Undines (or ondines) are a category of imaginary elemental beings associated with water, first named in the alchemical writings of Paracelsus. Similar creatures are found in classical literature, particularly Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Later writers developed the undine into a water nymph in its own right, and it continues to live in modern literature and art through such adaptations as Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”.
Undines are almost invariably depicted as being female, and are usually found in forest pools and waterfalls. The group contains many species, including nereides, limnads, naiades and mermaids. Although resembling humans in form, they lack a human soul, so to achieve immortality they must acquire one by marrying a human. Such a union is not without risk for the man, because if he is unfaithful, then he is fated to die.
Undine is a term that appears in the alchemical writings of Paracelsus, a Renaissance alchemist and physician. It is derived from the Latin word unda, meaning “wave”, and first appears in Paracelsus’ book Liber de Nymphis, sylphis, gnomes et salamandris et de caeteris spiritibus, published posthumously in 1658. Ondine is an alternative spelling,, and has become a female given name.
Paracelsus believed that each of the four classical elements – earth, water, air and fire – is inhabited by different categories of elemental spirits, liminal creatures that share our world: gnomes, undines, sylphs and salamanders respectively. He describes these elementals as the “invisible, spiritual counterparts of visible Nature … many resembling human beings in shape, and inhabiting worlds of their own, unknown to man because his undeveloped senses were incapable of functioning beyond the limitations of the grosser elements.”
Description and common attributes
Undines are almost invariably depicted as being female, which is consistent with the ancient idea that water is a female element. They are usually found in forest pools and waterfalls, and their beautiful singing voices are sometimes heard over the sound of water. The group contains many species, including nereides, limnads, naiades, mermaids and potamides.
What undines lack, compared to humans, is a soul. Marriage with a human shortens their lives on Earth, but earns them an immortal human soul.
The offspring of a union between an undine and a man are human with a soul, but also with some kind of aquatic characteristic, called a watermark. Moses Binswanger, the protagonist in Hansjörg Schneider’s Das Wasserzeichen (1997), has a cleft in his throat, for instance, which must be periodically submerged in water to prevent it from becoming painful.
The ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles (c. 490 – c. 430 BC) was the first to propose that the four classical elements were sufficient to explain everything present in the world. The philosophy of nature spirits was also familiar to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, and certainly to Paracelsus. The Celtic languages scholar Henry Jenner has argued that the elementals grew out of the folklore that preceded them:
The subdivisions and elaborations [of nature spirits] … by Paracelsus, the Rosicrucians, and the modern theosophists are no doubt amplifications of that popular belief in the existence of a race, neither divine nor human, but very like to human beings, who existed on a “plane” different from that of humans, though occupying the same space which … resembles the theory of these mystics in its main outlines, and was probably what suggested it to them.
David Gallagher argues that, although they had Paracelsus as a source, 19th and 20th-century German authors found inspiration for their many versions of undine in classical literature, particularly Ovid’s Metamorphoses, especially given the transformation of many of their undines into springs: Hyrie (book VII) and Egeria (book XV) are two such characters.
Literature, drama, ballet and music
Later writers embellished Paracelsus’ undine classification by developing it into a water nymph in its own right. The romance Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, published in 1811, is based on a passage in Paracelsus’ Liber de Nymphis in which he relates how an undine can acquire an immortal soul by marrying a human, although it likely also borrows from the 17th-century Rosicrucian novel Comte de Gabalis.
Ondine was the title of one of the poems in Aloysius Bertrand’s collection Gaspard de la Nuit of 1842. This poem inspired the first movement of Maurice Ravel’s 1908 piano suite of the same name.
The character of Mélisande from Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist play Pelléas et Mélisande has been seen as an Undine figure. Debussy, Sibelius, Fauré, and Schoenberg all wrote music adaptions of the play. The 1939 play Ondine by French dramatist Jean Giradoux is also based upon Fouqué’s novella,as is a ballet by composer Hans Werner Henze and choreographer Frederick Ashton with Margot Fonteyn as Undine. The Austrian author Ingeborg Bachmann, a friend of Henze’s who collaborated with him frequently, attended the premiere of the ballet in London, and published her short story “Undine geht” in the collection Das dreißigste Jahr (1961), in which Undine “is neither a human nor a water spirit, but an idea”.
Fouqué’s Undine also exerted an influence on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” (1837), and H.D. plays on this identification in her autobiographical novel HERmione (1927). Burton Pollin notes the popularity of the tale in the English-speaking world: translations in English appeared in 1818 and 1830, and a “superior version” was published by American churchman Thomas Tracy in 1839 and reprinted in 1824, 1840, 1844, and 1845; he estimates that by 1966 almost a hundred English versions had been printed, including adaptations for children. Edgar Allan Poe was profoundly influenced by Fouqué’s tale according to Pollin, perhaps as a result of his broad reading of Walter Scott and Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Scott had derived the character of the White Lady of Avenel (The Monastery, 1820) from Undine, and a passage by Coleridge on Undine was reprinted in Tracy’s 1839 edition.
Congenital central hypoventilation syndrome, a rare medical condition in which sufferers lack autonomic control of their breathing and are hence at risk of suffocation while sleeping, is also known as Ondine’s curse. Ondine, the eponymous heroine of Giradoux’s play, tells her future husband Hans, whom she has just met, that “I shall be the shoes of your feet … I shall be the breath of your lungs”. Ondine makes a pact with her uncle, the King of the Ondines, that if Hans ever deceives her he will die. After their honeymoon Hans is reunited with his first love, the Princess Bertha, and Ondine leaves him, only to be captured by a fisherman six months later. On meeting Ondine again on the day of his wedding to Bertha, Hans tells her that “all the things my body once did by itself, it does now only by special order … A single moment of inattention and I forget to breathe”. Hans and Ondine kiss, and he dies.