Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Pied Piper of Hamelin

There is a grain of truth to the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, but it may not be about rats at all. The tale was popularized in Germany by the Brothers Grimm (Jakob 1785-1863 and Wilhelm 1786-1859) and in England by Robert Browning (1812-1889), and can be heard here narrated by Ingrid Bergman (1915-1982). The plot revolves around a pied piper (a minstrel typically dressed in brightly colored clothing) who offers to rid the town of Hamelin of rats for an agreed-upon sum. This he does by leading them to the river where all but one drowns, but the town reneges on the agreement. Offered only a fraction of the 1,000 guilders he is due, the piper leads all but one of the children out of town, never to be seen again.
The earliest references to the event are an image in a 14th c. window - since destroyed, but reproduced in 1592 (above) - in the town's church, and an entry from 1284 in the town chronicles that records, "It is 10 years since our children left." Rats were not featured in the tale until the mid-16th c. Despite their attempts to find the truth in the fairy tale, historians have been unable to agree, though they have offered a number of possibilities:
  • The pied piper was a pedophile and kidnapped, abused, and killed the children.
  • The children died of natural causes - perhaps during an epidemic - and the pied piper is the symbolic equivalent of the grim reaper.
  • The pied piper recruited the children for a pilgrimage or crusade.
  • The piper led the children away from their parents willingly to found their own villages in the region, leading to the colonization of eastern Europe.
  • Unable to support them, the parents sold their children to the pied piper to start new settlements.
  • "Children" referred to residents of all ages who emigrated from the town, not just the youth.
In fact, the story has been told in towns other than Hamelin, Germany, with and without the rats. About the rats, Chamber's Book of Days notes the superstition that they could be "rhymed to death" and the belief that they knew to desert a ship or house before disaster befell it. In any event, the town of Hamelin is proud to be celebrating the 725th anniversary of the arrival of the pied piper this year.

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