The Lure of the Lorelay

The Upper Middle Rhine Valley in Germany is a protected UNESCO World heritage site. Dotted with ancient castles and fortresses which were largely abandoned by the 17th Century this area became an important cultural landscape, both as a record of human history, and for the many artistic expressions it inspired during the 19th Century romantic movement.

As the picturesque river rounds a bend near the town of Sankt Goarshausen it begins to narrow, and The Loreley (also known as Lorelei) is a large grey rock cliff formation that looms above this treacherous section of water infamous for the many lives it has claimed. While some say the Loreley name translates to murmuring rock (Rhine Dialect), the name could also translate to Luring rock (German). Either way, there is no surprise that this geological formation has inspired some stories of its own, and both translations aptly fit the Siren-esque tale that surrounds these cliffs.

The Lorelay in Fog by Kim Traynor via wikicommons

The first recorded version of the Lorelay myth comes from 1801, in Clemens Brentano’s ballad Zu Bacharach am Rheine. Brentano tells the tale of Lore Lay, a golden-haired girl whose beauty cannot be surpassed. She has promised her heart to a young knight who is off fighting wars abroad, and she waits on the banks of the Rhine watching faithfully for his return. Despite her love for another, Lore Lay’s comeliness is famed throughout the land, and suitor after suitor comes and pleads their case. Lore Lay remains true to her knight, and her suitors, despondent with rejection hurl themselves into the Rhine like lemmings. The townsfolk begin to suspect Lore Lay of witchcraft and seduction and so she is hauled in front of the bishop of charges bewitchment.

Lore Lay is so heart broken by this stage that she no longer cares for her life, and does not fight her fate, but her charms are so enchanting that even the bishop falls under her spell. Sparing her, he sends her to a convent to live out the rest of her life in service to God and away from men. He sends three guards to escort Lore Lay and they set off on horseback to deliver her to the nunnery. As they round the bend of the grey cliffs that loom over the Rhine, Lore Lay begged the men for one last look at her beloved homeland. The men agreed and Lore Lay scrambled out onto the rocky river cliffs. Seeing a sail in the distance, Lore Lay’s heart leapt with joy, and hoping it was her lover returned she leaned out over the edge for a closer look. The stones beneath her feet began to crumble, and the beautiful golden-haired maiden slipped to her death, landing in the swirling rapid waters beneath.

In 1824 Heinrich Heine extended the Lore Lay myth with his poem, “Die Lorelei”. Here Lore Lay remains a ghost, her spectral presence remains on the rocks as she combs her golden hair and sings a lament to her lost lover. Like the Sirens of Greek myth, Lore Lay’s haunting beauty and irresistible song becomes too much for passing sailors. They become transfixed on the rocks above as their boats wreck in the treacherously shallow and narrowing waters below and they sink to their watery graves.

‘The Lorelei’ by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856)

translation by Anna Leader

I do not know what it might bode
That I should be so sad,
A fairytale from long ago
Now will not leave my head.
The air is cool and darkening
Above the quiet Rhine;
The mountaintops are sparkling
In afternoon sunshine.

The loveliest young maiden sits
So beautifully up there,
Her golden jewelry gleams and glints,
She combs her golden hair,
She combs it with a golden brush
And while she combs she sings;
The tune is both miraculous
And overpowering.

It grips the sailor in the ship
With a wild and aching woe;
His eyes are only looking up,
Not at the rocks below.
I believe that in the end the waves
Devoured ship and boy,
And that is what the Lorelei
Accomplished with her voice.


Featured Image: Lorelay in 1900s via WikiCommons/Library of Congress

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