In honor of Summer I want to discuss sea themed fairytales. The Little Mermaid is the obvious choice, but there are also tales of selkies and undines. I will focus on The Little Mermaid, selkie tales, and Undine (which is a story by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué which became a German opera by him and E.T.A. Hoffman).
The selkie is a sea maiden who instead of being half human and half fish like a mermaid, is a seal maiden. The selkies are able to fully transform into seals with their magical seal skins. This is much like the skin walker legends in Native American traditions. In the tales of selkies, one is usually tricked into marriage with a human man by him stealing her seal skin. Without her seal skin the selkie cannot return to her the sea and her family. After years of marriage to the human, and some children, when the seal wife happens upon her skin (often one of the children finds it and gives it to her) she runs off back to the sea. In some versions she takes the children with her, and in others she abandons them along with her husband. She is a woman who was not meant to be tamed and taken from her watery home! Her ending is one of regaining your freedom and breaking the chains that bind you!
The Little Mermaid is the best known story of the ones I am discussing today. The basic tale is easy to state, it is about a young mermaid that visits a sea witch in order to gain legs to meet a human prince. In the original tale, which is much darker and sadder than the Disney one, she is in pain with every footstep, as it feels as if knives are cutting into her feet. She does not gain the love and marriage of the prince, as he cannot fall for a mute woman. In the time when Andersen wrote the story many people thought mute people to be unintelligent, hence the outmoded term “deaf, dumb, and blind.” When she does not gain his love, she not only forfeits her voice forever to the sea witch, she forfeits her life. She died and became sea foam, but her spirit was given the chance to become immortal with years of helping humans. Part of the story was about her wanting an immortal soul, which humans had and mermaids did not. If she married a human she would have gained it, but since she chose not to murder the prince like the sea witch told her to (it would break the spell) she was seen as fit to earn a human soul!
Undine is a very similar story to The Little Mermaid, as it is about a sea spirit who earned a human soul by marrying a human knight. The tale is far less tragic than the Hans Christian Andersen mermaid story. It would eventually be adapted into a famous opera by the original author, and the great E.T.A. Hoffman! Undines are known to be water spirits, and also elementals. This means that they are living embodiments of the element they represent! Both The Little Mermaid and Undine were written in an era when religion was very important in people’s lives, so the idea of these water maidens gaining souls was seen as inspirational.
I hope that you have enjoyed my writing on water based fairytales! Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is an image of an undine. I found the image on storynory.com.
- The Fairy Bible by Teresa Moorey
- Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué
- The Little Mermaid by Hans Christen Andersen
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