Legends and Ballads about the Rhine River Nymph
translated and/or edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 2024

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Alternate Spellings


  1. Lore Lay (Clemens Brentano).

  2. The Lorelei (Paul Zaunert).

  3. Lurlei (Ludwig Bechstein).

  4. The Maiden on the Lorelei (Karl Wehrhan).

  5. The Lorelei (Lewis Spence).

  6. Lorlei Castle (Philipp von Steinau).

Balladen, in deutscher Sprache

  1. Zu Bacharach am Rheine (Clemens Brentano).

  2. Waldgespräch (Joseph von Eichendorff).

  3. Loreley: Eine Sage vom Rhein (Otto Heinrich Graf von Loeben).

  4. Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten (Heinrich Heine).

  5. Der Handstand auf der Loreley (Nach einer wahren Begebenheit) (Erich Kästner).

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Alternate Spellings

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    Lore Lay

    Clemens Brentano

    Her beauty was her undoing. Lore Lay was not willfully seductive, but men could not resist her charms, and she could not resist their advances. She was bringing scandal and disgrace to the respectable town of Bacharach on the Rhine.

    There was even talk that she must be a witch or a woman possessed of the devil. The bishop, however, would not hear of an execution without due process, and he summoned her to his court. His questions were at first stern and severe. Her answers were simple and sincere. The bishop's severity, his piety, and his priesthood, however, did not prevail, and in the end he pronounced her free of all guilt.

    "I cannot continue like this!" she cried. "My eyes are the destruction of every man who looks into them. I have loved only one man, and he abandoned me and left for a distant land. Please let me die!"

    But the good bishop, entranced by her beauty, could not bring himself to pronounce a death sentence. Instead, he proposed that she dedicate herself to God, and called three knights to accompany her to the convent. Arrangements were made forthwith, and the three knights were soon underway with their beautiful ward.

    When their path led them past a high cliff overlooking the Rhine, Lore Lay had one last request of her escorts.

    "Please," she said, "let me climb the cliff and have one last look into the Rhine."

    Unable to deny her this wish, the three knights tethered their horses, and the four of them climbed to the top of the cliff.

    Standing at the edge of the precipice, Lore Lay said, "See that boat on the Rhine. The boatman is my lover!"

    And with no further warning, she jumped from the cliff into the Rhine.

    The three knights also met their death there, without a priest and without a grave.

    Who is the singer of this song?
    A boatman on the Rhine,
    And we always hear the echo
    Of the Three-Knight-Stone:
    Lore Lay
    Lore Lay
    Lore Lay
    As though there were three of us.

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    The Lorelei

    Paul Zaunert

    The boatmen and the raftsmen of the Rhine feared the pagan Lorelei more than anything else on the Rhine voyage, even more than the Bingen Hole [das Binger Loch, a narrow passage that limited shipping on the Rhine]. She was more dangerous because she misled and lured the boatman with wonderful voices from the rocks, so that he forgot to be careful and played with the echo.

    The unique echo and the raging current on the low-lying rocks -- these two things have been reported in travel accounts in poetry and prose since about the sixteenth century. Of course, 150 years ago the old people there believed that the echo used to be much clearer and more than five times louder. Furthermore, the whirlpools kept the boatmen believing for a long time that there was a bottomless depth there.

    Today's songs and legends about the Lorelei had precursers in the learned humanists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In describing the echo at the Lorelei, they reported that "people used to believe that forest gods and oreads lived there," that is: field and forest spirits and wild women.

    An example of the latter are the blessed maidens [salige Fräulein] of Tyrol. Recent folk legends tell how that at times they sit in front of their rock dwellings, let out their beautiful long hair, bask in the sun on their treasure, and irresistibly attract people with their wonderful song. This would also support the old belief that the Lorelei cliff is hollow (which of course formerly was used to explain the echo). More recent folk legends also speak of "Hanselmännchen," that is, field and forest spirits, little elves who live in the cave there.

    Or is Lorelei a mermaid? Similar things are said about water women as well as those who live in the rocks and forests. It is likely that Lorelei's nature, like her name, should remain a secret to us, and we will not try to guess or guess at it any more.

    The Witch of Bacharach

    The person who created the modern Lorelei was Clemens Brentano. His Lorelei is a human woman, a witch from Bacharach, who enchanted all men, but could not keep the one she loved herself. She was so beautiful that even the spiritual judge, the bishop, did not want to pronounce her death sentence and only banished her to the monastery, although she herself wanted to die. The three knights who were supposed to accompany her there also fell for her, and when she wanted to climb the high cliff above the Rhine and look for her unfaithful lover who was sailing below, they had to let it happen, Lorelei threw herself from the cliff, and the three had to follow her.

