Amazing Places

The Pied Piper Isn't Just a Fairy Tale

The Pied Piper isn't one of the best-known or most popular fairy tales. But it's certainly one of the creepiest. It's got it all: rats, a mysterious visitor, hypnotized children — what more could you want in a terrifying tale for young listeners? Well, how about the fact that it's almost certainly (mostly kind of) true?

Statue of the Pied Piper of Hamelin in Hamelin, Germany

Silicon Villain

In case you haven't heard it in awhile, here's a quick refresher on the story of the Pied Piper: It's the year 1284, and the German town of Hamelin is dealing with a terrible rat problem. Enter the piper. "Pied" was an old-fashioned way of saying he was dressed in colorful scraps of cloth, and "piper" just referred to his musical instrument of choice. He agrees to rid the town of rats in exchange for a large fee, and he does so by playing his pipe until the rodents come out to follow him. Then he leads them away and returns to collect his money — but the town decides not to pay. So he takes out his pipe and begins to play again, and this time, it's the children that begin to dance and follow him. He leads them to a crack in a mountain, which swallows them up forever.

Your instincts are probably telling you that a lot of this story isn't true, right? Trust your gut; it's called a "fairy tale" for a reason. For one thing, the rats were completely made up. They didn't play a role in the story until the 16th century. The mountain that gobbled up the kids? Probably not real, since it's a raging river in some versions of the story. The guy with the magic flute, who dressed like a clown and somehow led all of the children away from the town? Well ... we actually have reason to believe that part.

The earliest recorded reference to the lost children of Hamelin is actually a stained glass window depicting a magical figure in colorful clothing, commissioned sometime around 1300. That's right, just 15 years after the event allegedly happened. Unfortunately, the window was destroyed in the 17th century, but most historians agree it did exist at some point. There's some evidence that's survived to this day, as well. When you're flipping through the town chronicle of Hamelin, you'll find an entry in the year 1384: "It is 100 years since our children left." And laws on the books dating back to medieval times outlaw music in some parts of town, in honor of the victims.

The Verified Piper

So clearly something happened in 1284. But we're guessing it wasn't really an enchanter who could hypnotize children with his flute. There are a number of theories as to what this strange historical event could have been, some more like the fairy-tale version than others. Some think it might have been a sort of dancing plague, a theory that's bolstered by the fact that a similar plague drove children in nearby Erfurt to conga-line out of town sometime around 1257. Another theory suggests that the kids might have been recruited by a Children's Crusade — when huge groups of kids would be gathered up to "defend" Christianity and usually weren't heard from again. Other theories say that the children were victims of a natural disaster, perhaps even the Plague. At least that would explain the rat motif that popped up later.

Visitors to Hamelin today will see signs of the Pied Piper everywhere, from the multitude of rat sculptures to the businesses on Bungelosenstrasse — aka "Drumless Street," where music is still forbidden. They may have gotten over the tragedy by now, but there's still something enchanting about a town with such a mysterious past.

Even the fairy tales that aren't based in reality tell us something about ourselves. Check out Marina Warner's "Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale" to learn more. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas April 29, 2018

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