5 things you didn’t know about mermaids

The Little Mermaid - September 26-30

When Northern Ballet performs The Little Mermaid here from Tuesday 26 September, we’ll be joining them in a world beneath the waves, populated by graceful mermaids and seahorses.

To get us in the watery mood, we thought we’d put together a few things you might not know about mermaids.


The first mermaid was an Assyrian princess

Abigail Prudames as Marilla with Northern Ballet dancers in David Nixon’s The Little Mermaid.
Photo: Emma Kauldhar

The first recorded story of a mermaid dates back to 1000BC, the Assyrian story of Atargatis.

The goddess Atargatis fell in love with a mortal shepherd – but being a goddess, she accidentally killed him. She was so horrified by this that she turned herself into a fish. Which seems like a perfectly reasonable reaction, right?

Sometimes shown as a fish with a human head and arm, and sometimes as a full mermaid, Atargatis was a precursor to the mermaid stories that have cropped up all over the world. You’ll find them almost everywhere, and there’s a reason for that – we’ve always been enchanted by the notion of life in the deep blue sea.


People really did worry about them

Explorer Christopher Columbus described seeing mermaids on his journeys around the globe. Sailing around the island of Hispaniola in 1493, he mentioned seeing female figures rising out of the water. Rather harshly, he described them as being ‘not as beautiful as commonly represented’.

You might also be surprised to learn that the fearsome pirate Blackbeard (scourge of sailors everywhere) listed ‘enchanted’ areas in his logbook, ordering his sailors to stay away from them for fear of mermaids.


They got in the way of reservoir repairs

In 2012, workmen in Zimbabwe abandoned repair works on two rural reservoirs. According to water resources minister Samuel Sipepa Nkomo, they had been hounded from the site by mermaids who didn’t want the repairs to go ahead.

Fortunately, he explained, the solution was simple: they would brew traditional beer and carry out rites to appease the spirits. It seemed to work, as the work continued without any further problems.

Were they really mermaids? Well, try that excuse when your boss asks why you want to leave early on a Friday…


They might be dugongs?

According to folklore experts, the story behind mermaids might actually be sightings of dugongs – a manatee-like sea creature which lives in the Pacific Ocean and grazes peacefully on sea grasses.

Dugongs, or ‘sea cows’, inhabit shallow waters which means they are easy to spot from passing boats. With their dolphin-like tails, sailors apparently mistook them for mermaids – when they weren’t hunting them for their meat.

You know you’ve been at sea too long when you start making mistakes like that!

Dreda Blow as Dana and Joseph Taylor as Prince Adair in The Little Mermaid.
Photo: Emma Kauldhar

There’s an international mermaid championship in Florida

Miss Mermaid International is the world’s biggest competition for real-life mermaids (you’ll need a synthetic tail and the ability to hold your breath underwater for an impressive length of time).

Champion mermaids from nations around the globe will be meeting in Egypt this Christmas to compete for the world title. As well as being a chance to dress up, it’s for a good cause: the mermaids try to raise awareness of marine conservation issues. There’s still time to apply, if you want an excuse to jet off to Cairo!


Northern Ballet’s The Little Mermaid is here from26-30 September. Buy tickets now at Norwich Theatre Royal.