    When a young, vibrant human being dies from lovesickness and other great pain, the place where it happened remains a horror. Anyone who passes by is touched by it. According to old popular belief, which still lives on today, this poor soul has not yet found rest; one hears and sees her at certain times at the place. Sometimes it even happens that the dead woman herself becomes a nymph among the water women.

    It is easy to spin the threads from Brentano's Lorelei to other folk beliefs.

    The Devil and the Lorelei

    The devil once came up the Rhine, and he was angry about the magnificent rock there by the river, because all the people were praising the creator himself in this miracle of creation. He therefore wanted to destroy it. He couldn't move it with his fists, so he braced himself against it with his back. At that moment, however, he heard the Lorelei singing and was spellbound. Her song penetrated his very marrow. He was without a drop of strength and could not move from the spot as long as she sang. But as soon as she was silent, he tore himself off and flew away.

    The imprint of his backside is said to have remained in the rock.


    Ludwig Bechstein

    Where the river valley of the Rhine is most narrow downstream from Kaub, echo-rich rock walls of slate rock stand tall and craggy on both sides, black and eerily high. The stream rushes faster there. The waves roar louder, bounce off the rock and form foaming eddies. It is uncanny in this gorge above these rapids.

    The beautiful mermaid of the Rhine, the dangerous Lurlei or Lorelei, is banished into the rocks, but she often appears to the boatmen, combing her long flaxen hair with a golden comb and singing a sweetly bewitching song. Many who were lured by it and wanted to climb the rock found their death in the swirling waves.

    Up and down the Rhine, no legend is more on everyone's lips than that of the Lurlei, but it is like the echo of the rocks on the bank, which rolls and breaks in many ways and repeats itself. Many poets have embellished the legend almost beyond recognition.

    Lurlei is the Rhine Undine. Whoever sees her, whoever hears her song, will have his heart pulled out of his chest. She stands high on the highest peak of her rock, in a white dress, with a flying veil, with flowing hair, with waving arms. But no one comes close to her. Even if someone climbs the rocky peak, she retreats from him. She floats away. She lures him with her magical beauty, right up to the precipitous edge of the abyss. He sees only her. He believes she is in front of him on solid ground. He advances and falls shattering into the depths.

    A more colorful legend than all the others, which -- even if they are not alike in other respects -- are nevertheless similar in the melancholy coloring and the gloomy ending, is this:

    The devil once sailed on the Rhine and came between the Lurlei rocks; The passage seemed too narrow to him. He wanted either to move the colossus of rock opposite from its place or to break it into such chunks that they would completely block the river and make it unnavigable. Thus he leaned his back against the Lurlei-Cliff and lifted and pushed and shook the mountain opposite.

    It already began to move when Lurlei began to sing. The devil heard the singing and lost courage. He stopped what he was doing and almost couldn't stand it any longer. He would have liked to take Lurlei away as his lover, but he had no power over her. He became so hot with love that he was steaming. When Lurlei ceased singing, the devil hurried away. He had already thought that he might have been banned into the rock. But after he left, oh wonder, his entire figure, including his tail, appeared burned black into the rock face, immortalizing his encounter with Lurlei.

    Afterwards the devil was very careful not to come close to the siren of the Rhine again. He was afraid that if he were captivated by her again he would lose all of his satanic power.

    Lurlei still sings in quiet moonlit nights. She still appears on the rocky peak, awaiting salvation. The lovers who allowed themselves to be seduced by her have all died. Today's world has no time to climb its rock or to approach it on moonlit nights. The fast steamship with its paddle-wheels rushes past without stopping. Its noise drowns out the voices of song and legend.

    The Maiden on the Lorelei

    Karl Wehrhan

    At certain times a beautiful pale maiden sits on the Lorelei, combing her blonde hair, which shines in the bright sun, with a golden comb and seducing the boatman sailing below with her singing. Thus he does not pay attention to the shallows of the river, and his boat crashes into the cliffs. Then the maiden pulls him into the depths of the whirlpool and into her subterranean water kingdom.

    The Lorelei

    Lewis Spence

    Many are the legends which cluster round the name of the Lorelei. In some of the earlier traditions she is represented as an undine, combing her hair on the Loreleiberg and singing bewitching strains wherewith to lure mariners to their death, and one such legend relates how an old soldier named Diether undertook to capture her.

