A close perusal of the body of tradition known as the legends of the Rhine displays one circumstance which is calculated to surprise the collector of these narratives not a little. It is generally represented--probably through ignorance of the real circumstances--that these tales abound in the matter of folklore. This is, however, by no means the case, and even a superficial examination of them will prove most of them to be allied to the matter of romance in a much more intimate way than they approach that of folklore. But this is not so as regards all of them, and it will be interesting to look into the character of those which present folklore affinities, whilst leaving the consideration of their romantic aspect for a later portion of this chapter.
By right of precedence, among the legends of the Rhine which possess folklore characteristics is the wonderful legend of the Lorelei, a word derived from the old High German lur, to lurk, and lai, a rock. The height from which the bewitching water-spirit sent her song floating over the waves of the Rhine is situated near St. Goar, and possesses a remarkable echo which may partly account for the legend.
Many are the legends which cluster round the name of the Lorelei. In some of the earlier traditions she is represented as an undine, combing her hair on the Lorelei-berg and singing bewitching strains wherewith to lure mariners to their death, and one such legend relates
how an old soldier named Diether undertook to capture her.
Graf Ludwig, son of the Prince Palatine, had been caught in her toils, his frail barque wrecked, and he himself caught in the whirlpool and drowned. The prince, grievously stricken at the melancholy occurrence, longed to avenge his son's death on the evil enchantress who had wrought such havoc. Among his retainers there was but one who would undertake the venture--a captain of the guard named Diether--and the sole reward he craved was permission to cast the Lorelei into the depths she haunted should he succeed in capturing her.
Diether and his little band of warriors ascended the Lorelei's rock in such a way as to cut off all retreat on the landward side. Just as they reached the summit the moon sailed out from behind a cloud, and behold, the spirit of the whirlpool was seen sitting on the very verge of the precipice, binding her wet hair with a band of gleaming jewels.
"What wouldst thou with me?" she cried, starting to her feet.
"To cast thee into the Rhine, sorceress," said Diether roughly, "where thou hast drowned our prince."
"Nay," returned the maid, "I drowned him not. ’Twas his own folly which cost him his life."
As she stood on the brink of the precipice, her lips smiling, her eyes gleaming softly, her wet dark hair streaming over her shoulders, some strange, unearthly quality in her beauty, a potent spell fell upon the little company, so that even Diether himself could neither move nor speak.
"And wouldst thou cast me in the Rhine, Diether?" she pursued, smiling at the helpless warrior. "’Tis not I who go to the Rhine, but the Rhine that will come to me."
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LOUIS WEIRTER, R.B.A.
Facing Page 60.
Then loosening the jewelled band from her hair, she flung it on the water and cried aloud: "Father, send me thy white steeds, that I may cross the river in safety."
Instantly, as at her bidding, a wild storm arose, and the river, overflowing its banks, foamed right up to the summit of the Lorelei Rock. Three white-crested waves, resembling three white horses, mounted the steep, and into the hollowed trough behind them the Lorelei stepped as into a chariot, to be whirled out into the stream. Meanwhile Diether and his companions were almost overwhelmed by the floods, yet they were unable to stir hand or foot. In mid-stream the undine sank beneath the waves: the spell was broken, the waters subsided, and the captain and his men were free to return home.
Nevermore, they vowed, would they seek to capture the Lorelei.
There is a later and more popular legend of the Lorelei than the foregoing.
According to this tale Lorelei was a maiden of surpassing beauty who dwelt in the town of Bacharach in medieval times. So potent were her attractions that every gallant on whom her eye rested fell hopelessly in love with her, while her ever-widening fame drew suitors in plenty from all parts of the country. The dismissed lovers wandered disconsolately in the neighbouring forests, vowing to take their lives rather than suffer the pangs of unrequited passion; while occasionally the threat was fulfilled, and a brave knight would cast himself into the Rhine and perish for love of the cold and cruel maid. Thus her fatal beauty played havoc among the flower of German chivalry. But she, dowered with virtue and goodness, as well as with
more transient charms, trembled when she saw the effect of her attractions on her many lovers, and secluded herself as closely as possible.
The truth was, she had given her heart into the keeping of a young knight who, after plighting his troth with her, had ridden away to the wars, his military ardour and desire for glory triumphing over his love. Years had gone by, yet he did not return, and Lorelei thought that he had perished on the field of battle, or had taken another bride and forgotten her. But she remained true to him in spite of his long silence, and spent her days in tears and prayers for his safety.
Meanwhile she was besieged by an ever-increasing band of suitors, to whom her retiring disposition and sorrowful mien but made her the more desirable. Then it began to be rumoured abroad that she was a sorceress, who won the hearts of men by magic art and with the aid of the Evil One. The rumour was spread broadcast by jealous and disappointed women who saw their menfolk succumb to the fatal charms of the Maid of Bacharach. Mothers noticed their sons grow pale and woe-begone because of her; maids their erstwhile lovers sighing out a hopeless passion for the beautiful Lorelei; so they brought against her accusations of sorcery, which in those days generally led to the death of the victim by burning. So grievously did these malign whispers add to the already heavy burden of the maid that she surrendered herself to be tried, hardly caring whether or not she were found guilty. She was summoned before the criminal court held at Rhens by the Archbishop of Cologne, and charged with practising the black art in order to ensnare men's affections.
