You are cruising down the Middle Rhine admiring the castles towering over vineyards and small villages when suddenly near Sankt Goarhausen, the whole ship breaks into song in front of a rock cliff. You’ve reached the Loreley. But WHAT is the Loreley? It’s not just a pile of rocks, it is a place of song and legend that has grown over the past few hundred years. Parts of the story are ancient, but oddly, the most familiar legends aren’t as old as you might think… learn more about the Loreley here…
Note- In Germany, Loreley is written with an “EY” instead of “LEI”. The y even survived the great Orthographic reform of 1906! As a result, you will see it written both ways.
What is the Loreley?
Near the Binger Loch, near St Goar, a 433 foot high stone cliff towers above the narrowest section of the Rhine. The town of Sankt Goarhausen, also known as St Goar, was supposedly settled to treat the many sailors who couldn’t navigate the narrow waters and were shipwrecked by this most dangerous passage. After so many accidents, it’s natural that there would be stories and legends casting blame for the wrecks. It wouldn’t be a rock that caused the problem, instead, it is thought that sailors were lured to their doom by a woman with golden hair…
The Loreley… A Rock or a Maiden?
The Loreley is thought to have gotten its name from the Old German words lureln (for murmuring) and the Celtic word Ley (for rock). In a time before the noisy modern world blocked out so much of nature’s natural sounds, you could hear a waterfall that bounced out an echo to the surrounding area. Was this the Siren’s sound that confused navigation?
Or perhaps it was the sun? Old legends tell of a beautiful golden haired Maiden that sat on the rock cliff in the morning and evening combing her blond hair. (Those who study legendary beings call her an Undine… similar to a Mermaid… a female elemental spirit creature who steals a man’s soul to gain immortality). Sailors would be dazzled by the golden beauty, and sail toward the rocks to their demise.
The Loreley Legend is Captured in Literature
In 1801, Clemens Brentano was the first to write the popular legend of the Loreley in his poem, Zu Bacharach am Rheine.
In this legend, there was a beautiful maiden who lived in the city of Bacarach. Every man who saw her was dazzled by her beauty, and immediately fell madly in love with her. Alas, she had already given her heart to a young knight who went away to war, so she turned away all other advances. The despondent failed suitors threw themselves into the Rhine to drown.
Still, she remained true to her man. And her loneliness and sorry made her even more attractive. More men swore to have her, and when they failed… they killed themselves.
People began to whisper about her power over men. Rumors that she was a sorceress who lured men in, and cast them off to drown drew the attention of the Archbishop of Cologne. In the court at Rhens, she was charged with sorcery. The punishment would be burning. So deep was her longing for her knight, that she no longer care if she lived or died, and did nothing to defend herself.
“I pray thee,” she concluded wearily, “I pray thee, my lord, let me die. I know, alas! that many true knights have died for love of me, and now I fain would die for the sake of one who hath forsaken me.”
The officers of the court, and especially the Archbishop were so taken by her beauty that they forgave her offenses, and sent her to live out her days in a Convent.
On the way to the Convent, they passed the Loreley Cliff. The girl asked if she could climb it, and take one last look at the castle of her beloved knight. She beat her guards to the top, and while standing there gazing at the scene one final time, she saw a barge coming up the Rhine. On the prow stood her knight. She shouted for joy! And at that moment, the ship steered straight into the rocks. Her knight was lost to the river… so she jumped in after him. Both losing their lives the Rhine’s turbulent waters….
(scroll down to read Clemens Brentano’s Poem)
Heinrich Heine Refines the Story of the Loreley
In 1924, Heinrich Heine wrote the poem, the Loreley, which changes the legend a bit. In this story, the Loreley is a golden haired maiden who sits on the rocks luring men to their death.
Hear the Loreleylied here… Sung Near the Loreley
Tourist ships traveling down the Rhine will often stop near the Lorelei, play the music, and everyone on board will sing Heinrich Heine’s Poem set to music by Friedrich Silcher.
(scroll down for the full lyrics)
Another Legend of the Loreley
In days of old, it is said that a beautiful maiden would sit on the rocks in the moonlight singing. Sadly, any sailor who tried to get close for a better look would be dashed on the rocks. Other times, she would appear, and show fishermen where to throw their nets for the best catch.
The son of the Count of Palatine heard the stories, and wanted to see the fair young maiden himself. He told his father he was going hunting, and went off to fin her. At Oberwesel, he climbed into a boat to get a closer look.
At this point, the story varies. Some say he rowed himself… and when he heard her voice, he was drawn in, as if in an embrace, and was drowned on the rocks. Another story says he was in a boat with others, and saw her sitting on a rock… her golden curls crowned by a wreath. He encouraged the captain to get as close as possible to the rocks, and he jumped. His jump fell short, and he drowned.
The Count was devastated when he heard what happened to his son. He ordered his men to capture her and throw her in the dungeon! But one of his captains swore that the witch would only escape, and it would be better for her to meet the same fate as the son… to drown, dashed on the rocks of the Rhine.
The band of warriors snuck the Lorelei Rock to capture her. There she stood… dazzling in the moonlight. A string of pearls wrapped in her hair. She asked them “what do you want of me?”. The captain responded “Sorceress! I order you to rush down into the floods!” She laughed dropped her pearls in the water and said “”Father, father, swiftly, swiftly, send the white horse to your child; it will ride with waves and wind!” Suddenly three waves resembling horses rose from the water … she stepped in behind them, like riding a chariot, then vanished beneath the waves.
