Kunst Wasserfrau

european waterwomen, located in rivers

„(…)no doubt, they want to be part of the life of human beings, but they also want to be respected and left alone from time to time, in their habitats down in the sea, in the rivers, the ponds or sometimes – like Loreley – on the rocks close to rivers.“  

short presentation of european waterwomen, located in rivers
held within Gabriela Carneiro da Cunha Lab at Wiener Festwochen Encounters of Waters
Foto shows a statue of Oxum (Candomblé, brasilian sweatwater godess, represents feminitity, fertility, love, beauty and wealth) also watches over the river danube in Linz)

aug 2021

Within my research, I deal with constructions of femininity in connection or in relation to constructions of water. It is primarily european female water beings as we encounter them within literature, in mythical narratives, in pictorial representations. There are epochs that, for various reasons, are characterized by a greater density of mermaids – this includes German Romanticism, which is why many of my main motifs come from works, preferably literary ones, from this period.

I am happy to present a few of those waterwomen and how they influence the way we deal with the resource water, nature, meadow landscapes but also the captivity of telling stories, and most of all – the ability of listening to stories of waterwomen.  Waterwomen like the Donauweibchen, Mermaids, Undinas, Melusinen, Sirens etc. – mostly don’t want to do harm to human beings, on the contrary they want to get in contact, they fall in love with human beings, they even marry human beings, they give birth to half humans/half waterwomen, they are sensitive, passionate and sometimes very political…  So there is no doubt, they want to be part of the life of human beings, but they also want to be respected and left alone from time to time, in their habitats down in the sea, in the rivers, the ponds or sometimes – like Loreley – on the rocks close to rivers.  

Donauweibchen              located at River Danube
Region: middle Europe, Germany, Austria | Passau, Vienna

Saalnixe                             located at River Saale
Region: Eastern Germany | Thüringen

Loreley                               located at River Rhine
 Germany, Upper Middle Rhine Valley | St. Goarshausen

Undine                               located at River Danube
Region: Germany,
Black Forest (source of the Danube) | Ringstetten Castle (does not exist)

Die schöne Lau                banned from the River Danube, Eastern Europe, Black Sea, Romania to:
the small River Blau (Blautopf), Germany |

Warszawska Syrenka    located at Vistula River (Weichsel)
Poland, Warsaw

quick overview of my research:

For some time, I was concerned with the question of how the different figures and concepts of waterwomen can be related to each other at all, how their stories can be compared.  So, at the beginning I made a list of female water beings (disregarding the question if they are “real” or imaginary, from the Ama Women in Japan to the mermaid of Zennor) and tried to classify them in a very basic way – external characteristics such as the nature of their bodies, the ability to transform the body, their habitat, also their family, social and economic status – whether they are related, whether they are a threat, or are threatened and by whom, I also tried to record in the shortest possible descriptions in which narratives and stories they are woven in, that is: setting, time of their creation, other protagonists, persons they rely on or they have an impact on, images, spaces and places, which are designed as reference systems and always also included as speculative narratives and spaces.

This made it possible for me to relate the figures, literary drafts, pictorial representations of phantasmorgias to each other, compare them, perceive them rather as generic or generic forms and do counter-reading with contemporary feminist, philosophical, post-structuralist and other texts from sociology and gender studies.

What is obvious – who tells or speaks of the water woman, is talking of or means the mermaid’s body, which is not only mostly characterized as a divided one, but also has to live in a surrounding, that tells a story of dichotomies: half on land / half in the water / half fish / half woman / half snake / half woman / nature vs. culture etc.

Even if not obvious, the images of division and multiplication are omnipresent in the motif of the water woman, not only the body, but also the spaces and the superordinate concepts are characterized by duality, by dichotomies and by embodiments of representation in opposition to each other.

However – and this is one of my approaches within my PhD – the story can be told in a completely different way – not having to decide between two patriarchal drafts of femininity. What if one assumes that this described division is not one that seeks to grow together (which is always a story of lacking something), but on the contrary a story of allowing oneself to expand in as many directions as possible and these divisions describe a becoming and a growth? Like sea foam molecules?