However, when she appeared before the court her beauty so impressed the assembly, and even the old Archbishop
himself, that none could believe her guilty. Her lovely face bore the imprint of innocence, her grief touched every heart, and on all sides she was treated with the greatest respect and kindness. The old prelate assured her that she would not be judged harshly, but begged to hear from her own lips that she was innocent of the foul charge brought against her. This assurance she gave with artless simplicity, and a murmur of approval went up from the crowd. The sympathy of those present--for even her accusers were melted--and the kindness of the aged Churchman who was her judge moved her to confess her unhappy love-story.
"I pray thee," she concluded wearily, "I pray thee, my lord, let me die. I know, alas! that many true knights have died for love of me, and now I fain would die for the sake of one who hath forsaken me."
The prelate, moved almost to tears by the pathetic story, laid his hand on the head of the weeping maid.
"Thou shalt not die, fair maiden," he said. "I will send thee to a convent, where thou mayst live in peace." And calling to his side three trusty old knights, he bade them conduct Lorelei to the convent across the river, and charge the abbess to treat her with the greatest kindness. Having blessed the maid once more, he bade them go. On their way to the convent they must needs pass the rock since known as the Lorelei-berg, and the girl, who had maintained a pensive silence all the way, now observed that she would fain ascend the rock and look for the last time at the castle of her betrothed knight.
Her escort would have courteously assisted her, but she, with the agility of youth, easily outstripped them, and stood alone on the summit, surveying the fair scene before her. A light barque was sailing up the river, and as she
gazed on it Lorelei uttered a loud cry, for there in the bow stood her truant lover! The knight and his train heard the shriek and beheld with horror the maiden standing with outstretched arms on the very edge of the precipice. The steering of the boat was forgotten for the moment, and the frail craft ran on the rocks. Lorelei saw her lover's peril and, calling his name, leapt into the tide.
Nothing more was seen of the lovers; together they sleep the sleep of death beneath the waters of the Rhine.
In these legends we observe how the tradition of a mere water-nymph has developed into a story concerning a hapless damsel. The first applies to the Lorelei as a water-spirit pure and simple, but legends which refer to beings originally water-spirits have a knack of becoming associated in later times with stories of distressed ladies. Indeed, one such came to the writer's knowledge only a few months ago. The mansion of Caroline Park, near Edinburgh, dating from the end of the seventeenth century, has in its vicinity a well which is reputed to be inhabited by a 'Green Lady,' who emerges from her watery dwelling at twilight and rings the great bell of the old manor-house. On visiting the vicinity for the purpose of verifying the legend information was gleaned respecting another story of a captured lady who had been incarcerated in a room in the mansion and had written some verses to her lover with her diamond ring on a window-pane. The strange thing is that these stories, though obviously of different origin, appear now to have become fused in the popular imagination: the 'Green Lady' and the verse-writing damsel become one and the
same, thus affording a case in point of the fusion of a mythological tale with a later and probably verifiable incident. The Lorelei is of course a water-spirit of the siren type, one who lures heedless mariners to their destruction. In Scotland and the north of England we find her congener in the water-kelpie, who lurks in pools lying in wait for victims. But the kelpie is usually represented in the form of a horse and not in that of a beauteous maiden.
Another water-spirit not unlike the Lorelei is the nixie, which is both male and female, the male appearing like any human being, but, as in the case of the water-spirits of the Slavonic peoples and England, Scotland, and Central America, being possessed of green teeth. The male is called nix, the female nixie, the generic term for both being nicker, from a root which perhaps means 'to wash.' There is perhaps some truth in the statement which would derive the Satanic patronymic of 'Old Nick' from these beings, as spirits extremely familiar to the Teutonic mind. On fine sunny days the nixies may be seen sitting on the banks of rivers, or on the branches of trees, combing their long golden locks. Previous to a drowning accident the nixies can be seen dancing on the surface of the water. Like all sea and river spirits, their subaqueous abode is of a magnificence unparalleled upon earth, and to this they often convey mortals, who, however, complain that the splendours of the nixies' palaces are altogether spoiled for them by the circumstance that their banquets are served without salt.
The legend of the nixie of Seebach is one of gloom and tragedy, albeit as charming as most of the Rhine tales.
It was the custom among the young people of Seebach to assemble of an evening in the spinning-room, which on the occasion about to be dealt with was in the house of the richest and most distinguished family in the country. The girls spun and laughed and chatted, while the youths hung about their chairs and cracked jokes with them. One evening while they were thus employed there came among them a stranger, a young lady beautifully clad and carrying an ivory spinning-wheel. With becoming modesty she asked to be allowed to join the company, which permission the simple youths and maidens readily accorded. None was more eager to do honour to the new-comer than the son of their host. While the others were still gaping in awestruck fashion, he quietly fetched her a chair and performed various little services for her. She received his attentions so graciously that a warmer feeling than courtesy sprang up in his heart for the fair spinner.
