- Heinrich Heine, "Lorelei" (Translated by A.Z. Foreman)
I know not if there is a reason
Why I am so sad at heart.
A legend of bygone ages
Haunts me and will not depart.
The air is cool under nightfall.
The calm Rhine courses its way.
The peak of the mountain is sparkling
With evening's final ray.
The fairest of maidens is sitting
So marvelous up there,
Her golden jewels are shining,
She's combing her golden hair.
She combs with a comb also golden,
And sings a song as well
Whose melody binds a wondrous
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.
I think that the waves will devour
The boatman and boat as one;
And this by her song's sheer power
Fair Lorelei has done.
The name comes from the old German words lureln, Rhine dialect for "murmuring", and the Celtic term ley "rock". The translation of the name would therefore be: "murmur rock" or "murmuring rock". The heavy currents, and a small waterfall in the area (still visible in the early 19th century) created a murmuring sound, and this combined with the special 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 the urbanization of the area. Other theories attribute the name to the many accidents, by combining the German verb "lauern" (to lurk, lie in wait) with the same "ley" ending, with the translation "lurking rock".
By the German language orthographic reform of 1903, in almost all German terms letter "y" was changed for letter "i", but in some German names the letter "y" was kept, such as Speyer, Spay, (Rheinberg-)Orsoy, and including Loreley, which is thus the correct spelling in German.
Original folklore and the creation of the modern myth
The rock and the murmur it creates have inspired various tales. An old legend envisioned dwarfs living in caves in the rock.
In 1801, German author Clemens Brentano composed his ballad Zu Bacharach am Rheine as part of a fragmentary continuation of his novel Godwi oder Das steinerne Bild der Mutter. It first told the story of an enchanting female associated with the rock. In the poem, 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 thereto, accompanied by three knights, she comes to the Lorelei rock. She asks permission to climb it and view the Rhine once again. She does so and thinking that she sees her love in the Rhine, falls to her death; the rock still retained an echo of her name afterwards. Brentano had taken inspiration from Ovid and the Echo myth.
In 1824, Heinrich Heine seized on and adapted Brentano's 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 distracted 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 in German-speaking lands. A setting by Franz Liszt was also favored and over a score of other musicians have set the poem to music.
The Lorelei character, although originally imagined by Brentano, passed into German popular culture in the form described in the Heine–Silcher song and is commonly but mistakenly believed to have originated in an old folk tale. The French writer Guillaume Apollinaire took up the theme again in his poem "La Loreley", from the collection Alcools which is later cited in Symphony No. 14 (3rd movement) of Dmitri Shostakovich.