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Pied Piper of Hamelin

Postcard "Gruss aus Hameln" featuring the Pan Piper of Hamelin, 1902

The Pied Piper of Hamelin (German: Rattenfänger von Hameln also known as the Pan Piper, the Rat-Catcher of Hamelin) is the subject of a legend from the town of Hamelin (Hameln), Lower Saxony, Germany, in the Middle Ages. The earliest references describe a piper, dressed in multicolored ("pied") clothing, who was a rat-catcher hired by the town to lure rats away [1] with his magic pipe. When the citizens refuse to pay for this service, he retaliates by using his instrument's magic power on their children, leading them away as he had the rats. This version of the story spread as folklore and has appeared in the writings of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Brothers Grimm, and Robert Browning, among others. The Pied Piper is also sometimes thought to have been, or associated with, the Norse God Odin, or the Anglo-Saxon variant Woden.

There are many contradicting theories about the Pied Piper. Some have been proposed suggesting he was a symbol of hope to the people of Hamelin, which had been attacked by plague; he moved all the rats out from the town of Hamelin, thus saving the people from the epidemic disease.

1592 painting of Pied Piper copied from the glass window of Marktkirche in Hameln

The earliest known record of this story is from the town of Hamelin itself, depicted in a stained glass window created for the church of Hamelin, which dates to around 1300 AD. Although it was destroyed in 1660, several written accounts have survived.


  • Plots 1
  • History 2
    • Natural causes 2.1
    • Emigration theory 2.2
    • Fourteenth-century Decan Lude chorus book 2.3
    • Fifteenth-century Lüneburg manuscript 2.4
    • Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sources 2.5
  • Adaptations 3
  • As metaphor 4
  • Allusions in linguistics 5
  • Present-day Hamelin and The Pied Piper in modern times 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10


In 1284, while the town of Hamelin was suffering from a rat infestation, a piper dressed in colorful red clothing appeared, claiming to be a rat-catcher. He promised the mayor a solution to their problem with the rats. The mayor in turn promised to pay him for the removal of the rats, (according to some versions the promised sum was 1000 guilders.) The piper accepted and played his pipe to lure the rats into the Weser River, where all but one drowned.

Despite the piper's success, the mayor reneged on his promise and refused to pay him the full sum (reputedly reduced to a sum of 50 guilders). The piper left the town angrily, vowing to return later to take revenge. On Saint John and Paul's day while the Hamelinites were in church, the piper returned dressed in green like a hunter playing his pipe. In so doing, he attracted the town's children. One hundred and thirty children followed him out of town where they were lured into a cave and never seen again. Depending on the version, at most three children remained behind: One was lame and could not follow quickly enough, the second was deaf and therefore could not hear the music, and the last was blind and unable to see where he was going. These three informed the villagers of what had happened when they came out from church.

Another version relates that the Pied Piper led the children into following him to the top of Koppelberg Hill, where he took them to a beautiful land and had his wicked way,[2] or a place called Koppenberg Mountain,[3] or that he made them walk into the Weser as he did with the rats, and they all drowned. Some versions state that the Piper returned the children after payment, or that he returned the children after the villagers paid several times the original amount of gold.


The rats of Hamelin. Illustration by Kate Greenaway for Robert Browning's "The Pied Piper of Hamelin"

The earliest mention of the story seems to have been on a stained glass window placed in the Church of Hamelin c. 1300. The window was described in several accounts between the 14th and 17th centuries.[4] It was destroyed in 1660. Based on the surviving descriptions, a modern reconstruction of the window has been created by historian Hans Dobbertin. It features the colorful figure of the Pied Piper and several figures of children dressed in white.

This window is generally considered to have been created in memory of a tragic historical event for the town. Also, Hamelin town records start with this event. The earliest written record is from the town chronicles in an entry from 1384 which states: "It is 100 years since our children left."[5]

Although research has been conducted for centuries, no explanation for the historical event is universally accepted as true. In any case, the rats were first added to the story in a version from c. 1559 and are absent from earlier accounts.

