The Lorelei in German lore is a siren of distracting beauty said to sit atop a particular rock at the edge of the River Rhine, singing to lure sailors to their doom. When she was a human woman her lover was faithless, so in despair she threw herself into the river and was transformed into a siren whose voice pulled men under her spell and onto the rocks.
Her name comes from the name of that echoing rock on the southern bank of the Rhine – Lurlei. In Clemens Brentano’s 1801 ballad Zu Bacharach am Rheine a woman called Lore Ley accused of bewitching and murdering men is on her way to a convent but falls to her death from this rock, leaving only the trace of her name behind. The fatal allure of this creature and her unearthly song was defined further in an 1824 poem by Heinrich Heine, Die Lorelei which has since been set to music by more than 25 composers.
The area where this rock is located— Rhine Gorge at Sankt Goarshausen, was actually one of the deepest and most dangerous points of the River Rhine. The song attributed to the Lorelei was probably drawn from a combination of sounds including the currents of the Rhine and a nearby waterfall, amplified by the echo of the rock, leading to the murmuring rumoured to be the dangerous song of the siren.
The comb she holds is golden,
She sings a song as well
Whose melody binds an enthralling
And overpowering spell.
In his little boat, the boatman
Is seized with a savage woe,
He’d rather look up at the mountain
Than down at the rocks below.
From The Lorelei English translation of the poem by Heinrich Heine, 1824. Translated by A.Z. Foreman.