The Meaning Behind the Lorelei
The Lorelei is a popular and widely known German water nymph. The name Lorelei comes from Old German 'lureln' meaning 'murmuring', and the Celtic 'ley' meaning 'rock'. The tale of this particular nymph that lives near Sankt Goarshausen on the Rhine can be traced back to prehistoric times.
When I visited the Rhine, I was most excited about seeing the exact place of the Lorelei. I wanted to know if there truly was anything special in the air on the corner of the Rhine. After I unpacked my bags, I researched the story of the Lorelei to see if I could see what the writer of this ballad saw.
Most of the information we know about the Lorelei comes from German author Clemens Brentano in his ballad Zu Bacharach am Rheine. The tale is a continuation of one of his novels, so naturally the tale is embellished to fit the narrative, but it does reveal a lot about the nature of the nymph. She churns the water around the rocky headland of Sankt Goarshausen, causing ships to sink and sailors to be frightened. Another story, by Heinrich Heine, has similar themes of a beautiful water nymph combing her hair which distracts the sailors as their ship is shredded on the cliff face. From both of these stories, we can see where the truth of the Lorelei emerges. Men interpret her as menacing as distracting, when she is merely existing in the channels of water. We begin to see the Lorelei not as a mischievous sprite, but an embodiment of energy, swishing in the Rhine.
I decided to climb up the Lorelei rock to see for myself what the Lorelei would really be like. I had seen the patch of water below the mountain face from a distance while on the ferry, but I didn't think we were close enough to tell. I began the climb up the hill early in the morning, and reached the peak by early afternoon. Looking from the top was so scenic - I could see the ruins of the Sankt Goar castle and both villages below. The energy of this place was so strong, although from the hilltop you wouldn't of noticed it. It wasn't until I was on the ferry later that evening that I could really feel the strong pull of the waters.
In the 1800s, the Lorelei was presented as a mermaid. The locals told stories about how young warriors had tried to capture her to marry, or how the Prince of Palatine had fallen into the waters as he searched for her captivating beauty, and drowned himself - this is how the Lorelei's name became associated with menace. The old story tells of how a guard named Diether was ordered to slay the Lorelei for drowning the Prince. When asked, the Lorelei said she did not drown the Prince, as it was his own fault. This is just one of the stories that surrounds the Lorelei, but it is really centred on Victorian themes of romance, lost love and the morbid obsession with what lies beyond our current world.
On the ferry ride home, I noticed the magic in the water. There was a sense of playfulness and lightheartedness about the water. The way the water churned one way, then the other, embodying the movement of a playful nymph. That is the magic of the Lorelei - her energy is not found in either the rock or the waters, but in both. As the name implies, both the rock and the water are important in understanding this ancient myth.
This is why I see the Lorelei myth as originating in ancient times. Prehistoric tribes along the Rhine would've noticed this pattern in the water and watched on with reverence for its destructive powers. To them, birth, life, change and death were all essential parts of life. It is only in medieval times when this meaning becomes lost, causing change and death to be seen as horrible consequences of life. Whether the pull of the waters is caused by a strong energetic being, or the myth arose out of explaining the state of the waters, is up to you.
Early 20th century writers may have seen the Lorelei as a mermaid in order to understand the myths passed down to them through the generations, but as a researcher and writer I see the Lorelei as her original form of a nymph or water spirit. This imagery is highly associated with the Celtic culture, and with rivers, which in this case is the Rhine.
The Lorelei is a reminder for us not to take life too seriously. She asks us to remember all aspects of life, including change and death. From the death of things comes the rebirth and new opportunities. The Lorelei is an embodiment of the cycle of life, calling us to take a step back from whatever problems we are facing and trust in the flow of life.