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This edited article about the Lorelei legend originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 790 published on 5th March1977.
On a clear night in June some sixty years ago, a heavily-laden sailing boat was making its way down the Rhine.
It moved swiftly, and the moon sparkled on the broken waters in its wake.
“Steady as she goes,” said the man at the tiller when the relief helmsman appeared. “With a wind like this we should be in Koblenz by morning.”
The relief helmsman took the tiller.
“Anything particular to look out for?” he asked, for he was new to this stretch of the river.
“Nothing much, except at St. Goar, about three miles ahead. There’s a tricky shallow there – you’ll want to keep well out in midstream to get round it. But you’ll have plenty of room.”
“How will I recognise it?”
“You can’t mistake the place. The river bends sharp to starboard and there’s a cliff falling sheer into the water.
“The Lorelei rock the villagers call it, because they say that’s the name of the witch who sits on top, singing to lure the sailors. Ha! Singing indeed. Why, anyone can tell it’s only an echo.”
Both men laughed. The relief helmsman sat by the tiller and watched the wooded riverbank slipping by. Here and there he saw a clearing, the roofs of a few houses or the spire of a little church showing among the trees.
There were no lights. In these parts people went to bed early, and they barred their doors against werewolves and goblins.
The helmsman smiled, Water spirits that lured poor sailormen under the water existed only in the minds of superstitious people.
They were just fairy tale characters and were no more real than was Frau Holde, the Queen of the Elves. She too, like this Lorelei woman, was supposed to sing to mortals. Any man who heard her was thought to lose his wits and set off to wander with her forever. What a tale!
The helmsman saw the bend to starboard ahead. He began to head the boat well out into midstream, as he had been told.
Suddenly he gave a start, then listened intently, his head on one side. Yes, there it was – a girl’s singing voice.
Never, thought the helmsman, had he heard a voice so beautiful.
He must see to whom the voice belonged. It was not just an echo, of that he was sure. Forgetting the danger of the shallow water, he began to steer towards the bank.
Closer he steered, and still closer, all his attention taken up with that sad and lonely song.
For a moment he thought he saw the singer, beautiful as she combed her long yellow hair. Then there was a splintering crash.
Arms flailing, the helmsman was jerked overboard. The ship shuddered, its back broken by a hidden spur of rock.
Next moment it slid under the surface, taking the crew and cargo with it to the bottom of the river.
In the morning, the villagers saw a pile of driftwood at the foot of the cliff, and crossed themselves.
“It was the Lorelei,” they said knowingly, and went to ask the priest to pray for the sailors’ souls.
Many such tales as this have been told about the singer on the rock.
Some people said that she was the daughter of a man and a watersprite who, because she belonged neither to the land nor to the water, sang to attract others who would share her companionship and ease her loneliness.
Others said she was a girl who had been jilted by a faithless prince and had drowned herself in despair, her ghost remaining to haunt the place.
A young Count, it was said, once fell in love with Lorelei, and began to visit her secretly. But his father became suspicious.
“Follow my son everywhere,” he told two men-at-arms. “If he goes out at night and meets anyone, seize whoever it is and bring them back for questioning!”
That night, as the young man took the boat that was waiting for him by the banks of the Rhine, the men-at-arms rowed silently after him.
The Count reached the foot of the cliff. He tied up his boat and began to climb. Lorelei leaned over, reaching out her hand to help him.
“Seize her!” cried one of the men-at-arms, and they jumped ashore, slipping and stumbling on the wet rock.
The Count, startled by their cry, missed his footing. Lorelei tried to save him, but the men-at-arms rushed at her and she missed him.
The men-at-arms, unable to stop, slid past Lorelei and they, too, fell into the water. The Rhine carried all three men away to their deaths.
This and many other stories are told by the people of the Rhine about Lorelei. Sometimes she was cruel and killed men by calling up thunderstorms. Sometimes she was an unhappy maiden, weeping for her lost love.
More cynical people said she was just an invention, suggested by the shape of the rock below St. Goar and the tales of the Queen of the Elves.
But the legend lives on.