Kate Farrell (author of Story Power) completes her series of water goddesses, mermaids, and spirits posts with this German legend.
Near St. Goar, there rises out of the waters of the Rhine River a perpendicular rock, some four hundred feet high. Many a boatman in bygone days there met his death, and the echo which it possesses is still a mournful one.
Those who know the great river, under which lies hid the treasure of the Nibelungs, with its “gleaming towns by the river-side and the green vineyards combed along the hills,” and who have felt the romance of the rugged crags, crowned by ruined castles, that stand like fantastic and very ancient sentries to guard its channel, can well understand how easy to believe was the legend of the Lorelei.
One fateful day, down the green waters came the boatman’s frail craft, ever drawing nearer to the perilous rock. All his care and all his skill were required to avert a very visible danger. But high above him, from the rock round which the swirling eddies splashed and foamed, there came a voice.
“Her voice was like the voice the stars had when they sang together.”
And when the boatman looked up at the sound of such sweet music, he beheld a maiden more fair than any he had ever dreamed of. On the rock she sat, combing her long golden hair with a comb of red gold.
Her limbs were white as foam and her eyes green like the emerald green of the rushing river. And her red lips smiled on him and her arms were held out to him in welcome, and the sound of her song thrilled through the heart of him who listened, and her eyes drew his soul to her arms.
Forgotten was all peril. The rushing stream seized the little boat and did with it as it willed. And while the boatman still gazed upwards, intoxicated by her matchless beauty and the magic of her voice, his boat was swept against the rock, and, with the jar and crash, knowledge came back to him, and he heard, with broken heart, the mocking laughter of the Lorelei as he was dragged down as if by a thousand icy hands, and, with a choking sigh, surrendered his life to the pitiless river.
To one man only was it granted to see the siren so near that he could hold her little, cold, white hands, and feel the wondrous golden hair sweep across his eyes. This was a young fisherman, who met her by the river and listened to the entrancing songs that she sang for him alone.
Each evening she would tell him where to cast his nets on the morrow, and he prospered greatly and was a marvel to all others who fished in the waters of the Rhine. But there came an evening when he was seen joyously hastening down the river bank in response to the voice of the Lorelei, that surely never had sounded so honey-sweet before, and he came back nevermore. They said that the Lorelei had dragged him down to her coral caves that he might live with her there forever.
Source: Lang, Jean. A Book of Myths. NY: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1914.
Note: In 1801, German author Clemens Brentano composed his ballad Zu Bacharach am Rheine as part of a fragmentary continuation of his novel Godwi oder Das steinerne Bild der Mutter. It first told the story of an enchanting female associated with the rock. In the poem, the beautiful Lore Lay, betrayed by her sweetheart, is accused of bewitching men and causing their death. Rather than sentence her to death, the bishop consigns her to a nunnery. On the way thereto, accompanied by three knights, she comes to the Lorelei rock. She asks permission to climb it and view the Rhine once again. She does so, and, thinking that she sees her love in the Rhine, falls to her death; the rock ever afterward retaining an echo of her name.
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