The Lorelei: ’Tis not I who go to the Rhine, but the Rhine that will come to me

Many are the legends which cluster round the name of the Lorelei. In some of the earlier traditions she is represented as an undine, combing her hair on the Lorelei-berg and singing bewitching strains wherewith to lure mariners to their death, and one such legend relates how an old soldier named Diether undertook to capture her.

Graf Ludwig, son of the Prince Palatine, had been caught in her toils, his frail barque wrecked, and he himself caught in the whirlpool and drowned. The prince, grievously stricken at the melancholy occurrence, longed to avenge his son’s death on the evil enchantress who had wrought such havoc. Among his retainers there was but one who would undertake the venture — a captain of the guard named Diether — and the sole reward he craved was permission to cast the Lorelei into the depths she haunted should he succeed in capturing her.

Diether and his little band of warriors ascended the Lorelei’s rock in such a way as to cut off all retreat on the landward side. Just as they reached the summit the moon sailed out from behind a cloud, and behold, the spirit of the whirlpool was seen sitting on the very verge of the precipice, binding her wet hair with a band of gleaming jewels.

“What wouldst thou with me?” she cried, starting to her feet.

“To cast thee into the Rhine, sorceress,” said Diether roughly, “where thou hast drowned our prince.”

“Nay,” returned the maid, “I drowned him not. ’Twas his own folly which cost him his life.”

As she stood on the brink of the precipice, her lips smiling, her eyes gleaming softly, her wet dark hair streaming over her shoulders, some strange, unearthly quality in her beauty, a potent spell fell upon the little company, so that even Diether himself could neither move nor speak.

“And wouldst thou cast me in the Rhine, Diether?” she pursued, smiling at the helpless warrior. “’Tis not I who go to the Rhine, but the Rhine that will come to me.”

Then loosening the jewelled band from her hair, she flung it on the water and cried aloud: “Father, send me thy white steeds, that I may cross the river in safety.”

Instantly, as at her bidding, a wild storm arose, and the river, overflowing its banks, foamed right up to the summit of the Lorelei Rock. Three white-crested waves, resembling three white horses, mounted the steep, and into the hollowed trough behind them the Lorelei stepped as into a chariot, to be whirled out into the stream. Meanwhile Diether and his companions were almost overwhelmed by the floods, yet they were unable to stir hand or foot. In mid-stream the undine sank beneath the waves: the spell was broken, the waters subsided, and the captain and his men were free to return home.

Nevermore, they vowed, would they seek to capture the Lorelei.

(Lewis Spence: Hero Tales and Legends of the Rhine, London; New York: 1915)


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