The Pied Piper leads the children out of Hamelin. Illustration by Kate Greenaway for Robert Browning's "The Pied Piper of Hamelin"

Natural causes

A number of theories suggest that children died of some natural causes such as disease or accident [6] and that the Piper was a symbolic figure of Death. Analogous themes which are associated with this theory include the Dance of Death, Totentanz or Danse Macabre, a common medieval trope. Some of the scenarios that have been suggested as fitting this theory include that the children drowned in the river Weser, were killed in a landslide, or contracted some disease during an epidemic. Another modern interpretation reads the story as alluding to an event where Hamelin children were lured away by a pagan or heretic sect to forests near Coppenbrügge (the mysterious Koppen "hills" of the poem) for ritual dancing where they all perished during a sudden landslide or collapsing sinkhole.[7]

Others have suggested that the children left Hamelin to be part of a pilgrimage, a military campaign, or even a new Children's crusade (which is said to have occurred in 1212) but never returned to their parents. These theories see the unnamed Piper as their leader or a recruiting agent. The town's people made up this story (instead of recording the facts) to avoid the wrath of the church or the king.

William Manchester's A World Lit Only by Fire places the events in 1484, 100 years after the written mention in the town chronicles that "It is 100 years since our children left", and further proposes that the Pied Piper was a psychopathic paedophile. However, nowhere in the book does Manchester offer proof of his description of the facts as he presents them. He makes similar assertions regarding other legends, also without supporting evidence.[8]

Emigration theory

Added speculation on the migration is based on the idea that by the 13th century the area had too many people resulting in the oldest son owning all the land and power (majorat), leaving the rest as serfs.[9] It has also been suggested that one reason the emigration of the children was never documented was that the children were sold to a recruiter from the Baltic region of Eastern Europe, a practice that was not uncommon at the time. In her essay Pied Piper Revisited, Sheila Harty states that surnames from the region settled are similar to those from Hamelin and that selling off illegitimate children, orphans or other children the town could not support is the more likely explanation. She states further that this may account for the lack of records of the event in the town chronicles.[5] In his book, The Pied Piper: A Handbook, Wolfgang Mieder states that historical documents exist showing that people from the area including Hamelin did help settle parts of Transylvania.[10] Transylvania had suffered under lengthy Mongol invasions of Central Europe, led by two grandsons of Genghis Khan and which date from around the time of the earliest appearance of the legend of the piper, the early 13th century.

In the version of the legend posted on the official website for the town of Hamelin, another aspect of the emigration theory is presented:

Among the various interpretations, reference to the colonization of East Europe starting from Low Germany is the most plausible one: The "Children of Hameln" would have been in those days citizens willing to emigrate being recruited by landowners to settle in Moravia, East Prussia, Pomerania or in the Teutonic Land. It is assumed that in past times all people of a town were referred to as "children of the town" or "town children" as is frequently done today. The "Legend of the children's Exodus" was later connected to the "Legend of expelling the rats". This most certainly refers to the rat plagues being a great threat in the medieval milling town and the more or less successful professional rat catchers.[11]

This version states that "children" may simply have referred to residents of Hameln who chose to emigrate and not necessarily to youths.

Lokator, in hat

Historian Ursula Sautter, citing the work of linguist Jurgen Udolph, offers this hypothesis in support of the emigration theory:

"After the defeat of the Danes at the Battle of Bornhöved in 1227," explains Udolph, "the region south of the Baltic Sea, which was then inhabited by Slavs, became available for colonization by the Germans." The bishops and dukes of Pomerania, Brandenburg, Uckermark and Prignitz sent out glib "locators," medieval recruitment officers, offering rich rewards to those who were willing to move to the new lands. Thousands of young adults from Lower Saxony and Westphalia headed east. And as evidence, about a dozen Westphalian place names show up in this area. Indeed there are five villages called Hindenburg running in a straight line from Westphalia to Pomerania, as well as three eastern Spiegelbergs and a trail of etymology from Beverungen south of Hamelin to Beveringen northwest of Berlin to Beweringen in modern Poland.[12]

