Rhine Valley, Black Forest: the German Lorelei
It is said that the Lorelei was a beautiful water maiden, who used to sit atop the Lorelei (rocky outcropping) above the Rhine. There, she would comb her luscious hair and, like many siren bad-girls of mythology, would sing a bewitching song. The song was of wicked design, luring foolhardy sailors to their deaths among the treacherous rocks.
Even kings among men were not immune to her wiles. Prince Roland, driven mad by longing and temptation, heedless of all risk to life and limb, plunged headlong into the Rhine in an attempt to win Lorelei’s heart. He promptly drowned. Infuriated and grieving, his father the king sent an army to kill the Lorelei. The army arrived, hundreds of men strong, intent on avenging their beloved prince. But the Lorelei was not so easily vanquished. She vanished into the Rhine, as if she had never been. Prince Roland’s drowned corpse washed up on the shore, a warning to all who found themselves wanting.
Waterways were the original highways of history. The Rhine in particular, was a place of great beauty and great danger. Cruising the Rhine gives you an appreciation of medieval life. Each river bend reveals yet another resplendent castle, former fortresses of medieval warlords who would tax merchants to use their section of the river.
The Lorelei represents both the dangers of the wild, untamed river and the danger of temptation, a common theme in Medieval Europe.
Germany is a fairy tale country. Octoberfest in Munich transports you to a place that time forgot. Munich is a quintessential gothic German town, full of food, beer, song and joy. Picturesque Heidelberg, on the Rhine, is a town of crumbling castle ruins, ornate bridges and gorgeous German bakeries filled with decadent cakes and pastries. In addition, who can forget the historic Christmas markets that take place in every town in December? A magnificent decorated tree takes centre stage in the Central Square, glistening with lights and baubles as shoppers sipped steaming mulled cider and explored the handmade crafts on offer. Like something from a brother’s Grimm fairy-tale, these charming towns represent order, civilisation and safety, juxtaposed against the unknowable wildness of a sea of forests and the dangers of the river-road.
It was autumn when I first heard the Lorelei’s song.
By the light of day, the black forest in the upper Rhine proved a stunning backdrop to our cabin. Leaves every shade of green, yellow, orange and red set the forest on fire. There was an early snowfall, carpeting the ground in sparkling white. Leaves rained down upon us as we explored the safe, outer edges of the forest.
However, by night, the forest became quite different.
Our Rhine Valley cabin was not in the forest, but rather, overlooked it. We were returning from a day of adventures in the vineyards. Heady from local eiswein, warm and safe and in good company, we made it safely home. But I was not the same person who, less than an hour earlier, had feasted by the fire, warm, safe and content.
For I had heard her song.
The forest was full of mystery and of shadows. Black trees silhouetted against the indigo sky, the now-bare, twisted branches were skeletal, and tore at the sky. The pale full moon had risen; cold and distant.
Her song had been the call of the wild. I was used to the ocean calling to me. As a coast-dweller, it was a constant. The sea was familiar. But in this instance, it was the forest itself that had called to me. For me, the forest is a foreign element.
I could not dismiss it from my mind. It was primitive and wild, like the howling of wolves. I was overcome with desire to lose myself in the forest. Like Prince Roland, I yearned to leave the safety and order of the human world, and run with the spirits that dwelled in the dark places of the earth. It was my wild-self that called. She urged me embrace my raw wildness. She called for me to run with the wolves.
For the first time in my life, the façade I had built of myself as a good girl, who followed the rules was shattered. We women cannot so easily escape our wild-selves. Our menstrual cycle has seen to that. Each month, we pay a tithe of blood to death, a reminder that the cost of life is death. Many of us are caught up and carried in our darker emotions, like driftwood caught in tumultuous rapids. Grief leaves us howling, anger fills us with a passionate intensity and, if we don’t maintain control, we mercilessly cut down all that no longer serves us, consequences be damned.
That night I slept restlessly, dreaming of the Wild Hunt. The tangy taste of blood was in my mouth. It was a brush with madness and it changed me. For I am still haunted by the Lorelei’s call and the lure of that black forest. My wild-self still rears her head from time to time, eager to break the chains that bind me to my safe, organised little life. She seeks a return to simpler times.
Sometimes I indulge her, but only briefly. For to let my wild self-rule my heart is to risk drowning. Society is a cage that keeps us safe. True freedom can be terrifying.