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German Myth 9

Goethe and the “Erlkönig” Mistranslation

German Misnomers, Myths and Mistakes > Myth 10

Is the Erlkönig actually eine Königin?

Most poetry books that include Goethe's famous “Erlkönig” refer to the poet's “error” in translating the poem's title into German. For our own dual-language version of the poem, I myself originally wrote: “The German term 'Erlkönig' is actually a mistranslation of the Danish 'ellerkonge' or 'elverkonge' or 'king of the elves.'” But even the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Oxford English Reference Dictionary make the same claim.

However, that may not be true at all.

In an essay entitled “Die Erlkönigin” (see link below), Burkhard Schröder makes the case that, contrary to what generations of Germanists have maintained, Goethe was not wrong in calling his poem “Erlkönig.” Although Goethe's ballad is based on a work (“Erlkönigs Tochter”) translated from the Danish by Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), Goethe probably did not “mistranslate” the title of his own poem. Most Germanisten over the years have claimed that Goethe should have used the word “Elfenkönig” (“king of the elves”) rather than “Erlkönig.” But it turns out that Germany's most famous poet may have known exactly what he was doing after all.

What do Alberich, the goddess Alphito, the Erlking, Lilith, and Moby Dick have in common?

To this day, German literary critics and editorial writers continue to refer to the “Erlkönig” as a part of Nordic and Germanic mythology. But Schröder makes the case for another origin that justifies Goethe's choice of “Erlkönig” over “Elfenkönig.” The mythology involved became widespread and dates back to the earliest known tales of gods and goddesses—but from the Mediterranean south, not the North. And, according to Schröder, it all seems to relate to the color white.

Despite what we might think at first, white has long had an association with things mysterious and eerie. Herman Melville's classic Moby Dick has an entire chapter devoted to the color white and how it is often associated with the eerie and evil. The root “alb” originally meant “white” and can be found in German words such as Albtraum (nightmare) and die Elbe (river), plus the English word “albino.” And then there's the Greek goddess Alphito.

To make a long story short, the Greek Alphito, the Jewish Lilith (first wife of Adam, later a demon), the Germanic Alberich (king of the dwarfs in the Nibelungenlied), not to mention the old English god Bran (König der Erlen) all come together in the “Erlkönig.” Some of them abducted babies and little children like the Erlkönig and some had a “Kron' und Schweif” (crown and cape).

Bottom line: Goethe was right, the Germanists were wrong.

The Poem / Das Gedicht > Goethe's 'Erlkönig' (dual-language version)

WEB > Die Erlkönigin von Burkhard Schröder - Essay on the word's origin (in German)
WEB > "Lilith Sources" by Judy Weinberg (PDF file from Lilith magazine) - May no longer be available; see link below.
WEB > "Lilith Sources" by Judy Weinberg (shmoozenet.com) - All you ever wanted to know about Lilith (from the premier issue of Lilith magazine, Fall 1976)

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