If you watch enough horror movies, sooner or later you’ll hear a character utter a variation on the phrase, “Every legend has a basis in fact.” Whether or not that statement is true, it is a fact that many of our most outlandish fables and fictions are rooted, at least somewhat, in actual history, and that truth often is stranger than fiction.
Chances are, most of us have encountered some variation on the fairy tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. It is one of many folktales recorded by the Brothers Grimm, and has appeared in the writings of Robert Browning and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, not to mention worked its way into popular culture from A Nightmare on Elm Street, to Bill Willingham’s Fables tie-in novel Peter & Max, to the TV show Lost Girl. Alleged sexual predator R. Kelly has even called himself "the Pied Piper of R&B."
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The story generally goes that the town of Hamelin was plagued by an unusual number of rats, and a stranger from out of town, wearing multicolored (or “pied”) clothes, showed up and offered to get rid of the rats in exchange for payment. The stranger then produced a flute or pipe and began playing a tune, at which time all the rats in town followed him out through the gates of the city and either to a nearby mountain or into the river, depending upon which version you encounter.
When the townsfolk saw how easily the piper had rid the town of rats, they regretted the amount that they had offered him and reneged on their deal. The piper vowed revenge, and later—according to one Brothers Grimm account it was on June 26, 1284—he returned and once more walked through the town playing his pipe. This time, all the town’s children—130, according to one of the earliest written accounts of the event—followed him out through the town’s east gate and up to the nearby mountain which, in most accounts, opened wide to swallow them up and they disappeared, never to be seen again.
The details of the story vary with the telling, as these sorts of tales are wont to do, and given that the story of the pied piper has been retold hundreds of times since 1284 (so many, in fact, that there are two different Wikipedia pages devoted to adaptations of the legend), there are numerous variations, not to mention plenty of disagreement as to the meaning of the pied piper figure himself.
The tale has been retold by the likes of Robert Browning and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who also incorporated elements of the pied piper story into his famous play, Faust, but it has also found its way into plenty of less renowned art. The pied piper himself appears as a character in one of the Shrek sequels while the legend is recounted in a song by the band Demons and Wizards.
Variations on the pied piper story have even found their way into anime, with the Violinist of Hamelin replacing the piper’s flute with a very large violin and Problem Children are Coming from Another World, Aren’t They? suggesting that the piper is actually the personification of natural disasters.
This highlights one of the many things that we see in various adaptations of the story into other forms: disagreements abound as to who the pied piper really is, what his motivations are, and what he represents. The recent TV series Once Upon a Time, for example, posited that the pied piper was really Peter Pan, and that he was using his magic pipes to lure potential “lost boys” away from their homes.
A great example of this confusion as to the particulars of the story can be found in the seedy, low-rent 1995 horror comedy film Ice Cream Man, starring Clint Howard as the homicidal driver of an ice cream truck. The film makes heavy use of the pied piper story, with one of the kids who act as the film’s protagonists reading a book of the story throughout the film, and making frequent allusions to it.
In one scene, he is explaining the story to some of the other kids on the playground when an old man who is picking up trash approaches. As our protagonist gets to the part about the piper luring away the rats, the old man gleefully says, “Then he got the kids!”
“That’s what happens when you don’t pay the piper,” the old man later adds. The kids disagree, however, informing him that the children got away. “Kids always get away,” one of them tells him.
Besides an example of varying takes on the specifics of the legend, this is also an example of how the pied piper story has entered into our everyday lexicon. To “pay the piper” is usually defined as to pay a debt you owe or else face unsavory consequences, and its idiomatic use goes back at least as far as 1831 in the United States.
While it has been connected to the longer phrase, “who pays the piper calls the tune,” meaning that whoever is footing the bill for something gets to decide how it’s done, the idiom “pay the piper” is generally linked with the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. In fact, in its advice on how to use the phrase, the website Grammarist actually recounts the legend in brief, stating that, “The moral of the story was to pay the piper, or keep up your half of the bargain.”
Grammarist also points out that the phrase usually has a pejorative connotation, pointing out that, “When it is time to pay the piper it is time to accept the consequences of a thoughtless or rash action” or to “fulfill a responsibility or promise, usually after the fulfillment has been delayed already.” Both of these meanings probably tie back to the legend of the pied piper.
