Around 1800 the German Romantic author Clemens von Brentano (1778-1842) wrote his ballad “Lore Lay”, which begins:
Zu Bacharach am Rheine
Wohnt’ eine Zauberin
Sie war so schön und feine
Und riß viel Herzen hin.
Which means more or less:
In Bacharach on the Rhine
there lived a sorceress.
She was so beautiful and fine,
and seduced many hearts.
This was the original Loreley poem, about a lovely young woman from Bacharach who was too beautiful for her own good and a menace to the local men who kept falling hopelessly in love with her. While she was being taken to a nunnery (on orders from the bishop) she fell or leapt to her death from the top of the cliff which is now called the Loreley, some ten kilometers downstream from Bacharach.
Brentano’s ballad was very popular in its day, but twenty-two years later Heinrich Heine wrote a poem on the same topic, which soon eclipsed Brentano’s in popularity.
In Heine’s version, which resembles the story of the Sirens in ancient Greek mythology, a lovely maiden sits on the rock combing her lovely golden hair and singing so beautifully that the captains of the river boats forget to concentrate on their steering and crash their boats against the rock.
To this day if you take a boat trip along the Rhine you can hear Japanese tourists singing in German on deck as they pass the Loreley, and even if you can’t quite understand the words you can be sure they are singing Heine’s ballad, not Brentano’s.
My photos in this post are from 2006. I revised the text in 2017.