Die Lorelei is a rock on the eastern bank of the Rhine near St. Goarshausen in Rheinland-Pfalz, Southwestern Germany, which soars 120 m above the waterline. It marks the narrowest part of the river between Switzerland and the North Sea. It’s the most famous feature of the Rhein Gorge, a 65 km section of the river between Koblenz and Bingen that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002. Strong currents and rocks below the waterline have caused many boat accidents. In German mythology, Lorelei is also the name of a feminine water spirit, similar to mermaids or Rhinemaidens, associated with this rock in popular folklore. They appear in works of music, art, and literature.
The name comes from the old German words lureln, local dialect for “murmuring”. The heavy currents and a small waterfall created a murmuring sound and this combined with the echo the rock produces to act as a sort of amplifier, giving the rock its name. The murmuring is hard to hear today owing to traffic and the urbanization of the area. In a story of an enchanting female associated with the rock, the beautiful Lore Lay, betrayed by her sweetheart, is accused of bewitching men and causing their death. Rather than sentence her to death, the bishop consigns her to a nunnery. On the way there, accompanied by 3 knights, she comes to the Lorelei rock. She asks permission to climb it and view the Rhine one more time, does so, and falls to her death; the rock still retaining an echo of her name afterwards. In 1824, Heinrich Heine adapted the theme in one of his most famous poems, “Die Lorelei”. It describes the eponymous female as a sort of siren who, sitting on the cliff above the Rhine and combing her golden hair, unwittingly distracts shipmen with her beauty and song, causing them to crash on the rocks. In 1837 Heine’s lyrics were set to music by Friedrich Silcher in the art song Lorelei that became well known. A setting by Franz Liszt was also favored. The theme has appeared in countless poems, musical compositions, and literary works since. A list here.