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The Pied Piper of Hamelin is a legend, documented by the Brothers Grimm (Der Rattenfänger von Hameln, which translates to "The Ratcatcher of Hamelin"), which tells of an unusual disaster that occurred in the town of Hamelin (Hameln), Germany, 26 June 1284.

The pied piper of Hamelin

In 1284, the town of Hamelin was suffering from a rat infestation. One day, a man claiming to be a rat-catcher approached the villagers with a solution. They promised to pay him for the removal of the rats. The man accepted and thus took a pipe and lured the rats with a song into the Weser river, where all of them drowned.

Despite his success, the people reneged on their promise and refused to pay the rat-catcher. The man left the town angrily, but returned some time later, on June 26th, seeking revenge.

While the inhabitants were in church, he played his pipe again, this time attracting the children of Hamelin. One hundred and thirty boys and girls followed him out of the town, where they were lured into a cave and never seen again. Depending on the version, at most two children remained behind, who informed the villagers what had happened when they came out of the church.

Other versions (but not the traditional ones) claim that the Piper returned the children after the villagers paid several times the original amount of gold.


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 century and the 17th century but it seems to have been destroyed. Based on the surviving descriptions, a modern reconstruction of the window has been created by 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 city. But although there has been a lot of research, no clear explanation can be given of what historical event is behind the reports, see an external link with a list of theories. However, the rats were first added to the story in the late 16th century; they are absent from all previous accounts. Some traumatic event must have given rise to the tale; Hamelin town records are dated from this time.

Theories that have gained some support can be grouped into the following categories:

• The children fell victim to an accident, either drowning in the river Weser or being buried in a landslide.

• The children contracted some disease during an epidemic and were led out of town to die in order to protect the rest of the city's population from contracting it.

• An early form of Black Death has been suggested.

• Others attribute the dancing of the children to be an early reference to Huntington's disease; however, this is an inherited disorder, and the statistical probability of that many unrelated children having the same genetic condition is very low.

• Another possibility would be the outbreaks of chorea, or communal dancing mania, which are recorded in a number of European towns during the period of general distress which followed the Black Death. The 'Verstegan/Browning' date, 1376, would be consistent with this. These theories perceive the Piper as a symbolic figure of Death. Death is often portrayed dressed in motley, or "pied." Analogous themes which are associated with this theory include the Dance of Death, Totentanz or Danse Macabre, a common medieval type. Various ecstatic outbreaks were associated with the Plague, such as the Flagellants, who wandered from place to place while scourging themselves in penance for sins that presumably brought the plague upon Europe. The rat is the preferred host for the plague vector, the rat flea. When the rats die, the fleas seek humans as a substitute host. Children might be especially vulnerable to the disease.

• The children left the city to be part of a pilgrimage, a military campaign, or even a new Children's crusade but never returned to their parents. These theories see the unnamed Piper as their leader or a recruiting agent.

• The children willingly abandoned their parents and Hamelin in order to become the founders of their own villages during the colonization of Eastern Europe. Several European villages and cities founded around this time have been suggested as the result of their efforts as settlers. This claim is supported by corresponding placenames in both the region around Hamelin and the eastern colonies where names such as Querhameln ("mill village Hamelin") exist. Again the Piper is seen as their leader.

The tradition that the children emigrated in 1284 is so old and well-reported that explanations associated with the Black Death seem unlikely (there is an alternative, post-Black Death, date 1376, but it is documented far away from Hamelin and as late as 1605 - see below). Modern scholars regard the emigration theory to be the most probable,[1] i.e. that the Pied Piper of Hamelin was a recruiter for the colonization of Eastern Europe which took part in the 13th century and that he led away a big part of the young generation of Hamelin to a region in Eastern Germany.

Decan Lude of Hamelin was reported ca. 1384 to have in his possession a chorus book containing a Latin verse giving an eyewitness account of the event. The verse was reportedly written by his grandmother. This chorus book is believed to have been lost since the late 17th century.

The Lueneberg manuscript (c. 1440-1450) gives an early German account of the event:

Anno 1284 am dage Johannis et Pauli
war der 26. junii
Dorch einen piper mit allerlei farve bekledet
gewesen CXXX kinder verledet binnen Hamelen gebo[re]n
to calvarie bi den koppen verloren
In the year of 1284, on the day of Saints John and Paul
on the 26th of June
130 children born in Hamelin were seduced
By a piper, dressed in all kinds of colors,
and lost at the place of execution near the koppen.

This appears to be oldest surviving account. Koppen (Old German meaning "hills") seems to be a reference to one of several hills surrounding the city. Which of them was intended by the verse's author remains uncertain.

Reportedly, there is a long-established law forbidding singing and music in one particular street of Hamelin, out of respect for the victims: the Bungelosenstrasse adjacent to the Pied Piper's House. During public parades which include music, including wedding processions, the band will stop playing upon reaching this street and resume upon reaching the other side.

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.

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); unfortunately he does not give his source. He 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: July 22, 1376. Verstegan's account was copied in Nathaniel Wanley's Wonders of the Visible World (1687), which was the immediate source of Robert Browning's well-known poem (below). Verstegan's account is also 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".

In 1803, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a poem based on the story. He 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 Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm, siblings 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/Wanley version of the tale and adopting the 1376 date, Robert Browning wrote a poem of that name which was published in 1842. Browning's verse retelling is notable for its humor, wordplay, and jingling rhymes.

“When, lo, as they reached the mountain's side,
A wondrous portal opened wide,
As if a cavern was suddenly hollowed;
And the Piper advanced and the children followed,
And when all were in to the very last,
The door in the mountain-side shut fast.”

This location is located on Coppenbrügge mountain and is known as an ancient site of pagan worship.

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 to 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", although others disagree. To "pay the piper" means to face the inevitable consequences of one's actions, possibly alluding to the story where the villagers broke their promise to pay the Piper for his assistance in ridding the town of the rats. The phrase sometimes refers to a financial transaction but often does not. A phrase with similar meaning and slightly more negative connotation is "face the music".

Also, some experts on pedophilia, such as Ken Lanning, have dubbed the "Pied Piper" effect in the seduction of children because they have an "unique ability to identify with children."




Last modification: April 29, 2007



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