    Graf Ludwig, son of the Prince Palatine, had been caught in her toils, his frail barque wrecked, and he himself caught in the whirlpool and drowned. The prince, grievously stricken at the melancholy occurrence, longed to avenge his son's death on the evil enchantress who had wrought such havoc. Among his retainers there was but one who would undertake the venture -- a captain of the guard named Diether -- and the sole reward he craved was permission to cast the Lorelei into the depths she haunted should he succeed in capturing her.

    Diether and his little band of warriors ascended the Lorelei's rock in such a way as to cut off all retreat on the landward side. Just as they reached the summit the moon sailed out from behind a cloud, and behold, the spirit of the whirlpool was seen sitting on the very verge of the precipice, binding her wet hair with a band of gleaming jewels.

    "What wouldst thou with me?" she cried, starting to her feet.

    "To cast thee into the Rhine, sorceress," said Diether roughly, "where thou hast drowned our prince."

    " Nay," returned the maid, "I drowned him not. 'Twas his own folly which cost him his life."

    As she stood on the brink of the precipice, her lips smiling, her eyes gleaming softly, her wet dark hair streaming over her shoulders, some strange, unearthly quality in her beauty, a potent spell fell upon the little company, so that even Diether himself could neither move nor speak.

    "And wouldst thou cast me in the Rhine, Diether?" she pursued, smiling at the helpless warrior. "'Tis not I who go to the Rhine, but the Rhine that will come to me."

    Then loosening the jewelled band from her hair, she flung it on the water and cried aloud : "Father, send me thy white steeds, that I may cross the river in safety."

    Instantly, as at her bidding, a wild storm arose, and the river, overflowing its banks, foamed right up to the summit of the Lorelei Rock. Three white-crested waves, resembling three white horses, mounted the steep, and into the hollowed trough behind them the Lorelei stepped as into a chariot, to be whirled out into the stream.

    Meanwhile Diether and his companions were almost overwhelmed by the floods, yet they were unable to stir hand or foot. In mid-stream the undine sank beneath the waves: the spell was broken, the waters subsided, and the captain and his men were free to return home.

    Nevermore, they vowed, would they seek to capture the Lorelei.

    Lorlei Castle

    Philipp von Steinau

    A beautiful maiden had her castle on the steep Lorlei mountain in the Rhineland. Here she lived and practiced magic.

    Whoever saw her sitting on the steps of her magnificent palace on a moonlit evening had to follow her there, and never return home again.

    Sometimes the maiden came to the banks of the Rhine, threw a net into the water and caught fish. Lorlei sang beautiful songs. Whoever saw her fell painfully in love with her beauty, especially with her golden hair.

    No maiden of the Rhine sang more beautifully than Lorlei. No ship sailed without stopping at the cliff to see if the sorceress would appear and sing. When the clock struck midnight, her tones suddenly died away and she disappeared from the cliff.

    Once a young knight sailed past the Lorlei mountain. He had come to see the beautiful maiden, of whom he had heard much.

    It was evening, and she appeared. First she sang in a bright, sweet voice, then she sat down on the mountainside and curled her long hair, which shimmered like gold in the moonlight.

    A boundless longing drove the knight toward her. He wanted to jump from the boat onto the shore, but the waves of the river crashed over him and buried him.

    When the unfortunate lover did not return home, his father, who believed that the sorceress Lorlei was the cause of his loss, sent out soldiers to climb the magical mountain and destroy the seductive maiden.

    The soldiers saw the sorceress on the Lorlei Heights. She called out to them that she knew who they were looking for.

    Then she threw a shinging coral necklace into the river, and called out in a loud voice: "Quickly, father, quickly, the white horses for your child!"

    Suddenly the Rhine roared and rose high in wild waves of foam. From the spray two snowy horses climbed up the rocks, and the maiden disappeared with them.

    The warriors saw this in amazement, and terrified by the magic maiden's miracle, they fled back to their master's castle. Arriving there, they found the young knight again.

    It is said that Lorlei can still be seen on the top of the mountain, although only rarely.

    When people passing by in boats call out her name, the echo returns the call.


    Zu Bacharach am Rheine

    Clemens Brentano

    Violette sang folgendes Lied: --

    Zu Bacharach am Rheine
    Wohnt eine Zauberin,
    Die war so schön und feine
    Und riß viel Herzen hin.

    Und brachte viel zu Schanden
    Der Männer rings umher,
    Aus ihren Liebesbanden
    War keine Rettung mehr.

