The Rhine has ever been the center of many romantic and partly historic legends in which nymphs and fairies, as well as lords, knights and robbers have played their part.
The river is very beautiful as it winds its way through the mountains, with tall cliffs on either side. The waves dash over rocks and whirl into pools, and calm themselves into long smooth reaches, so that one easily believes himself in fairy-land. For hundreds of years legend and history have formed about the river, so that one cannot tell how much is true and how much is fiction in the stories he hears.
One of the best known and most charming legends is that of the water nymph, Lore, who at Lei, a rock in the river, had her residence. Hence the place has been called Lorelei.
The nymph was very beautiful, as she appeared on the rock to the boatmen passing by. She had long, flowing hair which she combed with a golden comb. Around her form was draped a green veil, the color of young leaves in the spring. Her eyes were very bright, her face was fair, and the songs she sang made all the boatmen stop and listen to their sweetness. Never was a creature more alluring and beautiful than she, as she sat upon her rock in the early morning light, combing her golden hair and singing her songs to the birds and the fish and to men who came near her way.
She was by no means an evil fairy, for the people told stories of how she often appeared at the houses of the sick and gave them healing herbs for their complaints, and of how she nursed the little babies back into health when they were ill, and sometimes cured the cattle of their diseases. She was a good fairy to all those who meant well.
But she was dreaded by evil-doers, and by those who tried to reach her place on the rock. To those who came near her and mocked her, or tried to land at the foot of her rock, there happened dreadful things, for at her bidding the waves would open and the boats would go down never to be seen again.
Sometimes those who impudently landed and tried to seize her, were led away on a long chase through the briars and bushes and it was with great difficulty they found their way out again, and some of them never did.
In those days there lived on the Rhine in a great castle the Count Bruno and his handsome son Hermann, a youth of twenty years, the flower of chivalry and the joy of his father. Often the young knight had heard of the wonderful nymph, Lorelei, and every time he saw the rocks he wished to see the nymph herself, to whom he felt strangely drawn.
Scarcely a day passed that he did not come near the rock where the nymph showed herself, but for a long time his quest was in vain. One evening, as he sat in a grotto near the foot of the mountain, singing a low love song, he cast his eyes upwards toward the rock where the nymph was accustomed to sit. To his great joy he saw a wonderful light, which gathered closer and closer and finally became the beautiful form he had longed for so earnestly.
Overcome with emotion he cried out, "My beautiful, now at last I have seen you. Depart from me no more." With that he held out his hands, letting his harp fall to the ground. The nymph seemed to bend over him lovingly and look at him tenderly and even called his name. Hermann sank senseless to the ground, unable to stand the gaze of so much loveliness.
With the dawn he arose, and in feverish excitement returned to his father's castle. From that time he was a changed man. He wandered about like a dreamer, thinking only of the beautiful fairy. As often as he had a chance he directed his steps toward the banks of the river, and whenever the maiden was there she smiled at him so sweetly, that it was with difficulty he restrained himself from leaping into the water.
The old count saw with much concern the change in his son. He thought it was due to some unhappy passion, but did not know the cause. One day Count Bruno said to Hermann, "My son, I perceive that you are sad, and I judge you wish to be away at the wars, where you can win your spurs as a knight. Therefore you will make ready to go to the imperial camp and enter the service of some knight who will teach you the art of war."
Hermann made no reply, but he dared not disobey his father's commands. It would have been a disgrace for him to refuse to prepare for the life of a knight, which was the ambition of every young man of his age.
The evening for his departure came. All things were ready, even his horse had been prepared with saddle and bridle for his master's mounting. But Hermann could not leave without one more look at his beloved maiden, and one more glance from her beautiful eyes. He took with him his young squire, and entering a boat, glided down stream to the fateful rock where the nymph awaited him.
The moon shone brightly that night. The steep banks of the river took on the most fantastic shapes, and the tall trees seemed to wave at the young man as his boat floated down the river. At last he came near the rock and heard the roar of the water as it rushed around the banks. His attendant cried out in alarm, "My master, beware! The river is dangerous to-night, and the waves are angry. We shall be dashed to pieces."
But Hermann laid aside his oars and took up his harp, and began to sing his song of love. As he sang there was a tumult of voices above and below the waters as of many crying in distress. To this Hermann paid no heed. The boat glided on and he still sang his song of love.
When they came in sight of the rock, there stood the maiden in all her loveliness, beckoning Hermann to beware or to come on, one does not know which.
With a staff in her hand she turned to the waves and called them to her service. They mounted higher and higher, the boat was split in pieces, and Hermann disappeared beneath the waters, never to be seen again.
The squire, however, was thrown on the shore, and soon made his way back to the castle and told his tale to the unhappy father. The old count was overcome with grief and rage.
"I shall take the wretched maiden with my own hands, and deliver her into the fire. She has lured my son to his death," said he, beside himself with fury.
The next day he hastened, with some followers, to the rock, and waited until the maiden should appear. They had not long to wait, for she soon came to her place and stood above the dark waters combing her hair and singing a song of inexpressible sadness.
"Where is my son, thou cruel and conscienceless creature? To what death hast thou consigned him?" cried the unhappy father.
The nymph pointed to the waves below, and turned upon the count a look of tenderness and sadness, as much as to say that a mortal might love and be loved by a nymph, but they might not wed.
She sang a song of great sweetness and bound her beautiful hair around her head. Then she took a stone and threw it into the waves. Immediately the waters rose and took her from the rock and carried her below. Perhaps she went to join the man who loved her, and who had also won her heart. At any rate, she was never seen again upon the place that men to this day call Lorelei.
But those who pass by may sometimes hear the lapping of the waves and a sound from the shore that even to this day remind them of the sad song the maiden sang upon her rock.