The Pied Piper of Hamelin Story-800 Year Mystery Wrapped in Fairy Tale
While visiting Germany many years ago I had to visit the town of Hameln. You see, when I was growing up, one of my favorite records had the Rattenfänger von Hameln story… the Pied Piper of Hamelin Story. As a child, the idea of all those kids being snatched up because the town fathers didn’t want to pay the exterminator’s bill made a HUGE impression on me. I listened over and over, fascinated. So, naturally, a visit to Hamelin had to happen. We arrived thinking that there might be a plaque on the wall… or a shop selling Grimm’s Fairy Tales… but what we found was a town who devoted the Pied Piper!
What is the Pied Piper of Hamelin Story? And is the Pied Piper story true? Did 130 kids really go missing back in 1284? What do historians say about the event? And…. is it kind of creepy or really fun that almost 800 years later, the town celebrates it’s notorious past with rat-shaped rolls and Puppet shows?
July 22 is Ratcatcher Day!
NOTE- The German name for the town is Hameln, but Robert Browning needed an extra syllable to make his poem work, so he wrote it as Hamelin, and it stuck that way in English…. I will use both interchangeably in the post, just to keep things fun and confusing.
What is the Pied Piper of Hamelin Story?
Hamelin or Hameln as it’s called in Germany sits on the German Fairy Tale Road, so it’s only natural that the Brother’s Grimm would have included the story of the Rattenfänger von Hameln, the Pied Piper of Hamelin, in their Fairy Tale Collection.
According to the Grimm story…
Hameln was a comfortable town on the banks of the Weser River who grew rich from agriculture and milling. One day, the town was overcome by rats… now there had always been rats in Hameln, but this year they swarmed like never before! The rats got into the barns and storehouses, and ate everything except metal! Grain, wood, cloth and all. The townspeople had never seen anything like it and they were desperate!
“We need help!” They told the mayor! “The cats are dead and poison isn’t working!”
“It just can’t be done without help” said the mayor.
And just then there was a knock at the door. A strange looking man in colorful clothes holding a golden pipe stood there. He said he had helped other towns clear infestations, and he could help Hamelin.
“A Thousand Florins!” “Fifty Thousand Florins if you succeed!” shouted the desperate mayor.
So the Piper began to play… slowly he walked through the town, and at each home and barn, the rats came scurrying out to follow him. He kept walking, straight to the river, and the rats followed. He stepped in to the water, and the rats all followed… then were swept away and drowned. Down to the last rat.
The people were grateful, but the greedy mayor had a change of heart. When the piper came to him for payment, the mayor said “Why should we pay you? The rats are dead and can’t come back”. Not 50,000 Florins, not 1000 Florins…
The Piper swore revenge, and the mayor laughed it off… what can a crazy man with a flute do?
At dawn on June 26, St John and St Paul’s day, the children were drawn from their beds by a piping sound coming from the road. As the Pied Piper played his way through town, he gathered all the children behind him… and they followed him out of town and to the mountains where they vanished into a cave that sealed behind them. And a landslide crashed down to cover the opening. Only one child, who was lame and couldn’t keep up, came back to tell where the other children had gone.
Other Versions tell a Similar Story
In some editions of the Grimm Stories, 2 children were left behind… one was Blind, and the other Lame. Still another edition adds a third child who was deaf, and could not hear the Piper.
The Pied Piper’s flute has been described as golden… but also silver.
It’s also said that the children were taken off to Koppenburg….
The Real Story of the Pied Piper
People can scoff and say, it’s just a Fairy Tale! Meant to entertain and frighten children. But, there is some truth to the tale. Exactly what happened may never be known. Still, in around 1284, a lot of children went missing from Hamelin.
There are a few theories about what happened to the children of Hameln
- They were killed by the Black Plague. This might explain the rats in the story (remember, rats brought the Plague to Europe) but the timing is a little off. The Plague didn’t get to Europe until the 1300s.
- They were taken by Slave Traders. The idea is that the people of Hamelin experienced crop failures or rat infestation, and couldn’t feed their kids, so they sold them.
- They were part of an emigration push to Transylvania or Poland. That the Piper was a recruiter looking for young people to settle in the area near the Baltic Sea. In fact, a Polish historian has been tracing family names in the region that go back to family names from Hamelin.
- They were caught up in the Children’s Crusade. The Fourth Crusade to take back Jerusalem was a crusade made up of children… the idea was that innocent children had pure hearts, and could thus reclaim the Holy City.
- They died from a mysterious illness, or were caught up in the strange Dancing Sickness that swept through Europe at the time.
- They were taken and killed by a murderous Pedophile. This is one of the more depressing theories.
Whatever happened, the fact remains that a large group of Children from the town of Hamelin did go missing in the late 1200s... and no one knows exactly where they went. The event was memorialized in a stained glass window that was installed in the 13th century (it was since destroyed). And again in the 16th century when a new gate was built for the city wall, it was inscribed with these words.
“In the year 1556, 272 years after the magician led 130 children out of the town, this portal was erected.”
800 Years Later, Hamelin Still Remembers
To this day, on the Bungelosenstrasse or “street withoutout drums”, it is still forbidden to play music or dance. This is the road that the children took while following the Pied Piper. (In the dialect of medieval Hameln, a Bunge was a drum)
And yet… Hamelin LOVES its story. If you show up in town any day from May to September, you will find an Altstadt completely taken over by references to the Pied Piper! I was astonished by all of the stuffed rats, wooden rats and candy rats available for the tourists to buy. There are daily performances by Pipers in the streets… and Plays (with children dressed in rat costumes) reenacting the tale. You can order Rat Tails in the local restaurants (a variation on Geschnetzeltes) and Rats Blood to drink (Champagne and Black Current … which sounds to me like a Kir Royale…).
And every day, at 1:05, 3:35 and 5:35 pm, the 29 bell carillon high in the Hochzeitshaus on Market Square play the Pied Piper theme while wooden figures come out from behind iron doors to act out the story. (Why the odd time? So the music doesn’t interfere with the town’s church bells, of course).
Hameln has an astonishingly well preserved Altstadt. Because it was an independent city-state for 150 years (from 1426-1572) and a member of the Hanseatic League, it became quite a wealthy city. Luckily, many of the Public Buildings, Churches and Mansions of the “Weser Renaissance” style from the time were preserved. It truly is a lovely city well worth visiting (and you don’t HAVE to eat the rats…)
Learn More about Visiting Hameln, and other Grimm Fairy Tale Cities Here
–> Grimm Heimat
Read The Pied Piper of Hamelin
The story many retellings… from Grimm to a modern interpretation.
The Pied Piper of Hamelin: IllustratedThe Pied Piper of Hamelin (Flip Up Fairy Tales)The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Renate Raecke (Adapter), Brothers Grimm (1-Sep-2014) HardcoverThe Pied Piper of Hamelin: A Fairy Tale Retelling : Modern Fairy Tale / Urban Fantasy