Pied Piper of Hamelin

The Disturbing True Story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin

When, lo! as they reached the mountain-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.

Robert Browning, The Pied Piper of Hamelin: A Child’s Story

Many are familiar with the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Few realise however, that the story is based on real events, which evolved over the years into a fairy tale made to scare children.

For those unfamiliar with the tale, it is set in 1284 in the town of Hamelin, Lower Saxony, Germany. This town was facing a rat infestation, and a piper, dressed in a coat of many coloured, bright cloth, appeared. This piper promised to get rid of the rats in return for a payment, to which the townspeople agreed too. Although the piper got rid of the rats by leading them away with his music, the people of Hamelin reneged on their promise. The furious piper left, vowing revenge. On the 26th of July of that same year, the piper returned and led the children away, never to be seen again, just as he did the rats. Nevertheless, one or three children were left behind, depending on which version is being told. One of these children was lame, and could not keep up, another was deaf and could not hear the music, while the third one was blind and could not see where he was going.

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. The oldest comes from the Lueneburg manuscript (c 1440 – 50), which stated: “In the year of 1284, on the day of Saints John and Paul on June 26, by a piper, clothed in many kinds of colours, 130 children born in Hamelin were seduced, and lost at the place of execution near the koppen.”

The oldest known picture of the Pied Piper

The oldest known picture of the Pied Piper copied from the glass window of the Market Church in Hameln/Hamelin Germany (c.1300-1633). Image source: Wikimedia.

The supposed street where the children were last seen is today called Bungelosenstrasse (street without drums), as no one is allowed to play music or dance there. Incidentally, it is said that the rats were absent from earlier accounts, and only added to the story around the middle of the 16th century. Moreover, the stained glass window and other primary written sources do not speak of the plague of rats.

If the children’s disappearance was not an act of revenge, then what was its cause? There have been numerous theories trying to explain what happened to the children of Hamelin. For instance, one theory suggests that the children died of some natural causes, and that the Pied Piper was the personification of Death. By associating the rats with the Black Death, it has been suggested that the children were victims of this plague. Yet, the Black Death was most severe in Europe between 1348 and 1350, more than half a century after the event in Hamelin. Another theory suggests that the children were actually sent away by their parents, due to the extreme poverty that they were living in. Yet another theory speculates that the children were participants of a doomed ‘Children’s Crusade’, and might have ended up in modern day Romania, or that the departure of Hamelin's children is tied to the Ostsiedlung, in which a number of Germans left their homes to colonize Eastern Europe. One of the darker theories even proposes that the Pied Piper was actually a paedophile who crept into the town of Hamelin to abduct children during their sleep.

One of the darker themed representations of the Pied Piper of Hamelin

One of the darker themed representations of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Credit: Lui-Gon-Jinn

Historical records suggest that the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin was a real event that took place. Nevertheless, the transmission of this story undoubtedly evolved and changed over the centuries, although to what extent is unknown, and the mystery of what really happened to those children has never been solved. The story also raises the question, if the Pied Piper of Hamelin was based on reality, how much truth is there in other fairy tales that we were told as children?

Featured image: An illustration of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Credit: Monlster

By Ḏḥwty


Anderson, D., 2012. The Pied Piper of Hamelin: The facts behind the fairy tale. [Online]
Available at: http://www.examiner.com/article/the-pied-piper-of-hamelin-the-facts-behind-the-fairy-tale

Ashliman, D. L., 2013. The Pied Piper of Hameln and related legends from other towns. [Online]
Available at: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/hameln.html

Cuervo, M. J. P., 2010. The Lost Children of Hamelin. [Online]
Available at: http://www.forteantimes.com/features/articles/3805/the_lost_children_of_hamelin.html

Dennis, 2011. The Truth Behind the Legend of the Pied Piper. [Online]
Available at: http://www.topsecretwriters.com/2011/01/the-truth-behind-the-legend-of-the-pied-piper/

Foster, N., 2014. Is the Pied Piper of Hamelin Based on an Actual Event?. [Online]
Available at: http://www.wisegeek.com/is-the-pied-piper-of-hamelin-based-on-an-actual-event.htm

McGarth, J., 2014. Was there really a pied piper of Hamelin?. [Online]
Available at: http://history.howstuffworks.com/history-vs-myth/pied-piper.htm

Pearson, L., 2005. On the trail of the real Pied Piper. [Online]
Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/4277707.stm

Wikipedia, 2014. Pied Piper of Hamelin. [Online]
Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pied_Piper_of_Hamelin


Tsurugi's picture

The trickster elements in the Pied Piper story have always seemed dark and eerie to me. Had no idea it was a real event. Sounds almost like a close encounter to me...?

