The Rhine River stretches through Germany from the Alps in Switzerland all the way up to the North Sea. It is a major shipping lane, which is why in the past, there were so many fortresses built along this river. He who controlled the river controlled everything. There are very, very few bridges across the Rhine River. When one wants to go to a town across the river, one must take a ferry. In addition to cargo ships and crossing ferries, there are also cruise ferries for enjoying the beautiful scenery, including quaint riverside towns and charming villages, hillside vineyards, and the many castle and fortress ruins. The stretch of the Rhine River from Mainz to Koblenz is aptly referred to as the Romantic Rhine. It is one of the most castle studded, fairytale and storybook-like, medieval corners of Germany, one that is filled with evocative ruins and river gorges steeped in legend.
One such legend revolves around the Lorelei (sometimes spelled Loreley), which is a giant rock on the bank of the Rhine River near Sankt Goarshausen, Germany. It marks the narrowest part of the Rhine River. Strong currents, along with rocks below the waterline, have caused many boat accidents in this area.
The name Lorelei comes from an old German word “lurein” meaning murmuring, and the Celtic term “ley” meaning rock, translated "murmuring rock." The heavy currents combined with a waterfall (which no longer exists) at one time created a murmuring sound. This combined with the special echo which the rock produces, gives the rock its name. Other theories combine the German verb “lauern” (to lurk or lie in wait) with the same ending “ley” to form the translation “lurking rock.”
These translations have inspired many legends and tales. Lorelei thus became the name of a legendary water spirit, or Rhine maiden and is associated with this rock in popular folklore. One legend tells the story of a beautiful, enchanting female named Lorelei, who betrayed by her sweetheart, is accused of bewitching men and causing their death. Upon conclusion of her trial, rather than sentence her to death, a bishop consigns her to a nunnery. On the way there, accompanied by three knights, they come across the now legendary rock. She asks permission to climb it so she can view the Rhine one last time. She does so, and falls to her death. A similar tale describes the eponymous female as a sort of siren who, sitting upon the cliff above the Rhine and combing her golden hair, unwittingly distracted shipmen with her beauty and song, causing them to crash on the rocks.
Hearing the stories and legends while cruising through this area of the Rhine adds a bit of a thrill and some fun excitement to a Rhine River voyage, however regardless of the fun and interesting legends of Lorelei, this narrow and rocky area of the Rhine with its swift currents, indeed poses a very real threat to the vessels that use the river. As recently as 2011, a barge sank after hitting a rock, and closed the shipping lane for days. Nonetheless if you ever have the opportunity, take a river cruise on The Romantic Rhine, where you will be impressed by the stunning scenery of the Rhine Gorge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Loreley character, although originally imagined by Brentano, passed into German popular culture in the form described in the Heine-Silcher song and is commonly but mistakenly believed to have originated in an old folk tale. The French writer Guillaume Apollinaire took up the theme again in his poem "La Loreley", from the collection Alcools.