He was in truth a handsome lad, whose attentions any maid might have been proud to receive. Well-built and slender, he bore himself with a proud carriage, and the expression on his delicate features was grave and thoughtful beyond his years. When at length the fair visitor departed, he loitered disconsolate and restless, listening to the idle surmises of the peasant youths concerning the identity of the lady, but offering no opinion himself. On the following day at the same hour she again appeared and, seeing her cavalier of the previous day, smiled and bowed to him. The young man glowed with pleasure, and diffidently renewed his attentions. Day after day
the lady of the spinning-wheel joined the company, and it was noted that the girls were brighter and more diligent, and the young men more gentle and courteous, for her coming. It was whispered among them that she was a nixie from the Mummel-lake far under the mountains, for never mortal was so richly endowed with beauty and grace. As time went on the son of the house grew more and more melancholy as his love for the fair unknown became deeper. Only during the brief hour of her visit would he show any cheerfulness. All the rest of the day he would mope in silent wretchedness. His friends saw with distress the change which had come over him, but they were powerless to alter matters. The lady could not be persuaded to remain beyond her usual hour, nor to give any hint of her identity.
One day, thinking to prolong her visit, the young man put back the hands of the clock. When the hour drew near for her to depart, he slipped out of the house so that he might follow her and find out where she lived. When the hour struck, the lady, who seemed to have feared that she was late, walked hastily from the house in the direction of the lake. So quickly did she walk that the youth following in her path could scarcely keep pace with her. She did not pause when she reached the shore, but plunged directly into the water. A low, moaning sound rose from the waves, which boiled and bubbled furiously, and the young man, fearing that some evil had befallen the maid, sprang in after her, but the cruel currents dragged him down, and he sank out of sight.
Next day his body was found floating on the lake by some woodcutters, and the nixie of the Mummel-lake was seen no more.
One of the most interesting Rhine myths is that concerning the Wild Huntsman, which is known all over Rhineland, and which is connected with many of its localities. The tale goes that on windy nights the Wild Huntsman, with his yelling pack of hounds, sweeps through the air, his prey departing souls. The huntsman is, of course, Odin, who in some of his aspects was a hunter-god. The English legend of Herne the Hunter, who haunts Windsor Park, is allied to this, and there can be little doubt that Herne is Odin. Indeed, it is here suggested that the name Herne may in some way be connected with one of Odin's titles, Hâri, the High One. It was the legend of the Wild Huntsman that inspired Sir Walter Scott to write one of his finest ballads of the mysterious. An Edinburgh friend had perused a ballad by Burger, entitled Lenore, but all he could remember of it were the following four lines:
This verse fired Scott's imagination. He liked this sort of thing, and could do it very well himself. So on reaching home he sat down to the composition of the following ballad, of which we give the most outstanding verses:
The eager pack, from couples freed,
Dash through the bush, the brier, the brake
While answering hound, and horn, and steed,
The mountain echoes startling wake.
The beams of God's own hallowed day
Had painted yonder spire with gold,
And, calling sinful men to pray,
Loud, long, and deep the bell hath tolled.
But still the Wildgrave onward rides;
Haloo, haloo, and hark again!
When, spurring from opposing sides,
Two stranger horsemen join the train.
Who was each stranger, left and right?
Well may I guess, but dare not tell.
The right-hand steed was silver-white;
The left, the swarthy hue of hell.
The right-hand horseman, young and fair,
His smile was like the morn of May;
The left, from eye of tawny glare,
Shot midnight lightning's lurid ray.
He waved his huntsman's cap on high,
Cried, "Welcome, welcome, noble lord!
What sport can earth, or sea, or sky,
To match the princely chase, afford?"
"Cease thy loud bugle's clanging knell,"
Cried the fair youth with silver voice;
"And for devotion's choral swell,
Exchange the rude, unhallowed noise.
"To-day th’ ill-omened chase forbear;
Yon bell yet summons to the fane:
To-day the warning spirit hear,
To-morrow thou mayst mourn in vain."
The Wildgrave spurred his ardent steed
And, launching forward with a bound,
"Who for thy drowsy priestlike rede
Would leave the jovial horn and hound? p. 70
"Hence, if our manly sport offend:
With pious fools go chant and pray.
Well hast thou spoke, my dark-brown friend,
Haloo, haloo, and hark away!"
The Wildgrave spurred his courser light,
O’er moss and moor, o’er holt and hill,
And on the left and on the right
Each stranger horseman followed still.
Up springs, from yonder tangled thorn,
A stag more white than mountain snow;
And louder rung the Wildgrave's horn--
"Hark forward, forward! holla, ho!"
A heedless wretch has crossed the way--
He grasps the thundering hoofs below;
But, live who can, or die who may,
Still forward, forward! on they go.
See where yon simple fences meet,
A field with autumn's blessings crowned;
See, prostrate at the Wildgrave's feet,
A husbandman with toil embrowned.
"Oh, mercy! mercy! noble lord;
Spare the poor's pittance," was his cry;
"Earned by the sweat these brows have poured
In scorching hours of fierce July."
"Away, thou hound, so basely born,
Or dread the scourge's echoing blow!"
Then loudly rung his bugle horn,
"Hark forward, forward! holla, ho!"
So said, so done--a single bound
Clears the poor labourer's humble pale:
Wild follows man, and horse, and hound,
Like dark December's stormy gale.
And man, and horse, and hound, and horn
Destructive sweep the field along,
While joying o’er the wasted corn
Fell famine marks the madd’ning throng. p. 71
Full lowly did the herdsman fall:
"Oh, spare, thou noble baron, spare;
These herds, a widow's little all;
These flocks, an orphan's fleecy care."
