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The alluring song of the siren
May 11, 2012

 

Surprisingly, I recently found a letter from Yorkton, Saskatchewan, in my mail. Kyle Sobienko wrote, “When I visited Germany I took a boat trip down the Rhine, saw the Lorelei stone and statue, and heard the legend. I’m curious how the word siren fits in this.”
Sobienko said a cousin occasionally sends clippings both of Twisty Tongue and of Bruce Cherney’s historical articles.
The best-known version of the Lorelei story tells us she was a beautiful water nymph who dressed in white and wore a wreath of stars in her hair. She sat atop a high stony projection overlooking the wild waters of the Rhine’s narrowest section, between Switzerland and the North Sea. Combing her long golden hair, she’d sing seductively to the river boatmen.
German poet, Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) immortalized this river siren in a poem called, Die Lorelie. Heine wrote, “And yonder sits a maiden/The fairest of the fair/ With gold her garment shining/And she combs her golden hair”  (Sie kämmt ihr goldenes Haar).
Heine’s famous poem has been set to music many times and even used as the basis for an operetta.
It’s said the Lorelei’s singing lured boatmen to their deaths against the rocks and when she eventually entranced a prince this way, the king dispatched four warriors to destroy her.
She watched them climb toward her and as they got near, she beseeched the river god to save her. At once, a wild storm descended and two huge billows that appeared to be snowy stallions emerged from the water and carried her away.
The Lorelei was never seen again, but she’s still heard as she continues to call rivermen to their doom.
This enchantress from German folklore is known as a siren. 
Sirens were seductresses, considered more murderous than any witch.
In Greek myth, sirens occupied a craggy island (possibly Capri) where they sat singing as they beckoned to passing sailors. Odysseus, son of Laertes, was summoned by a siren. You can read his story in Homer’s Odyssey. In Roman myth, Odysseus is called Ulysses.
Clearly, the Lorelei fits comfortably into the Greek and Roman conception of a siren.
The word Lorelie, sometimes spelled Loreley, is probably a combination of the Old German lurein (murmuring) and the Celtic ley (rock). It’s possible, though, that it’s from the German lauen (to lurk; to lie in wait) plus that Celtic ley. Lorelei entered German in 1801.
In my opinion, murmuring rock seems the better guess since sirens are connected to the idea of sound.
Siren (1520) is Middle English from the Late Latin sirena (an imaginary serpent). In Greek and Roman myth, sirens were half-woman, half-bird — monsters who lured sailors via enchanting singing.
Today in reference to women, sirens are those who charm and betray men.
In keeping with the idea of sirens and “calling,” siren was the name given an acoustical musical instrument devised in 1819. Then, when similar technology created a larger, louder instrument in 1879 for use as a foghorn on steamships, it was also called a siren.