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Lorelei – The Song of the Siren
By Lynn Whitney
Soaring some 120 meters above the Rhine River, stands the Lorelei Rock. Nestled between majestic castles and neatly terraced vineyards in Germany’s Rhine Gorge, the Lorelei marks the narrowest part of the river between Switzerland and the North Sea and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2002. The unique configuration of this area creates an angry, swirling current. As the water rushes by it produces a murmuring sound, giving the rock its name, the Lorelei, roughly translated as murmuring rock. These curious sounds and the tragic number of shipwrecks have fueled the imaginations of sailors for generations and created the legend of the Lorelei.
Atop the rock, there once lived a beautiful Rhine Maiden named Lorelei. Dressed in white, a wreath of stars in her copper hair, swathed in shimmering light, her eyes glimmering like diamonds, she would sit and comb her hair, scattering pearls into the swirling waters below. But more enticing than her beauty was her song, a sound that so enchanted sailors, they would lose sight of the water and wreck their ships on the craggy shores. No sailor who ever tried to reach her every returned.
So who is this bewitching undine? Is she a broken hearted maiden who unwittingly lures mariners to their death, or a vengeful siren? Tales of water nymphs abound and perhaps that’s just what she is, a siren, daughter of the river god, but one beguiling story is that of the “Forsaken Bride.”
Long ago, in medieval times, there lived a maiden by the name of Lorelei. Such was her beauty that every man who laid eyes on her fell hopelessly in love. Suitors came from far and wide, but she would have no one. Finding themselves rejected, the disconsolate men would wander the forests, and often fling themselves into the Rhine for love of the cold hearted maiden. But cold and cruel she was not, for Lorelei was broken hearted herself. Having pledged her troth to a young knight more concerned with the glory of war than his promise to her, she waited patiently for his return.
As the years passed with no word from him and her rejected lovers continued to pine away , rumors of sorcery began to circulate. Charged with the practice of witchcraft, she was called before the court, but her beauty melted the hearts of her accusers. In her sorrow, she begged the judge to let her die. Moved by her innocence and lack of guile, he ordered three knights to bring her to a convent to live out her life in peace. On their way to the convent, as they passed the towering rock, Lorelei begged the knights to let her climb the rock for one last glimpse of her beloved’s castle. As she stood at the summit, she noticed a small ship passing by with her true love at the bow. Hearing the cry that escaped from her lips, the young knight saw her standing at the precipice. Momentarily distracted, he steered his vessel into the rocks and was drowned. Seeing her lover perish on the rocks, Lorelei cried out his name and threw herself into the rushing water. Today the rock retains the echo of her cry, and sailors speak in hushed voices of the beautiful siren who sits on top of the rock, combing her golden hair, singing a sad song and unknowingly luring sailors to their death.
The myth, originally imagined by German author Clemens Brentano, has become part of German folk lore in the form of a poem by Heinrich Heine:
I know not whence it rises,
This thought so full of woe;
But a tale of times departed
Haunts me, and will not let go.
The air is cool, and it darkens,
And calmly flows the Rhine,
The mountain-peaks are sparkling
In the sunny evening-shine
And yonder sits a maiden,
The fairest of the fair;
With gold is her garment glittering,
And she combs her golden hair:
With a golden comb she combs it;
And a wild song singeth she.
That melts the heart with a wonderous
And powerful melody.
The boatman feels his bosom
With a nameless longing move;
He sees not the gulfs before him,
His gaze is fixed above.
Till over boat and boatman
The Rhine’s deep waters run:
And this, with her magic singing,
The Lore-lei has done.
Is Lorelei a cunning siren or a broken hearted damsel? Well, many legends come in the form of parables, so maybe she is just an echo that reminds us to not be so distracted by ephemeral pleasures that we lose sight of the dangers ahead.