On closer inspection, aspects that emerge are:

the fact that the body of the waterwoman actually stretches and expands – the Melusine, for example, grows wings when she leaves Raymond (flying snake / fliegende Schlange = Drache / dragon), the beautiful Lau has webbings between her fingers – the mermaid has the ability to transform her body, like the Undine, which becomes a ghost and a creek, or the Little Mermaid, who decides to become sea foam.

The waterwoman herself is always part of other systems – she is not the lonely “otherother”, homeless and unloved, and even when she feels she is – she is aware and decides how to handle it – knowing that death is not the end of something but part of a system:

water women have family, girlfriends, allies, people and other living beings for whom they feel responsible. I will describe this right later using the example of the Warszawska Syrenka. Water women – like the Undine – can change their form, can become water, become human beings, become a spring, become air, become lovers, become those who kill.

Thus, when viewed, the figure of the waterwoman not only forms the edge, the outside, the inside, the membrane, the memory, the trace, the embodiment and the dissolution of history, she is the story. Since it is becoming in permanence, it seeks no clue and no end, but it seeks reference points and reference systems[1]. These references can be herself and her own physicality – Loreley with comb and mirror, Melusine in the bathroom, but also any other human/non-human references.

The water woman seen from this perspective is no longer part of a dual machine of man and woman, like an object of mediation that would have to decide or is torn between two sexes, she is more than part of every part and element of the story and all the characters of the story have to pass through the water woman, must temporarily also become water woman in order to become each other. (Deleuze/Guattari, Bronfen[2], von Samsonow[3])

From this perspective, water women can grow beyond the boundaries of patriarchal imagination, into something that may not have a body or name at all, not because it is negated or denied, but because it is no longer available in this game around representation of femininity.

Donauweibchen / Hulda I[4]

The myth of Donauweibchen exists since the early days of professional fishing along the River Danube, mainly around Vienna, when the region – a large meadow landscape – was affected by highwaters and floods. One of the most common stories is the one about a father and his son, both fishermen, when one winter evening the mermaid comes to their little house in the wedlands and warns them to leave the house due to a huge flood arising. After being saved by the mermaid, the son can’t forget her and searches for her everyday on the River Danube and disappears. When the father is looking for his son, he sees him and the Donauweibchen under the water, walking happily through her shimmering green castle down in the water.  
The Donauweibchen is wealthy and behaves very generous towards the poor fishermen and their families. She not only warns them but also endows them with gold and other treasures from the river.
She returns at the end of the 18th century as Hulda, main role within a play by Karl Friedrich Hensler – she now has a child (Lily) and is searching for the human father, who hardly remembers her and doesn’t want to take any responsibility for the 4 years old girl.  
She is not described with a fishtail or a fin, but is obviously a shapeshifter – she appears in various embodiements, such as an old whitch, a young knight etc.

In Vienna you find her e.g. as statue within the Stadtpark (Hanns Gasser, Donauweibchenbrunnen 1865), a figure that relates more to a shy Venus than to a powerful, wealthy waterwoman, or at the 19th district as “Donaumädchen” (Kahlenbergerdorf, Wolfgang Hutter, 2003).  Many visual representations lack her former female power, but since the Donauweibchen is part of the team of Austrian Superheroes[5] – now called Diana – she is back.


Das Donauweibchen has a daughter, Lilly, in the old myths many sisters and a very patriarchal father.


Her superpowers are to foresee catastrophes, walk and breathe under water, kindness and to change her appearance.

Saalnixe / Hulda II[6]

Christian Vulpius claimed to be the first who wrote about Hulda and published nearly the same story with the same characters in 1799 resp. 1804 – Hulda now lives in the River Saal, in Eastern Germany (despite there is no connection between Danube and Saal….) It is not clear if the Viennese or the Weimar Hulda was first – but it gives a good example of patriarchal mermaidexpoitation.
In both stories Hulda is a very generous Mermaid who offers a Knight called Albrecht a very progressive, open relationship – he can still be married with Bertha but has to love her and stay with her for one month (Saal) or three months (Danube). Albrecht fails completely, Hulda and Bertha become some kind of accomplicies. „Schöne getreue Bertha! Ich bin nicht zu Deines Mannes Verderben erschienen. Ich vergebe ihm. Er ist ein Mensch, ängstlich, wie ihr alle seyd. Ich stellte ihn auf die Probe. Er hat sie nicht bestanden. Nun gebe ich alle Verbindungen mit Menschen auf.“[7]

Hulda gives birth to a son (Huldebert) and hands him over to Bertha, which leads to an important fact within the mermaid genealogy: daughters (like Lilly in the viennese version) stay with the Nymph, sons stay with the human father & his human wife.


