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The Loreley Legend

Updated: May 7, 2021

Ich weiß nicht was soll es bedeuten

Dass ich so traurig bin

Ein Märchen aus uralten Zeiten

Das geht mir nicht durch den Sinn.

(Heinrich Heine, 1822)

I cannot determine the meaning Of sorrow that fills my breast: A fable of old, through it streaming, Allows my mind no rest.

(translated: Frank 1998)

My grandmother liked to tell me the story of the Loreley when I was a child. I still hear her sing this whimsical tune, which she accompanied on her mandolin. It gave me goosebumps every time and left me with that melancholy feeling the song describes, that “heavy sorrow that fills my breast.”

“Loreley” is the name of a steep rock in the Rhine valley at a particularly fatal bent of the river. It is also the name of an old German legend, as well as the name of a literary figure, eternalized in the above ballad by Heinrich Heine in 1822, set to melody by Clara Schumann.

According to legend, the beautiful Lore Lay –who is either a sorceress, a siren, a nixen, an undine or all of those combined – lured sailors to their watery deaths by sitting upon that rock, singing, as she combed her long, golden hair. Distracted by her beauty, the sailors forgot about navigating their boats, crashed against that fatal rock – and drowned.

There is some truth at the core of every legend. The area near the Loreley rock is considered to be the most dangerous part of the entire Rhine river. The sharp bent narrows down to only 200m. Currents and maelstroms make navigation difficult, pushing boats against submerged rocks and sandbanks. Throughout the ages, many sailors came to tragedy as they shipwrecked at that particular part of the Rhine. Or maybe it was the Loreley who had bewitched them?

There are different versions of the legend. In the ballad by Clemens Brentano (1801), the heartbroken Loreley throws herself off the rock to be with her faithless sailor – who, upon seeing her, crashes against the rock and drowns. A double tragedy.

Why did I choose to write about this legend? When I saw the cover of Sea of Secrets, I heard my grandmother’s mandolin again and her voice as she sang: Ich weiss nicht was soll das bedeuten… and then I knew that my story would be about the Loreley. Even if I just wrote it for myself, for a childhood memory.

Sea Of Secrets is available here:


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