Are tales of mythical mermaids inspired by a real-life medical condition?


Mermaids have occupied our imagination for thousands of years, originating in ancient Assyria with the legend of goddess Atargatis, whose worship spread to Greece and Rome. In one account, Atargatis transforms herself into half-human, half-fish being 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’.

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

The reverse of a coin of Demetrius III depicts fish-bodied Atargatis, veiled, holding the egg, flanked by barley stalks. Image source: Wikipedia

In history, mermaids have been connected with hazardous events in European, African and Asian culture, including floods, storms, shipwrecks and drownings. Homer called them sirens in the Odyssey, who lured sailors to their deaths. They have been depicted in Etrurian sculptures, in Greek epics, and in bas-reliefs in Roman tombs. In 1493, Christopher Columbus even reported seeing mermaids on his voyage to the Caribbean.

But could our concept of a mermaid actually have originated from a real medical disorder?



Ulysses and the Sirens

Ulysses and the Sirens by H.J. Draper. Image source: Wikipedia

Sirenomelia, named after the mythical Greek sirens, and also known as ‘mermaid syndrome’, is a rare and fatal congenital malformation characterized by fusion of the lower limbs. The condition results in what looks like a single limb, resembling a fish tail, leading some to questioned 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 real-life species such as whales, giant squid, and walruses, which were rarely seen and little understood at the time.

Ancient cases of Sirenomelia

Some scholars have questioned whether ancient cases of Sirenomelia may have influenced legends of the past. ‘A Mermaid’ by John William Waterhouse. Image source: Wikipedia

According to the MailOnline, medical historian Lindsey Fitzharris from Oxford University, and author of the blog The Chirurgeon's Apprentice, has been tracing back references of the condition in historical texts, however, the earliest known mention he could find was in a four-volume atlas published in 1891. There is nothing that hints at how medical practitioners understood sirenomelia in earlier periods.

Sirenomelia occurs when the umbilical cord fails to form two arteries, leaving only enough blood supply for one limb. Sadly, due to severe urogenital and gastrointestinal malformations, babies born with the disorder rarely survive longer than a few days. However, with advanced in surgical techniques, there have now been a few cases of sufferers living into their teenage years.

A diagram showing a child with Sirenomelia

A diagram showing a child with Sirenomelia on the left, and the process to separate the legs in the centre and right position. Image source: pickled politics

Among the survivors of the rare condition is a Peruvian girl named Milagros Cerron, whose first name means ‘miracles’, but friends and family affectionately refer to her as ‘the Little Mermaid’. In 2006, a team of specialists successfully separated the legs of the then two-year-old. While Milagros is living a full and active life, she will need ongoing surgery to correct complications associated with her kidneys, digestive and urogenital systems.

The ‘Little Mermaid’

The ‘Little Mermaid’ - Milagros Cerron – before and after surgery to correct the condition of Sirenomelia.

Whether or not the congenital condition may have influenced stories of women with fish-like tails will never really be known. Nevertheless, the likeness between the two has had  one positive effect – it has helped children suffering from Sirenomelia to feel proud of their resemblance to the beautiful and mythical beings described in our ancient past and which has persisted through popular media to the modern-day.

Featured image: Atargatis by Annie Stegg. Image source: deviantart

By April Holloway


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?

The sea is a big place and hardly well explored. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that mermaids are real though I would be sceptical of any specimen discovered. Wonderful fantasy though.

The sea is a big place and hardly well explored. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that mermaids are real though I would be sceptical of any specimen discovered. Wonderful fantasy though.

I think they may have been real. Half human, half diseases or abnormalities per se......If we review the vast collections of art from ancient civilizations, we find that almost all of them have depictions of half human - half animal creatures. Is every single depiction an illustration in myth or fantasy?.....Why would such a wealth of resources be invested in creating depictions of fairy tales? What we DO know is that there were indeed groups of ancient peoples who acquired technology more advanced than what we understand now. This is evidenced in various earthworks, building techniques and astromological charts etc......If ancient people had the technology to create human-animal hybrids, I believe they would have done it. Also, the fact that remains of undocumented lifeforms are more often whisked away never to be seen again is suspicious......Not a very scientific theory, but something I've always thought highly possible.


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