“Ondine’s Curse” is the name of a rare form of apnea, a condition in which people stop breathing. According to various medical texts, it's based on an old Germanic legend - the story of Undine or Ondine, who cursed her faithless lover to stop breathing. Except . . . this doesn't sound anything like the story of Undine, which isn't even exactly a legend. What's going on here?
As I've described before on this blog, "undines" originally came from the writings of 16th-century philosopher Paracelsus. The word was evidently his original creation, referring to water elementals or nymphs. Combining the medieval legends of "Melusine," "Peter von Stauffenberg," and various folktales about fairy wives, Paracelsus wrote that undines could gain a soul by marrying a human. However, such relationships were fraught with danger; these water-wives could all too easily be lost to the realm they'd come from, and if the mortal husband took another wife, the water-wife would come back to murder him. This story was passed around and adapted by various authors.
Most famously, it found form in the 19th-century novella Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. Undine is a nymph who marries the knight Huldbrand and gains a soul as a result. However, he ditches her for a human lover - which, by the rules of spirits and the otherworld, means he must die. Although Undine still loves him, she is forced to kill him on the night of his second wedding. She appears and embraces him, weeping.
"Tears rushed into the knight's eyes, and seemed to surge through his heaving breast, till at length his breathing ceased, and he fell softly back from the beautiful arms of Undine, upon the pillows of his couch—a corpse."
Undine then states mournfully, "I have wept him to death."
So where did things go off track?
This novella became extremely popular, inspiring many adaptations. There were plays, operas, ballets. Even Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid took inspiration from it.
One play adaptation, Ondine, by Jean Giraudoux, came out in 1938. In this version, the characters are named Ondine and Hans. Although Hans betrays Ondine with another woman, she still loves him and attempts to stop her people from executing him by running away. However, her efforts are of no avail, and Hans is condemned to death by the king of the water spirits.
The former lovers get the chance to say goodbye. The tormented Hans tells Ondine, “Since you went away, I've had to force my body to do things it should do automatically. I no longer see unless I order my eyes to see... I have to control five senses, thirty muscles, even my bones; it's an exhausting stewardship. A moment of inattention, and I will forget to hear, to breathe... He died, they will say, because he got tired of breathing..."
As the two share a final kiss, Hans dies and Ondine's memories of him are erased.
Losing the Way
In 1962, a California-based doctor named John Severinghaus and his colleague Robert Mitchell worked with three patients who all shared similar symptoms. After operations on the brain stem, these patients could not breathe automatically. They had to consciously decide to breathe, and they needed artificial respiration when asleep. Severinghaus and Mitchell wrote a paper about their studies, coining the term "Ondine's Curse" for the phenomenon. They stated briefly:
"The syndrome was first described in German legend. The water nymph, Ondine, having been jilted by her mortal husband, took from him all automatic functions, requiring him to remember to breathe. When he finally fell asleep, he died."
This is a garbled version of Giraudoux's play. They were clearly inspired by Hans's speech, and as pointed out by researcher Fernando Navarro, they use Giraudoux's spelling, "Ondine." But you can see the play being misunderstood and slanted here, misremembered just a little.
Their summary was soon picked up, gaining a life of its own as other medical professionals repeated and mangled it further. Many versions simply repeat some variation on Severinghaus and Mitchell, but we see an emerging image of Ondine as a forceful figure who delivers judgment on her traitorous husband. She, not the ruler of the water spirits, curses Hans. Across various versions, she is angry, a purveyor of revenge or punishment (Navarro 1997).
Usually the husband or lover is unnamed, but Hans remains a common moniker (as in Naughton 2006). Some retellings get much more elaborate, with their own mythology. A popular variant explains that if a nymph ever falls in love with a mortal and gives birth to his child, then she will become an ordinary mortal, subject to aging. Nevertheless, the nymph Ondine falls in love with a human, and he with her. One version names him Lawrence (Coren 1997); another calls him Palemon, borrowing from Frederick Ashton's 1958 ballet adaptation Ondine (Mawer 2009).
Lawrence/Palemon/whoever swears to her that “My every waking breath shall be my pledge of love and faithfulness to you." However, after she bears his son, Ondine begins to age, and her beauty fades. Her shallow husband dallies with other women. When Ondine catches him in bed with a mistress, she is enraged. With the last of her magic, she calls down a curse which mocks her husband's broken vow: as soon as he falls asleep, he'll stop breathing. Her husband inevitably falls asleep from exhaustion and dies.
This variant upends the original worldbuilding. In Fouque’s novel, marriage grants Undine a soul, but she remains otherworldly and powerful. Huldbrand rejects her out of fear and resentment. However, in this variant, marriage transforms Ondine into an ordinary woman, and that's why her husband strays.
