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The Legend of the Loreley

Updated on June 29, 2015
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I visited the Unesco Heritage Site in Germany called “Loreley” when I was in high school. I remember joining all of the tourists climbing the rocky path to the cliff that overlooked the narrowest part of the Rhine River. My mother was the last of the family to climb that path; she was huffing and puffing the entire way. But once we made it to the top, the view was spectacular.

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The German cliff that overlooks the Rhine River is called “Loreley.” It is a rock on the east bank of the river that towers 120 meters high and marks the narrowest part of the Rhine River between Switzerland and the North Sea. It is the most famous landmark along the Rhine River.

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The following story is an original tale that I wrote for my middle school students while teaching them about re-writing original stories. I always write whatever genre I have my students write so that I can honestly speak to them as one writer to another.

There once was a beautiful German fraulein. Fraulein means young unmarried woman in German. The young lady’s name was Loreley, and she was desperately in love with the handsome son of the town’s magistrate. The magistrate was the highest official in this town, and he did not want his son hanging out with a peasant girl like Loreley. But the young man and woman were besotted with each other. Besotted means that they loved each other. The two met in secret. The young man’s father, the magistrate, found out, and he was outraged. He had Loreley arrested for bewitching his son and other young men in the town. The son was afraid of his powerful father, so he testified that, yes, Loreley had bewitched him into loving her. The magistrate cast the lovely, but brokenhearted Loreley out of the town forever. He sent her to live in a convent for the rest of her life. A convent is a community of Catholic nuns. The convent to which she was sent to live was along the Rhine River, upriver from her hometown.

Loreley spent a year in the convent, praying every morning and night. The nuns were very strict about their lives in the convent, and Loreley knew that she would never get to visit family every again. Loreley was distraught with grief. One day, just before evening prayers, Loreley managed to run away from the convent. Loreley climbed the highest rock along the Rhine River and gazed out at the water. She implored the water fairies to take her and return her to the town that she left behind. Loreley was so upset that she cast herself off of the rock and into the flowing river below. Her lifeless body was carried downstream and washed ashore in the town of her birth.

Now, it just so happened that the young man who Loreley so desperately loved and who betrayed that love was celebrating his birthday with a party on the Rhine River. It was her young man and his friends who found her lifeless body washed up on the shore. The reader can only imagine the guilt that the young man felt.

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But, that is not the end of the story for Loreley’s spirit still sits on that rock that overlooks the narrowest part of the Rhine River. She brushes her hair and sings a melancholy song that lures young sailors to their death. Modern-day sailors swear that they can hear her siren call. But when they go to investigate, their ships are dashed to pieces.

The name “Loreley” comes from the old German word “lureln” that means “murmuring.” The Celtic word “ley” means rock. Thus the word “Loreley” means “murmuring rock.” The rock is called that because of a murmuring sound that a nearby waterfall makes as it falls into the Rhine River. It is this “murmur” that is said to lure sailors to their death.

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The following is an English translation of the poem “Der Lorelei” by Heinrich Heine:

I know not if there is a reason

Why I am so sad at heart.

A legend of bygone ages

Haunts me and will not depart.

The air is cool under nightfall.

The calm Rhine courses its way.

The peak of the mountain is sparkling

With evening’s final ray.

The fairest of maidens is sitting

So marvelous up there

Her golden jewels are shining,

She’s combing her golden hair.

She combs with a comb also golden

And sings a song as well

Whose melody binds a wondrous

And overpowering spell.

In his little boat, the boatman

Is seized with a savage woe.

He’d rather look up at the mountain

Than down at the rocks below.

I think that the waves will devour

The boatman and boat as one.

And this by her song’s sheer power

Fair Lorelei has done.

The folk group, the Pogues, wrote and recorded a song called “Lorelei.” Here are those lyrics:

You told me tales of love and glory

Same old sad songs, same old story

The sirens sing no lullaby

And no one knows but Lorelei.

By castles out of fairytales

Timbers shivered where once there sailed

The lovesick men who caught her eye

And no one knew but Lorelei.

River, river have mercy

Take me down to the sea

For if I perish on these rocks

My love, no more I’ll see.

I’ve thought of you in far-off places

I’ve puzzled over lipstick traces

So help me God, I will not cry

And then I think of Lorelei

I travel far and wander wide

No photograph of you beside me

Ol’ man River’s not so shy

And he remembers Lorelei.

River, river have mercy

Take me down to the sea

For if I perish on these rocks

My love, no more I’ll see.

If I should float upon this stream

And see you in my madman’s dream

I’d sink into your troubled eyes

And none would know cept Lorelei.

River, river have mercy

Take me down to the sea

For if I perish on these rocks

My love, no more I’ll see.

But if my ship, which sails tomorrow

Should crash against these rocks,

My sorrows I will drown before I die

It’s you I’ll see, not Lorelei.

River, river have mercy

Take me down to the sea

For if I perish on these rocks

My love, no more I’ll see.

Do you notice the alternate spelling of the siren’s name? The answer has everything to do with etymology, which is the history of a word’s spelling. “Loreley” is the traditional spelling with the “-ey” making the long /i/ sound. In the twentieth century, the German academics changed their spellings of the long /i/ to the letters “ei.” For this reason, I have used both spellings for this piece.

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    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 2 years ago

      I love this, what a beautiful hub. I don't know many German legends, so I was very enchanted with this haunting tale. Great writing!

    • Jonas Rodrigo profile image

      Jonas Rodrigo 2 years ago

      Lovely story. Both urban and folk legends are good sources of inspiration.

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 2 years ago

      Hi Melissa, thank you for sharing this legend with the beautiful photos and music! I have that book on German Myths and Legends you posted! I love the folklore of Germany and you did an excellent article here. Will share :-)

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I will have to disagree with you, Melissa! You said in your comment on my hub that most of your articles are mediocre at best....this certainly is not mediocre. Loved the photos and loved your original tale based on the site. Well done!

    • Dana Tate profile image

      Dana Tate 2 years ago from LOS ANGELES

      A beautifully told, well-written story of , finding love- losing love- deceit and tragedy. I loved the endings twist of how her spirit sits on a rock luring poor sailors to their death. Beautiful pictures which complemented the story so well. Voted up!

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