Udolph favors the hypothesis that the Hamelin youths wound up in what is now Poland.[13] Genealogist Dick Eastman cited Udolph's research on Hamelin surnames that have shown up in Polish phonebooks:

Linguistics professor Jurgen Udolph says that 130 children did vanish on a June day in the year 1284 from the German village of Hamelin (Hameln in German). Udolph entered all the known family names in the village at that time and then started searching for matches elsewhere. He found that the same surnames occur with amazing frequency in Priegnitz and Uckermark, both north of Berlin. He also found the same surnames in the former Pomeranian region, which is now a part of Poland. Udolph surmises that the children were actually unemployed youths who had been sucked into the German drive to colonize its new settlements in Eastern Europe. The Pied Piper may never have existed as such, but, says the professor, "There were characters known as lokators who roamed northern Germany trying to recruit settlers for the East." Some of them were brightly dressed, and all were silver-tongued. Professor Udolph can show that the Hamelin exodus should be linked with the Battle of Bornhoeved in 1227 which broke the Danish hold on Eastern Europe. That opened the way for German colonization, and by the latter part of the thirteenth century there were systematic attempts to bring able-bodied youths to Brandenburg and Pomerania. The settlement, according to the professor's name search, ended up near Starogard in what is now northwestern Poland. A village near Hamelin, for example, is called Beverungen and has an almost exact counterpart called Beveringen, near Pritzwalk, north of Berlin and another called Beweringen, near Starogard. Local Polish telephone books list names that are not the typical Slavic names one would expect in that region. Instead, many of the names seem to be derived from German names that were common in the village of Hamelin in the thirteenth century. In fact, the names in today's Polish telephone directories include Hamel, Hamler and Hamelnikow, all apparently derived from the name of the original village.[14]

Fourteenth-century Decan Lude chorus book

Decan Lude of Hamelin was reported, c. 1384, to have in his possession a chorus book containing a Latin verse giving an eyewitness account of the event.[15] The verse was reportedly written by his grandmother. This chorus book is believed to have been lost since the late 17th century. The odd-looking name 'Decan Lude' may possibly indicate a priest holding the position of Dean (Latin: decanus, modern German: Dekan or Dechant) whose name was Ludwig; but as yet he has proved impossible to trace.

Fifteenth-century Lüneburg manuscript

The Lüneburg manuscript (c. 1440–50) gives an early German account of the event, rendered in the following form in an inscription on a house in Hamelin:[16]

anno 1284 am dage johannis et pauli war der 26. juni
dorch einen piper mit allerley farve bekledet gewesen cxxx kinder verledet binnen hameln geboren
to calvarie bi den koppen verloren
(In the year 1284 on the day of [Saints] John and Paul on 26th June
130 children born in Hamelin were led away by a piper [clothed] in many colours
to [their] Calvary near the Koppen, [and] lost)

This appears to be the oldest surviving account. Koppen (High German Kuppe, meaning a knoll or domed hill) seems to be a reference to one of several hills surrounding Hamelin. Which of them was intended by the manuscript's author remains uncertain.

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sources

In 1556, De miraculis sui temporis (Latin: Concerning the Wonders of his Times) by Jobus Fincelius mentions the tale. The author identifies the Piper with the Devil.

Somewhere between 1559 and 1565, Count Froben Christoph von Zimmern included a version in his Zimmerische Chronik.[17] This appears to be the earliest account which mentions the plague of rats. Von Zimmern dates the event only as 'several hundred years ago' (vor etlichen hundert jarn [sic]), so that his version throws no light on the conflict of dates (see next paragraph). Another contemporary account is that of Johann Weyer in his De praestigiis daemonum (1563).

