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The alluring legend of the Rhine River's Loreley

Published April 25, 2023last updated April 25, 2023

The Loreley is a popular motif along the Rhine River, but also has sex appeal. What is her saga and how has she influenced the arts and pop culture?

Deutschland Mittelrhein
Image: Jochen Tack/picture alliance

The stuff of legend, the Lorelei, or "Loreley" is actually just a steep 132-meter-high (433-foot-high) slate rock atop the right bank of the Rhine River at Sankt Goarshausen in western Germany.

But it is also so much more. Part of the Upper Middle Rhine Valley UNESCO World Heritage site, it is considered by some to be the epitome of Rhine romanticism and draws tourists from around the world.

That pull, however, may have more to do with the sagas surrounding the site and its so-called siren, the Loreley, who allegedly lured sailors to their death.

She is a seated female figure combing her hair, whose beauty and singing were said to have enraptured and distracted shipmen from navigation, causing them to crash on the rocks. 

Many Germans have a general idea of who that figure was — as part of their school reading — as immortalized in the famous 1824 poem "The Lorelei" by Düsseldorf-born writer Heinrich Heine.

Loreley statue depicting a naked woman.
The Lorelei's appeal has been portrayed in different sculptures at the UNESCO World Heritage site, such as this one by Natasha AlexandrownaImage: Rolf Kosecki/picture alliance

Loreley with sex appeal

Yet 24-year-old history and archaeology student Katrin Kober has a refreshing take on the lure of the Loreley: It is her sex appeal.

"This is the sort of femme fatale figure: One that is somewhat exaggerated and exploited and lends a sexual connotation to a story," she told DW.

History and archeology student Katrin Kober, with long red hair and wearing silver-rimmed glasses.
History and archaeology student Katrin KoberImage: Privat

In her work for the Institute for Historical Regional Studies, which is affiliated with the Mainz-based Johannes Gutenberg University (about an hour's drive from the Loreley), she studied and wrote about the Loreley saga for the institute's website.

"These are the sorts of connotations that obviously move people; they stay in people's minds, and all the more so because there is an actual place people can visit," she told DW. "That is still appealing."

It's easy to imagine why this area of the Rhine River lends to myths anyway.

It is considered one of the most dangerous sections of the river to navigate due to its tight curves and rocky bottom. Some 500 years ago, it was speculated that the unique landscape also gave rise to an unusual echo, created by gnomes living in caves, that resounded in the river passage.

A lithography of the Loreley slate rock on the Rhine River from 1873
A lithography of the Loreley slate rock on the Rhine River, by Carl Philipp Christian Koehler (1873) Image: akg-images/picture alliance

'Murmuring' sounds that echo

Actually, the heavy currents and a waterfall in the area created a "murmuring" sound. In addition, the rock cliff acted as a kind of amplifier of the echo.

Together, this gave rise to the Loreley name that combines the Celtic word "ley" (rock) with various old German terms that vary from "lorren/lurren" (akin to caterwauling or murmuring) to terms from the Rhineland dialect that range from "luring" to "humming/buzzing/droning."

Significantly, it was German author Clemens Brentano, who in his 1801 ballad "Zu Bacharach am Rheine" created the story of an enchanting female figure associated with the "murmuring rock."

In his narrative, the beautiful "Lore Lay" (as she is called here) is betrayed by her sweetheart and accused of bewitching men and sending them to their death. Banished to a nunnery, on her way there, accompanied by three knights, she comes to the Lorelei rock, where she begs permission to climb it and gaze out over the Rhine, searching for her love.

Bending out too far, she plunges to her death, the three knights following her. The rock ever afterward would retain an echo of her name — as the story goes. 

Inspired by the Ancients

Brentano himself may have been inspired by classical mythology. "It is not unlikely that this is a freely invented poem. Brentano referred to the ancient myth of the mountain nymph Echo, who in turn was unhappily in love with Narcissus and in her grief turned to stone, from which only her voice could echo. Brentano thus created an explanation for the echo phenomenon on the Rhine rock that could be retold in an exciting way," Kober writes in her essay.

Two decades later, Heinrich Heine, in turn, presumably snatched up Brentano's narrative for his own Loreley poem.

Statue der Loreley bei Sankt Goarshausen
The Loreley (Lorelei) is the stuff of legend, luring tourists from around the world to the Rhine RiverImage: W. G. Allgoewer/ blickwinkel/picture alliance

Loreley fast-forwarded

How does Kober, in this day and age, view such a representation of the Loreley figure?

"I have the impression that these are stories of old white men who took great pleasure in the suffering of an imaginary female figure  and then published it, so that they could make money," she said.

"It seems like Loreley doesn't have any characteristics of her own, except that she's either unhappily in love or that she kills men for fun," Kober pointed out to DW.

"It wouldn't exactly pass the Bechdel test, " she added, referring to the test named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel which addresses the skewed representation of women in film and fiction.

Still, Loreley has lived on to this day, and is found in countless artistic representations — from classical opera and musical tributes by Alfredo Catalani, Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt, to George and Ira Gerschwin's song from 1933. 

Impact on contemporary culture

US author Mark Twain spoke of the Lorelei in his satiric travelogue "A Tramp Abroad," published in 1880, as the "ancient legend of the Rhine. " Lorelei served as inspiration for a 1960 poem published by American Sylvia Plath.

One of the most notable pop culture interpretations is embodied by none other than silver screen star Marilyn Monroe. Dressed to the nines in her iconic pink gown and singing her provocative rendition of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," Marilyn played "Lorelei Lee" in the 1953 film "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," based on the eponymous 1925 novel by Anita Loos, which became a run-away bestseller in the US. 

Marilyn Monroe wearing her ironic pink strapless down in the film 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes'
Marilyn Monroe played 'Lorelei Lee' in the 1953 film 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes'Image: Profiles In History/handout/dpa/picture alliance

Lorelei/Loreley has lent her name to a range of films over the decades, from the 1927 silent German version, to a 2005 Japanese war drama; to a fictional character in Marvel Comic books; to a dog in the 2003 novel "The Dogs of Babel," to the protagonist in the hit TV series "The Gilmore Girls."

She's also served as name inspiration for a dark rock band from Pittsburgh, to countless songs by the band Styx, the Cocteau Twins, Nina Hagen, The Pogues and The Scorpions. Here, a rendition by Mark Seymour & The Undertow.

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier

DW Editor and reporter Louisa Schaefer smiling into the camera.
Louisa Schaefer Culture editor and reporter based in Cologne/Bonn, originally from the US