"Unmannered dog! To stop my sport
Vain were thy cant and beggar whine,
Though human spirits of thy sort
Were tenants of these carrion kine!"
Again he winds his bugle horn,
"Hark forward, forward! holla, ho!"
And through the herd in ruthless scorn
He cheers his furious hounds to go.
In heaps the throttled victims fall;
Down sinks their mangled herdsman near;
The murd’rous cries the stag appal,
Again he starts, new-nerved by fear.
With blood besmeared, and white with foam,
While big the tears of anguish pour,
He seeks, amid the forest's gloom,
The humble hermit's hallowed bow’r.
All mild, amid the route profane,
The holy hermit poured his prayer:
"Forbear with blood God's house to stain:
Revere His altar, and forbear!
"The meanest brute has rights to plead,
Which, wronged by cruelty or pride,
Draw vengeance on the ruthless head;
Be warned at length, and turn aside."
Still the fair horseman anxious pleads;
The black, wild whooping, points the prey.
Alas! the Earl no warning heeds,
But frantic keeps the forward way.
"Holy or not, or right or wrong,
Thy altar and its rights I spurn;
Not sainted martyrs’ sacred song,
Not God Himself shall make me turn." p. 72
He spurs his horse, he winds his horn,
"Hark forward, forward! holla, ho!"
But off, on whirlwind's pinions borne,
The stag, the hut, the hermit, go.
And horse and man, and horn and hound,
The clamour of the chase was gone;
For hoofs, and howls, and bugle sound,
A deadly silence reigned alone.
Wild gazed the affrighted Earl around;
He strove in vain to wake his horn,
In vain to call; for not a sound
Could from his anxious lips be borne.
High o’er the sinner's humbled head
At length the solemn silence broke;
And from a cloud of swarthy red
The awful voice of thunder spoke:
"Oppressor of creation fair!
Apostate spirits’ hardened tool!
Scorner of God! Scourge of the poor!
The measure of thy cup is full.
"Be chased for ever through the wood,
For ever roam the affrighted wild;
And let thy fate instruct the proud,
God's meanest creature is His child."
’Twas hushed: one flash of sombre glare
With yellow tinged the forest's brown;
Up rose the Wildgrave's bristling hair,
And horror chilled each nerve and bone.
Earth heard the call--her entrails rend;
From yawning rifts, with many a yell,
Mixed with sulphureous flames, ascend
The misbegotten dogs of hell.
What ghastly huntsman next arose,
Well may I guess, but dare not tell:
His eye like midnight lightning glows,
His steed the swarthy hue of hell. p. 73
The Wildgrave flies o’er bush and thorn,
With many a shriek of hapless woe;
Behind him hound, and horse, and horn,
And hark away, and holla, ho!
With wild despair's reverted eye,
Close, close behind, he marks the throng;
With bloody fangs, and eager cry,
In frantic fear he scours along.
Still, still shall last the dreadful chase,
Till time itself shall have an end;
By day, they scour earth's caverned space;
At midnight's witching hour, ascend.
This is the horn, and hound, and horse,
That oft the ’lated peasant hears;
Appalled, he signs the frequent cross,
When the wild din invades his ears.
Beings of the dwarf race swarmed on the banks of Rhine. First and foremost among these are the gnomes, who guard the subterranean treasures, but who on occasion reveal them to mortals. We meet with these very frequently under different guises, as, for instance, in the case of the 'Cooper of Auerbach,' and the Yellow Dwarf who appears in the legend of Elfeld. The Heldenbuch, the ancient book in which are collected the deeds of the German heroes of old, says that "God gave the dwarfs being because the land on the mountains was altogether waste and uncultivated, and there was much store of silver and gold and precious stones and pearls still in the mountains. Wherefore God made the dwarfs very artful and wise, that they might know good and evil right well, and for what everything was good. Some stones give great strength, some make those who carry them about
them invisible. That is called a mist-cap, and therefore did God give the dwarfs skill and wisdom. Therefore they built handsome hollow-hills, and God gave them riches."
Keightley, in his celebrated Fairy Mythology, tells of a class of dwarfs called Heinzelmännchen, who used to live and perform their exploits in Cologne. These were obviously of the same class as the brownies of Scotland, Teutonic house-spirits who attached themselves to the owners of certain dwellings, and Keightley culled the following anecdote regarding them from a Cologne publication issued in 1826:
"In the time that the Heinzelmännchen were still there, there was in Cologne many a baker who kept no man, for the little people used always to make, overnight, as much black and white bread as the baker wanted for his shop. In many houses they used to wash and do all their work for the maids.
"Now, about this time, there was an expert tailor to whom they appeared to have taken a great fancy, for when he married he found in his house, on the wedding-day, the finest victuals and the most beautiful utensils, which the little folk had stolen elsewhere and brought to their favourite. When, with time, his family increased, the little ones used to give the tailor's wife considerable aid in her household affairs; they washed for her, and on holidays and festival times they scoured the copper and tin, and the house from the garret to the cellar. If at any time the tailor had a press of work, he was sure to find it all ready done for him in the morning by the Heinzelmännchen.
