Pied Piper mired in mystery | Sunday Observer

Pied Piper mired in mystery

From the day I read Robert Browning’s poem “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” as a child it has remained a haunting mystery for me. I could not find answers to two major questions: Was the Pied Piper a fictional character? What happened to the 130 children led away by the Pied Piper? Modern scholars have tried to answer these questions with limited success.

According to literary critics, Robert Browning wrote the poem based on an old German legend. The Pied Piper dressed in particoloured costume, rid the town of Hamelin in Brunswick of rats by enticing them away with his music. When he was refused the promised payment, the Pied Piper lured away the children of the citizens.

The beautiful town of Hamelin lies by the Weser River in the hinterland of lower Saxony. There is a lane in the city named ‘Bungelosen Strasse’ meaning ‘No Drum Street.’ Drums or any other musical instruments have not been played along the street for seven centuries. The reason was that it was the route taken by the Pied Piper who lured 130 children out of the town.

Rat plague

The Pied Piper legend is as old as the hills. Hamelin suffered a rat plague in 1284. While citizens were wondering how to get rid of rats, a stranger wearing a particoloured costume appeared from nowhere. He claimed that he could rid the town of all the rats provided that he was paid a particular sum of money. The citizens readily agreed to do so. The Pied Piper played his pipe and all the rats followed him to the Weser River where they drowned. When the Pied Piper asked for his payment, citizens refused to do so. Quite infuriated he played the pipe again and 130 children followed him to a hill known as Koppen. The children never returned home.

Today the legend is treated as a folk tale. Some scholars have come out with an extended usage. Accordingly, the term Pied Piper is used for a person who entices people to follow him, especially, to their doom. Others have interpreted the folk tale as giving rise to a moral fable which upholds that you should pay your debts. As a political allegory, it reminds us to beware of flamboyant leaders. Despite such interpretations, modern scholars are wondering whether the whole story is a historical event.

An inscription found on a wooden board in the Bungelosen Strasse has added to the deepening mystery. It reads:

“In the year 1284 on the day of

John and Paul

It was the 26th of June

130 children born within Hamelin

Were misled by a Piper clothed

in all kinds

Of colours, and lost … “


The 17th century inscription is ample proof that something terrible had happened on June 26, 1284. However, we do not know where the children went. A fragment of a manuscript found in the Hamelin Museum confirms the fact that the Pied Piper probably lived there. It describes him as a 30-year-old handsome youth who used to play a silver flute. Frau von Lude, then a teenager, had seen how the children followed the Pied Piper. However, the parents could not find their children.

According to a book written in about 1300, citizens in Hamelin placed a memorial window in their church. It also reported the loss of the children. The window depicted an old man wearing coloured clothes with a group of children. This has given rise to another mystery. Was the Pied Piper a young man or an old person? A water-colour painting done in 1952 showed the Pied Piper as an elderly man with a moustache. He was wearing multi-coloured clothes. He is shown leading the children up a hill. In the background he is shown leading rats into a river. This has given rise to another interpretation of the legend. According to medieval symbolism, rats represent human souls. Do the rats show the souls of the missing children?

It is a historical fact that rat plagues were rampant in medieval Europe. We really do not know whether someone created a story out of it. Scientifically, rats respond to high frequency sounds. The curator of the Hamelin Museum is in possession of a tin whistle used by a rat-catcher. So, it is possible that the Pied Piper had used his pipe to lure the rats and later the children to their doom.

Prosperous area

According to another group of scholars, the children went eastward because that part of the territory was a prosperous area with meat, honey, poultry and flour found in abundance. Slav and Hungarian overlords welcomed German settlers in order to face the threat posed by invading Tartars. It is possible that there was an exodus of people into these areas.

The stranger appeared in Hamelin on June 26, 1284 which was a religious holiday. It is possible that the Pied Piper was really a recruiting officer who may have lured adults, not children, to move eastward. They would have jumped at the idea because they were jobless teenagers in Hamelin. A researcher who had read some dusty records says the tragedy was a historical fact. According to him, the children were taken in a ship northeast but it sank in the sea. Meanwhile, some have tried to identify the Pied Piper. According to them, Count Nicholas von Spiegelberg, a German colonizer, had close connections with Hamelin. He was last seen in the port of Settin on July 8, 1284, just 12 days after the children disappeared. Settin and Kapalin were ports along the route used by German migrants moving to settle in the Baltic.

There is historical evidence that Spiegelberg had come to Hamelin and later vanished from the scene. He is supposed to have perished in the sea along with his followers. Therefore, Spiegelberg could be the legendary Pied Piper.

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