Wednesday, February 13, 2013


This is a very old story which is often called a fairy tale, even though it doesn't have a single fairy in it.  Maybe you heard or read the story when you were a child, and maybe you even remember what the story is about.  But just in case you don't, I will tell you.

Long ago, there was this town in Germany called Hamelin (or Hameln), and it was a real town that still exists today.  The people in this town had a huge problem with rats.  They had so many rats everywhere in town that they could have been on that Animal Planet show called Infested!  Except that, sadly, TV hadn't been invented yet.

But just when the people of Hamelin were at their wits' end about the rats, a strange man showed up in town, and he was a piper.  He did not play a bagpipe, but instead he played a little pipe that was more like a flute or a recorder.  The Piper wore old-fashioned clothes that were all different colors patched together.  That's why he was called the Pied Piper, because piebald or pied means "spotted" or "dappled."  Like for instance, a black-and-white horse is called a piebald.

In some versions of the story, the Pied Piper was wearing red and yellow.  These are the colors of the Kansas City Chiefs football team, and they only won 2 games during the whole season last year, so that should have been a warning that the piper guy who was dressed in Chiefs colors could maybe bring bad luck.

But anyway, the Pied Piper told the people of Hamelin that he could solve their rat problem, but he wanted to be paid 1000 guilders for his work.  They said they would pay him even more than that, if he could really get rid of the rats.  So he went out in the street, and he began to play on his pipe.  And all the rats in town came running out of the houses and shops and barns.  They followed him through the town to the River Weser, and they all ran into the River and drowned.

The townspeople were very, very happy not to have the rats anymore, but they wished they hadn't told the Piper they would pay him all that money.  So they only paid him a few guilders, and he got really angry.  He said they would be sorry they had treated him that way.  Then he stomped out of town.

The next time the Piper showed up it was June 26, which was Saint John's and Saint Paul's Day.  He began to walk through the town, playing his pipe, and all the children came out and followed him.  He led them to a place nearby called Koppenberg Mountain, and a cave opened in the hillside.  They all went inside, then the opening closed up, and they were never seen again.  The only children left in the town were a blind boy, a lame boy, and a deaf boy who had not been able to follow the Piper.

Artist:  Kate Greenaway (1846-1901)
Engraver:  Edmund Evans (1826-1905)

This very sad event was written down in the town register, and after that, all the town history was dated from the time when the children went away.  These words were written on the outside of the town hall:

                                                In the year 1284 after the birth of Christ
                                                From Hameln were led away
                                                One hundred thirty children, born at this place
                                                Led away by a piper into a mountain.

The oldest picture of the Pied Piper copied from the glass window of the Market Church
in Hamelin Germany (c. 1300-1633)

Okay, now that I have told you the story of the Pied Piper, I will tell you that the story might not be a fairy tale after all.  Because back in 1284, something really did happen to a bunch of children, or maybe adults and children, from Hamelin.  Historians have been trying to figure out what the event was, but they can't agree on one theory.  The earliest stories of the Pied Piper do not have any rats in them, so maybe the Piper was the symbol of Death.  Here are some ideas about what might have happened to the children:

1.  They drowned in the River Weser.
2.  They were killed in a landslide.
3.  They died in an epidemic.
4.  They were lured away to a pagan or heretic sect.
5.  They went on a pilgrimage, military campaign, or the Children's Crusade in 1212.
6.  The Piper was a psychopathic pedophile who lured them away.

Artist:  James Elder Christie
National Gallery of Scotland

Another idea is that the children of Hamelin emigrated to another place, instead of being killed or stolen away.  The area around Hamelin started running out of land to farm by the 13th century because the oldest son inherited all of a family's land, and the other sons got nothing, so they had to become serfs.  It is also possible that when families or the town could not afford to keep some of their children, they sold them to someone who took them away to settle in the Baltic region.

There is evidence that some people from Hamelin settled in Transylvania, since many of the names there are similar.  And the "children" of Hamelin could just mean anybody who grew up in that town, and not just young kids.  There were landowners who were recruiting people to go settle in Moravia, East Prussia, Pomerania, or in the Teutonic Land.  So maybe a bunch of Hamelin people all left at the same time to go live in another place, and that's how the Pied Piper legend got started.

Anyway, the story is a good one because it teaches a couple of lessons.  One lesson is that you should not just stupidly follow somebody's lead into the river and drown.  This is what people usually mean when they say "follow the piper."  Of course, "follow the piper" is the name of my blog.  But I promise I will not to lead you into any rivers or caves in the mountainside.  I will just lead you to some subjects that I hope you will find interesting.

The other lesson and phrase that come out of this story is "pay the piper."  This means that you had better pay for what you said you would pay for.  If you don't, something bad could happen.  For instance, I have told Mom that she had better "pay" her own sweet little Piper by always remembering to feed me, or else I might nip her on the ankle.  And so far I have never had to follow through on that!


  1. i don't think that's real i just saw the wild boy of hamlin on wikipedia he died so he never made it to the mountian when the piper take the children away from their parents

  2. Der Cottonfanger von Hamelin is a true story.

    1. Yes, I imagine it is because no one could make up a name like that!