    Der Bischof ließ sie laden
    Vor geistliche Gewalt --
    Und mußte sie begnaden,
    So schön war ihr' Gestalt.

    Er sprach zu ihr gerühret:
    "Du arme Lore Lay!
    Wer hat dich dann verführet
    Zu böser Zauberei?"

    "Herr Bischof laßt mich sterben,
    Ich bin des Lebens müd,
    Weil jeder muß verderben,
    Der meine Augen sieht!

    Die Augen find zwei Flammen,
    Mein Arm ein Zauberstab --
    O legt mich in die Flammen!
    O brechet mir den Stab!"

    "Ich kann dich nicht verdammen,
    Bis du mir erst bekennt,
    Warum in deinen Flammen
    Mein eigen Herz schon brennt.

    Den Stab kann ich nicht brechen,
    Du schöne Lore Lay!
    Ich müßte dann zerbrechen
    Mein eigen Herz entzwei."

    "Herr Bischof mit mir Armen
    Treibt nicht so bösen Spott,
    Und bittet um Erbarmen
    Für mich den lieben Gott.

    Ich darf nicht länger leben,
    Ich liebe keinen mehr --
    Den Tod sollt ihr mir geben,
    Drum kam ich zu euch her. --

    Mein Schatz hat mich betrogen,
    Hat sich von mir gewandt,
    Ist fort von mir gezogen,
    Fort in ein fremdes Land.

    Die Augen sanft und wilde,
    Die Wangen roth und weiß,
    Die Worte still und milde,
    Das ist mein Zauberkreis.

    Ich selbst muß drinn verderben,
    Das Herz thut mir so weh,
    Vor Jammer möcht' ich sterben,
    Wenn ich mein Bildniß seh.

    Drum laßt mein Recht mich finden,
    Mich sterben, wie ein Christ,
    Denn alles muß verschwinden,
    Weil er nicht bey mir ist."

    Drei Ritter läßt er holen:
    "Bringt sie ins Kloster hin,
    Geh, Lore! -- Gott befohlen
    Sey dein berückter Sinn.

    Du sollst ein Nönnchen werden,
    Ein Nönnchen schwarz und weiß,
    Bereite dich auf Erden
    Zu deines Todes Reis'."

    Zum Kloster sie nun ritten
    Die Ritter alle drei,
    Und traurig in der Mitten
    Die schöne Lore Lay.

    "O Ritter laßt mich gehen,
    Auf diesen Felsen groß,
    Ich will noch einmal sehen
    Nach meines Lieben Schloß.

    Ich will noch einmal sehen
    Wol in den tiefen Rhein,
    Und dann ins Kloster gehen
    Und Gottes Jungfrau seyn."

    Der Felsen ist so jähe,
    So steil ist seine Wand,
    Doch klimmt sie in die Höhe,
    Bis daß sie oben stand.

    Es binden die drei Ritter,
    Die Rosse unten an,
    Und klettern immer weiter,
    Zum Felsen auch hinan.

    Die Jungfrau sprach: "Da gehet
    Ein Schifflein auf dem Rhein,
    Der in dem Schifflein stehet,
    Der soll mein Liebster seyn.

    Mein Herz wird mir so munter,
    Er muß mein Liebster seyn!" --
    Da lehnt sie sich hinunter
    Und stürzet in den Rhein.

    Die Ritter mußten sterben,
    Sie konnten nicht hinab,
    Sie mußten all verderben,
    Ohn Priester und ohn Grab.

    Wer hat dies Lied gesungen?
    Ein Schiffer auf dem Rhein,
    Und immer hats geklungen
    Von dem drei Ritterstein:

    Lore Lay!
    Lore Lay!
    Lore Lay!

    Als wären es meiner drei!

    Fußnote von Brentano: "Bei Bacharach steht dieser Felsen, Lore Lay genannt, alle vorbeifahrende Schiffer rufen ihn an, und freuen sich des vielfachen Echo's."


    Joseph von Eichendorff

    Es ist schon spät, es wird schon kalt,
    Was reit'st Du einsam durch den Wald?
    Der Wald ist lang, Du bist allein,
    Du schöne Braut! Ich führ' Dich heim!

    "Groß ist der Männer Trug und List,
    Vor Schmerz mein Herz gebrochen ist,
    Wohl irrt das Waldhorn her und hin,
    O flieh! Du weißt nicht, wer ich bin."

    So reich geschmückt ist Roß und Weib,
    So wunderschön der junge Leib,
    Jezt kenn' ich Dich -- Gott steh' mir bei!
    Du bist die Hexe Loreley.