"But curiosity began now to torment the tailor's wife, and she was dying to get one sight of the Heinzelmännchen,
but do what she would she could never compass it. She one time strewed peas all down the stairs that they might fall and hurt themselves, and that so she might see them next morning. But this project missed, and since that time the Heinzelmännchen have totally disappeared, as has been everywhere the case, owing to the curiosity of people, which has at all times been the destruction of so much of what was beautiful in the world.
"The Heinzelmännchen, in consequence of this, went off all in a body out of the town, with music playing, but people could only hear the music, for no one could see the mannikins themselves, who forthwith got into a ship and went away, whither no one knows. The good times, however, are said to have disappeared from Cologne along with the Heinzelmännchen."
One of the most interesting figures in connexion with Rhenish mythology is that of St. Ursula, whose legend is as follows:
Just two centuries after the birth of Christ, Vionest was king of Britain. Happy in his realm, his subjects were prosperous and contented, but care was in the heart of the monarch, for he was childless. At length his consort, Daria, bore him a daughter, who as she grew up in years increased in holiness, until all men regarded her as a saint, and she, devoting herself to a religious life, refused all offers of marriage, to the great grief of her parents, who were again troubled by the thought that their dynasty would fail for want of an heir. Charmed with the rumour of her virtues, a German prince, Agrippus, asked her as a wife for his son, but the suit was declined by the maiden until an angel appeared to her in a dream and said that
the nuptials ought to take place. In obedience to this heavenly mentor, St. Ursula no longer urged her former scruples, and her father hastened to make preparations of suitable magnificence for her departure to the Rhine, on whose banks her future home was to be. Eleven thousand virgins were selected from the noblest families of Britain to accompany their princess, who, marshalling them on the seashore, bade them sing a hymn to the Most High and dismiss all fears of the ocean, for she had been gifted with a divine knowledge of navigation and would guide them safely on their way.
Accordingly St. Ursula dismissed all the seamen, and standing on the deck of the principal vessel, she gave orders to her eleven thousand maiden followers, who, under the influence of inspiration, flitted over the ships dressed in virgin white, now tending the sails, now fixing the ropes, now guiding the helm, until they reached the mouth of the Rhine, up which they sailed in saintly procession to Cologne. Here they were received with great honours by the Roman governor of the place; but soon they left the city to ascend the stream to Basel on their way to Rome, to which holy city St. Ursula had determined upon making a pilgrimage. Wherever upon their journey they met the officers of state they were received as befitted their heavenly mission, and from Basel were accompanied by Pantulus, who was afterward canonized, and whose portrait is to be seen in the church of St. Ursula. Once at Rome Pope Cyriacus himself was so affected by their devoted piety that, after praying with them at the tombs of the apostles, he determined on abdicating the pontifical office to accompany them on their return down the Rhine to Cologne.
At Mayence they were joined by Prince Coman, the son
of Agrippus, who for love of his betrothed at once forsook the errors of his pagan faith and was baptized. The eleven thousand virgins, with their sainted leader, her husband, and Pope Cyriacus, passed rapidly to Cologne, where, however, they were not long destined to live in peace. A horde of barbarians from the North invaded the place, and having gained possession of the city, they slew the virgin retinue of St. Ursula, the venerable Pope, the saint herself, and her spouse Coman, after inflicting the most horrible tortures upon them. Some were nailed living to the cross; some were burned; others stoned; but the most refined cruelties were reserved for the most distinguished victims. Look on the walls of the church of St. Ursula and you will see depicted the sufferings of the young martyr and of her youthful husband. Her chapel yet contains her effigy with a dove at her feet--fit emblem of her purity and faith and loving-kindness; while the devout may, in the same church, behold the religiously preserved bones of the eleven thousand virgins.
The sainthood of St. Ursula is distinctly doubtful, and the number of her retinue, eleven thousand, has been proved to be an error in monkish calligraphy. St. Ursula is, indeed, the Teutonic goddess Ursa, or Hörsel. In many parts of Germany a custom existed during the Middle Ages of rolling about a ship on wheels, much to the scandal of the clergy, and this undoubtedly points to moon-worship, the worship of Holda, or Ursula, whom German poets of old regarded as sailing over the deep blue of the heavens in her silver boat. A great company of maidens, the stars, follow in her train. She is supposed, her nightly pilgrimage over, to enter certain hills.
Thus in the later guise of Venus she entered the Hörselberg in Thuringia, in which she imprisoned the enchanted Tannhäuser, and there is good reason to believe that she also presided over the Ercildoune, or Hill of Ursula, in the south of Scotland, the modern Earlston, after which Thomas the Rhymer took his territorial designation, and whose story later became fused with her myth in the old Scottish ballad of Thomas the Rhymer. Thus we observe how it is possible for a pagan myth to become an incident in Christian hagiology.
In the legends of the Rhine the picturesque figure of his Satanic majesty is frequently presented, as in the legends of 'The Sword-slipper of Solingen,' 'The Architect of Cologne Cathedral,' and several other tales. The circumstances of his appearance are distinctly Teutonic in character, and are such as to make one doubt that the Devil of the German peoples has evolved from the classical satyr. May it not be that the Teutonic folk possessed some nature-spirit from which they evolved a Satanic figure of their own? Against this, of course, could be quoted the fact that the medieval conception of the Devil was sophisticated by the Church, which in turn was strongly influenced by classical types.
