Song of a Siren: A Study in Fakelore
During an investigative tour of Germany in 2002 (Nickell 2003), I explored along the beautiful Rhine Valley guided by my Center for Inquiry–Germany colleague Martin Mahner. There, we tracked a headless ghost (Nickell 2012, 33–34) and viewed the lair of the beautiful, enchanting Lorelei (associated with a massive rock 430 feet high, near St. Goar [Zieman 2000]). And therein lies a tale—or rather, conflicting tales. Lorelei is described variously as a “sorceress” (Stories 1870, 67), “siren” (Encyclopedia Britannica 1960), “water nymph” (Leach 1984, 645), “mermaid,” and even, in the plural, “mermaids” (Conway 2002, 164). In any case, at least she represents a romantic legend of the Rhine—or does she?
My notes on Lorelei remained in my files gathering dust for a decade until I came across a tattered old booklet, Stories and Legends of the Rhine between Worms and Cologne (1870), in an antique shop. It was in English and I bought it at once, discovering therein that “Lorelay” [sic] was included. The entry consisted mostly of two poems, a ballad by Clemens Brentano (1772–1842) and a shorter poem by Heinrich Heine (1797–1856). I give the latter, in my own translation, in the accompanying panel.
By Heinrich Heine
(Translated by Joe Nickell)
I know not what it means,
This sadness that I find;
But an olden tale, it seems,
Has overcome my mind.
The air is cool at sunset,
And quietly flows the Rhine;
In the fading evening light,
The mountain summits shine.
The fairest maiden dwells
In marvelous radiance there;
Arrayed in gleaming jewels,
She combs her golden hair.
Combing with a golden comb,
All the while sings she,
A song with a wondersome,
The boatman in his little craft—
Captivated by its might—
Sees not the looming reef,
Stares only at the height.
I think the waves are devouring
Both boat and boatman gone;
And all this with her singing
The Lorelei has done.
Folklore or Fakelore?
Now the Rhine has long been a source for romantic tales, and the German epic poem The Nibelungenlied (ca. 1200) associates it with a dragon, a treasure of gold, a cloak of invisibility, and other fabulous elements (Benét’s 1987, 692; Leach 1984, 791).
Yet the Lorelei narrative is, in fact—in folkloristic terms—“neither myth nor local legend” but is rather a “fabrication” by the previously mentioned Clemens Brentano (Leach 1984, 645). Genuine folklore consists of traditions (tales, customs, rituals, songs, etc.) accumulated through folk transmission. It includes not only the simple folktale but also the legend (a localized narrative that is more historicized than the folktale) and the myth (which presents preternatural topics as explanations or metaphors of cosmic or natural forces or the like; folklorists do not use the term to mean “a false belief”) (Brunvand 1996; Benét’s 1987). But whereas folklore is the product of tradition, fakelore—a spurious form named by great folklorist Richard M. Dorson (1950)—is deliberately created, as by writers. For instance, many of the tall tales about American herculean logger Paul Bunyan “were literary embellishments of a small amount of oral tradition” produced by William B. Laughead, a lumber company advertising executive (Walls 1996). (Sadly, such distinctions are often confused, as by one pop skeptic who declared that a certain story was “a legend” that he then branded as complete “fiction” by a certain author!) In his Lorelei fakelore—represented by a ballad (a narrative in verse form) inserted in his novel Godwi (written 1800–1801)—Clemens Brentano became “the first to associate the [Lorelei] rock with a woman of the same name.” However, “The poem is so convincingly folklike in style that Brentano’s invention came to be regarded as a genuine folk legend” (Benét’s 1987, 581).
Indeed, Heinrich Heine may well have regarded Brentano’s ballad as presenting a legend, referring to the Lorelei story as Ein Märchen aus Uralten (i.e., “an ancient folktale”). Or perhaps he was simply following Brentano’s lead in presenting a newly written tale as a handed-down one in order to provide what writers call “verisimilitude” (from the Latin verisimilis; verus, true, and similis, like), that is, a semblance of being true or real. In any event, whereas Brentano’s “Loreley” was a Zauberin (“sorceress”), it remained for Heine (ca. 1823) to create the concept of Lorelei as a siren whose singing lured boatmen to their destruction (Benét’s 1987, 581). Of course, Heine did not invent sirens. As far back as the ninth century bce, the Greek poet Homer in his epic poem Odyssey presented sirens: half-woman, half-bird creatures whose singing so enticed sailors that they died by forgetting to eat. To escape their irresistible attraction, Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin) filled his men’s ears with wax and had himself lashed to his ship’s mast (Benét’s 1987, 904). Sirens are not to be confused with another woman/bird hybrid, the Harpies. Those were hideous, vulturelike monsters that seized the food of victims and otherwise tormented them (Nickell 2011, 201–202). Only in some later traditions were sirens depicted as mermaids (Nickell 2011, 201–202). In his great poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T.S. Eliot (1915) plays on this tradition when “Prufrock” laments his inconsequentialness:
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
Neither bird-woman nor mermaid, Heinrich Heine’s “The Lorelei” was no hybrid but simply a water nymph or beautiful Rhine maiden such as is now represented at the Lorelei/Loreley rock: on the rock itself is a stone sculpture depicting her, and at the base another, in bronze (which appears on picture postcards) (Zieman 2000).
* * *
Ironically, it was by way of Heine’s poem that the pseudolegend of Lorelei finally did become something more than fakelore. The poem attracted English readers, and—especially when set to music by Friedrich Silcher (adapting a folk song [Encyclopedia Britannica 1960])—became to tourists “a local legend of sorts.” Also because the rock is attended by a peculiar echo, “the romantic literary fiction has had an excuse for passing to a degree into tradition” (Leach 1984, 645).
I am grateful to Lisa Nolan, former CFI Librarian, for her research assistance.
Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, 3rd ed. 1987. New York: Harper & Row. 2012.
Brunvand, Jan Harold, ed. 1996. American Folklore: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing. Conway, D.J. 2002.
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Eliot, T.S. 1915. The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Poetry (April).
Encyclopedia Britannica. 1960. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica.
Leach, Maria, ed. 1984. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Nickell, Joe. 2003. Germany: Monsters, myths, and mysteries. Skeptical Inquirer 27:2 (March/April), 24–28.
———. 2011. Tracking the Man-Beasts. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
———. 2012. The Science of Ghosts. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Stories and Legends of the Rhine between Worms and Cologne. 1870. Heidelberg: Charles Groos.
Walls, Robert E. 1996. “Paul Bunyan,” in Brunvand 1996, 105–07.
Zieman, Johanna M., ed. 2000. Der Scharze Führer: Deutschland (i.e., The Black Guides: Germany). Freiburg: Eulen Verlag.