By Emanuela Militello | 28 May 2019
*The translations of Heine’s and of Goethe’s ballads featured are my own.
In Greek mythology, the siren is represented as a half-woman, half-bird being and is therefore not to be confused with the more popular mermaid of folk tradition (a half-woman, half-fish being) or the nymph of Greek mythology (a spirit associated with nature, having the appearance of a young girl and protecting mountains, rivers, springs).
Given this necessary premise, I am going to focus on the portrayal of women as supernatural characters in two ballads by notable German poets: Heinrich Heine’s Die Lorelei and J.W von Goethe’s Der Fischer, in order to give an insight into how their characterisation of women is influenced by Greek mythology.
In both ballads, women use their voice to entice the man – in a manner reminiscent of the power of sirens in the Odyssey, where sirens are infamous for luring sailors with their voices and for their uncanny appearance. The unfortunate ones who listen to their seductive singing, shipwreck against the rocks of the sirens’ island and meet a horrible death. Odysseus escapes this fate thanks to Circe’s warning – he instructs his sailors to bind him to the ship mast, and to ignore any of his pleas to be untied.
However, in Heine’s and Goethe’s works, women are described as beautiful and enticing, thus they are more in keeping with the characterisation of nymphs in mythology – notable examples being Daphne, from the tale of Apollo and Daphne, who is a water nymph so beautiful that Apollo falls in love with her.
In 1824, German poet Heinrich Heine composed the ballad Die Lorelei. The central character is a nymph who sits at the top of the cliffs above the Rhine. She combs her hair with a golden comb that sparkles in the night and lures sailors with her singing, causing them to shipwreck against the rocks on the bank of the river. In Heine’s poem, Lorelei’s singing echoes at dusk, over the cold air and water of the Rhine river:
Die Luft ist kühl, und es dunkelt,
Und ruhig fliesst der Rhein;
As the final stanzas of the ballad describe, she is associated with the waves that will destroy the boat and drown the man:
Den Schiffer im kleinen Schiffe
ergreift es mit wildem Weh;
er schaut nicht die Felsenriffe,
er schaut nur hinauf in die Höh.
Ich glaube, die Wellen verschlingen
am Ende Schiffer und Kahn;
und das hat mit ihrem Singen
die Lore-Ley getan.
An earlier example of a ballad featuring a similar character is Goethe’s Der Fischer (1779), where a fisherman is lured into the sea by a nymph. The image of the calm fisherman, who is intent on his task “Kühl bis ans Herz hinan” (“Cold to his heart”, verse 4) is interrupted by the appearance of a nymph out of the churning water. With the repetition of the line: “Sie sang zu ihm, sie sprach zu ihm” (“She sang to him, she spoke with him”, verse 9), the nymph persuades the fisherman to follow her. She prospects the calm, refreshing depths of the sea as opposed to the blazing sun on earth:
«Labt sich die liebe Sonne nicht,
Der Mond sich nicht im Meer?
Kehrt wellenatmend ihr Gesicht
Nicht doppelt schöner her?
Lockt dich der tiefe Himmel nicht,
Das feuchtverklärte Blau?
Lockt dich dein eigen Angesicht
Nicht her in ew’gen Tau?«
The nymph uses her incantations – the repetition of the same line in the second and fourth stanzas seems to suggest the magical quality of the nymph’s words:
Sie sang zu ihm, sie sprach zu ihm:
»Was lockst du meine Brut
Mit Menschenwitz und Menschenlist
Hinauf in Todesglut?
Sie sprach zu ihm, sie sang zu ihm;
Da war’s um ihn geschehn;
(Der Fischer, verses 9-12; 29-30)
In Der Fischer, the association with water and death of Heine’s Lorelei, is conveyed by the nymph’s words and appearance: she stands for the unknown depths of the sea — the “ew’gen Tau” (the eternal dew).
As alluring but deadly characters, the danger these women pose to the boatman/ the fisherman is emphasised by both authors, and arguably they go back a long way: Heine’s and Goethe’s nymphs seem to combine the seductive singing of sirens with the beautiful appearance of water nymphs, as they were represented in Greek mythology.
Therefore, both Goethe and Heine composed literary ballads that portrayed the seductive yet dangerous woman, combining the features of both nymph and siren. Their works represent a significant example of the fascination that the character of the deadly woman exerts to writers across ages and languages.
The air is cold, it is getting dark,
It is quiet on the river Rhine
The boatman in his little boat feels a deep ache in his heart;
He does not see the rocks underwater
But only looks up.
I think the waves will engulf both man and boat;
And that Lorelei’s singing will be the cause.
Do not the Sun and the Moon find repose in the sea?
Do not their faces look twice as beautiful, as they bask under the waves?
Is not this sky-like depth alluring with its clear and watery blue?
Does not your own reflection beckon you to the eternal dew?
She sang to him, she spoke with him:
“Why do you entice my brothers and sisters, with cunning and human wiles, to follow you into the deadly heat of the day?
She sang to him, she spoke with him;
His fate was already sealed.
I am a Modern Languages graduate with a specialisation in English Literature and German. My areas of interest include Medieval Literature, Balladry and Translation studies.
For the text of J.W von Goethe’s Der Fischer: https://germanstories.vcu.edu/goethe/fischer_dual.html (includes an English translation)
For the text of Heinrich Heine’s, Die Lorelei: http://www.balladen.de/web/sites/balladen_gedichte/autoren.php?b05=15&b16=424 (original German text)
sourced from Wikipedia
Carl Joseph Begas’s ‘Lurelei’, 1835
Frederic Leighton’s ‘The Fisherman and the Syren’ c.1856-1858