Swiss Fairy Tales




The Father of the Fairies, who used to live along and under the river Rhine, was not able always to control his daughters, after they had grown up. One of them, named Lorelei, a long time ago, used to appear above the current of the great stream, at the place where the water dashes over the rocks and foams high. It was very hard, in that place, or near it, for the sailors to steer their boats, so as not to have them dashed to pieces. Only with cool heads and strong arms could the boatmen get their vessels through in safety.

But if they should stop, to look at the pretty maidens, or to turn their heads to listen to the lovely music which they made, then, they were sure to lose their heads and have the boat go wrong and run upon the rocks. Then, of course, every one on board was thrown into the boiling waves, and drowned. The rocks are so sharp and jagged that, when the boat was upset, the poor people were thrown violently against these, and, even if spared by the waves, were sure to perish.

The fairy, named Lorelei, paid no attention to their cries, but only laughed at them, as they struggled in the water.

This Lorelei, the chief of the river fairies, was never seen during the day, for during the sunlight she loved to sit among her jeweled caves, and remain far down below in the cool depths of the waters. During daylight hours, if any mortal tried to catch even a glimpse of her, he sought in vain. It thus happened that some people, and even boatmen on their way down to Rotterdam, laughed at the idea of there being a Lorelei, or any other fairy among the rocks.

But when the moon was at its full and shone brightest, and its silvery beams seemed to turn into a fairy-like gauze, woven of mist and moonbeams, the Lorelei was in her happiest mood.

As soon as the sun was down and twilight fell on the earth above, she called for her maidens to dress and adorn her lovely form with jewels. They plaited part of her golden hair, braiding it up over the top of her head and around at the back. This made a pretty, cap-like arrangement, while behind, and down her back, the other tresses fell in ripples, so that, in the faint evening wind, it would float out, and gleam, and rise and fall fitfully, on the breezes, seemingly now silvery, and again golden, in the moon’s rays. A comb of gold, studded with rare gems, added to the glory of her headdress, which, in the dim light from the night skies, would glisten like a cluster of stars.

No ordinary man could resist such a lure, for even apart from the entrancing music he would assuredly have the curiosity to see what this resplendent figure on the high rock could be.

So, when Lorelei was arrayed in her gorgeous apparel, that so heightened her beauty, this fairy would rise out of the current. Then, swimming over to the base of the loftiest rock that rose from near the river’s shore, she always had her harp with her. Perching aloft, on the top of the pinnacle, she would sweep the strings and make the most entrancing music.

Whenever she saw a boatful of mariners, coming up, or going down, the Rhine, she trilled her voice to particular sweetness. Then they could see her, among the moonbeams, with her long golden hair streaming out on the evening breeze, or lightly lifted and rippled, when the zephyrs were soft as a breath. It seemed as if her song music was loveliest, when the night wind was most faintly sighing.

No matter how vehemently even the most stout-hearted sailors might have promised, or even vowed, to pay no attention to anything they heard, while shooting the rapids, they were sure to drop oars and pole, to listen, when the melody floated through the air. Then, the man who steered and had been the loudest, in saying that he would clap his hand over his ears, and be deaf to any strains, however sweet, was always the first to weaken. He would stand still, as if shot through, with an arrow, and forget all about his duties at the rudder. Then, very quickly, the boat would strike against the rocks. In a moment more, the whole crew would be struggling, soon to sink under the waves, while the boat drifted along, bottom upwards. In their last moments, the drowning men heard the fairies laughing, as if they were enjoying good sport.

Now it is said that the only one who ever basked in the favor of the Lorelei, was a young and very good looking fisherman’s son, named Ulric. He was his mother’s darling and his father’s pride, yet none of his brothers were jealous of him.

Whenever he appeared at night, the Lorelei would get down from her rock throne, and walk along the river’s strand to welcome the handsome lad. He never, however he might seek diligently, or call loudly, could find her, or catch a single glimpse of her, by day; but the moment he met her at night he would be in raptures over her beauty.

Sometimes she would sing for him, so that he never knew how fast the hours sped away. It was often midnight, before Ulric reached home, and, once in a while, it was near daybreak in the east.

But, always before parting from him, Lorelei would point out to her lover the place in the river, where, on the next morning, the fish would be found most plentifully.