More Rhine Legends
Fascinated by these Rhine Legends… there are many more. Read them here…
Experience the Loreley for Yourself
St Goar… near the Loreley
Whatever version of the Legend you prefer, the best way to see the Loreley is from a ship on the Rhine. (Although it is visible from the train) This stretch is part of a World Heritage site between Oberwesel and St Goarhausen. You will also see some famous castles like, Castle Katz and Burg Rheinfels.
Rhine Day Cruises
Take a look at these cruises that include seeing the Loreley
Hop on Hop Off- 19 Stop Rhine Tour
All-day Rhine River cruise pass Hop on and off at any of 19 different stops between Cologne and Linz and Koblenz and Mainz See the world’s highest concentration of castles on the UNESCO-listed Middle Rhine Watch the passing scenery from the deck of a comfortable river cruiser Design your own itinerary to explore medieval towns, modern cities, and Rhineland’s famous castles Enjoy onboard amenities including restrooms, indoor/outdoor seating, and a cafe
Stay on board to discover new views around every river bend, or hop off and on at your choice of stops like big-city Koblenz and Cologne or medieval gems like Bacharach, St. Goar, and Boppard, where winding streets and half-timbered houses create an atmosphere straight from a Grimms fairytale. See the legendary Loreley Rock, steeped in sailor’s lore, and admire 20 different castles perched high above the river banks, from beautifully restored Marksburg and Schönburg to the ghostly ruins of Rheinfels.
Day Tour of Frankfurt and the Rhine
An unforgettable day trip to the Rhine River Valley – an area UNESCO counts to the World Heritage of mankind. Come to see the river, the little villages and vineyards. Mighty medieval castles more than anywhere else in the world.
Enjoy a gorgeous view from the Niederwald Monument and a cable car ride in the summertime (optional) from the top of the hills. Lunch in a beautiful restaurant at the riverside is included followed by a wonderful boat trip on a Rhine steamer alongside the famous river panorama up to St. Goarshausen with the famous Loreley Rock.
We invite you to a wine tasting in a little tavern. If time permits the tour will finish with a souvenir-shopping stop in Rüdesheim.
Clemens Brentano’s Loreley Poem
Zu Bacharach am Rheine.
Zu Bacharach am Rheine
Wohnt‘ eine Zauberin;
Sie war so schön und feine
Und riss viel Herzen hin.
Und machte 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 denn verführet
Zu böser Zauberei?
Herr Bischof, lasst mich sterben,
Ich bin des Lebens müd,
Weil jeder muss verderben,
Der meine Augen sieht.
Die Augen sind 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 bekennst,
Warum in deinen Flammen
Mein eignes Herz schon brennt.
Den Stab kann ich nicht brechen,
Du schöne Lore Lay!
Ich müsste dann zerbrechen
Mein eignes 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 rot und weiß,
Die Worte still und milde,
Dies ist mein Zauberkreis.
Ich selbst muss drin verderben,
Das Herz tut mir so weh;
Vor Schmerzen möchte ich sterben,
Wenn ich mein Bildnis seh.
Drum lasst mein Recht mich finden,
Mich sterben wie ein Christ,
Denn alles muss verschwinden,
Weil er nicht bei mir ist.
Drei Ritter lässt er holen:
Bringt sie ins Kloster hin!
Geh Lore! – Gott befohlen
Sei 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 Liebsten Schloss.
Ich will noch einmal sehen
Wohl in den tiefen Rhein
Und dann ins Kloster gehen
Und Gottes Jungfrau sein.
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 Reiter
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,
Das könnt‘ mein Liebster sein!
Mein Herz wird mir so munter,
Er muss mein Liebster sein! –
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 hat’s geklungen
Von dem Dreiritterstein:
Als wären es meiner drei!
Heinrich Heine’s Poem -The Loreley
The Loreley (in English translation)
I cannot determine the meaning
Of sorrow that fills my breast:
A fable of old, through it streaming,
Allows my mind no rest.
The air is cool in the gloaming
And gently flows the Rhine.
The crest of the mountain is gleaming
In fading rays of sunshine.
The loveliest maiden is sitting
Up there, so wondrously fair;
Her golden jewelry is glist’ning;
She combs her golden hair.
She combs with a gilded comb, preening,
And sings a song, passing time.
It has a most wondrous, appealing
And pow’rful melodic rhyme.
The boatman aboard his small skiff, –
Enraptured with a wild ache,
Has no eye for the jagged cliff, –
His thoughts on the heights fear forsake.
I think that the waves will devour
Both boat and man, by and by,
And that, with her dulcet-voiced power
Was done by the Loreley.
Die Loreley (auf Deutsch)
Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
Daß ich so traurig bin,
Ein Märchen aus uralten 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,
Die schönste Jungfrau sitzet
Dort oben wunderbar,
Ihr gold’nes Geschmeide blitzet,
Sie kämmt ihr goldenes Haar,
Sie kämmt es mit goldenem Kamme,
Und singt ein Lied dabei;
Das hat eine wundersame,
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 Loreley getan.