The Lame Child. Illustration by Kate Greenaway for Robert Browning's "The Pied Piper of Hamelin"

The earliest English account is that of Richard Rowland Verstegan (1548 – c. 1636), an antiquary and religious controversialist of partly Dutch descent, in his Restitution of Decayed Intelligence (Antwerp, 1605); he does not give his source. (It is unlikely to have been von Zimmern, since his manuscript chronicle was not discovered until 1776.) Verstegan includes the reference to the rats and the idea that the lost children turned up in Transylvania. The phrase 'Pide [sic] Piper' occurs in his version and seems to have been coined by him. Curiously enough his date is entirely different from that given above: 22 July 1376; this may suggest that two events, a migration in 1284 and a plague of rats in 1376, have become fused together.

The story is given, with a different date, in Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621, where it is used as an example of supernatural forces: 'At Hammel in Saxony, ann. 1484, 20 Junii, the devil, in likeness of a pied piper, carried away 130 children that were never after seen.' He does not give his immediate source.

Verstegan's account is repeated in William Ramesey's Wormes (1668)—"... that most remarkable story in Verstegan, of the Pied Piper, that carryed away a hundred and sixty Children from the Town of Hamel in Saxony, on the 22. of July, Anno Dom. 1376. A wonderful permission of GOD to the Rage of the Devil". Nathaniel Wanley's version (Wonders of the Little World, 1678, p. 598 – from Weyer) is not, as was formerly stated here, the immediate source for Robert Browning's poem (see Adaptations below); it follows the German tradition and gives the 1284 date.


  • In 1803, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a poem based on the story that was later set to music by Hugo Wolf.
  • Von Goethe incorporated references to the story in his version of Faust. (The first part of the drama was first published in 1808 and the second in 1832.)
  • Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, known as the Brothers Grimm, drawing from eleven sources, included the tale in their collection Deutsche Sagen (first published in 1816). According to their account two children were left behind as one was blind and the other lame, so neither could follow the others. The rest became the founders of Siebenbürgen (Transylvania).
  • Using the Verstegan version of the tale and adopting the 1376 date, Robert Browning wrote a poem of that name which was published in his Dramatic Lyrics (1842).[18] Browning's retelling in verse is notable for its humour, wordplay, and jingling rhymes.
  • In Marina Tsvetaeva's long poem liricheskaia satira, The Rat-Catcher (serialized in the émigré journal Volia Rossii in 1925-1926), rats are an allegory of people influenced by Bolshevik propaganda.
  • The Pied Piper (16 September 1933) is a short animated film based on the story, produced by Walt Disney Productions, directed by Wilfred Jackson, and released as a part of the Silly Symphonies series.
  • The Pied Piper is a 1972 British film directed by Jacques Demy and starring Jack Wild, Donald Pleasence and John Hurt and featuring Donovan and Diana Dors.
  • Van Johnson starred as the Piper in NBC studios' adaptation: The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1957).
  • In the anime adaptation of the Japanese light novel series, Problem Children Are Coming from Another World, Aren't They? (2013), a major story revolves around the "false legend" of Pied Piper of Hamelin. The adaptation speaks in great length about the original source and the various versions of the story that sprang up throughout the years.[19]

As metaphor

Merriam Webster definitions
  1. a charismatic person who attracts followers
  2. a musician who attracts mass
  3. a leader who makes irresponsible promises


Allusions in linguistics

In linguistics pied-piping is the common, informal name for the ability of question words and relative pronouns to drag other words along with them when brought to the front, as part of the phenomenon called Wh-movement. For example, in "For whom are the pictures?", the word "for" is pied-piped by "whom" away from its declarative position ("The pictures are for me"), and in "The mayor, pictures of whom adorn his office walls" both words "pictures of" are pied-piped in front of the relative pronoun, which normally starts the relative clause.