Ulric would then tell his father, and brothers, where to cast their nets, and then they always drew up a good boat load of fish. These they sold in the market at a high price, and so had nice clothes and plenty to eat. So they never asked Ulric where he had been, so long, the night before, and why he reached home after the household were all in bed, and only their faithful dog Fritz kept watch at the door.

His mother warned her youngest son not to go and see the Lorelei too often, but he only laughed, kissed her, and said he could stop going when he wanted to; which is the way many boys and girls talk, not knowing the power of habit, which binds like a chain.

But one night, the old fisherman’s son did not return, and in the morning, when his mother looked into his room, expecting to call and wake him, she found it empty. The bed was in perfect order, as if no one had slept in it. Putting her hand under the covers, she found no warmth.

At once, she gave the alarm to her husband and sons, who were then at their breakfast. Taking their faithful dog with them, they at once set out to find the lad. All day long, they searched among the reeds, along the river bank, along the rocks, and even in the woods and on the hills; but no sign of son and brother was found. It was believed that the siren Lorelei, madly in love with the handsome boy, and, though in the form of a pretty woman, having no human heart to feel for his mother, had dragged him down into her caves under the river and deep in the earth, to enjoy him as her companion forever.

Bye and bye, so many sailors having been drowned, and so large a number of merchants having lost their precious treasures, in the wrecked boats, it was determined to send a band of brave men to seize the Lorelei, and bind her as a prisoner. If she resisted, she was to be put to death. Thus a danger, to be dreaded more than jagged rocks, or treacherous currents, would be taken away. Then the merchants, in Cologne and Rotterdam, would be made happy, by piling up fortunes to enjoy and leave to their children.

Before starting on the expedition to capture the siren, every man was taken into the cathedral, and, before the altar, made to cross himself on the breast, and swear not to listen to the Lorelei’s song. All of them wore helmets, with thick padded ear muffs, coming down over their ears, and tied tight. All the orders of the captain were to be given by signs without his speaking a word.

But what availed arrows, swords, and spears, helmets and armor, and what were the strong muscles of brave men, against a beautiful fairy? When the company had landed, silently, on the shore, without endangering their boats, by going near the rocks, they suddenly found that they could not move; for the Lorelei had cast a spell over them, so that not one could lift hand or foot. All night long, the captain and his soldiers stood upright and motionless, as if made of wax and in a museum, while the moonbeams were reflected from their helmets, weapons and armor.

Yet during all these night hours, they had the power of eyesight. They saw all that was going on, and this was what they witnessed.

Just as the first gleams of the upcoming sun were beginning to streak the midnight blue of the skies, with light, and make rosy the east, but while, at the same time, the moon cast a pale light on the strange scene, they discerned plainly the Lorelei. She was standing on the highest pointed rock that rose out of the Rhine. There, the beautiful creature was, as if in a waiting attitude, before a mirror, and about to retire to her bed for sleep. She took off all her ornaments and jewels. She unbound the bands of her shining hair, and unplaited the braids, until her tresses fell, in one glorious mass, like a cataract of gold. She threw away, one by one, her comb, her girdle, her splendid robes, and each of her pearls and gems, into the foaming waters. Then she chanted a spell, to draw the waters up to the very top of the rock, until the wavelets rolled over her shining feet.

At this moment, two white horses, with long flowing manes, rose up, pawing and snorting, out of the flood. In golden harness, they drew a chariot, made of a single emerald, with sapphire wheels. She mounted within the vehicle and at a word from the siren, the steeds drove away, with the swiftness of a lightning flash, and disappeared.

Gradually the river subsided to its usual low level. Minute by minute passed, and the spell over the soldiers was gradually broken. First, they could move their toes; then, their fingers; and, after a while, their arms and legs. When at last, by a sign, the captain gave the order to march, they faced about, towards the river. Embarking on their boats, they rowed down the Rhine to Basel and Cologne, and told their weird story.

Never again was the Lorelei seen by man. The people, who live around the old place of moonlight music, say that the siren felt insulted at this invasion of her domain. In her view, what were the lives of a few sailors, and the loss of one fisherman’s son, for a lover, compared with such music as she gave so freely?

So, to punish foolish men, she has never again left her shining caves, under the Rhine, to appear on earth. Yet, inspired by her example, the musicians have continued her sweet music, while the poets never weary of telling her story in their rhymes and stanzas.