Sisters: Ilm-Nixe Erlinde and the Hard-Nixe Garlante, mother is also a mermaid (Elbe)


breathe under water, her self-confidence, independence, tremendous generosity, solidarity and kindness

Loreley [8]

not the typical mermaid, but her figure illustrates all the male and patriarchal gazes and perspectives, women all over the world have internalized: Loreley was betrayed by the only man she (thought she) is able to fall in love with. She is described as so beautiful, that every man falls in love with her, and – when she refuses all offers and withdraws from male demands, she is called a witch, a prostitute, etc. When even the bishop, from whom she hoped for a death sentence, falls for her charm and pardons her, she plunges into the Rhine. Heines Loreley, however, sits on a high Rhine rock, sings and combs her hair. Down in the river, meanwhile, the skippers drown, the view of the beautiful ones spellbound. Brentano’s Lore Lay suffers and dies the love death, Heines Loreley sings and leaves the dying to the men.

Loreley gives also a good example of multiple mermaid exploitation: Loreley meals, inns, hotels, combs, a museum and an annual Loreley lookalike competition around the “Loreley Felsen”


no relatives and no family.


seduce skippers and destroy ships (disturbing the beginning industrialization of the river rhine in the early 19th century) while sitting on her rock.


Undine as figure stands for the pagan woman, coming from the river, the woods, nature… trying to find true love, fails due to the rudeness and blindness of human beings towards nature and their spirits, becomes a ghost, kills (kiss of death) the man she loved and finally becomes water again (a little creek) that floats around the man’s grave. Her figure is represented in fountains (Undinenbrunnen, Baden bei Wien), films, symphonies, lyrics, plays, feminist literature (Undine geht, Bachmann[9]), a disease (Undine-Syndrom – people cannot breathe autonomously) …


Father is a merman who gave her away, because he wanted his daughter to get a soul by marrying a human (=christian) man. So, a fisherman and fisherwoman found Undine at the rivershore and since they have lost their daughter to the river (Bertalda, taken by Undines father, who grows up as the daughter of a noble family), they raise Undine like her own child. Later, Undine sees in Bertalda not only a friend, but a “sister”.

another relative, an uncle – Kühneborn – is sent by her father to watch over her.[10]


Undine is a shapeshifter, she can switch the forms of her body from water to woman to spirit and back to water. She can calm the water, talk to ghosts and kiss to death.

Die schöne Lau               

Die schöne Lau lives in the „Blautopf“, a pond near the Swabian Town of Blaubeuren. She is physically described like a human being, except for fine webbed skins between the fingers. Eduard Mörike[11] did not model the „History of the Beautiful Lau“ on a folk tale or a figure, but invented it, as he himself emphasized. Her husband, an old „Donaunix“ and his mother have expelled her from home (Black Sea) and banished her to this pond – because she can only give birth to dead children. Only when she has laughed five times can she go back. The landlady Betha Seysolffin befriends the beautiful Lau, who occasionally swims in the fountain under the inn, and in fact the Lau laughs five times in the course of this friendship.

A fairy tale about female friendship, about friendship in general, about how to do yourself good, how women can become accomplices in the good. From today’s point of view, one may not even admit that she returns to her husband in the end – the end is described as a „happy ending“, which is definitely formulated from a patriarchal point of view.


Husband, Mother-in-Law, Sister-in-Law, die schöne Lau is half merman, half human (Mother).


Lau is incredibly patient; she can wait and sit in the dark (in the pond) for hours and is still friendly. Very generous (magic swirl for Betha). Talks to and plays chess with dwarfs.

