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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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
Updated on March 26, 2021.