Even the words “pied piper” have entered into common usage to mean everything from “a charismatic person who attracts followers” to “a leader who makes irresponsible promises” to “one who offers strong but delusive enticement,” according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary entry for pied piper meaning. “Pied piping” is also a phrase used to describe a certain phenomenon in linguistics in which some words “drag” others along with them when moved to the front of a sentence.
In this way, the meaning of pied piper has gone beyond the original story to become a frequently-used metaphor that shows up in common speech every day.
One thing that every variation seems to agree upon is that the pied piper is almost always someone who lures people—usually rats, at least since 1559, and then children, but sometimes other individuals, depending on the use that the metaphor is being put to. From there, variations are the rule, with some accounts even forgetting the actual meaning of the “pied” part of the pied piper’s name and not depicting him in multicolored clothes.
The story is a familiar one, but what most of us probably don’t know is that it has its feet at least somewhat planted in an apparently true event that took place in the real-life town of Hamelin, Germany in 1284. The earliest accounts of the story don’t include the rats, which wouldn’t show up until around the year 1559, but they do include the piper, dressed in his “clothing of many colors.”
Our first clue about what really happened in the town of Hamelin comes from a stained glass window that stood in the town’s Market Church until it was destroyed in 1660. Accounts of the stained glass say that it alluded to some tragedy involving children, and a recreation of the window shows the piper in his colorful clothes and several children dressed in white. The date is set by an entry in Hamelin’s town chronicle, which was dated 1384 and said, simply and chillingly, “It is 100 years since our children left.”
While there is not enough historical data to ascertain for certain what happened in the town of Hamelin in 1284, there is little doubt that something occurred there which left a heavy mark on the town, and on world folklore. Theories advanced over the years include that many of the town’s children died of natural causes that year; or possibly drowned in the nearby river; or were killed in a landslide, thus explaining the recurring motif of the rats being led into the water, or of the mountain opening up and swallowing the children. The pied piper himself is considered a symbolic figure of death.
One other explanation is that the children may have died of the Black Plague, which could be why the rats were later added into the story, though the Black Plague didn’t hit Germany until the 1300s, making its arrival probably too late to be the source of the legend.
Other theorists hold that the story of the pied piper actually refers to a mass emigration or even another Children’s Crusade like the one that may have occurred in 1212. Many individuals have posited that the children may have emigrated—or even been sold—to places in Eastern Europe, including Transylvania or Poland. Linguist Jurgen Udolph has performed research suggesting that surnames from Hamelin may have found their way into modern-day Polish phonebooks. The modern-day website of the town of Hamelin invokes this interpretation, arguing that the “children” in the legend were actually citizens of the town who were willing to emigrate. After all, it points out, aren’t all inhabitants of a city that city’s children?
In this version of events, the pied piper isn’t a single person, but instead represents the call of territorial rulers who recruited citizens of the town to resettle in Moravia, East Prussia, Pomerania, and other places.
Whatever the facts of the story, it is far from forgotten in the town of Hamelin. In the 16th century, when a new gate was built in the wall around the town, it was inscribed with the following legend: “In the year 1556, 272 years after the magician led 130 children out of the town, this portal was erected.”
The Rattenfängerhaus or Rat Catcher’s House remains a popular tourist attraction in the town to this day. Built in 1602, the building once bore an inscription about the legend, and today it is a city-owned, pied piper-themed restaurant.
In 2009, the city was home to a festival commemorating the 725th anniversary of whatever strange and unknown disaster gave rise to the legend, and every year the people of Hamelin celebrate Rat Catcher’s Day on June 26th. The town also sells rat-themed merchandise in gift shops and online, including an officially licensed, Hamelin-themed edition of Monopoly.
Today, the town of Hamelin, which is now home to a population of around 56,000, maintains information about the legend of the pied piper on its website, and during the summer months actors perform interpretations of the story in the town square. The road along which the children supposedly passed on their way out of the East Gate, never to be seen again, is called the Bungelosenstrasse, or “street without drums.” According to an article published in the Fortean Times, it is against the law to play music or dance on that street to this very day.