My Little Mermaid

by Deb on September 27, 2011

My Little Mermaid

That time of year has rolled around again, we are approaching big girl’s birthday. This year the request was for a Mermaid party and cake, which worked pretty well. We ended up with several mermaids, a rainbow jellyfish and a couple of sharks running around on the deck having a wonderful time. There could have been a disaster with the cake but keeping it in the freezer worked wonders.

In honour of her birthday I thought I’d write about her beloved mermaids.

Legends of mermaids have been around for a long time, including Greek Sirens and the Lorelei in the Rhine. It’s an interesting question where they came from – was it just general misogyny and myth or was there something that looked like a half woman/half fish?

The Fiji Mermaid

There are quite a few of these floating around, the top half of a monkey sewn to the back half of a large fish. Many of them were covered in paper mache to make the joins less obvious and presented as ‘mummified.’ The most famous was exhibited by P.T. Barnum, but they were relatively common sideshow attractions. One source claims they were made as part of a religious ceremony, but others say they were to sell to credulous Europeans.


Image thanks to InverseHypercube


Sirenomelia is a very rare congenital condition also called ‘Mermaid Syndrome.’ It is caused by a very early problem in the embryo which leaves it with fused legs and generally severe problems with the lower digestive system, kidneys and bladder. It is almost always fatal, only with modern medicine are a few children surviving. It has been known for a long time, with illustrations and accounts hundreds of years old, and was another source for ‘mermaid bodies’ for sideshows or their older aristocratic equivalents.


The Sirenia or sea cows include manatees and dugongs. They are fully aquatic mammals but not closely related to dolphins and whales, they seem to be most closely related to elephants. Their tails have horizontal flukes like dolphins and mythical mermaids, but they don’t have dorsal fins or flippers. Instead their front arms have been modified into paddles used for steering, but they still have visible joints and on a really dark night could look like arms.

There are three species of manatee that live in shallow, marshy rivers and swamps – one in western Africa, one in the Amazon and the other in central America. There is only one species of dugong now, a larger species was hunted to extinction in the eighteenth century. Dugongs live in saltwater and are found in coastal areas of Africa, Arabia, South-East Asia and Australia.

They are the only herbivorous marine mammals, grazing on beds of sea grass. Even though they are no longer directly hunted they are at risk from human activity because of environmental damage and injuries from collisions with boats.

Mama and baby dugong

Image thanks to Nick Hobgood

They are often put forward as the origin of the mermaid myth. However given their distribution in Asia, Africa and the Americas I personally think it is unlikely – the myths were around in Europe long before the sirenia were discovered.

It’s always a mistake to push too hard to find ‘answers’ or ‘origins.’ There have been versions of sea goddesses with fish tails for thousands of years. Many early gods, goddesses and mythical creatures are part human and part animal including Anubis, Horus and fauns. But we don’t search for dog or eagle headed humans or people with goat legs. It’s a fun way to tie together history, myths, culture, development and animals, but real mermaids still only exist in our minds and little girls’ hearts.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Penny September 27, 2011 at 7:30 am

I love this post Deb! Like your daughter I loved mermaids and I’ll let you into a little secret. I still do. Shhh, don’t tell anyone!
Penny´s latest amazing offering ..Too Cheeky — Guest Post at Musings of Mama GraceMy Profile


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