Show me a significant body of water and I’ll find you the legend to match it. Whether it’s the Bodach spirit who supposedly haunts the Scottish loch near my Grandmother’s house or the dragon that was killed by the river in Brno, our ancestors’ livelihoods were so entwined with the water that it became a part of the stories that explained who they were.
There aren’t many European bodies of water as significant as the river Danube. It runs through ten countries and four capital cities before it empties into the Black Sea. Even now, Vienna, Budapest, Bratislava and Belgrade still depend on it for tourism and trade. These cities stand where they stand because of the river that connects them.
So it’s not surprising that the Danube has its own creature in the water. In the river near Vienna, so the story goes, lives the Donauweibchen (in English, The Danube Mermaid).
The story of the Danube Mermaid is tied to the section of the river where there are still precarious fishing huts to be seen on the bank. These days, there are three underground lines to take you from that part of Vienna to the centre of the city, but people still joke that they’ll need to take a passport to visit their friends out there in ‘Transdanubia’. In years gone by, if the legend is to be believed, the area was even more treacherous than it is now.
The story goes:
It was deepest winter, and two fishermen sat on the riverbank mending their nets. There were flickering lights in each of the huts where other fishermen were doing the same. Weaving nets, winding ropes, scrubbing crates. When the sun rose, they’d travel into the city to sell their catch at the fishmarkets. At night, their boxes empty, they’d travel back to the cold and the stillness at the very edge of the water.
That night, the ice was thick at the edge of the river. The current underneath was fierce and the ice groaned and strained.
While their needles clicked, the older fisherman told tales to the younger.
He began with the story of the Danube Prince who lived with his children at the bottom of the river. His children were beautiful. His palace was tall and elegant and made of green glass. But he was cruel, walking the banks disguised as a hunter and dragging fishermen into the depths of the raging river. The Prince kept the souls of the lost fishermen in upturned jars in the palace and he showed no kindness to his daughters. He kept them prisoner. Sometimes they would escape, and the fishermen could hear them singing, even see them dancing in the city. But they were cursed to return home before dawn when the Prince beat them until the water ran red.
The younger fisherman scoffed at the stories until the room lit up and they saw a beautiful woman. She wore a dress with a belt of flowers. She had waterlilies woven in her long black hair. She told them not to be afraid. She wasn’t there to injure them or to steal them away, but to warn them of the ice breaking, the mountains thawing, and a flood rushing down the river towards them. Then she disappeared.
The fishermen ran to tell the others and, though the huts were swept away, none of them were lost in the flood.
In time, the huts were rebuilt. The village that had been swept away returned to the normal rhythms of the day, the seasons, the changing years. Everything was as it had been except for the young fisherman. He had been enchanted by the Mermaid’s beauty. He existed in the village but he never spoke. He took their boat and rowed out alone to the middle of the river. Even the old fisherman couldn’t reason with him.
One morning, the old fisherman found his boat washed up on the shore near their hut. It was empty. Had the Danube Prince found the young fisherman? Had the Mermaid taken him away, as he had wanted? Or had he been driven mad?
As Vienna grew, it built flood defences to keep the Danube at bay. Even the recent floods that devastated towns further up the river have been kept largely at bay in Vienna.
Perhaps because the city can largely take the river for granted, the legend of the Danube Mermaid is not well known. Strauss wrote a waltz for her, but it’s not the one the city dances to at New Year. There’s a gin named for her, the bottles inspired by the bottles of souls in the Prince’s palace, but Vienna is not generally a city of gin drinkers. Even the largest statue of the Mermaid, originally designed for the fish market but never installed there, is easy to overlook. She’s holding a fish and the shield of the city she protected in its infancy. The original statue was damaged in the war, but a copy of it stands in Stadtpark today, much closer to the small River Wien and the Danube Canal than to the water where the fisherman was lost.
Maybe the anonymity is fitting for a creature that was always a prisoner, or maybe it’s a sad end to a story that might remind us that, as much as we can use the water to build the things we want, we’re also at its mercy.
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