The Tales of Mermaids – Were They Inspired By Sirenomelia or Mermaid Syndrome?

by Sankalan Baidya
mermaid syndrome and mermaids

Man has been fascinated by mermaid tales or simply mermaids for thousands of years. Half-human, half-fish, these mythical creatures have been referenced in almost every culture of the world. While the mermaid tales have portrayed mermaids as beautiful and magical, they have been associated with hazardous events in many countries of Asia, Africa and Europe. It is said that events like shipwrecks, storms, drownings, floods etc. are all caused by mermaids.

Mermaids have made it to popular culture through some of the most popular literary works in history. One such work is Odyssey by Homer in which mermaids have been referred to as sirens who were responsible for luring sailors and dragging them to their watery graves. Sculptures in Etruria have depicted mermaids. Not just that, mermaids have been depicted on Roman graves in bass-relief. Several Greek epics have also mentioned mermaids. The mermaid craze went to such an extent that Christopher Columbus in 1493 ended up claiming that he saw a mermaid during a voyage.

Origin of Mermaids

The origins of mermaids can be traced back to the Assyrian culture of the ancient times. The ancient Assyrians had the legend of Atargatis – a goddess. Though Atargatis was Assyrian god, the Romans and the Greeks picked up the worshiping of Atargatis. It is said that Atargatis accidentally killed her lover who was a human. Because of the unbearable shame, the goddess then decided to turn herself into half-fish and half-human. In many other accounts of Assyrian, Greek and Roman mythology, it is said that Atargatis is a fertility goddess and is often associated with Ascalon – a goddess with a fish body. Over time people merged the worship of the two goddesses – Atargatis and Ascalon. That’s when a clubbed description of a mermaid goddess emerged.

Sirenomelia or Mermaid Syndrome

Today we all know that mermaids are nothing but mythological or fairy tales because no hands-on proof of a mermaid has been found so far. However the question is, how on earth did this idea of a human with a fish tail evolve in the first place? The answer may be – Sirenomelia or Mermaid Syndrome. This is a medical condition – a very real medical condition in which a baby is born with both lower limbs attached together. The fused limbs give the appearance of a fish tail. This means that the baby will have a normal human body above the waist and two lower limbs fused together, giving a fish-tail like appearance to the portion of the body below the waist.

The name Sirenomelia is derived from Greek sirens and it is very much possible that all the legendary mermaid tales of the past came from this rare medical oddity. Sirenomelia is a congenital disease and can turn out to be fatal.

If at all the medical condition led to the tales of mermaids, it is very likely that there will be some historical accounts of Sirenomelia. This logic led Oxford University’s Lindsey Fitzharris – a medical historian to look for historical accounts. Lindsey runs a blog named The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice where she writes about the condition with references from history. Unfortunately, Lindsey has so far only managed to get her hands on 4 volume atlas where the medical condition has been mentioned. The atlas was published in 1891. The problem is that there are no other hints about whether earlier medical practitioners knew about Sirenomelia or if they at all knew, they had any proper understanding of the oddity or not.

Medical Explanation of Mermaid Syndrome

The Mermaid Syndrome which is technically known as Sirenomelia is a congenital and fatal medical oddity. It happens when the umbilical cord fails to create two arteries. When that happens, only one artery is present which is capable of providing enough blood supply for a single limb. This is when the two lower limbs are clubbed together as one. However, babies that are born with this disorder are affected by some serious gastrointestinal and urogenital malformations. As a result of these malformations, the babies don’t make it more than just a few days.

Thanks to advancements in medical sciences, the two limbs can be separated and some babies have grown up to live well into their teens. One such example is Milagros Cerron – a Peruvian girl who was born with the Sirenomelia. The first name Milagros literally means ‘miracles’. In 2006, a group of specialist doctors operated her and managed to separate the two limbs when she was just 2 years old. Ever since then she has been living an active life but is required to undergo several other operations that are meant for correcting her urogenital, digestive and kidney disorders. The family members of the little girl lovingly call her ‘The Little Mermaid’.

Also Read: The Chinese Cinderella Ye Xian and Her Magical Fairy Fish

So, Any Connection Between Mermaids and Sirenomelia?

Possibly we will never come to know. May be it did or may be it didn’t. However, one thing we need to understand that the children who are born with Sirenomelia and manage to live long should be really proud because they resemble the mythical and fantasy creatures that everyone – even the grownups want to see!

Sources: 1, 2

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