The Pied Piper of Hamelin (German: Rattenfänger von Hameln) is the subject of a legend concerning the departure or death of a great many children from the town of Hamelin (Hameln), Lower Saxony, Germany, in the Middle Ages. The earliest references describe a piper, dressed in pied (multicolored) clothing, leading the children away from the town never to return. In the 16th century the story was expanded into a full narrative, in which the piper is a rat-catcher hired by the town to lure rats away with his magic pipe. When the citizenry refuses to pay for this service, he retaliates by turning his magic on their children, leading them away as he had the rats. This version of the story spread as a fairy tale. This version has also appeared in the writings of, among others, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Brothers Grimm and Robert Browning.
The story may reflect a historical event in which Hamelin lost its children. Theories have been proposed suggesting that the Pied Piper is a symbol of the children’s death by plague or catastrophe. Other theories liken him to figures like Nicholas of Cologne, who is said to have lured away a great number of children on a disastrous Children’s Crusade. A recent theory ties the departure of Hamelin’s children to the Ostsiedlung, in which a number of Germans left their homes to colonize Eastern Europe. It is also a story about paying those who are due.
In 1284, while the town of Hamelin was suffering from a rat infestation, a man dressed in pied clothing appeared, claiming to be a rat-catcher. He promised the townsmen a solution for their problem with the rats. The townsmen in turn promised to pay him for the removal of the rats. The man accepted, and played a musical pipe to lure the rats with a song into the Weser River, where all but one drowned. Despite his success, the people reneged on their promise and refused to pay the rat-catcher the full amount of money. The man left the town angrily, but vowed to return some time later, seeking revenge. On Saint John and Paul’s day while the inhabitants were in church, he played his pipe yet again, dressed in green, like a hunter, 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 three children remained behind. One of the children was lame and could not follow quickly enough, the second was deaf and followed the other children out of curiosity, and the last was blind and unable to see where they were going. These three informed the villagers of what had happened when they came out of church.
Another version relates that the Pied Piper led the children into following him to the top of Koppelberg Hill, where he took them to a beautiful land and had his wicked way, or a place called Koppenberg Mountain. This version states that the Piper returned the children after payment, or that he returned the children after the villagers paid several times the original amount of gold.