“I don’t know what it may signify, that I am so sad”
begins the famous German poem written by Heinrich Heine (1824) http://www.business.uiuc.edu/vock/poetry/lorelei.html.
The Lorelei is one of Germany’s most romantic folktales. Lorenz Brentano created the legend for his novel entitled Godwi oder Das steinerne Bild der Mutter (1801). He supposedly based the myth off of Ovid’s rendition of the romantic Greek legend of Echo and Narcissus and that of the legendary Rhine Maidens from German mythology.
Later, Heinrich Heine decided to write a poem about the alluring Rhine siren. It was so popular that the poem was set to music and a famous German Rhinisch folk song was born, composed by Friedrich Silcher in 1837.
The name is infact taken from the name of a 120 meter rock on the eastern bank of the Rhine river in Germany, near St. Goarshausen. Strong currents and rocky surfaces have made it hard for boaters to navigate through the river line for centuries, causing many deaths and accidents. The tragedies were later turned into a myth by Brentano, the rock being named for a beautiful golden haired girl by the name of Lurley. She was so heart broken by a lover’s rejection that she threw herself off the giant rock only to come back and haunt the area in the form of a beautiful and alluring siren with a magnificent singing voice. Her revenge was to seduce the unsuspecting boaters to their deaths with her songs.
The actual origins of the name are debated. Some sources believe that Lorelei is composed of the Germanic elements lureln meaning “to murmur” and the Celtic ley meaning “rock,” while other sources contend that the first element might actually be derived from the proto-Germanic *lothran meaning “to call” or the Middle High German luoder meaning “to lure, to deceit or bait.” It is also very possible that our modern English verb “to lure,” is derived from the same ancient Germanic elements.
The name has also spawned such names as Lurley, and Lurlene.
The name has only recently picked up some usage in German speaking countries, but has been used in the English speaking world since the 19th century.