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


According to some theories, the mermaid (Mer People) were a branch of human like species who went into the water ssome millions of years ago.  There are depiction of Mer men in Saharan rock art and then there was the documentaty "The Body Found". Actuallt there were two bodies, one on a beach in the eastrtn USA and one taken from a sharks belly in South Africa.  However both bodies were 'dissapearred' by authorities. 

Given the legends, there may well be some truth to this myth as we know comparatively little about our oceans other than we are killing them with our pollution. 

To one degree or another, many people - especially those who pride themselves on being "scientific" - seem to have the belief that if current "experts" haven't found irrefutable evidence of something then it doesn't exist.

angieblackmon's picture

I guess I'd like to believe that they're real, not someone with a medical condition, but an actual Mermaid...I can see how this condition could have lead people to wonder and question...To me the condition seems rare enough though to not have influenced the idea of the Mermaid, I feel like there's more stories of Mermaids out that than there have been people with this type of condition.

love, light and blessings


DeAegean's picture

I am not surprised there is a Mermaid-like mutation but I doubt the existance of actual water dwelling halflings.. Imagine thinking you saw one while traveling for months on the sea though, wicked

i agree probably contributed to it but more too it and why are they associated with the ocean


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