Have you ever seen Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. The ship is many colors and plays loud music like from a pipe organ, The aliens also lure the little boy out of his house and take him away. And the ship lands in a "hole" at the top of a mountain with all of the abducted people on board.

In reply to Shannon's comment - sheer brilliance I think. Well noted. Should we see a portal open in the galactic dark rift (valley of the shadow of death) preceded by a colourfully edged black-star in the sky and the sound of Gabriel's horn, we should similarly expect a harvesting of the easily lured (most of the human race)

Alas, the article addressing the Pied Piper story does not present any evidence that the fairy tale is based in or arising from a real event.

Tsurugi's picture

Huh. We must not be reading same article then.

Either that or your definition of "evidence" is radically different from mine, perhaps closer to what I would normally refer to as "proof" or "conclusive evidence".

The stained glass window and the description of it are evidence of a kind. I'm wondering about an epidemic, not of Plague but of Polio? Affecting young children mostly, but the Children's crusade sounds the most likely if it is true. There is an account of the Crusade on Wikipedia

I've been fascinated with the Pied Piper for a while (and all paranormal entities) and I was never aware of the Piper being clothed in many colors. This brings to mind a chapter in John Keel's book, The Complete Guide to Mysterious Beings. In chapters referring to bedroom invaders and ghosts, he makes mention of 'checkered shirts' or plaid shirts. Also, once you are aware of this fact, mention of how an entity was dressed in colors or plaids pops up in many paranormal stories. Just something to be wary of....
Wondering if it has to do with the greater mystery that all of this holds.

...is the meaning of the word "pied".

means more than one color or many colored.

rbflooringinstall's picture

Makes you wonder about some of those other creepy fairy tales you hear when you're a kid.

Peace and Love,


Manny of the bedtime stories and songs come from a place of darkness, death, and pedophilia.

I had no idea that this story had factual basis. Creepy!

I have never heard this story, but I knew the expression paying the pied piper....

The actual phrase is, "pay the piper," and is not related to the Pied Piper story.

You're correct that the common phrasing is "pay the piper" but most sources agree that the origins of this saying come directly from the story of The Peid Piper.

Creepy, for sure. I would like to explore the theory of a Children's Crusade more, as I find it plausible. Leading the children off with a flute, so as to distract them from the fact that they were leaving their families. Seems possible.

malisa wright

The actual saying is, "pay the piper," and is unrelated to this story.

germans have many words which have more than one meaning the word seduced should be more closely examined with this in mind and second if it was music that led the children away why were the adults not affected music is music and they only had what we call classical then so i would have to say that a lot more was going on here then we are informed of

Tsurugi's picture

Music is music, but kids are vastly different than adults.

none of what you just said is true.

musical styles varied widely, particularly folk music - not a lot of it has survived because it wasn't recorded in formal books like "classical" music, but enough that we know it was widespread and extremely popular.

having words with more than one meaning is universal to language. You are also referring to "connotations", not actually more meanings. german has only about 20% of its words with more than one sense, whereas all words everywhere have connotations that do not translate exactly.

music is not music. firstly because there are high-pitched frequencies that adults cannot hear, secondly because the child brain is highly distinct from the adult brain and more or less sensitive to a huge variety of different stimuli from complex ones like faces to simple ones like light.

so basically there is a lot more going on here than you are informed of, but only because you are pretty uninformed.

The music that was around in the 13th century in Europe was not yet Classical. The musical style of that day (that is simply referred to as "early music") did evolve eventually into classical, but it was more closely related to a simpler and more popular folk style of music which would have been more widespread. There was also liturgical music of the day that has changed little to this day, chants as sung by Gregorian and other priests and nuns.

In Germany itself, they call the story "Der Rattenfaenger von Hamelin" which directly translates to " The Ratcatcher of Hamelin". Also there are accounts that the piper was not a flutist, but played bagpipes. The fact that the German title mentions rats  suggests that rats were involved in the original story.