Some of the shorter retellings are so clumsily phrased that they mix up vital information. One skips over the husband's infidelity:
"[T]he beautiful water nymph . . . punished her mortal husband by depriving him of the ability to breathe automatically. Without the benefit of tracheostomy, the poor wretch, having forgotten how to breathe, died in his sleep." (Vaisrub 1978)
Another makes Ondine the cheater in the situation!
"Ondine, a German water nymph, invoked a curse upon her jilted husband so that he would forget to breathe (and die) when he fell asleep." (Swift 1976, as cited in Navarro 1997)
Or was Ondine the one who was cursed?
"[T]he water nymph Ondine was punished by the gods after falling in love with a knight by being condemned to stay awake in order to breathe." (BBC 2003)
In some versions, Ondine is a succubus-like serial killer:
"...a water-spirit of German mythology called Ondine who could cause the death of her victims by stopping their respiration." (Taitz et al 1971, as cited in Navarro 1997)
"Ondine was a mythological water nymph who exhausted her human lovers." This author quotes Giraudoux's play, but labels Hans as just "one victim"! (Sege 1992)
And sometimes the nature of the curse itself changes to a perpetual sleep, as in one dictionary where Ondine is "A water nymph who caused a human male who loved her to sleep forever." (Firkin 1996)
The story goes completely off the rails in one article on spine surgery:
"Ondine, a shepherd in Greek mythology, was cursed for his misdeeds by being put into a sleep from which there was no awakening." (Fielding et al, 1975, as cited in Navarro 1997)
Critics were rightfully outraged at this summary, which manages to get every single detail wrong. The writers were following blindly in the footsteps of a very confused 1968 article which evidently mixed up Undine with the Greek myth of Endymion. The mistake is so wildly far off that I'm honestly impressed.
This is what happens when a bunch of people start retelling a story they've never read. The heart of the modern character Undine – carrying through to her spiritual successor, the Little Mermaid – is that she loves her husband. Her love is self-sacrificing and all-forgiving. The medical myth around “Ondine’s Curse” inverts this, making her a vindictive wife, a vampiric seductress, or a sheep-tending Greek man.
One article examines the history but concludes lackadaisically, "Whether Ondine kissed or clasped her husband to death depends on the version of the tale, and one can never know who cursed whom" (Tamarin et al, 1989). That's not true, though! This isn't like traditional oral folktales where there really are multiple unique variants and no one can determine an original. This is more like saying that we can never really know whether Dorothy's slippers were silver or ruby in The Wizard of Oz.
At what point does urban legend or commonly-repeated misconception become folklore? Can Ondine be considered a myth or legend, as it is often called? Perhaps it has become something of an oral folktale in the medical community. But given that it came specifically from literature, I hesitate to call it that.
This is part of a larger issue surrounding the story of Undine. It left its stamp on Western culture, but the work itself has become pretty obscure. For instance, many readers take jabs at Hans Christian Andersen for the theme of souls and salvation in The Little Mermaid, calling it tacked-on or a case of preachy Christian moralizing. But that plotline wasn’t original to Andersen – it was his response to Undine.
Scholars such as Oscar Sugar, Ravindra Nannapaneni, and Fernando Navarro have put significant work into tracing the fragmented and confused medical legend of Ondine's Curse. Many of them have argued against using the name at all, calling it a misnomer. From the other side, psychology professor Stanley Coren complained that the term was losing favor because of political correctness and "language sensitivity, where labeling people as suffering from some form of curse is seen as being insensitive rather than colorful." However, Coren says this right after weaving an elaborate summary which bears almost no resemblance to the real story. He also incorrectly attributes the coining of the term to the 1950s. And the vast majority of critics don't complain that it's mean to call a medical syndrome a curse; instead they focus on the fact that the name is fundamentally a bad fit.
On the literary level, Ondine neither causes the "curse" nor experiences it, and Hans's experience goes way beyond apnea. You could get pedantic and say "Well, it's named after the play, not the character" but clearly it has not been taken that way.
On the medical level, the shifting definitions lead to inconsistency on what the medical condition is. As Nannapaneni et al point out, the name "Ondine's Curse" has come to be used inconsistently for all sorts of conditions related to respiration. Not ideal for a medical term. They suggest that “this wide and nonspecific usage reflects a lack of awareness of the origins of this eponymous term.”
These days, the condition is typically known as Congenital Central Hypoventilation Syndrome (CCHS); however, the name "Ondine's Curse" is still around in casual language, and is apparently here to stay.
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.