Centuries ago, mysterious sea serpents and mermaids were believed to be hidden in the world’s vast oceans. Merfolk (mermaids and mermen) are, of course, the marine version of half-human, half-animal legends that have captured human imagination for ages.
One source, the “Arabian Nights,” described mermaids as having “moon faces and hair like a woman’s but their hands and feet were in their bellies and they had tails like fishes,” Charles J.S Thompson, a former curator at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, notes in his in his book “The Mystery and Lore of Monsters (Kessinger Publishing, 2010).
Thompson writes that “traditions concerning creatures half-human and half-fish in form have existed for thousands of years, and the Babylonian deity Era or Oannes, the Fish-god … is usually depicted as having a bearded head with a crown and a body like a man, but from the waist downwards he has the shape of a fish.”
Greek mythology contains stories of the god Triton, the merman messenger of the sea, and several modern religions including Hinduism and Candomble (an Afro-Brazilian belief) worship mermaid goddesses to this day.
One of the earliest depictions of a mermaid came from Syrian mythology. Atargatis, also known as Derceto or the Syrian goddess, was half woman half fish deity of the ancient city Hierapolis-Bambyce in Syria.
However, many people are perhaps most familiar with the Disney version of “The Little Mermaid,” a somewhat sanitized version of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale first published in 1837. In some legends from Scotland and Wales mermaids befriended — and even married — humans. Meri Lao, in her book “Seduction and the Secret Power of Women,” notes that “In the Shetland Islands, mermaids are stunningly beautiful women who live under the sea; their hybrid appearance is temporary, the effect being achieved by donning the skin of a fish. They must be very careful not to lose this while wandering about on land, because without it they would be unable to return to their underwater realm.”
Hiding in Plain Sight: Medieval Mermaids in Churches
Why would an ancient, folkloric, but non-Biblical, character such as a mermaid find its way into so many medieval European churches? And can such mermaid imagery and symbology be correlated with the more overt pagan symbols of the Green Man and Sheela na gig?
Common Pagan Symbols in Churches
There are numerous stone sculptures and wood carvings in European medieval churches that depict what may appear to be non-Christian imagery. Most discussed are those of the Green Man and the Sheela na gig, which have found various interpretations, from pagan symbols existing surreptitiously within Christian sacred spaces, to simple decorative adornments, created by masons and carpenters with the implicit approval of the Church.
Unlike many of the more straightforward carved images of animals and therianthropes in churches, the Green Man and Sheela na gig portrayals are not drawn from passages in biblical texts, strengthening the hypothesis that they are derived from naturalistic pagan belief systems and folkloric ideas, which continued to operate at some level below the radar of Christian orthodoxy throughout the Middle Ages.
It appears as if there were a certain ecclesiastical allowance to tolerate these coded populist images, even if they were evoking (especially in the case of the sexually explicit Sheela na gigs) a potentially heretical cosmology.
But there is another popular non-Biblical image regularly found in churches of all status, especially prevalent in Britain and Ireland: mermaids. They can be found in stone reliefs, bench-ends, misericords, roof bosses, and occasionally in wall paintings in almost a hundred medieval churches, usually prominent, sometimes hidden but most often following a similar design, which remained largely unchanged between the 11th and 15th centuries.
Mermaids in Mythology and Folklore
Mermaids have been a part of the global mythological ontology for thousands of years. They make their first literary appearance in Assyria at about 1000 BC, when the goddess Atargatis turns herself into a mermaid as a self-imposed punishment after accidentally killing her human lover. But this rendering of a mermaid creature may be based on the even earlier tradition of the Babylonian God Ea , who was portrayed as a fish with a human head.
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.
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.
A Myth or a 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?
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.
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.
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.