   This fairytale is odd to me. Such stories were originally told to children to scare them away from unwanted behaviour or as a moral lesson. The Germans had brutal stories for their young ones. There was a young child who was a habitual thumbsucker. The mother warned her of a  creepyTaylor with lage cloth shears who lurks in the shadows, waiting to pounce upon unsuspecting thumbsuckers and swiftly depriving them of their moist little appendages. The mother goes out shopping and, the child, now unsupervised, promptly sticks her thumb into her mouth. Suddenly, the long coated creep hops out from behind the curtains and with sissors the size of hedge cutters takes off both of the child's thumbs.

   However, the pied piper  tale is unique because the children suffer due to the fault of the parents rather than their own misbehaviour. Perhaps this story was meant for the grown-ups.

That is a bad analysis. For folktales in which children are harmed and adults are punished, see for example Aarne-Thompson type 720: "my mother slew me, my father ate me", most famously seen in The Juniper Tree.

It is, it's a lesson to adults to pay your dues as promised and not con people because the price may be higher than paying the agreed upon price.
My thought is it was a child killer.

Peter Harrap's picture

It is not true. Why? Because there is no aftermath in documented history. Are there diary and other written accounts by distraught , grieving parents? NONE.

Same as the Legend of St. Ursula and the 11,000 virgins, whom- "History" records, well she is in Wikipaedia: it is a similarly outlandish story.

Look it up!

Tsurugi's picture

It's not true because there are no diary accounts?? Reading and writing was magic to most people in 13th century Europe, and you want diary accounts, lol.

It is recorded, in the town's "diary." As for historical aftermath, it is still forbidden to play music on that street.
Whether the tale has its roots in real events or not, I don't know, but it certainly stands up to scrutiny better than your attempt to debunk it.

Whatever helps you sleep at night, I suppose.

i guess she expected someone to have recorded it on their iPhone.....

I presume that writing was magic in that day. Clergy (of which their might have been one in town) were expected to read and might have some ability to write. Monks could write. Nobles probably could write and figure at a basic level, and in a town that size - what - MAYBE a knight or squire? MAYBE. Let's be generous, let's say that 5 people in the town (which did not have a monastery) could read and write. ... The registry of the town, the official record and probably the only thing regularly written in at the time, DID record the event, but you want something written from people who couldn't write in a time when each page of paper was made by hand? That's utterly insane. Get your head out of the 2000's if you want to discuss the 1200s.

I see no reason to rudely attack someone who naively expresses her opinion. We can't all be the know-it-alls that some of you seem to think you are. Let's keep this a rational discussion and not a rant.

Welll said and very true. Everyone should be able to express what they think without being rudely attacked.

Why does everyone refert to the person who commented about diaries as she when the name is peter harrap?

The first written account of ANY kind from the town dates from a whole century later. The fact that there is no written record of the event in a town that did not keep written records is totally unremarkable.

I'm guessing you missed the part about the stained glass window of the event. Possibly, the written account you are wanting was located in said church which burned.

Tomasina Serveaux's picture

I find it interesting that they were led into a cave. Caves feature frequently in myths around the world, and often have a place in stories about fairy abductions. In these stories, the victim encounters a group of fairies, all dancing in a circle and playing music. He is entranced by the sight, and suddenly loses all will to resist, and so is drawn inexorably into the circle of fairies and disappears, never to be seen again. There are many caves around the world that are said to be sacred to the fairy folk and travelers are warned that they enter at their own risk. Like the circular fairy dance, the caves are portals to another world, and the unwary explorer might never come out again.

In the Pied Piper story, the children follow a strange, colorful entity playing music that entrances them, whereupon he leads them to a cave and they are never seen again. Maybe the similarities are coincidental, but they certainly are interesting.

I've been aware for many years now of the fact that this horrible story that gave me nightmares as a child, is based on real facts. That is why I never read all thos creepy fairytales to my grandchildren. I always wonder which part is true. Hansel and Gretchn for instance...brrr. Let thm watch the Disney stories, much less creepy


Sunny Young

Was disappointed as I thought, judging by the title of the article, that we were going to get the true story behind the fairytale, instead still just a lot of speculation.


What do you mean??

It's obvious what she means. The title is, "The Disturbing True Story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin." But in the last paragraph, the author writes, "... the mystery of what really happened to those children has never been solved."

As she said, just an article filled with speculation about what MIGHT have happened, not the "True Story"! I was equally disappointed because of the misleading title.

Tsurugi's picture

What's obvious is both of you read the headline and took it to mean "Mystery of the Pied Piper Story Solved!!" which is not what it says. It says the story is true and disturbing, and the article delivers on both.

