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The Folk Tale
The name"Lorelei" probably means "murmuring rock" in Old German. It first appears as the name of a famous rock formation on the eastern bank of the Rhine river, near St. Goarshausen, Germany. Rising about several hundred feet above the waterline, this rock marks the narrowest, and thus most difficult, part of the Rhine. A local tourist attraction to this day, early regional records suggest that at one point it was believed to be home to dwarves. Some traditions associate it with the fabled treasure of the Nibelungen (see also Wagner's Rings cycle; more on that shortly).
Lorelei herself is a bit murkier to figure out, and not just because she's a water spirit (zing). Her story was only codified in the early 1800s and in fact, there is considerable debate as to whether or not the tale even existed prior to the poems written about her in the early 19th century. We'll pretend it did.
The basic story has it that Lorelei was a young peasant woman who fell in love with the Count of Katzenelnbogen. The count was of course happy to knock boots with her, but when it came time to marry he spurned her and married a fellow noble instead. Reading between the lines, the maiden was pregnant, and faced a rather gruesome fate once the fact became known. Despondent, Lorelei committed suicide by flinging herself into the Rhine, but was resurrected as a water spirit who, grief-stricken, lures men sailing down the river to die smashed against the rock.
In 1801, German poet Clemens Brentano wrote the version of the story from which all other modern versions come. Compounding romantic betrayal with persecution by religious authority, in his ballad Lorelei's lover not only betrays her, but also accuses her of using witchcraft to beguile men to obey her. Spared execution, a local Bishop instead sentences her to life in a convent. However, on the way to the nunnery she convinces her knightly escorts to permit her one last look at the Rhine. Reaching the top of the rock which now bears her name, she attempts suicide by jumping into the Rhine, and upon death is transformed into a water spirit. The echo of her voice lives on in the river, hence "murmuring rock".
This story inspired an 1824 poem called Die Lorelei, in which Lorelei, gifted with immense beauty and an incredible singing voice, accidentally (and not purposefully) distracts sailors and causes them to crash their boats on the rock. Die Lorelei was later set to music (at one point by Liszt) and the resulting song became a standard in German-speaking regions, and hugely influential. Wagner, in particular, is believed to have based the Rhinemaidens from the Ring Cycle on Lorelei. For those of you planning a trip to Germany sometime soon, there is a statue of Lorelei on an island in the middle of the river, directly within view of the rock.
Whether she was derived from actual folklore or sprang from the heads of imaginative writers, Lorelei had a lot of reasons to be a bit angry about her love life.
Meanwhile, we've already seen the Marvel Cinematic Universe reimagine the Asgardians as aliens who essentially conform to Clarke's third law, and Loki as a tortured, conflicted genius whose fatal flaw isn't that he's irredeemably evil, it's that he's got an inferiority complex and doesn't think things through. It's not that long of a leap to get from the rather insulting Marvel comics take on Lorelei to something a bit less condescending to the entire notion of womanhood. Here's hoping Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't drop the ball.
Wait, you're still here? Then let's take a moment to commemorate another Norse myth far more disturbing and weird than the Marvel comics version. Hit the next page, and enjoy the thrill of a man giving birth to an eight-legged horse.