Ruine Dürnstein © Andreas Hofer

The mythical world of the Danube

From the Danube female and the Pied Piper, mermen and dripping mermaids:

The mythical world of the Danube between Melk and Vienna.

Forty years ago in a Viennese elementary school: every child knew what legends were back then. A legend is a short story from the usually very, very distant past, telling a wonderful, frightening, completely gruesome or even magical regional event – and there is always a tiny true core in it somewhere. Which one, you have to find out for yourself. Today, we are more familiar with the Greek legends told by Michael Köhlmeier, although legends from our immediate surroundings are still omnipresent.

Depending on where you live, as an elementary school child in Austria you heard about earth spirits, the worm, wisps and mermaids, black dogs, ghosts, giants, gnomes or basilisks.  That is how I learned it at school too. A strangely shaped stone, a river bend, an old oak tree or a wayside shrine… If you keep your eyes open when you are out and about in Austria, you will still come across signs and wonders from the world of Austrian legends everywhere. Also and especially along the Danube.

In the regions around the once branched and not regulated or even navigable Danube as well as the many tributaries of the Danube, there are many stories, pardon me, legends. The best-known protagonists here are probably the Danube Female and the Pied Piper, but also Richard the Lionheart with singer Blondel – in addition there are mischievous black dogs, mermen and mermaids.

Ruine Dürnstein © Andreas Hofer
Ruine Dürnstein © Andreas Hofer
(c) Fotocredit: AH_Wachau_Bluete_Duernstein_Ruine_CF208534 Andreas Hofer NÖ Werbung
The Danube Female in the Wachau

The legendary Danube female emerges from the twilight: Opinions differ about her hair colour, but what is known for sure is that she is naturally beautiful, floating, magically transparent and always with a few picturesque water flowers on her head. As in real life, however, people are divided about this woman, whether she has good or evil in mind. Sometimes she helps a fisherman across the Danube, but sometimes she kidnaps children into her underground five-star wellness water palace. She loves to dance, so watch out for the summery Kirtagen between Krems and Melk: the lady whose hair is always a little wet and whose dress sometimes drips from the hem of her skirt – she doesn’t come from the pool, but straight from the Danube. The Danube Female also made it to the theatre in 2019: namely to the Wachaufestspiele in Weissenkirchen – legendary figures that are still on everyone’s lips today.

(c) Fotocredit 1: Donaulandschaft heute – Angelika Mandler Saul
(c) Fotocredit 2: AH_Wachau_Bluete_Duernstein,Ruine_CF208423 Andreas Hofer NÖ Werbung 
(c) Fotoredit 3: Dürmstein – Angelika Mandler Saul
Richard Löwenherz and singer Blondel: A story that everyone knows

The fact that the English King Lionheart was held prisoner in Dürnstein in the Wachau and was rescued by his dashing henchman and singer Blondel by means of a warbled song is something that every Wachautourist hears nowadays, whether on a bicycle, on foot or by ship.

When singer Blondel set off from England to scan the castles of Germany and Austria in search of his captured King Richard the Lionheart, there was no mention of masses of tourists in Dürnstein. According to legend, it was so quiet here that a little song from Blondel’s lips could be heard from afar and the king could make himself felt in his dungeon. Today the singing would unfortunately be lost in the sea and the noise of the tourist stream – 1 million guests per year in the tourist magnet Dürnstein would have quickly thwarted this melodious paper chase, I would think. Nevertheless, we still get something out of it today: with the immense ransom money, Vienna was able to afford new city walls and found the still existing mint “Austrian Mint” – and because there was still something left over after that, Wiener Neustadt was stamped out of the ground with the small fine remainder.

"The devil eats flies in adversity" - and he hates the lovely Wachau

Also such a saying, which is a dictum in Viennese. Why the devil does (or did?) this can be found out during the Vienna city tours: There are guided tours around the most creepy Viennese legends, the devil in all variations, the haunted house, the plague in Vienna as well as the dragons and basilisks that once did their mischief in Vienna.