But on the whole the legends of the Rhine exhibit much more affinity with medieval romance than with myth or folklore. 1 A large number of them are based upon plots which can be shown to be almost universal, and which
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Venus and Tannhäuser
occur again and again in French and British story. One of the commonest of these concerns the crusader who, rejected by his lady-love, spends hopeless years in the East, or, having married before setting out for the Orient, returns to find his bride the wife of another. The crusader exercised a strong influence upon the literature of medieval Europe, and that influence we find in a very marked degree in the legends of the Rhine. Again, a number of these tales undoubtedly consist of older materials not necessarily mythical in origin, over which a later medieval colour has been cast. Unhappily many of these beautiful old legends have been greatly marred by the absurd sentimentality of the German writers of the early nineteenth century, and their dramatis personae, instead of exhibiting the characteristics of sturdy medieval German folk, possess the mincing and lackadaisical manners which mark the Franco-German novel of a century ago. This contrasts most ludicrously in many cases with the simple, almost childlike, honesty which is typical of all early Teutonic literature. Had a Charles Lamb, a Leigh Hunt, or an Edgar Allan Poe recast these tales, how different would have been their treatment! Before the time of Schiller and Goethe French models prevailed in German literature. These wizards of the pen recovered the German spirit of mystery, and brought back to their haunts gnomes, kobolds, and water-sprites. But the mischief had been done ere they dawned upon the horizon, and there were other parts of Germany which appeared to them more suitable for literary presentment than the Rhine, save perhaps in drama. Moreover, the inherent sentimentality of the German character, however fitted to bring out the mysterious atmosphere which clings to these legends, has weakened them considerably.
Robert Louis Stevenson, exiled in the South Pacific islands, used to speak with passionate fondness of the rivers of his native Scotland, the country he loved so dearly, but which the jealous fates forbade him to visit during fully half his life. Garry and Tummel, Tweed and Tay--he used to think of these as of something almost sacred; while even the name of that insignificant stream, the Water of Leith, sounded on his ear like sweet music, evoking a strangely tender and pathetic emotion. And this emotion, crystallized so beautifully by Stevenson in one of his essays in Memories and Portraits, must have been felt, too, by many other exiles wandering in foreign parts; for surely an analogous feeling has been experienced sometimes by every traveller of sensitive and imaginative temperament, particularly the traveller exiled irrevocably from his home and longing passionately to see it. Horatius, about to plunge into the Tiber, addressed it as his father and god, charging it to care well for his life and fortunes--fortunes in which those of all Rome were involved for the time being. Ecce Tiber! was the glad cry of the Romans on beholding the Tay--a cry which shows once again with what ardent devotion they thought of the river which passed by their native city; while Naaman the Syrian, told that his sickness would be cured would he but lave his leprous limbs in the Jordan, exclaimed aghast against a prescription which appeared to him nothing short of sacrilegious and insulting, and declared that there were better and nobler streams in his own land. Even the deadly complaint with which he was smitten could not shake his fidelity to these, could not alter his conviction that they were superior to alien
streams; and the truth is that nearly every great river--perhaps because its perpetual motion makes it seem verily a living thing--has a way of establishing itself in the hearts of those who dwell by its banks.
The Rhine is no exception to this rule; on the contrary, it is a notable illustration thereof. From time immemorial the name of the mighty stream has been sacred to the Germans, while gradually a halo of romantic glamour has wound itself about the river, a halo which appeals potently even to many who have never seen the Vaterland. Am Rhein!--is there not magic in the words? And how they call up dreams of robber barons, each with his strange castle built on the edge of a precipice overlooking the rushing stream; fiends of glade and dell, sprites of the river and whirlpool, weird huntsmen, and all the dramatis personae of legend and tradition.
The Rhine has ever held a wide fame in the domain of literature. For there is scarcely a place on the river's banks but has its legend which has been enshrined in song, and some of these songs are so old that the names of their makers have long since been forgotten. Yes, we have to go very far back indeed would we study the poetry of the Rhine adequately; we have to penetrate deeply into the Middle Ages, dim and mysterious. And looking back thus, and pondering on these legendary and anonymous writings, a poem which soon drifts into recollection is one whose scene is laid near the little town of Lorch, or Lordch. Hard by this town is a mountain, known to geographers as Kedrich, but hailed popularly as 'the Devil's Ladder.' Nor is the name altogether misplaced or undeserved, the mountain being exceeding precipitous, and its beetling, rocky sides seeming well-nigh inaccessible. This steepness, however, did not daunt the hero of the
poem in question, a certain Sir Hilchen von Lorch. A saddle, said to have belonged to him, is still preserved in the town; but on what manner of steed he was wont to ride is not told explicitly, and truly it must have been a veritable Bucephalus. For the nameless poet relates that Sir Hilchen, being enamoured of a lady whom angry gnomes had carried to the top of Kedrich and imprisoned there, rode at full gallop right up the side of the mountain, and rescued the fair one!
