Fact or Fiction

by Charlotte Kuchinsky

When I was little my mother read to me from a book of fairytales and nursery rhymes. One story that I absolutely hated was that of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. I’m not quite sure why that particular story frightened  me when even Hansel and Gretel did not. I guess it is just one of those inexplicable situations.

After I grew up, it never even occurred to me that there could be any grain of truth in the legend. But low and behold it seems that there actually might be. Let’s first explore the story and then take a look at any potential pieces of truth hidden within.

According to the story, the people of Hamelin found themselves in the throws of a terrible rat infestation. Despite everything they tried, the rats just kept coming. Desperate, they jumped at any opportunity to rid themselves of the vermin.

Enter the Pied Piper with a promise to remove every single rat, for a price of course. The villagers agreed to his terms and, true to his word, the piper played his music and led the rats away to drown in the nearby river.

However, after their lives were once again back to normal, the people of the village decided to renege on their promise to “pay the piper.” Furious, he promised to make the villagers sorry for their deception. A few days later, the piper returned to exact his promised revenge; this time playing a tune that led all of the children in the village into a cave where they were never seen again.

So is there any truth to the story at all? It seems that there may be a few kernels here and there. A recreated stained glass window in the church of Hamelin certainly appears to commemorate some kind of event that cost the villagers their beloved children. Although the new window is solely based upon accounts of the original, there are enough clues there to make one believe that something tragic actually happened. But was it really the Pied Piper that led the children away? Most scholars don’t believe that to be the case.

A lot of research has been done over the years trying to get a handle on what might have really occurred in Hamelin. Unfortunately, no clear explanation of the event that the window commemorates can be found.

One thing that definitely could be false within the story, however, is the rat situation. The rats were apparently an addition to the story sometime in the late 16th century.

What does remain clear is that something unthinkable happened to rob Hamelin of most, if not all, of their children. Theories abound regarding occurrences that could be responsible for the tragedy.

Some believe that an earlier version of the plague – – which would play into the whole rat infestation theme – – might have caused the deaths of the weakest among the villagers. That would have probably meant the elderly as well as many of the younger children. However, it would be normal for more attention to be focused on those that died too young.

Another theory, with a similar theme, suggests that some kind of serious disease might have struck the children. Then, to protect the remaining villagers from harm, someone led the children away to another site where they eventually died. Some even suggest that their own parents walled them up in the cave (where the fable says they disappeared) to prevent them from returning to the village.

One more suggestion has more merit than either of the above. It suggests that the children might have been suffering from chorea, which is a communal dancing mania. Similar actions were recorded in villages throughout Europe after the Black Death. It was attributed to massive grief and serious distress.

Each of these theories, of course, assume that the piper was nothing more than a myth that went on to become a symbolic figure, perhaps for Death itself.

Yet another interesting theory suggests that the children might have left Hamelin willingly to establish their own villages. In which case, the “children” might not have necessarily been very young at the time of their departure. Perhaps the use of children in the window was more of a nod to how parents feel when their last baby leaves the nest than to the actual age of the children involved.

History indicates that this claim could be validated by the similarly named nearby villages; many of which included the word “Hamelin” within the name. Yet another theory suggests that, while they might have left the village to form new colonies, they weren’t necessarily close by.

Some historians believe that the children might have immigrated away from Hamelin altogether. There seems to be some indication that recruiters were seeking to colonize Eastern European about the time of the Hamelin  mass exodus. Perhaps the pied piper is nothing more than a recruiter who talked of age children into leaving their homes far behind in search of new adventure.

Those who prefer an even more elusive theory might subscribe to the idea that the piper actually represents the devil himself, who might have led some of Hamelin’s children astray. This train of thought, again, might explain the church’s stained glass window, with the piper being no more than a symbolic representation of the devil.

Basically, we are back to the beginning with the same question on our minds: Was there ever a Pied Piper of Hamelin? Obviously, that’s up to interpretation. I don’t personally believe that any man or creature existed whose sole purpose was to lead either rats or children away. I think the piper is a symbol of “something” that led the children out of Hamelin. Exactly what that might have been, however, may never really be discovered.

If the truth were known, it might not be nearly as interesting; raise as many questions; or make people think about the consequences of broken promises. And that would be sad indeed!

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