of 8 hours in so far. No embellishments, just very well researched and presented oration with pics.…

"The ancient ones documentary” 8 hour box set from DDTV.

PiratesCut's picture

One comment, one comment only.

They swim with pods of Dolphin, often carrying small hand nets with fish in them.

Shite throwing to commence…..

Hi All,

The first time I learned of the medical condition Sirenomelia I viewed a documentary about it on TLC: The Learning Channel, but then again TLC also did the documentary about a Man from India somehow turned in to a Tree.

All I knew of Mermaids is what the Ancient Stories said about them and the evil-spirit Mermaids that was known for killing Sailors at Sea. I admit, I was most astounded; by the TLC documentary on the Med-Science of Sirenomelia.

I noted the little child didn't have gills on either side of the body an Ancient god worshipped by the Philistines Dagon was said to be depicted half-human/half-fish, in Sumeria I think Oranus was said to resemble a Fishes Head coming out if the Fishes Throat a Man's face apparently, He had a Fishes Tail though He could stand on his own two feet not sure of this The Sumerians said He was Wisdom.

Both depictions of this odd looking being Dagon & Oranus were that of Half-Fish/Half-Human like features and were considered the earliest depiction of Mermaids.

As for Sirens Homer's The Odyssey said they sang beautifully but, it was a death song for they lured ships to smash against the Rocks and the men then drown in the sea. For a while I considered them a Myth but... I did read an interesting Take!

In a Biblical Book of which I will not name for now here's what went down in the Sacred Text.

200 Wicked Watchers Angel's married human Women.

Subsequently, had children by their human wives.

Then the Angel husbands taught their wives Secrets of Heaven, teaching them how to do Miracles unfortunately, this Action on the part of these Angel's Husband's would become negative as Magic & Sorcery would spring from their lessons this knowledge.

God pronounces judgement on the Evil-Watcher Angel's and their Families because of their Sinful Behavior.

God winds up punishing the wives for their Sinful Behavior and The Creator changes the Wives into Sirens similar to the legendary story between Hera & Echo the Nymph, accept the difference with God changing The Angel's wives in to Sirens is that they couldn't Sing, Only Sigh that's it, that's all God will allow the Sirens too do. Sigh!

An on that note I'm fairly certain Hera is also an Siren capable of only Sigh sounds.

It's true I read all that about the Sirens in the Biblical Text which as I've said will not be mention by name for now.

Is Medical Science certain with regards too Sirenomelia this may be where the Mermaid possibly come from? Some descriptions of Mermaids I thought had gills too?

This is all I wished to address with everybody, so until next time, Everyone, Goodbye!

George Pope's picture

I've just seen a ring that has what looks like Atargatis on the back of a disc, & on the frojnt is what looks like a North American tribal chief. Do you have any evidence of Americas' indigenous mermaid myths? Did they have a mermaid deity, too(as Syria)?

Delving into the secrets of the anthropoverse, <+]::-{)} <- official cyberpopicon

One thing that is glaringly obvious. Sirens, mermaids and silkies are adult. If they were always babies who didn't survive long, there wouldn't be stories of adults. Admittedly there are dugongs, and stories of half seal half human but they aren't terribly pretty from the human point of view. Dolphins are possibly the best candidates since they are also intelligent and their behaviour fits some of the stories. They save humans from drowning. They are very very friendly to people who swim with them. Have any creatures been found that might show a combined heritage?


Joanna Gillan's picture


Joanna Gillan is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. 

Joanna completed a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) degree in Australia and published research in the field of Educational Psychology. She has a rich and varied career, ranging from teaching... Read More

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