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Romancing the Rhine

28 May 2020

It's unsurprising that a river over five million years old should have a somewhat colourful history, and the Rhine doesn't disappoint. A nation already famous for its dark yet irresistible fairytales, compiled by the Brothers Grimm, Germany's dense forests and snaking valleys provide the perfect backdrop to a cornucopia of myths and legends that visitors still thrill to hear about today.

Lorelei Rock

Perhaps the most famous Rhine legend is that of the beautiful nymph, Lorelei. Her home was a precipitous rock in a section of the river now known as the Rhine Gorge. With her long flowing hair decorated with flowers and her revealing white robes, no one could deny she was a knockout, but looks can be deceiving. Lorelei's other great gift was her heavenly voice, though it would lead many sailors to a hellish death. While sat atop her lofty perch overlooking the treacherous rock below, she would sing to nearby sailors, tempting them ever closer until they met a watery end, their ships dashed by the jagged edges of the cliffs. And though no one has heard her sweet siren song for many centuries now, Lorelei still watches over what was once the most dangerous stretch of water, her statue a nostalgic reminder of tales of old.

The sunken treasure of the Nibelungs

An ancient clan of dwarves who lived in magical caves, the Nibelungs were known for hoarding mounds of golden treasure. One day, German hero Siegfried (of dragon-slaying fame) was taking a relaxed woodland walk when he came across two Nibelungs carrying heavy chests laden with gold and gemstones. On seeing Siegfried, the dwarves asked him to help settle a dispute by splitting the treasure equally between them. But even though he agreed to help them, the two still weren't happy and attacked him. It was at this point, Siegfried made the best of a bad situation and killed the dwarves in self-defence, taking their treasure for himself and returning it to the cave where he hid it behind a doorway of heavy stones. Unfortunately, however, news of Siegfried's new-found wealth soon reached the ears of Gunther, the King of Burgundy, who lived in nearby Worms. A greedy ruler, he hatched a devious plan to relieve Siegfried of his gold by inviting him to go on a hunting trip, during which he would murder him. After going to so much effort for a little extra wealth, King Gunther promptly hid the incriminating treasure at the bottom of the Rhine. Not long after though, Siegfried's furious widow, Kriemhild, killed him at a feast and he died before ever revealing the location of the Nibelungs' much sought-after, yet now sunken, riches. And so, as the story goes, it still lies somewhere on the riverbed of the Rhine, just waiting to be discovered. 

Inspired by a medieval painting of the Nibelung legend, composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner created his renowned opera cycle, 'Der Ring des Nibelungen', an undertaking that took him 26 years to complete. 

The Wild Huntsman

If you're out and about at night-time in the Rhineland and you hear the wind start to whistle through the trees or feel the leaves begin blowing about your feet, then beware, as the Wild Huntsman might be on the ride. Sweeping through the air with his demonic pack of hounds, the Wild Huntsman would torment local farm animals before feeding on the souls of the near-departed and those who dared to walk in the middle of the path. Said to be the earthly embodiment of Norse god, Odin, the legend of the Wild Huntsman encouraged Scottish poet and playwright Sir Walter Scott to pen his epic, eponymous 41-stanza poem.

Living Legends

It's hard to talk about legends of the Rhine, without including some that once lived. As we've learnt, the mythology surrounding the Rhine has influenced great works of art, from operas to poetry. Still, its scenery of hillside fortresses, gothic forests and dramatic waterways also touched the hearts of Romantics Lord Byron and William Turner. The unique light of the Rhine Valley worked Turner up into a frenzy of creativity as he sailed and walked up and down the banks of the Middle Rhine, incessantly putting together his portfolio of Rhine-related watercolours. And Lord Byron was equally as awed, writing 'Childe Harold's Pilgrimage' in the 18th century in which he describes his surroundings as; '…A work divine/A blending of all beauties, streams and dells/Fruit, foliage, crag, wood, cornfield, mountain, vine.'

So, the next time you're exploring the towns and cities of the Rhine or sailing along its magical waters, keep your eyes peeled for a flash of gold, listen out for the rising wind, or perhaps find yourself inspired to put pen to paper.