A Book of Myths

Page: 108

“Once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid, on a dolphin’s back,
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,
That the rude sea grew civil at her song;
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid’s music.”


Very many are the stories of the women of the sea and of the rivers, but that one who must forever hold her own, because Heine has immortalised her in song, is the river maiden of the Rhine—the Lorelei.

[Pg 224] Near St. Goar, there rises out of the waters of the Rhine a perpendicular rock, some four hundred feet high. Many a boatman in bygone days there met his death, and the echo which it possesses is still a mournful one. Those who know the great river, under which lies hid the treasure of the Nibelungs, with its “gleaming towns by the river-side and the green vineyards combed along the hills,” and who have felt the romance of the rugged crags, crowned by ruined castles, that stand like fantastic and very ancient sentries to guard its channel, can well understand how easy of belief was the legend of the Lorelei.

Down the green waters came the boatman’s frail craft, ever drawing nearer to the perilous rock. All his care and all his skill were required to avert a very visible danger. But high above him, from the rock round which the swirling eddies splashed and foamed, there came a voice.

“Her voice was like the voice the stars
Had when they sang together.”

And when the boatman looked up at the sound of such sweet music, he beheld a maiden more fair than any he had ever dreamed of. On the rock she sat, combing her long golden hair with a comb of red gold. Her limbs were white as foam and her eyes green like the emerald green of the rushing river. And her red lips smiled on him and her arms were held out to him in welcome, and the sound of her song thrilled through the heart of him who listened, and her eyes drew his soul to her arms.

[Pg 225] Forgotten was all peril. The rushing stream seized the little boat and did with it as it willed. And while the boatman still gazed upwards, intoxicated by her matchless beauty and the magic of her voice, his boat was swept against the rock, and, with the jar and crash, knowledge came back to him, and he heard, with broken heart, the mocking laughter of the Lorelei as he was dragged down as if by a thousand icy hands, and, with a choking sigh, surrendered his life to the pitiless river.

To one man only was it granted to see the siren so near that he could hold her little, cold, white hands, and feel the wondrous golden hair sweep across his eyes. This was a young fisherman, who met her by the river and listened to the entrancing songs that she sang for him alone. Each evening she would tell him where to cast his nets on the morrow, and he prospered greatly and was a marvel to all others who fished in the waters of the Rhine. But there came an evening when he was seen joyously hastening down the river bank in response to the voice of the Lorelei, that surely never had sounded so honey-sweet before, and he came back nevermore. They said that the Lorelei had dragged him down to her coral caves that he might live with her there forever, and, if it were not so, the rushing water could never whisper her secret and theirs, of a lifeless plaything that they swept seawards, and that wore a look of horror and of great wonder in its dead, wide-open eyes.

It is “ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten”—a legend of long ago.

[Pg 226] But it is a very much older Märchen that tells us of the warning of Circe to Odysseus:

“To the Sirens first shalt thou come, who bewitch all men, whosoever shall come to them. Whoso draws nigh them unwittingly and hears the sound of the Siren’s voice, never doth he see wife or babes stand by him on his return, nor have they joy at his coming; but the Sirens enchant him with their clear song.”

And until there shall be no more sea and the rivers have ceased to run, the enchantment that comes from the call of the water to the hearts of men must go on. Day by day the toll of lives is paid, and still the cruel daughters of the deep remain unsatisfied. We can hear their hungry whimper from the rushing river through the night, and the waves of the sea that thunders along the coast would seem to voice the insistence of their desire. And we who listen to their ceaseless, restless moan can say with Heine:

Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten,