The Pied Piper of Hamelin is a folk tale, among others written down by the Brothers Grimm. It tells about a disaster in the town of Hamelin, Germany, that supposedly occurred on June 26, 1284. In that year a man came to Hamelin claiming to be a rat-catcher. The people of Hamelin promised him payment for killing the rats. So the man took a pipe, attracted the rats by his music and made them follow him to the Weser river, where they all drowned. Despite this success the people reneged on their promise and did not pay the rat-catcher.

He left the town, but returned several weeks later. While the inhabitants were in the church, he played his pipe again, this time attracting the children of Hamelin. 130 boys and girls followed him out of the town, where they were lured into a cave and sealed inside. Depending on the version at most two children survived.

The earliest mention of the story seems to have been on a glass window placed in the church of Hamelin c. 1300. It 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 external link with list of theories. However, it is generally believed that the rats are late additions to the story.

Theories that have gained some support can be grouped into the following four 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, an inherited disorder. These theories perceive the Piper as a symbolic figure of Death.
  • 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. Several European villages and cities founded around this time have been suggested as the result of their efforts as settlers. Again the Piper is seen as their leader.

Decan Lude of Hamelin was reported c. 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.

A German version of the phrase seems to have survived in a 1602/1603 inscription found in Hamelin.:

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

It has been roughly translated into English as:

In the year of 1284, on John's and Paul's day
was the 26th of June
By a piper, dressed in all kinds of colours,
130 children born in Hamelin were seduced
and lost at the place of execution near the Koppen.

Koppen seems to be a reference to one of several hills surounding the city. Which of them was intended by the verse's author remains uncertain.

The oldest remaining written source is from ca. 1440.

Reportedly, there is a long-established law forbidding singing and music in one particular street of Hamelin, out of respect for the victims.

In 1556 "De miraculis sui temporis" (Latin:Concerning the Wonders of his Times) by Jobus Fincelius mentions the legend. The author identifies the Piper with the Devil

In 1803, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe authored a poem based on the legend. 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" (German Legends), 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 Siebenburgen, Transylvania.

Based probably on the Grimm Brother's version of the tale , Robert Browning wrote a poem of that name which was published in 1849. It places the events on July 22, 1376. The following is a wikified version of an excerpt from a Project Gutenberg text:




Hamelin town's in Brunswick, By famous Hanover city; The river Weser, deep and wide, Washes its wall on the southern side A pleasanter spot you never spied; But when begins my ditty, Almost five hundred years ago, To see the townsfolk suffer so From vermin, what a pity!


Rats! They fought the dogs and killed the cats, And bit the babies in the cradles, And ate the cheeses out of the vats, And licked the soup from the cook's own ladles. Split open the kegs of salted sprats, Made nests inside men's Sunday hats, And even spoiled the women's chats By drowning their speaking With shrieking and squeaking In fifty different sharps and flats.


At last the people in a body To the town hall came flocking: "'Tis clear," cried they, "our mayor's a noddy; And as for our corporation--shocking To think we buy gowns lined with ermine For dolts that can't or won't determine What's best to rid us of our vermin! Rouse up, sirs! Give your brains a racking To find the remedy we're lacking, Or, sure as fate, we'll send you packing!" At this the mayor and corporation Quaked with a mighty consternation.


An hour they sat in council; At length the mayor broke silence "For a guilder I'd my ermine gown sell; I wish I were a mile hence! It's easy to bid one rack one's brain-- I'm sure my poor head aches again, I've scratched it so, and all in vain. Oh for a trap, a trap, a trap!" Just as he said this, what should hap At the chamber door but a gentle tap! "Bless us," cried the mayor, "what's that?" (With the corporation as he sat Looking little though wondrous fat; Nor brighter was his eye, nor moister Than a too-long-opened oyster, Save when at noon his paunch grew mutinous For a plate of turtle green and glutinous), "Only a scraping of shoes on the mat Anything like the sound of a rat Slakes my heart go pit-a-pat!"


"Come in!"--the mayor cried, looking bigger: And in did come the strangest figure! His queer long coat from heel to head Was half of yellow and half of red, And he himself was tall and thin, With sharp blue eyes, each like a pin, And light loose hair, yet swarthy skin, No tuft on cheek nor beard on chin, But lips where smiles went out and in; There was no guessing his kith and kin: And nobody could enough admire The tall man and his quaint attire. Quoth one: "It's as my great-grandsire, Starting up at the trump of doom's tone, Had walked this way from his painted tombstone!"


He advanced to the council table: And, "Please your honors," said he, "I'm able, By means of a secret charm, to draw All creatures living beneath the sun, That creep or swim or fly or run, After me so as you never saw! And I chiefly use my charm On creatures that do people harm, The mole and toad and newt and viper; And people call me the Pied Piper." (And here they noticed round his neck A scarf of red and yellow stripe, To match with his coat of the selfsame check; And at the scarf's end hung a pipe; And his fingers, they noticed, were ever straying As if impatient to be playing Upon this pipe, as low it dangled Over his vesture so old-fangled.) "Yet," said he, "poor piper as I am, In Tartary I freed the Cham, Last June, from his huge swarms of gnats; I eased in Asia the Nizam Of a monstrous brood of vampire bats: And as for what your brain bewilders, If I can rid your town of rats Will you give me a thousand guilders?" "One? fifty thousand!"--was the exclamation Of the astonished mayor and corporation.


Into the street the piper stepped Smiling first a little smile, As if he knew what magic slept In his quiet pipe the while; Then, like a musical adept, To blow the pipe his lips he wrinkled, And green and blue his sharp eyes twinkled, Like a candle flame where salt is sprinkled; And ere three shrill notes the pipe uttered, You heard as if an army muttered; And the muttering grew to a grumbling; And the grumbling grew to a mighty rumbling; And out of the houses the rats came tumbling. Great rats, small rats, lean rats, brawny rats, Brown rats, black rats, gray rats, tawny rats, Grave old plodders, gay young friskers, Fathers, mothers, uncles, cousins, Cocking tails and pricking whiskers, Families by tens and dozens, Brothers, sisters, husbands, wives-- Followed the piper for their lives. From street to street he piped advancing, And step for step they followed dancing, Until they came to the river Weser, Wherein all plunged and perished! --Save one who, stout as Julius Caesar, Swam across and lived to carry To rat-land home his commentary: Which was, "At the first shrill notes of the pipe, I heard a sound as of scraping tripe, And putting apples, wondrous ripe, Into a cider-press's gripe: And a moving away of pickle-tub-boards, And a leaving ajar of conserve-cupboards, And a drawing the corks of train-oil-flasks, And a breaking the hoops of butter-casks: And it seemed as if a voice (Sweeter far than by harp or by psaltery Is breathed) called out, 'Oh rats, rejoice! The world is grown to one vast drysaltery! So munch on, crunch on, take your nunchion, Breakfast, supper, dinner, luncheon!' And just as a bulky sugar-puncheon, All ready staved, like a great sun shone Glorious scarce an inch before me, Just as methought it said, 'Come, bore me!' --I found the Weser rolling o'er me."


You should have heard the Hamelin people Ringing the bells till they rocked the steeple. "Go, cried the mayor, "and get long poles, Poke out the nests and block up the holes! Consult with carpenters and builders, And leave in our town not even a trace Of the rats!" when suddenly, up the face Of the piper perked in the market place, With a "First, if you please, my thousand guilders!"


A thousand guilders! The mayor looked blue; So did the corporation too. To pay this sum to a wandering fellow With a gypsy coat of red and yellow! "Beside," quoth the mayor with a knowing wink. "Our business was done at the river's brink; We saw with our eyes the vermin sink, And what's dead can't come to life, I think. So, friend, we're not the folks to shrink From the duty of giving you something for drink, And a matter of money to put in your poke; But as for the guilders, what we spoke Of them, as you very well know, was in joke. Beside, our losses have made us thrifty. A thousand guilders! Come, take fifty!"


The piper's face fell, and he cried, "No trifling! I can't wait. Beside, I've promised to visit by dinner time Bagdat, and accept the prime Of the head cook's pottage, all he's rich in, For having left, in the caliph's kitchen, Of a nest of scorpions no survivor: With him I proved no bargain driver, With you, don't think I'll bate a stiver! And folks who put me in a passion May find me pipe after another fashion."


"How?" cried the mayor, "d'ye think I brook Being worse treated than a cook? Insulted by a lazy ribald With idle pipe and vesture piebald? You threaten us, fellow? Do your worst, Blow your pipe there till you burst!"


Once more he stepped into the street And to his lips again Laid his long pipe of smooth straight cane; And ere he blew three notes (such sweet Soft notes as yet musician's cunning Never gave the enraptured air) There was a rustling that seemed like a bustling Of merry crowds justling at pitching and hustling, Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering Little hands clapping and little tongues chattering, And, like fowls in a farmyard when barley is scattering Out came the children running. All the little boys and girls, With rosy cheeks and flaxen curls, And sparkling eyes and teeth like pearls, Tripping and skipping, ran merrily after The wonderful music with shouting and laughter.


The mayor was dumb, and the council stood As if they were changed into blocks of wood, Unable to move a step, or cry To the children merrily skipping by, --Could only follow with the eye That joyous crowd at the piper's back. But how the mayor was on the rack, And the wretched council's bosoms beat, As the piper turned from the High Street To where the Weser rolled its waters Right in the way of their sons and daughters However he turned from South to West, And to Koppelberg Hill his steps addressed, And after him the children pressed; Great was the joy in every breast. "He never can cross that mighty top! He's forced to let the piping drop, And we shall see our children stop!" When, lo, as they reached the mountain side, A wonderous 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. Did I say, all? No! One was lame, And could not dance the whole of the way; And in after years, if you would blame His sadness, he was used to say,-- "It's dull in our town since my playmates left! I can't forget that I'm bereft Of all the pleasant sights they see, Which the piper also promised me. For he led us, he said, to a joyous land, Joining the town and just at hand, Where waters gushed and fruit trees grew, And flowers put forth a fairer hue, And everything was strange and new; The sparrows were brighter than peacocks here, And their dogs outrun our fallow deer, And honeybees had lost their stings, And horses were born with eagles' wings: And just as I became assured My lame foot would be speedily cured, The music stopped and I stood still, And found myself outside the hill, Left alone against my will, To go now limping as before, And never hear of that country more!"


Also, alas, for Hamelin! There came into many a burgher's pate A text which says that heaven's gate Opes to the rich at as easy rate As the needle's eye takes a camel in! The mayor sent East, West, North, and South, To offer the piper, by word of mouth, Whatever it was men's lot to find him, Silver and gold to his heart's content, If he'd only return the way he went, And bring the children behind him. But when they saw 'twas a lost endeavor, And piper and dancers were gone forever, They made a decree that lawyers never Should think their records dated duly If, after the day of the month and year, These words did not as well appear, "And so long after what happened here On the twenty-second of July, Thirteen hundred and seventy-six:" And the better in memory to fix The place of the children's last retreat, They called it the Pied Piper's Street, Where any one playing on pipe or tabor Was sure for the future to lose his labor. Nor suffered they hostelry or tavern To shock with mirth a street so solemn; But opposite the place of the cavern They wrote the story on a column, And on the great church window painted The same, to make the world acquainted How their children were stolen away, And there it stands to this very day. And I must not omit to say That in Transylvania there's a tribe Of alien people who ascribe The outlandish ways and dress On which their neighbors lay such stress, To their fathers and mothers having risen Out of some subterranean prison Into which they were trepanned Long time ago in a mighty band Out of Hamelin town in Brunswick land, But how or why, they don't understand.


So, Willy, let me and you be wipers Of scores out with all men--especially pipers! And whether they pipe us FROM rats or FROM mice, If we've promised them aught, let us keep our promise.

The Pied Piper story is heavily referenced by the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva in her poem The Ratcatcher, first published in 1925.