The devil once couldn’t get much out of the wine in the Wachau either, the valley was too lovely for him and the people seemed to be too happy there: no wonder with the (still today) good droplet that grows there. He wanted to build a wall across the Danube and thus flood the beautiful Wachau. But he didn’t finish until the first cockcrow – there have always been certain conditions for devil’s work – and the morning flood tore away his work, only a piece of the wall, the Devil’s Wall, remained standing. Whoever takes part in a river cruise will inevitably hear about this legend and will still see the Wall today when sailing past near Spitz an der Donau. By the way, a part of this devil’s wall is used as a tunnel today…

So there are legends about the Melker Cross in the Benedictine monastery, which is still revered today and is kept under lock and key, the evil dog at Schallaburg Castle, where a bust is still called “Hundefräulein” (“Lady of the Dogs”) and even in the dark floodplain forests the devil often had his paw in play.

(c) Fotocredit 1: Sagenwanderung+am+Donausteig presse TV Donau Oberösterreich Monika Löff
(c) Fotocredit 2: Mitten in der Wachau an der Straße Richard Löwenherz und Sänger Blondel – Angelika Mandler Saul
(c) Fotocredit 3: Flusskreuzfahrt Wachau – Angelika Mandler
The riparian forests - devils, mermaids, mermen

A little further east of the Wachau, there are still extensive floodplain landscapes around Korneuburg and Stockerau, which many hundreds of years ago may have been an impenetrable and often frightening thicket: Anyone who has ever got lost in the dark woods of the Danube floodplains while walking their dog will understand that fear can be very easily dealt with there. The only thing is that nowadays, with the GPS of a smartphone, man and dog are quickly out again, but in the past in the world of legends, children disappeared in rows. And who should have his hands in it, if not the mermaids and mermen of the nearby Danube?  It’s obvious!

The water sprites do not have a good lobby at all, they are usually on the move with evil intentions: even in Kreuzenstein Castle, which is famous today for its bird of prey show and the dungeon chamber, and which is enthroned high above the vineyards in the Weinviertel – there the water sprite lived in the castle’s well, a mouldy-smelling journeyman with hair on his teeth, i.e. moss – who dragged the maid into his water palace while fetching water.

At the time of the Congress of Vienna (comparisons with the present time are quite appropriate), hunts, so-called par force hunts, were organized for the amusement of the high guests, during which the hunted animals had no chance. Not all rulers took pleasure in this torture – Emperor Franz and his colleague Alexander of Russia preferred cultivated conversation to hunting, and so it happened that a stag with his last ounce of strength managed to escape across the river to the two high rulers and virtually asked for asylum. This happened in the castle park of Niederweiden. According to the legend, the stag lived happily for a very long time in the beautiful Niederweiden castle park.

Around the Bisamberg, which once lay on the Danube: The Pied Piper

Where the Bisamberg near Vienna got its name from, also every schoolchild in Vienna Transdanubia knew that in my time. Because the water of the unregulated Danube stood threateningly “up to the mountain” in times of high water. Even there the devil was on his way, searching for poor souls who sought protection from the forces of nature and exchanged their souls for help. This is what happened to a holm oak at the foot of the Bisamberg. Such natural monuments such as old oaks, plane trees and lime trees, which are often ancient, but also martyrs and wayside shrines representing legends can be found today even online in databases. Many of them are entwined with legends, myths and fairy tales.

Not far from there in Korneuburg. The fact that a Pied Piper first contained the plague of rats with his flute playing and then a year later – because of the low wages – lured the children along and the parents “checked” the whole thing too late, every elementary school child knows the story here. Even today there is a mysterious stone above the entrance of the Korneuburg parish hall, which indicates how high the masses of rats are said to have been piled up at that time. Well. The legendary figure can be seen more clearly as the Pied Piper Fountain near the town hall. And in 1988 there was even a special stamp for 13 shillings – with the Pied Piper as motif.

Legends make you think – and are not only in Vienna a part of the city history. After reading old legends from Vienna and Lower Austria, many people see their immediate surroundings with completely different eyes: for example, during the next dusky walk along the Danube – there in the meadow by the big gnarled oak tree that the dog has always growled at for no reason. And what may be unicorns and mermaids in the kids’ lives today, may have been the mermen and mermaids that used to drip from the hem of their skirts…

(c) Fotocredit 1: Donau Seitenarm – Zsolt und Kudich Nationalparks Austria Donauauen
(c) Fotoredit 2: ML_StiftMelk_1394_PRESSE Michael Liebert NÖ Werbung
(c) Fotocredit 3: Stift Melk 2019 (85) – Angelika Mandler


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