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Mythology Of Undine - A Mermaid Novella Or A Fairy Tale?

Undine under water by Arthur Rackham

Undine under water by Arthur Rackham

The word Undine means different things to literary historians and Star Trek fans. For this article, we'll focus on the novella written by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque who masterfully composed a story from widely-spread mythology about mermaids. Water spirits are known all over the world, we can find them and their relatives in many popular texts and legends, so the base for universal appeal was already set. With the power of Fouque's lavish imagination, a short novella was written and it soon became one of the most popular stories in the 19th century with a vast influence on many artistic works written in next decades, all the way to the 21st century.


Undine is a water spirit. She is a daughter of Mediterranian water prince but is raised by a poor fisherman and his wife. Her foster parents had a daughter (named Bertalda) of their own before she was lost at the river on her third birthday. They believe she drowned in the Danube. Undine appeared at their door just a few days after, so the fisherman and his wife accepted her as a kind of replacement.

They raised her on their own and the real story starts when she is already eighteen years old. Undine is beautiful, yet childish, irresponsible and somehow wild young woman when a stranger knocked on the door. It is a knight Huldbrand (aka Huldebrand) of Ringstetten, who has a castle not so far at the banks of Danube. He strained his leg and was happy to find a shelter from the coming storm.

A young knight and beautiful Undine like each other so after a while (thanks to the weather conditions they were trapped in the cottage for several days) Huldbrand asked for permission to marry Undine. The fisherman was happy to give his step-daughter for a wife to a nobleman and the very same day another coincidence happens.

A priest, who was also looking for a shelter came to the cottage and marries the young couple what gives the soul to Undine (creatures of nature don't have immortal souls like humans). They went to live in Huldbrand's castle, but things start to complicate.

Sir Huldbrand already had a sympathy - a lady named Bertalda. Yes, the very same Bertalda, who was lost at the river. She was kidnapped by water-creatures to be replaced by Undine. She was raised as a foster kid of the Duke and the Dutchess. Her affection to Huldbrand doesn't stop with his marriage and for some time all three (the knight and both girls) live together, what soon leads to problems.

The marriage falls apart, Undine returns to the water world and after a while, Huldbrand wants to meet with her again. This was a fatal mistake. Undine's kiss kills him and this is where the story ends.

But like at all the greatest stories it's actually a beginning.

Undine and Huldbrand by Daniel Maclise

Undine and Huldbrand by Daniel Maclise

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Historical Context

As a novella, Undine was published in 1811, just one year before another extremely important German text - Children's and Household Tales by brothers Grimm. While Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm wrote Kindermaerchen (Tales for kids), de la Motte Fouque wrote Kunstmaerchen (Art tales). Both genres belong to the typical Romantic repository which eventually helped to create Germany as a uniform and comprehensive state.

Motifs from folklore were often used in romantic texts because they were already familiar to a wide audience from different areas of roughly today's area of Germany. Readers loved to escape the world of hard reality and Romanticism provided exactly that. Even more - it managed to fuse all the fears and hopes of all society structures. There was no artistic movement with comparable reach all over the world than Romanticism, which especially in music created some of the greatest hits of all times (just think about Mozart and Beethoven). Not then, not before, not later.

Undine and her uncle Kuhleborn

Undine and her uncle Kuhleborn

Different stories about mermaids who tried to gain human soul through the process of marriage with a man were known in most parts of Europe for centuries before Friedrich de la Motte Fouque was even born. The main idea was to achieve something more, namely to raise a living being from simple instinct-driven animal to more complex emphatic and socially aware human can be easily related to the establishment of larger entities, like German or Italy (and others) at the moment both being divided into smaller units with much less importance.

The title character is relatively complex and others are way more interesting than the majority of characters of early 19th century novellas. She has a helper who plans her marriage from her tender age by kidnapping Bertalda and putting her in Bertalda's position. It is obvious other coincidences are not really coincidental either. This helper, among other things, caused Huldbrand's sprain. He is Kuhleborn, her uncle and another water spirit with magical powers. That brings us to the next section.

Undine by John William Waterhouse

Undine by John William Waterhouse


The story of Undine is soaked in water (pun intended). Fisherman's daughter is lost at the river, Undine knocks at the door of her future foster parents all wet, she plays with water all the time, Huldbrand comes to her new home thanks to the storm and the flood is the reason to keep him close to her for several days until he proposes her.

Rain conveniently leads a priest right in time to marry the young couple, even uncle Kuhleborn sometimes appears in the form of a brook. When the knight betrays her, Undine retreats in the river and the water is the place where the unfaithful husband finds his punishment - right after her sweet wet kiss.

Did You Know?

A rare medical condition called congenital central hypoventilation syndrome is known as Ondine's (Ondine is another name of Undine) curse.

It is a situation where a patient doesn't control his or her breathing automatically.

