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What is the Lorelei?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 17 November 2014
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The Lorelei is both a rock on the Rhine River, located between Switzerland and the North Sea, and a legendary siren-like creature who lives on the rock and lures sailors to their death. The Lorelei has been the site of many accidents, as it marks the narrowest point in the river, which is difficult and treacherous to navigate due to a strong current and shallow river bed. These accidents are no doubt the inspiration for the legend of a maiden whose song and appearance distracts sailors from their course.

The origin of the name Lorelei is the source of some dispute. It is either derived from Old German lureln and ley, meaning "murmuring rock," or luren and ley, meaning "lurking rock." The first etymology refers to a murmuring sound that can be heard in the vicinity of the Lorelei as a result of the strong currents, a waterfall, and the echoing effect of the rock wall. This sound, although difficult to hear today as a result of urbanization, may also have given rise to tales of a singing maiden on the rock.

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The maiden known as Lorelei has her origin in German folklore, where she is often portrayed as a Nixe, a fish-tailed creature similar to the Greek idea of the siren. Legend has it that the Lorelei was once a human maiden who sat on the rock waiting for her lover to return. When he never showed up, she threw herself into the river in despair. Ever since, the Lorelei has sat on the rock combing her hair and singing plaintively, causing sailors to wreck their vessels upon the rocks in revenge for her lover's betrayal.

Perhaps the most famous account of the mythical Lorelei appears in Heinrich Heine's 19th century poem Die Lorelei. One of the most beloved pieces of German poetry, it has been set to music about 25 different times. Older versions of the tale, first appearing in literature around the 13th century, tell of a mythical treasure buried in the rock and guarded by the elf queen Holda, who could drive men mad with her look or her song.

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