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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

Late Little Prayers at the Lorelei Rock

On the west bank of the mighty River Rhine, halfway between the cities Koblenz and Mainz, lies the town of Sankt Goar. Named after Saint Goar of Aquitaine who retreated here in the sixth century. Diagonally across the river stands the famous and mystical Lorelei Rock: steep, and over 130 meters high. A whisper rock where many skippers and ships were wrecked. It's here where the River Rhine reaches its greatest depth of 27 meters, including treacherous rapids and whirlpools reaching the surface. Shipwreck is what almost happened to two Frisian skippers too, around the year 800. In this post, we'll tell how they narrowly escaped fate.

The Early Middle Ages. A time when Frisians were the freighters of north-western Europe. They transported goods back and forth the British Isles, southern Scandinavia, northern France, and the German hinterland. The cargo trade up and down the great River Rhine was pivotal in making money for these merchants.

If you would cruise the River Rhine in the eighth and ninth centuries, chances are you would bump into Frisian tradesmen all the time, until the moment you would get fed up with them. You would encounter these men in Xanten, Duisburg, Cologne, Worms, Mainz, and Strasbourg, often with their own Frisian business quarters. In Mainz, they even had the best quarters in town, near the river docks (Van der Tuuk 2013). Friesenplatz square in modern Cologne also reminds us of their former presence. Raw, unmannered businessmen, always shouting and always in a hurry. Most of them were christened only in name, whereas the entire Frankish Rhineland was god-fearing. Being both 'trader and minister,' as the culture of their successors of the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century would be characterized.

Legends of the Lorelei

The deep waters near the Lorelei Rock were, and are, dangerous to navigate. Especially in foggy weather (Lebecq 1983). For as long as one could remember, a stretch where often skippers drowned. Where precious cargo and fortunes were lost. At the same time, the setting is stunning and dramatic. Inevitably, therefore, many sad legends existed, and new ones are being created until quite recently.

For example. It was the Devil that appreciated the splendour of the River Rhine and the Lorelei Rock too. One time it made een reisje langs de Rijn ‘a leisure trip along the Rhine’. The Devil travelled from the lower reaches of the River Rhine, where - as is well-known - all idolatry and evil come from, upstream. On reaching the Lorelei Rock, the Devil noticed that everyone admired the rock and praised God for this wonder of nature. This made the Devil furious. When the Devil grabbed the rock to throw it away, it heard the Lorelei softly sing. Now it understood the beauty of the spot too, and left the rock in place. However, the Devil’s fire-hot body had made an effigy in the rock that you can see to this day.

In 2002, UNESCO too, like the Devil before, understood the beauty of the valley, and declared it a world heritage site.

Another story is the one in which the fair creature Lorelei is a water nymph. One of the many daughters of old Rhenus Pater 'Father Rhine'. Lorelei would sit atop the massive rock. You could only see her when moonlight struck the mountain and the river. Combing her long golden hair. A handsome young fisherman was lucky, and often enjoyed her company at night. Lorelei told him also where to fish the next day. In yet other stories beautiful Lorelei, also written as Lore Lay, was a maiden who waited in vain for her unfaithful lover to return. After having waited very long she lost her will to live any longer. To end her tragic life, she threw herself from the high rock into the river. In yet another story, every man who fell in love with Lorelei died for some reason. For this, Lorelei was falsely accused of witchcraft and she was sent by the bishop to a monastery in order to be locked up, so-called for her own safety. In this story too, Lorelei lost the will to live and threw herself from the rock.

Maybe similar legends existed when monk Goar of Aquitaine decided to build his cella here in the sixth century. To devote his life to God with prayer and by fasting. During his life, miracles happened and he was able to cure the sick and ill. Saint Goar's life has been documented in the Vita et miracula sancti Goaris ‘life and miracles of Saint Goar’ written by monk Wandalbert of Prüm in the first half of the ninth century. Legend has it that Saint Goar saved boatmen from drowning. At the same time, Goar was a tough cookie. He always would ask whether the skipper was heathen or Christian. If the skipper answered "heathen," Saint Goar would hold the skipper’s head underwater until the man volunteered to be converted. If not, Saint Goar would throw the person back into the river to let him drown. After the death of Saint Goar, skippers made offerings to this saint for a safe passage through the Lorelei valley. Or, they paused to make a prayer at the saint’s shrine. Saint Goar became a special patron of the Rhine skippers.

However, Frisian skippers were often very careless.

Reckless Rhine skippers from Frisia

The aforementioned Vita et miracula sancti Goaris recounts two incidents with Frisian skippers who were too casual when passing the Lorelei.

The first incident was a skipper traveling upstream, whose ship was towed by slaves or servants. The skipper didn't stop at Saint Goar’s shrine because he was afraid of getting behind and wouldn't be able to finish the transport in time (Lebecq 1983). We know Frisian skippers travelled in convoys (Van der Tuuk 2013).