So the tale begins, while at the end the knight is represented exulting in his doughty action:
There are several different versions of this legend, each of them just as extraordinary as the foregoing. It is evident, moreover, that matter of this sort appealed very keenly to the medieval dwellers by the Rhine, much of the further legendary lore encircling the river being concerned with deeds no less amazing than this of Sir Hilchen's; and among things which recount such events a notable instance is a poem consecrated to the castle of Andernach. Here, once upon a time, dwelt a count bearing the now famous name of Siegfried, and being of
a religious disposition, he threw in his lot with a band of crusaders. For a long while, in consequence, he was absent from his ancestral domain; and at length, returning thither, he was told by various lying tongues that his beautiful wife, Genofeva, had been unfaithful to him in his absence, the chief bearer of the fell news being one Golo. This slanderer induced Siegfried to banish Genofeva straightway, and so the lady fled from the castle to the neighbouring forest of Laach, where a little later she gave birth to a boy. Thenceforth mother and son lived together in the wilds, and though these were infested by wild robbers, and full of wolves and other ravening beasts, the pair of exiles contrived to go unscathed year after year, while, more wonderful still, they managed to find daily sustenance. And now romance reached a happy moment; for behold, Count Siegfried went hunting one day in the remoter parts of the forest, and fortuitously he passed by the very place where the two wanderers were living--his wife and the child whom he had never seen.
The count had never thought to see his wife again. He imagined that she had long since starved to death or been devoured; and now, finding her alive, his pulses quicken. He knows well that only a miracle could have preserved her during all this period of estrangement, and reflects that on behalf of the virtuous alone are miracles worked. Seeing herein ample proof of Genofeva's innocence, he welcomes her back to his arms and with beating heart bears her to the castle:
Doubtless it was the thaumaturgic element in this pretty romance which chiefly made it popular among its pristine audiences, yet it was probably the pathos with which it is coloured that granted it longevity, causing it to be handed down from generation to generation long before the advent of the printing-press.
Pathos, of course, figures largely in all folk-literature, and the story of Count Siegfried is by no means the only tale of a touching nature embodied in the early poetry of the Rhine, another similar work which belongs to this category being a poem associated with Liebenstein and Sterrenberg, two castles not far from each other. These places, so goes the tale, once belonged to a nobleman who chanced to have as his ward a young lady of singular loveliness. He had also two sons, of whom the elder was heir to Liebenstein, while the younger was destined to inherit Sterrenberg. These brothers were fast friends, and this partitioning of the paternal estates never begot
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Count Siegfried discovers his Wife and Child 84
so much as an angry word between them; but, alas! in an evil day they both fell in love with the same woman--their father's ward. Such events have happened often, and usually they have ended in bitter strife; but the elder of the young men was of magnanimous temperament, and, convinced that the lady favoured the other's advances more than his, he left him to woo and win her, and so in due course it was announced that the younger brother and she were affianced. Anon the date fixed for their nuptials drew near, but it happened that, in the interim, the young knight of Sterrenberg had become infected with a desire to join a crusade; and now, despite the entreaties of his fiancée and his father, he mustered a troop of men-at-arms, led them to join the Emperor Conrad at Frankfort, and set off for the Holy Land. Year after year went by; still the warrior was absent, and betimes his friends and relations began to lose all hope of ever seeing him again, imagining that he must have fallen at the hands of the infidel. Yet this suspicion was never actually confirmed, and the elder brother, far from taking the advantage which the strange situation offered, continued to eschew paying any addresses to his brother's intended bride, and invariably treated her simply as a beloved sister. Sometimes, no doubt, it occurred to him that he might win her yet; but of a sudden his horizon was changed totally, and changed in a most unexpected fashion. The rover came back! And lo! it was not merely a tale of war that he brought with him, for it transpired that while abroad he had proved false to his vows and taken to himself a wife, a damsel of Grecian birth who was even now in his train. The knight of Liebenstein was bitterly incensed on hearing the news, and sent his brother a fierce challenge to meet him in single combat; but scarcely had they
met and drawn swords ere the injured lady intervened. She reminded the young men of their sacred bond of fraternity; she implored them to desist from the crime of bloodshed. Then, having averted this, she experienced a great longing to renounce all earthly things, and took the veil in a neighbouring convent, thus shattering for ever the rekindled hopes of her elder suitor. But he, the hero of the drama, was not the only sufferer, for his brother was not to go unpunished for his perfidy. A strange tale went forth, a scandalous tale to the effect that the Grecian damsel was unfaithful to her spouse. Sterrenberg began to rue his ill-timed marriage, and ultimately was forced to banish his wife altogether. And so, each in his wind-swept castle--for their father was now dead--the two knights lived on, brooding often on the curious events of which their lives had been composed. The elder never married, and the younger had no inclination to take that step a second time.
The gust that shakes the tottering stone
On one burg’s battlement,
Upon the other’s rampart lone
Hath equal fury spent.
And when through Sternberg’s shattered wall
The misty moonbeams shine,
Upon the crumbling walls they fall
Of dreary Liebenstein.
This legend is recounted here to illustrate the poetry of the Rhine. A variant of it is given on p. 171.