Such patient can suffocate in the sleep and in several versions of Undine she warns Huldbrand not to fall asleep, because he can stop breathing, just like at very passionate kiss.

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Water with its unrivaled importance for live and ability to kill is a perfectly natural element for romantic artists. It's an element of metamorphosis, formed as ice, running water or vapor, and the main element from which all living creatures are created. Humans are made approximately 70 percent of water and water spirits of probably even more. We all know through how many changes Undine went, don't we?

Les Ondines, vintage post card by Marcel Rieder

Les Ondines, vintage post card by Marcel Rieder


Mermaids (and mermen) are present in almost every folklore in the world. They are closely connected with fertility, in many areas credited for bringing moisture to the soil from rivers and lakes in the spring. It seems at least in some parts only after a while another characteristic was added - they started to present a threat to people.

Initial danger connected to mermaids was associated with kids. Everybody living near water was, of course, afraid of the possibility of drowning and children were the most vulnerable of all. Later this danger expanded to grown ups. Especially interesting were Sirens from Greek mythology (with Oedipus as the first who managed to escape their spells), who lured sailors into the deadly waves with their enchanted singing. But - despite many paintings Sirens are not half fish, half women. They are half birds!

Mermaids have many different names in different parts of the world: kelpies in Scotland, selkies in Ireland, knuckers in England, morgans in Wales, melusines in France, naiads in Greece, mavkas in Ukraine, rusalkas in Russia, laras in Brazil, amabies in Japan, jiaorens in China, and - obviously - undines in Central Europe. Some of them are portrayed as young girls, other as older women, some are half fish, others half snakes, others again as seals by day, women by night, but always possessing some kind magical powers.

Old legends were often mixed with unreliable seeings of fishermen, sailors, ferrymen and other people closely related to the waters. These men were working in hard conditions, often isolated from the rest of the world for weeks, often without proper rest or food, and afraid of cruel waters surrounding them. Ignited with imagination they produced numerous more or less believable stories about mermaids.

These amazing creatures are still interesting for the wide audience, what can be seen in numerous shows in amusement parks.

Undine illustrated by Arthur Rackham


The mythology of undines is older than five thousand years. We can find water spirits in the form of girls in all major mythologies. In Egypt they were responsible for the floods of Nile, in China they were crying pearls instead of tears, in India we find Vishnu in the form of half man, half fish (first of ten primary avatars). Mermaids are divine representations of water element, and they live in wells, brooks, rivers, oceans, ..., often having some kind of noble title.

Typical mermaid is a princess, what not only gives her superior position to a mere mortal but also a mighty protector, like the king of the ocean. Their interaction with humans inspired thousands od amusing stories with bitter-sweet plots and often sad endings. Melusine, French legend, is only one of them. So why we mention it? Well, it tells a story about a water nymph who marries a count on condition to keep her privacy at bathing. They lived happily for many years, got many kids until he broke his promise and she left him.

The very same story served as a base for Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque, who created one of the most memorable and influential stories about human relations ever.

Were I asked, what is a fairytale? I should reply, Read Undine: that is a fairytale; then read this and that as well, and you will see what is a fairytale.

— George MacDonald

The Little Mermaid by Evelyn Stuart Hardy

The Little Mermaid by Evelyn Stuart Hardy

Fairy Tale

The story of Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen was written upon Undine. Numerous documents, especially writer's letters, are disclosing the beautiful and painful process of writing a story where Andersen found yet another frame for his own life. He sees himself as a mermaid, who desperately seeks for love from the prince (Edvard Collin, son of Royal Danish Theater director), but can't really express his feelings, let alone finding reciprocation in a relationship.

Oscar Wilde's The Fisherman and His Soul share many similarities with Undine and The Little Mermaid. The soul is one of the central points in this story too, but this time it is not about gaining but losing. A fisherman has to give up to his soul in exchange to unite with a beautiful mermaid. The allegory on differences between natural and spiritual worlds is obvious, just like the autobiographical parts of Wilde's life. He was always torn between instant earthly pleasures and dedicated work which eventually brought him immortality.

No wonder writers love mermaids just like painters or sculptors, right?

Other Media

Undine was an inspiration to numerous musical compositions. Maurice Ravel's piano suite Gaspard de la nuit, Claude Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande, Hans Werner Henze's ballet Ondine, Carl Reineck's sonata 'Undine', Op.167, ...

There are also several operas: Albert Lortzing's Undine, Antonín Dvorak's Rusalka Op. 114, E.T.A. Hoffmann's Undine (with a collaboration of de la Motte Fouque), Piotr Tchaikovsky's Undina ...

Andy Warhol and Neil Jordan both filmed their versions of Undine, so did Lucius Henderson in 1912 and Eckhard Schmidt in 1992.

We could go on and on, but it's probably already clear - we are dealing with the immortal story. Or shall we say with a story with a soul?

Newspaper ad from 1916

Newspaper ad from 1916

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