The Pied Piper of Hamelin is a legend from medieval Germany that tells the story of a mysterious man, and who was hired by the town of Hamelin to rid it of a rat infestation. The piper, who was dressed in multicolored clothing, promised to solve the town’s rat problem by playing a magical tune on his pipe. As he played, the rats of Hamelin followed him out of town and into a nearby river, where they drowned.
After the rats were gone, however, the townspeople of Hamelin refused to pay the piper for his services, and he became angry. In revenge, he played his pipe again, this time luring away the town’s children. When the children failed to return, the townspeople realized their mistake and begged the piper to bring the children back. But it was too late: the piper and the children had vanished, never to be seen again.
The legend of the Pied Piper has been told and retold countless times over the centuries, and it has become an enduring folktale that is known and loved by people around the world. It is often used as a cautionary tale about the dangers of greed and the importance of keeping one’s promises.
The earliest known version of the Pied Piper legend can be traced back to a written account from the year 1284.
Over time, the legend of the Pied Piper has taken on many different forms, and there are now numerous variations of the story. Some versions depict the piper as a sinister figure who lures the children of Hamelin away for his own nefarious purposes, while others portray him as a tragic hero who is punished for trying to do the right thing.
Despite the many different interpretations of the Pied Piper legend, one thing remains constant: the story has captured the imagination of people for centuries, and it continues to be a beloved and enduring folktale. It is a tale that speaks to the power of music, the dangers of greed, and the enduring mystery of what happened to the children of Hamelin. Whether it is viewed as a cautionary tale or a tale of tragedy, the Pied Piper remains an enduring symbol of the enduring power of storytelling.
According to available online research, the earliest known mention of the Pied Piper story appears to be a stained-glass window in the Church of Hamelin, which was created around 1300.
The window was destroyed in 1660, but a modern reconstruction has been made based on surviving descriptions. The reconstruction depicts the Pied Piper and several children dressed in white.
This window is generally thought to have been created to commemorate a tragic event that occurred in the town, and the town records of Hamelin reportedly begin with this event. The earliest written record of the story is from the town chronicles in 1384, which mentions that it has been 100 years since the children of the town disappeared.
There is also a stone facade on a private residence in Hamelin, known as the Pied Piper house, which bears witness to the mystery of the Pied Piper legend. The house, which is half-timbered and dates back to 1602, has an inscription on its window that refers to the story. The inscription reads:
“A.D. 1284 – on the 26th of June – the day of St John and St Paul – 130 children – born in Hamelin – were led out of the town by a piper wearing multicoloured clothes. After passing the Calvary near the Koppenberg they disappeared forever.”
There are many speculations about the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, including the idea that the rats represent the Black Death or plague, that the children were sold as recruits to the Baltic region of Eastern Europe (a practice that was not uncommon at the time), that the Pied Piper was similar to Nicholas of Cologne, who led thousands of German children on the ill-fated Children’s Crusade in 1212, or that the story is related to pagan midsummer celebrations. Some have suggested that the story may be a cover for a bloody massacre resulting from a religious conflict between Christianity and Paganism.
As a child, the magical power of the Piper was fascinating, and the idea of the missing children being better off in a magical land away from adults who couldn’t keep a promise was appealing. However, as an adult with a better understanding of how history can be twisted and the truth lost or hidden, the story now gives an unsettling feeling.
One concern is the lack of specific details in the records of the event – if it was caused by war, plague, or natural disaster, there would be no reason to hide it. Additionally, 130 children do not just leave home voluntarily – they must be led or sent away. The fact that the parents in Hamelin were apparently still deeply mourning the loss of their children 100 years later, but also unable to be completely open about what happened, suggests that there may be more to the story than just the children leaving on their own.
The theory that the children were sent away as part of a desperate effort to gain temporary stability in a difficult situation (such as famine, war, or plague) or in exchange for financial assistance from a third party (represented by the Piper) seems the most likely. It is possible that the adults believed that the children were going to a better place, but only later learned (from the few who escaped) that the children ended up as slaves or died in war. This theory could also explain why some disabled children were left behind – only the healthy ones would be capable of labor.
Historian Ursula Sautter suggests that the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin may be related to the emigration of young adults from Lower Saxony and Westphalia to the region south of the Baltic Sea following the defeat of the Danes at the Battle of Bornhöved in 1227.
Linguist Jurgen Udolph explains that the bishops and dukes of Pomerania, Brandenburg, Uckermark, and Prignitz sent out recruitment officers, known as “locators,” who offered rich rewards to those who were willing to move to the new lands. There are several place names in this region that are believed to be connected to Westphalia and Lower Saxony, including Hindenburg and Spiegelberg.
It is likely that the people of Hamelin were traumatized by this tragic event, but that the truth was removed from official records for political and moral reasons. The collective guilt and the desire to mourn for the children, combined with the prohibition on speaking about the event, may be why only vague oral records remain.
The fact that the street in Hamelin where the children were last seen is now known as Bungelosenstrasse (“street without drums”) and music and dancing are not allowed there may support this theory. However, it is important to note that details can be lost, misinterpreted, and combined with other elements over time, so it is difficult to know the true story.
Researchers have studied the Pied Piper story in an attempt to solve the mystery, but so far, no definitive conclusions have been reached.
The postcard shown above, titled “Gruss aus Hameln,” depicts the Pied Piper of Hamelin and was created in 1902.
“The Pied Piper of Hamelin” by Robert Browning
Guo, B. (2021, February 6). Betty’s Art. Betty’s Art. https://www.guobetty.com/blog/2021/2/6/pied-piper-of-hamelin
Wikipedia Contributors. (2022, December 22). Pied Piper of Hamelin. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pied_Piper_of_Hamelin
MessageToEagle. (2015, September 29). Unraveling The Mystery Behind The Perplexing Story Of Pied Piper Of Hamelin – MessageToEagle.com. MessageToEagle.com. https://www.messagetoeagle.com/unraveling-the-mystery-behind-the-disturbing-story-of-pied-piper-of-hamelin/
Pied Piper of Hamelin – History – Emigration Theory. (2023). Liquisearch.com. https://www.liquisearch.com/pied_piper_of_hamelin/history/emigration_theory
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