Warszawska Syrenka

Based on the appropriation in the course of the LGBTQ protests in the summer 2020, a replica of the bronze figure of Ludwika Nitschowa, which represents the Warszawska Syrenka, also became an accomplice of the opponents of the stricter abortion ban in Warsaw. This figure is a water woman always equipped with attributes of defense, of struggle,[12]her depiction refers to the founding myths of the city, to which the manifesto of the collective Stop Bzdurom, which was formed in the course of the protests, refers:

„The Warsaw mermaid has a sword and a shield in her hand. She has a rainbow and a scarf. This is our call to fight. As long as we fall asleep with the thought that nothing will change anyway. That’s how long we need to be reminded that we exist. That we are not alone. This city is also ours. Fight! „[13]

A look at the founding myths clarifies and sharpens the reference to the mermaid: in some the
Warszawska Syrenka is described as the sister of the Little Mermaid,[14] both the voice becomes capital:
while Andersen’s mermaid gives the voice of the sea witch to become „human“, the sister is captured to sell her for her voice. However, she uses the voice to resist, is saved and thanks with the promise to protect Warsaw, to occasionally come from the Vistula to the surface of the water in order to perceive the change of the city.


Sister (the little mermaid / Copenhagen)


her voice, equipped with a shield and sword she fights for democracy, human & equal rights

[1] [1] Vgl. Deleuze/Guattari, 1730 – Intensiv-Werden, Tier-Werden, Unwahrnehmbar-Werden…, S. 354 f. in: Tausend Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze / Felix Guattari, Berlin 1992

[2] Weiblichkeit und Repräsentation aus der Perspektive von Semiotik, Ästhetik und Psychoanalyse, Elisabeth Bronfen in: Genus, Zur Geschlechterdifferenz in den Kulturwissenschaften, Hadumod Bußmann/Renate Hof (Hg.), Stuttgart 1995

[3] Elisabeth von Samsonow, Der Körper als Passage, S. 175 – 187, in: Quel Corps, München 2002

[4] Hensler, Karl Friedrich, Wien 1799, https://www.projekt-gutenberg.org/hensler/donauwb/donauwb.html

[5] https://www.austriansuperheroes.com/

[6] Vulpius, Christian August: Die Saal-Nixe. Eine Sage der Vorzeit. Leipzig: Rein, 1795

[7] Vulpius, Christian August: Die Saal-Nixe. Eine Sage der Vorzeit. Leipzig: Rein, 1795 – als Hulda in der Erstfassung 1795 entnervt und enttäuscht das Handtuch wirft, wendet sie sich an Bertha. In der Zweitfassung 1804 (Titel: „Hulda oder die Nymphe der Donau eigentlich die Saalnixe genannt“ tut sie das nicht mehr, sondern sie spricht Albrecht direkt an. / when Hulda gives up the contact to human beings in the first version in 1795, unnerved and disappointed, she turns to Bertha. In the second version in 1804, she no longer does so, but addresses Albrecht directly.

[8] There are two figures I refer to: Godwi oder Das steinerne Bild der Mutter, Clemens Brentano, 1801, Stuttgart 2007: Brentano creates two figures that refer to waterwomen: Lady Molly Hodefield and Lore Lay within the lyric „Zu Bacharach am Rheine“, where the name Lore Lay (vgl. Lai bei Marie de France) first was mentioned and Loreley/Lore-Ley/Loreley by Heinrich Heine, 1824, https://www.projekt-gutenberg.org/antholog/avballad/chap010.html

8 Undine geht, in: Bachmann, Ingeborg, Undine geht, Erzählungen, Stuttgart 1978,

[10] Undine, Friedrich de la Motte-Fouqué (1811), S.47, Stuttgart 2019 

[11] Die Historie von der schönen Lau, Eduard Mörike (1873), Grafrath 2017

[12] The bronze figure of Nichowa – one of two depictions of the Warszawska Syrenka in public space – was probably chosen for a reason: the model for the bronze statue in 1939 was the poet Krystyna Krahelska, who died in 1944 as a paramedic in one of the Warsaw uprisings against the occupation of the National Socialists.

[13] https://www.facebook.com/stopbzdurom/

[14] http://archiwum.auslandsdienst.pl/3/22/Artykul/403052,Aus-dem-Archiv-Warschauer-Seejungfer

Von Wiltrud Katherina Hackl

kulturarbeiterin, kulturmanagerin, lehrbeauftragte, autorin

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