Some researchers believe that the tale has inspired the common English phrase "pay the piper",[21] although the phrase is actually a contraction of the English proverb "he who pays the piper calls the tune" which simply means that the person paying for something is the one who gets to say how it should be done.[22]

Present-day Hamelin and The Pied Piper in modern times

The present-day City of Hamelin continues to maintain on its website information about the Pied Piper legend and possible origins of the story. Interest in the city's connection to the story remains so strong that in 2009, Hamelin held a tourist festival to mark the 725th anniversary of the disappearance of the earlier town's children.[23] The eerie nature of such a celebration was enough to warrant an article in the Fortean Times, a print magazine devoted to odd occurrences, legends, cryptozoology and all things strange which are known now as Forteana[24] The article noted that even to this day, there is prohibition against playing music or dancing upon the Bungelosenstrasse, the street where the children were purported to have last been seen before they disappeared or left the town. There is even a building, popular with visitors, that is called "the rat catcher's house" although it bears no connection to the Rat-Catcher version of the legend. Indeed, the Rattenfängerhaus is instead, associated with the story due to the earlier inscription upon its facade mentioning the legend. The house was built much later in 1602 and 1603. It is now a Hamelin City-owned restaurant with a pied piper theme throughout.[25] The city also maintains a webshop with rat themed merchandise as well as offering an officially licensed Hameln-Edition of the popular board game Monopoly which depicts the legendary Piper on the cover.[26]

In addition to the recent milestone festival, each year the city marks 26 June as "Rat Catcher's Day". In the United States, a similar holiday for Exterminators based on Rat Catcher's Day has failed to catch on and is marked on 22 July.[27]

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ Reader's Digest the Truth about History: How New Evidence is Transforming the Story of the Past Page 294, published by Readers Digest, 2004 and Accessed via Google Books 13 October 2013
  5. ^ a b Shiela Harty Pied Piper Revisited, Essay published in: David Bridges, Terence H. McLaughlin, editors Education And The Market Place Page 89, Routledge, 1994 ISBN 0-7507-0348-2
  6. ^ D. Wolfers M.B. Sydney, D.T.P.H., A PLAGUEY PIPER The Lancet, Volume 285, Issue 7388, Pages 756 - 757, 3 April 1965 Accessed via ScienceDirect 13 October 2013
  7. ^ Hüsam, Gernot (1990). Der Koppen-Berg der Rattenfängersage von Hameln ("The Koppen hill of Pied Piper of Hamelin legend"), pamphlet published by Coppenbrügge Museum Society.
  8. ^ A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance - Portrait of an Age by William Manchester published by Hachette Digital, Inc., 2009 Accessed via Google books 10 October 2013.
  9. ^ The Black Death in Egypt and England: A Comparative Study, Stuart J Borsch, University of Texas Press 2005, ISBN 0-292-70617-0
  10. ^ Wolfgang Mieder, The Pied Piper: A Handbook Page 67, Greenwood Press, 2007 ISBN 0-313-33464-1 – Accessed via Google books 3 September 2008
  11. ^ The Legend of the Pied Piper Rattenfängerstadt Hameln Accessed 3 September 2008
  12. ^ Ursula Sautter, "Fairy Tale Ending." Time International, 27 April 1998, p. 58.
  13. ^ Twist in the tale of Pied Piper's kidnapping by Imre Karacs, Independent, The (London), 27 January 1998. Online version Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company—Accessed 5 September 2008
  14. ^ Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter: A Weekly Summary of Events and Topics of Interest to Online Genealogists Vol. 3 No. 6 – 7 February 1998, Ancestry Publishing—Pied Piper of Hamelin. Retrieved 5 September 2008.
  15. ^ Willy Krogmann Der Rattenfänger von Hameln: Eine Untersuchung über das werden der sage Page 67 Published by E. Ebering, 1934. Original from the University of Michigan—Digitized 12 June 2007 Accessed via Google Books 3 September 2008
  16. ^ Illustrated in Rattenfänger von Hameln
  17. ^ F.C. von Zimmern [attr.]: Zimmerische Chronik, ed. K. A. Barack (Stuttgart, 1869), vol. III pp.198–200
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^ Goosebumps and romance in Hamelin Most famous German legend celebrates anniversary Thu 13 Nov 2008 Accessed online 13 October 2013
  24. ^ The Lost Children of Hamelin: On 26 June, the German town of Hamelin celebrated Rat Catcher's Day. But what really happened there, and who was the mysterious Pied Piper? By Maria J Pérez Cuervo FORTEAN TIMES MAGAZINE June 2010. Accessed online 13 October 2013.
  25. ^ Rattenfängerhaus – The Rat Catcher's House in Hameln: RATTENFÄNGERHAUS – HAMELN’S RAT-CATCHER’S HOUSE IS NOW A RESTAURANT by Helen Page June 2012 from Accessed online 13 October 2013
  26. ^ Der Spieleklassiker als exklusive Hameln-Edition!!(the classic game as hamelin-edition) from the Hamelin webstore - viewed online 13 October 2013
  27. ^ Rat Catcher's Day Eludes Pest Control Industry John Roach for National Geographic News Updated 21 July 2004 viewed online 13 October 2013