    "Du kennst mich wohl -- von hohem Stein,
    Schaut still mein Schloß tief in den Rhein.
    Es ist schon spät, es wird schon kalt,
    Kommst nimmermehr aus diesem Wald!"

    Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten

    Heinrich Heine

    Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
    Daß ich so traurig bin;
    Ein Mährchen aus alten Zeiten,
    Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.

    Die Luft ist kühl und es dunkelt,
    Und ruhig fließt der Rhein;
    Der Gipfel des Berges funkelt
    Im Abendsonnenschein.

    Die schönste Jungfrau sitzet
    Dort oben wunderbar
    Ihr gold'nes Geschmeide blitzet,
    Sie kämmt ihr gold'nes Haar.

    Sie kämmt es mit gold'nem Kamme,
    Und singt ein Lied dabei;
    Das hat eine wundersame,
    Gewaltige Melodei.

    Den Schiffer im kleinen Schiffe
    Ergreift es mit wildem Weh;
    Er schaut nicht die Felsenriffe,
    Er schaut nur hinauf in die Höh'.

    Ich glaube, die Wellen verschlingen
    Am Ende Schiffer und Kahn;
    Und das hat mit ihrem Singen
    Die Lore-Ley gethan.

    Loreley: Eine Sage vom Rhein

    Otto Heinrich Graf von Loeben

    Da wo der Mondschein blitzet
    Um's höchste Felsgestein,
    Das Zauberfräulein sitzet
    Und schauet auf den Rhein.

    Es schauet herüber, hinüber,
    Es schauet hinab, hinauf,
    Die Schifflein ziehn vorüber,
    Lieb' Knabe, sieh nicht auf!

    Sie singt dir hold zum Ohre,
    Sie blickt dich thoricht an,
    Sie ist die schöne Lore,
    Sie hat dir's angethan.

    Sie schaut wohl nach dem Rheine,
    Als schaute sie nach dir,
    Glaub's nicht, daß sie dich meine,
    Sieh nicht, horch nicht nach ihr!

    So blickt sie wohl nach allen
    Mit ihrer Augen Glanz,
    Läßt her die Locken wallen
    Im wilden goldnen Tanz.

    Doch wogt in ihrem Blicke
    Nur blauer Wellen Spiel,
    Drum scheu die Wassertücke,
    Denn Flut bleibt falsch und kühl!

    Der Handstand auf der Loreley

    (Nach einer wahren Begebenheit)

    Erich Kästner

    Die Loreley, bekannt als Fee und Felsen,
    ist jener Fleck am Rhein, nicht weit von Bingen,
    wo früher Schiffer mit verdrehten Hälsen,
    von blonden Haaren schwärmend, untergingen.

    Wir wandeln uns. Die Schiffer inbegriffen.
    Der Rhein ist reguliert und eingedämmt.
    Die Zeit vergeht. Man stirbt nicht mehr beim Schiffen,
    bloß weil ein blondes Weib sich dauernd kämmt.

    Nichtsdestotrotz geschieht auch heutzutage,
    noch manches, was der Steinzeit ähnlich sieht.
    So alt ist keine deutsche Heldensage,
    daß sie nicht doch noch Helden nach sich zieht.

    Erst neulich machte auf der Loreley
    hoch überm Rhein ein Turner einen Handstand!
    Von allen Dampfern tönte Angstgeschrei,
    als er kopfüber oben auf der Wand stand.

    Er stand, als ob er auf dem Barren stünde.
    Mit hohlem Kreuz. Und lustbetonten Zügen.
    Man fragte nicht: Was hatte er für Gründe?
    Er war ein Held. Das dürfte wohl genügen.

    Er stand, verkehrt, im Abendsonnenscheine.
    Da trübte Wehmut seinen Turnerblick.
    Er dachte an die Loreley von Heine.
    Und stürzte ab. Und brach sich das Genick.

    Er starb als Held. Man muß ihn nicht beweinen.
    Sein Handstand war vom Schicksal überstrahlt.
    Ein Augenblick mit zwei gehobnen Beinen
    ist nicht zu teuer mit dem Tod bezahlt! P.S. Eins wäre allerdings noch nachzutragen:
    Der Turner hinterließ uns Frau und Kind.
    Hinwiederum, man soll sie nicht beklagen.
    Weil im Bezirk der Helden und der Sagen
    die Überlebenden nicht wichtig sind.

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    Revised June 15, 2024.