Negotiator ex supradicta Fresonum gente nauem per Rhenum flumen agebat et, ut moris est, quia aduerso flumine nauigabat, fune a suis nauem circa litus trahendam curauerat.

A merchant from the above-mentioned Frisian tribe led his ship up the River Rhine and, as is customary when navigating upstream, he had taken care to pull his ship by rope from the shore.

The skipper was alone on his boat with only one servant. The number of servants or slaves pulling the barge probably was three (Franconi 2014). When the current pulled the ship to the dangerous riverbank, the skipper — on his own — was not able to steer his vessel away from it. The servants had to let go of the towing rope. The moment they did, one of them got entangled by the rope and drowned. Aware that a prayer at the shrine of Saint Goar isn't an unnecessary luxury after all, the Frisian skipper hastily made a prayer. Immediately the drowned servant was awoken. He coughed up some blood and walked away. To really make up for his misbehaviour, the skipper from Frisia left a pound of silver at the shrine. In addition, of course, the world was a zombie richer in the process as well. If interested in stories about zombies from Frisia, check our post Make way for the dead!

The second incident with a Frisian skipper not taking things too seriously at the Lorelei Rock, happened when again no stopover was made at the shrine of Saint Goar. His boat was smashed against the rocks. Understanding in the meantime the gravity of the situation, this Frisian too made a little prayer. Saint Goar, not the worst, saved the Frisian and his precious cargo anyway. To balance scores, the skipper left one of the silk garments of his transport behind at the shrine (Pye 2014).

The moral of the story

If you want to make a lot of money quickly without unnecessary delays, you better make use of highways and railways, instead of the River Rhine.


Note 1 - More downstream the River Rhine at the town of Rhenen, another saint guards over boatmen and ships, namely Saint Cunera. See our post Don’t believe everything they say about sweet Cunera. The queen who killed Cunera threw herself from a hill into the River Rhine as well.

Note 2 - The best guess as to how the boats of Frisian Rhine skippers looked is the medieval boat excavated in the city of Utrecht in 1930. It is dated around the year 1000 (Van der Wijk 1933, Kuiper et al 2011). The so-called Utrecht ship can be admired in a confined basement of the Centraal Museum Hofland in Utrecht.

Note 3 - Saint Goar, or Sint Gewier, is worshiped at one place in the Netherlands as well, namely near the village of Meerlo in the province of Limburg. Here in the woods stands a chapel built in 1662. Saint Goar can help against cold fevers.

An interesting anecdote comes from the life of Saint Goar. According to this vita, rumours were going around that Saint Goar lived an indecent life. Bishop Rusticus of Trier accused Goar and only wanted to believe Goar's innocence if he could name the parents of a three-year-old foundling. Goar prayed to God, and the baby miraculously started to speak. The baby said that the name of its mother was Flaris and the name of its father Rusticus (De Jong website). In local legends concerning the Lorelei Rock it's often Lorelei who is being accused of living an indecent life. The bishop assumed the role of protector. Maybe it felt better that women were weak and dishonourable, instead of men being so.

Suggested hiking

For hikers, there is the Rheinsteig Trail. A 320 km trail on the east bank of the River Rhine between Bonn and Wiesbanden. Through the UNESCO World Heritage declared Upper Middle Rhine area.

Suggested music

Willy Alberti & Willeke Alberti, Een reisje langs de Rijn (1969)

Madonna, Like a Prayer (1989)

Further reading

Brentano, C., Godwi oder Das steinerne Bild der Mutter (1801)

Demangeon, A. & Febvre, L., Le Rhin. Problèmes d'histoire et d'économie (1935)

Drouen, L., Het verhaal van het schip in het Centraal Museum (2016)

Franconi, T.V., The Economic Development of the Rhine River Basin in the Roman Period, 30 BC-AD 406 (2014)

Guerber, H.A., The legends of the Rhine (1895)

Heine, H., Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten (1824)

Hendriksma, M., De Rijn. Biografie van een rivier (2017)

Jong, de J., Bedevaart en bedevaartplaatsen in Nederland. Meerlo, H. Goar (website)

Kuiper, J.B., Jensma, G. & Vries, O., Nederland in de Middeleeuwen. De canon van ons middeleeuws verleden (2011)

Lebecq, S., Marchands et navigateurs Frisons du haut moyen age (1983)

Lives of the Saints, Saint Goar. Priest and Hermit († 575) (website)

Pye, M., The Edge of the World. How the North Sea made us who we are (2014)

Tuuk, van der L., De eerste gouden eeuw. Handel en scheepvaart in de vroege middeleeuwen (2011)

Tuuk, van der L., De Friezen. De vroegste geschiedenis van het Nederlandse kustgebied (2013)

Wijk, van der P.H., Utrechts schip (1933)


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