Further reading

  • Marco Bergmann: Dunkler Pfeifer – Die bisher ungeschriebene Lebensgeschichte des "Rattenfängers von Hameln", BoD, 2. Auflage 2009, ISBN 978-3-8391-0104-9.
  • Hans Dobbertin: Quellensammlung zur Hamelner Rattenfängersage. Schwartz, Göttingen 1970.
  • Hans Dobbertin: Quellenaussagen zur Rattenfängersage. Niemeyer, Hameln 1996 (erw. Neuaufl.). ISBN 3-8271-9020-7.
  • Stanisław Dubiski: Ile prawdy w tej legendzie? (How much truth is there behind the Pied Piper Legend?). [In:] "Wiedza i Życie", No 6/1999.
  • Radu Florescu: In Search of the Pied Piper. Athena Press 2005. ISBN 1-84401-339-1.
  • Norbert Humburg: Der Rattenfänger von Hameln. Die berühmte Sagengestalt in Geschichte und Literatur, Malerei und Musik, auf der Bühne und im Film. Niemeyer, Hameln 2. Aufl. 1990. ISBN 3-87585-122-6.
  • Peter Stephan Jungk: Der Rattenfänger von Hameln. Recherchen und Gedanken zu einem sagenhaften Mythos. [In:] "Neue Rundschau", No 105 (1994), vol.2, pp. 67–73.
  • Ullrich Junker: Rübezahl – Sage und Wirklichkeit. [In:] „Unser Harz. Zeitschrift für Heimatgeschichte, Brauchtum und Natur". Goslar, December 2000, pp. 225–228.
  • Wolfgang Mieder: Der Rattenfänger von Hameln. Die Sage in Literatur, Medien und Karikatur. Praesens, Wien 2002. ISBN 3-7069-0175-7.
  • Heinrich Spanuth: Der Rattenfänger von Hameln. Niemeyer Hameln 1951.
  • Izabela Taraszczuk: Die Rattenfängersage: zur Deutung und Rezeption der Geschichte. [In:] Robert Buczek, Carsten Gansel, Paweł Zimniak, eds.: Germanistyka 3. Texte in Kontexten. Zielona Góra: Oficyna Wydawnicza Uniwersytetu Zielonogórskiego 2004, pp. 261–273. ISBN 83-89712-29-6.
  • Jürgen Udolph: Zogen die Hamelner Aussiedler nach Mähren? Die Rattenfängersage aus namenkundlicher Sicht. [In:] Niedersächsisches Jahrbuch für Landesgeschichte 69 (1997), pp. 125–183. ISSN 0078-0561

External links

  • Professor Ashliman of the University of Pittsburgh quotes the Grimm's "Children of Hamelin" in full, as well as a number of similar and related legends.
  • An 1888 illustrated version of Robert Browning's poem (Illustrated by Kate Greenaway)
  • The 725th anniversary of the Pied Piper in 2009
  • The Pied Piper of Hamelin From the Collections at the Library of Congress
  • A Translation of Grimm's Saga No. 245 "The Children of Hameln"
  • A version of the legend from Howel's Famous Letters
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