The mystery was solved. The city archives recorded that a group of missing children were discovered about a year later in a nearby city. But it doesn't say why they went missing in the first place. I read this when I visited Hamelin with my family some years ago.

It's a pretty horrible tale, and is it significant that Robert Browning chose to tell it at length? I was not surprised that the story was a series of speculations and not a definitive story. Not that I really expected one, but it is irritating that the site will keep trying to inject excitement into its stories. Isn't ancient history or discussions of mysteries enough?

Nothing in history is clear cut as any decent historian knows, so why sensationalise it?

I often think it refers to the Children's crusade, which was led by a charismatic youth but none or few of the children returned alive. Except the leader, though he probably never returned to the assembly point from which he gathered recruits. Some died at sea like present day refugees, others of disease or starvation on the way.

Newsletter & Research Papers

I wonder if you could find original families and get their DNA and maybe see where another bunch was, with similar DNA and trace the lineage backward, maybe get clues that way? And before anyone smarter than me starts in on why this won't work I'm just trying to come up with ideas.

With 700 years of displacement, there is, sadly, not a chance whatsoever of that. Not only would it be difficult to find a resident of the town whose ancestors have lived there for several hundred years, but also DNA testing in itself is expensive, so testing many, many people throughout the world is simply not plausible. It was a good thought, however.

With 700 years of displacement, there is, sadly, not a chance whatsoever of that. Not only would it be difficult to find a resident of the town whose ancestors have lived there for several hundred years, but also DNA testing in itself is expensive, so testing many, many people throughout the world is simply not plausible. It was a good thought, however.

I looked up what Wikipedia has to say and while there is no definitive conclusion to what happened it does seem to trend toward young people being relocated to remote territories for the purpose of colonization. Transylvania and Poland are some possibilities. One researcher was mentioned because he thinks a link can be made through place and family names. So we're DNA might fail, sur-names could prevail. :)

Also historically caves are associated with the underworld, also carrying a symbolism of death. Similarly of note here "place of execution near the koppen" This could easily be a record of a child sacrifice, or a mass child sacrifice, although how such would be accomplished by one person, assuming the piper was a person, is anyone's guess. It certainly could be a plague of some manner, not necessarily The Plague itself, as we know from history, children and the elderly are both a bit more susceptible to biological agents, but if it were a biological agent it seems it would be prevalent in children, and we don't hear anything of the elderly vanishing as well, given that germs don't have "preferences" per say, the lack of perishing of the elderly might be an indicator against it being a plague, or if it was it was a very particular one, which might only affect children.

Certainly the implication of a "many-color wearing" person could be a clue, but what it points at, I don't know. Has anyone checked around the town or in any nearby caves for remains and/or artifacts? For those people supposing a supernatural origin, I have heard it said before that the piper was odin (or wotan in germany's case) although the act seems a bit malevolent for such a deity (more like something loki would pull.) and of course, the devil from Christianity would immediately be suspect.

Lastly, it could also be that the leading away of the children was indicative of a conversion from one religion to another and thus be similar in implication to death. At that point in time the village was probably roman catholic, so one could reasonably suspect that it could have been a pagan revival.

Then there is the idea the children were stolen outright, perhaps a very early expedition of "gypsies" or some similar sort of foreign group was involved?

Hamelin is on the River Rhine; I think it is an island, but the river runs through a deep valley, so there could be caves in the side of the valley. If you travel on the river in a cruise ship, the ship's master used to tell the story, but that was fifty years ago. I would imagine that the story is still told.

i don't think Hamelin is along the Rhine River. It is somewhere going North on the route to Hannover, Bremerhaven (Saxon-Anhalt region while Rhine River is in the Pfalz Westfalen region along Koblenz-Cologne route)

Odin was certainly cruel enough to take an entire generation as pawns in one of his complex schemes. There are allusions in the myths suggesting he and Loki were very compatible companions, although any actual myths of Odin and Loki going out causing trouble were left out of any myths I have read. One surviving myth has Odin arranging for all the employees of a Giant to accidentally behead each other so that he could get hired quickly, in order to steal the Mead of Wisdom from this Giant.
Wotan is a little different in several important respects from Odin, as I understand it, one being that rather than the ruler, Wotan is more of an outsider, a Merlin type. Which would make him a perfect suspect for being the Pied Piper, if it did happen, and would make it very believable that the story was a leftover fragment of Pre-christian myth. (Some would say that both could be true. I am one such individual.)


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