But the warriors who flit across the lore of Rhineland were not all so unfortunate, and one who fared better was Sir Dietrich of Schwarzenbeck. Marching by the Rhine on his way to join a band of crusaders, this Dietrich chanced to pass a few days at the castle of Argenfels, whose owner was the father of two daughters. The younger of the pair, Bertha by name, soon fell in love with the guest, while he, too, was deeply impressed by her charm; but silken dalliance was not for him at present--for was he not under a vow to try to redeem the Holy Sepulchre?--and so he resumed his journey to Palestine. Here an arduous campaign awaited him. In the course of a fierce battle he was wounded sorely, and while trying to escape from the field he was taken prisoner. This was a terrible fate, a far worse fate than death, for the Saracens usually sold their captives as slaves; and Sir Dietrich as he languished in captivity, wondering whether he was destined to spend the rest of his days serving the infidel in some menial capacity, vowed that if he should ever regain his native Germany he would build there a chapel to St. Peter. Nor did his piety go unrewarded, for shortly afterward a body of his compatriots came to his aid, worsted his foes, and set him free. A joyful day was this for the crusader, but it was not his pious vow that he thought of first; he made for Argenfels, eager to see again the bright eyes of the lady who had enchanted him. Day and night he rode, and as he drew nearer to the castle his passion grew stronger within him; but, alas! on reaching his destination his hopes were suddenly dashed to the ground. War had meantime been waged in the neighbourhood of Bertha's home; her father had
been involved, his castle burnt to the ground, and the two daughters had disappeared. Peradventure they had perished, surmised the knight; but he swore he would leave nothing undone which might lead to the restoration of his beloved. Making inquiries far and near throughout the country, he heard at last from an old shepherd that two ladies of gentle birth were sequestering themselves in a disused hermitage near the summit of a mountain called Stromberg. "Is it indeed they?" thought Sir Dietrich. He clambered up the rocky steep leading to the hermitage and a wistful sound greeted his ears, the sound of maidens' voices offering up vespers. "Ave Maria, stella maris," they sang, and in the coolness of the evening the notes vibrated with a new, strange loveliness, for the lover knew that he had not climbed the Stromberg in vain. He returned, bringing Bertha with him, and in due course she became his bride. Yet the fairest rose has its thorns, and the happiness of the pair was not to be wholly undimmed by clouds. For Bertha's sister, showing a curious perversity, expressed a desire to remain in the abode which had sheltered her of late, and nothing could induce her to alter this decision. Sir Dietrich pleaded with her again and again, and of a sudden, while thus engaged, he thought of the vow he had made while a captive--the vow he had not kept. Here, possibly--here in this shadow darkening the joy of his bridal--was a message from on high! So straightway he built his chapel, choosing as situation therefor a spot hard by the windswept hermitage, and in this shrine to St. Peter dwelt Bertha's sister to the end of her days. Was it, mayhap, jealousy and a dart from Cupid's bow which kept her there; and was she, too, enamoured of Sir Dietrich? Well, the poet who tells the story certainly thought so!
It were a lengthy matter to recount the many other poems of Rhineland akin to those mustered above, and enough has been said to indicate their general characteristics; while an ancient Rhine classic of yet a different kind, The Mouse Tower, given elsewhere, is so familiar owing to Southey's English version that it were superfluous to offer any synopsis or criticism of it here. Then a class of poems of which the great river's early literature is naturally replete are those concerned with the growing of the vine and the making of Rhenish, prominent among these being one consecrated to Bacharach, a town which was a famous centre of the wine industry in the Middle Ages. Near Bacharach there is a huge stone in the Rhine which, known as 'the Altar of Bacchus,' is visible only on rare occasions, when the river chances to be particularly low; and in olden times, whenever this stone was seen, the event was hailed by the townsfolk as an omen that their next grape harvest would be an exceptionally successful one. It is with this 'Altar of Bacchus' that the poem in question deals. But coming to modern times, many of the Rhine drinking songs are also concerned to some extent with patriotism--an element which seems to go hand in hand with the bacchanal the world over!--and a typical item in this category is the Rheinweinlied of Georg Hervegh, a poet of the first half of the nineteenth century. A better patriotic song of Rhine-land, however, is one by a slightly earlier poet, Wolfgang Müller, a native of Königswinter, near Bonn, who sings with passionate devotion of the great river, dwelling lovingly on its natural beauties, and exalting it above all other streams. His song appears to have been
composed when the writer was undergoing a temporary period of exile from the Vaterland, for a somewhat pathetic and plaintive air pervades each verse, and the poet refers to the Rhine as a memory rather than as something actually before his eyes. But very different is another fine patriotic song of which it behoves to speak, the work of August Kopisch, a contemporary of Müller. This latter song treats of an incident in the Napoleonic wars, and Blücher and his forces are represented as encamped on the Rhine and as debating whether to march forward against their French foes. Nor is it necessary to add, perhaps, that they decide to do so, for otherwise no German singer would have handled the theme!
But what, asks someone, is really the brightest gem of Rhineland poetry? while someone else adds that the majority of the writers cited above are but little known, and inquires whether none of the great German authors were ever inspired to song by their beloved river. The name of Heinrich Heine naturally comes to mind in this relation--comes to mind instantly on account of what is surely his masterpiece, Die Lorelei--a poem already dealt with.
But Heine's version far transcends all others, and pondering on its beauty, we think first of its gentle, andante music, a music which steals through the senses like a subtle perfume:
There, surely, is a sound as lovely as the fateful maiden herself ever sang; and here, again, is a verse which is a
tour de force in the craft of landscape-painting; for not only are the externals of the scene summoned vividly before the reader's eyes, but some of the mystery and strangely wistful appeal of nature are likewise found in the lines: