According to legend, the Nibelungs' treasure is buried somewhere on the Rhine. The tale has inspired artists and treasure hunters alike for hundreds of years. Could there be some truth to it?
1859 painting of Hagen von Tronje sinking the Nibelungs' treasure in the Rhine, Copyright: Wikipedia/gemeinfrei
Hagen von Tronje, vassal of Burgundian King Gunther, managed to transport 144 wagons of gold from the seat of power in the city of Worms to an unknown location on the Rhine River. It was the treasure of the legendary King Nibelung, which had fallen in Hagen's hands after the dragon-slayer and hero Siegfried had been murdered.
Hagen proceeded to sink the treasure in the Rhine - at least according to the Song of the Nibelungs, the epic poem written in Middle High German.
In the beginning of the 13th century, an unknown author first put the story on paper. It had all the ingredients of a bestseller: a dragon, beautiful women, the courageous warrior Siegfried, love, loyalty and betrayal.
But the Song of the Nibelungs is not just a legend spiced up with dragon blood and a magic cape. It was based on the very real downfall of the East Germanic Burgundian tribe in the 5th century. King Gunther really existed.
So could the treasure also be real? Even today, treasure hunters dream of uncovering its long-concealed hiding place.
The treasure hunter
Mainz-based architect Hans Jörg Jacobi is obsessed with the Nibelungs' treasure. It's not the prospect of striking a jackpot that stokes his interest, however. It's the possibility of solving a literary mystery. Together with his late father, Jacobi has spent 40 years searching for the treasure.
"It's one of the few remaining adventures," he said. For him, the Song of the Nibelungs is not a fairytale, although he conceded that "you have to believe in it."
The song itself only makes a brief geographical reference to "Loche," near which Hagen allegedly dumped the treasure into the river's current. That one word, "Loche," has kept Jacobi going for four decades.
The treasure hunter believes he may have located this spot on old field maps. "That's a name that stands for Lochheim, a place that no longer exists," he explained. Lochheim was located by what is now the deepest section of the Rhine, at what is known as the "Black Place" near the small town of Gernsheim.
Here the river makes a sharp turn. What's more, the town is located just 20 kilometers from the former seat of the Burgundians, the city of Worms. Could the Nibelungs' gold also be there, beneath the surface?
"Today the location is on land, next to the Rhine," clarified Jacobi. Over the centuries, the course of the river has changed.
With the help of a drilling company, Hans Jörg Jacobi and his father carried out an archeological dig near Gernsheim in the 1970s - but without success. The drill hit marble about 10 meters (33 feet) under the surface.
Divers in the Rhine haven't had much luck either. But this doesn't deter Hans Jörg Jacobi. He has a pile of thick binders at home with records of all the measurements. "I want to find the treasure and prove that the Song of the Nibelungs is true," he insisted.
An untouchable treasure
German studies professor Anna Mühlherr from the University of Tübingen also doesn't believe that the Nibelungs' treasure is a fairytale. However, "I wouldn't call it historical reality either," she said. For her, the treasure is a narrative element that can be used to explain the rise and fall of dynasties.
The motif appears in plenty of other medieval tales. "The audience should understand that treasures are not to be touched," she explained. In other words, treasures are an indication that the power of the king should not be questioned, according to the legends. At the end of the Song of the Nibelungs, all who knew of the treasure's wherabouts are not left alive.
It wasn't until 1755 that an old manuscript of the tale was rediscovered. After that, artists and writers stylized it into a nationalistic German epic. And what could be better suited than a story of absolute loyalty toward the king and one's own people?
At that time, Germany had not yet been unified into a federal state, but the treasure, lingering in the depths of "Father Rhine," became a symbol of German unity. Romantic painters like Moritz von Schwind combined treasure motifs like a golden crown with a black-red-and-gold flag, which in the mid-19th century was a symbol for the revolutionaries' desire for a German state. Today they are Germany's national colors.
Also in literature, the treasure became a token of nationalism. Writer Ernst Moritz Arndt wrote in the 19th century about the treasure as the "luster of the German Reich."
But opposition came from poets like Heinrich Heine, who made fun of the national myth in his poem "Germany in Summer 1840."
Imaginary, but real
Composer Richard Wagner dedicated an entire opera to the treasure, "The Rhine Gold." Premiered in 1876, the opera tells the story of three daughters of the Rhine who guard the treasure. Wagner oriented himself, however, more on the Nordic legend than the Song of the Nibelungs, and added characters to the mix.
The artistic interpretation of the Rhine treasure is no longer as politically loaded as it was during Germany's era of unification, but a certain fascination with it remains. Movies and fantasy novels, paintings and the famous Nibelungs theater festival in Worms keep the tale alive. The legend has even managed to travel all the way to the South Sea island of Nauru, which used to be a German colony. In 2003, a gold coin was minted there reading "Nibelungen Treasure."
The hunt for the treasure is far from over. In addition to Lochheim, other sites are also scrutinized now and then, including a field near Rheinbach in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. That site didn't yield any golden results either - but that doesn't matter, says Anna Mühlherr.
"The imaginary-historical element is also a part of culture. In the imaginary world, the treasure is very real," she said.
And who knows? Maybe one day someone will pull wagons full of gold out of the river. For Hans Jörg Jacobi, that would be "almost more interesting than landing on the moon."