By Kristina Braga
Up high on a ledge is sitting
A maiden most marvelously fair.
Her golden jewelry is glitt’ring.
She is combing her golden hair.
She uses a gold comb to comb it
And sings a song as well,
That echoes down off the summit
And casts a melodic spell.
Excerpt from “Die Lorelei” by Heinrich Heine, translated by Peter Shor
In the summer of 1965, I fell under the “melodic spell” of the Lorelei. That summer, my parents and I took a pleasure cruise down the Rhine River, which is the longest river in Germany. Old castle ruins and small villages dotted the countryside, but the most memorable sight was about to come. Suddenly, our ship stopped. Music began playing, and soon, almost everyone on board around me started singing! They were singing the lyrics to a poem titled “Die Lorelei,” written by Heinrich Heine. Our ship had stopped in front of a huge protruding slate rock cliff on the right bank of the river near Sankt Goarshausen, better known as the Lorelei Rock.
During the Middle Ages, this stretch of the Middle Rhine Valley was known as the most dangerous section of the river to navigate, with its deep and narrow waters and deadly strong currents for good measure. Through the centuries, it has been the site of many shipwrecks, and as legend has it, the Lorelei was believed to be the cause. The Lorelei is not merely a rock cliff on the Rhine River, but it is also a legend that was first put into words by a German writer named Clemens Brentano in 1801. According to this legend, a beautiful maiden named Lorelei waited on the rock cliff for her beloved knight to come back from war. Only, he never returned.
Feeling betrayed, the enchantress was accused of bewitching men and luring them to their deaths. Her punishment for this sorcery was death by burning, but the Archbishop was so enamored by her beauty that he forgave her and committed her to a nunnery instead. While on her journey to the convent, the maiden passed the Lorelei cliff and asked the knights accompanying her if she could climb the rock one last time to look at the Rhine. When she reached the top, she thought she saw her knight on a barge sailing toward her, and so she leapt from the rock to her death below. Some people claim that you can still hear the echo of her name coming from the rock.
In 1824, Brentano’s legend was immortalized in a poem written by Heinrich Heine, and later put to music in 1937 by Friedrich Silcher. Heinrich described the Lorelei as an enchantress, known by some as a siren in Greek mythology, and by others as a mermaid. She sits on top of the rock cliff combing her long golden hair while serenading sailors and fishermen. The men become so distracted by her mesmerizing voice and unsurpassed beauty that they sail towards her, crashing their ships on the rocks and drowning in the river below.
In 1983, a 16-foot bronze statue of the Lorelei, also known as Loreley, was placed on a narrow piece of land jutting into the Rhine River below the Lorelei Rock as a memorial of the figure borne out of German Romanticism. She forever watches the boats sailing on the waterway and is a beloved tourist destination. Interestingly, as recent as 2011, a barge carrying 2,400 tons of sulfuric acid capsized at this dangerous curve in the river. The cause of the accident was unclear. Was it the Lorelei that caused the tanker to overturn? We may never know. I, however, am pleased to say that I survived my passage through the Middle Rhine Valley.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine May/June 2020 issue.