The Lovely (and Wild) Undine – Part 1

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She “knew she was created for God’s praise and glory….She was therefore baptized ‘Undine,’ and during the sacred ceremony she behaved with great propriety and sweetness, wild and restless as she invariably was at other times.”[1] 

This is my favorite “mermaid” story!  It was written in 1811 by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, a French ex-patriot who lived in Germany.  Interestingly, it came before many other mermaid tales, including Hans Christian Anderson’s famous Little Mermaid.

Even though I’ll give a thorough outline, I highly encourage you to read it yourself – it is lovely…and wild.  Just like Undine…

Undine

In Germany during the Medieval era, a “pious fisherman” and his family lived near “a very wild forest” on the edge of a lake.  The forest was haunted with strange creatures, and it was rare for anyone to visit.  But one day, a knight named Huldbrand comes out of the woods, weary from his travels.  The fisherman gladly takes him in for the night.[2]

While the knight talks with the fisherman and his wife, he hears “a splash against the low window.”  This happens repeatedly, and the fisherman angrily calls out, “‘Undine! will you for once leave off these childish tricks?’”  The water stops, and Huldbrand hears “a suppressed laugh.”[3]

Then, Undine enters the cottage.  Huldbrand is taken aback by her beauty…and her brashness.  Undine boldly “play[s] with a gold medal which he wore on his breast.”[4]  I know our standards of scandalousness  are far lower today, but even we would be unnerved by this.  Think of a young woman you know and imagine her intimately touching a strange man’s chest.  It’s suggestive, to say the least.  Thus, Undine’s father reproves her…and she storms out, furious.[5]

How Undine Came to Them

This strange behavior demands explanation!  So the fisherman and his wife reminisce about when Undine came to them.  Fifteen years ago, they were mourning their little girl’s death.  She “had sprung out of her mother’s arms, and had sunk beneath the watery mirror” as if trying to grasp something or someone.[6]

That night, another girl of about three came to their door.   The child spoke nonsense about her past, and since they could not find her parents they decided to adopt her.  However, there was an important question: was she baptized?  Since baptism was linked with salvation back then, this was very important.  The girl didn’t know, but she seemed to know about God, and wished to glorify Him.[7]

To be safe, they got a priest to baptize her.  However, the priest did not want to give her the un-Christian name of Undine – which is the name the girl insisted upon.  But Undine “flattered him so prettily…that at last he could no longer remember the objections he had.”  And thus she was baptized Undine.[8]

These reminisces halt abruptly, as a great storm bursts forth…and the two men search for Undine, fearing she may be swept away…

A Word on Undine

Fouqué brings in the basic aspects of mermaid lore.  First, Undine is a changeling.  We ran into this in with Selina, when a mortal child is exchanged with a supernatural child.  He also brings about the storm aspect of mermaids, in that a storm comes when Undine is upset.

Lastly, he relies heavily on Paracelsus’ theories.  Paracelsus said undina had the the same intellect as man but the nature of beasts.  In this, he meant they didn’t have souls,[9] but Fouqué takes it one step further.  Already he has set Undine up as a lovely, wild creature.  She makes calculated and educated decisions like mankind, but she is completely selfish and focused on herself – a “beast” with “intellect.”

What I find so tragically fascinating is Fouqué’s depiction of Undine’s spirituality.  She knows about God and seems to wish to glorify Him.  However, she is not saved.  Why?  She has knowledge, she has been baptized…but she doesn’t have a soul.  (This will be confirmed later in our story.)

She should be saved.  But she isn’t.  Salvation is denied her.  Access to God is denied her.  Can you imagine?  Longing to know God, but being denied Him.  Knowing the truth but unable to partake in it…

Modern “Undines”

We haven’t touched our lessons in awhile, but it’s time we do so.  Undine is wild and free…and completely lost.  What’s more, she knows this.  She wants to be free and wild in Christ.  She is a “worldly mermaid” who longs to be a “godly mermaid.”

But she can’t.

I can’t help but think that many believers and non-believers are in this state.  A state of feeling as if access to God is denied them.  As if there is no earthly way they could go from worldly to godly.

Unlike Undine, it has nothing to do with what they lack; it has to do with what they’ve done.  They see their sin as too great.

And by “they,” I mean we.  We are weighed down by our guilt over the past (or even guilt over future sins!), and are unable to fully move forward into the love of Christ.  We see our sin as too great, forgetting the glory of the Cross.

There is hope for you and me, lovely mermaid (or merman!).  Our sin is not too great!  There is hope in Christ, for He washes away everything (Ps. 51:7)!  All it takes is a willing spirit, a repentant heart (1 Jn. 1:9).  And then you are immediately washed clean, as if it had never happened.

We are free in Him, if only we have the faith to believe.

And unlike Undine, we can have this now.  We don’t have to wait like she does…

 

Sources

[1] Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué in Heidi Anne Heiner’s Mermaid and Other Water Spirit Tales from Around the World (Nashville, TN: SurLaLune Press, 2011) 546.

[3] Ibid., 540-541.

[4] Undine, 541.

[5] Ibid., 542. 

[6] Undine, 543.

[7] Ibid., 545. 

[8] Undine, 545-546.

[9] Ibid., 546.

[10] Paracelsus, A Book on Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies, and Salamanders, and on the Other Spirits in Four treatises of Theophrastus von Hohenheim, called Paracelsustranslated by Henry E. Sigerist (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1941) 230.

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