Hamelin is a quaint little tourist town in the north-western state of Lower Saxony, Germany. Most of its tourism stems from the infamous folk tale of the pied piper, which also happens to be the most well-known German legend of all time, most notably thanks to the writings of the Grimm Brothers and the well-renowned poem by Robert Browning.

There are three different types of accounts of this story. One merely revolves around the rat catcher and his magic charm that rids the townspeople of the vermin, another simply addresses the peculiar disappearance of the town’s children in bewildering circumstances, and the third type combines the first two into one unsettling chronicle. The third type is the most comprehensive account of this legend and also the one that is richest in symbolism, hence it will be the one we will investigate for our purposes.

The basic fundamental narrative starts off with an unexplained rat infestation in the town of Hamelin. The villagers are desperate to be rid of the vermin and hope shows up in the guise of a pied piper from out of town. The mayor promises to pay the piper if only he could find a solution to this plague and the piper does so by luring the rats into the river and drowning them, by means of playing his magical pipe. The villagers celebrate their deliverance by singing and drinking and refusing to pay the piper’s fees and thus the piper leaves the town in a rage, promising retribution. Revenge is served when the piper returns while the townsfolk are at church. He plays his magic pipe and lures their spellbound children up into the mountains, where they disappear into a cave, never to be seen again. The only children that survive this sorcery are the blind, lame or deaf due to their inability to keep up with the others, and their testimony turns out to be the only way the parents will come to know what happened.

Symbolic analysis of this medieval tale could easily run wild due to the equivocal nature of the narrative but our attention must focus on finding a coherent pattern in the story. Different storylines from different centuries are fraught with details and getting lost in their symbolic interpretation would quickly derail our thought process. However, it might be significantly noteworthy to point out the emergence of the legend of the pied piper from different traditions, if only to reveal the convergence of the narratives into one underlying pattern.

A wide variety of the common version of the story comes from European folklore, from places such as Germany, Austria, England and France, but similar variations arose from countries as distinct as Iceland and Syria. The town names vary, along with the methods or instruments used to lure the rats or children. Some stories are resolved with the young ones’ safe return, but most leave the elder in grief and remorse.

The trickster figure symbolised by the pied piper recurs in the different traditions. To take the examples mentioned in light of their distinct nature, the Nordic version from Iceland [1] features a wizard that entices the mice with a leg of roasted mutton which he throws into a deep pit in order to entrap the spellbound vermin. The Syrian one [2] features the Persian polymath Avicenna as a trickster himself when he beguiles the rat infestation of Aleppo into conducting a funeral procession, with pallbearers and all, for one of their own, proceeding in a mournful manner outside the city gates.

In order to conduct our investigation thoroughly, we must first pinpoint the pivotal ingredients that make up the pattern of the story. These would be the plague of rats, the jester or fool, the spellbinding music, the payment, or rather, the lack of it and the abduction of the children.

Taking the rat plague as our first trope, we must start by examining the symbolism of the rat itself. In terms of their relationship to humans, rats are pests, they carry diseases, feed on crops and fruits, wound and kill livestock, destroy all types of furniture and cause all kinds of damage to building material. In the modern age, they also cause electrical fires, chew telephone lines and bring down computer systems, disabling even modern types of communication and modes of transportation. This makes the rat a perpetual agent of chaos and an enduring force for the breakdown of meaning. No sane person would be comfortable knowing there are wild rats in his house, and having them out of sight only furthers their menacing power over humans.

The symbolic breakdown of meaning can even happen physiologically in cases of rat bites on humans due to the numerous infectious diseases carried in their saliva. Contact with other bodily excretions from rats also prove harmful and one common consequence of the possible infections is the inflammation of the lymph nodes [3], which are essentially responsible for the body’s immune system. Fleas that act as parasites on the rats themselves are even more infectious, especially after the death of the rat itself. In fact, it was the fleas themselves that were identified as the actual carriers of the bubonic plague during past pandemics [4].

Our human body is our border from that which is outside [5], and whilst contact with the outside is inevitable (breathing and eating are unavoidable) and even useful (speaking is a way of manipulating the air we breathe i.e. that which is outside, to our own benefit), not all of what’s outside is compatible with our bodies. As it transpires, the less congruent the outside, the more threatened the inside and the meeting of the two leads to the death of harmony in reality itself. To summarise, the rat, its bodily discharge and its parasitic fleas are all levels of being that symbolise that which is furthest down the line in what is considered to be “outside” to the human body.

The rift in the harmonious fabric of reality is a common launching pad for starting off stories and legends and what better universal symbol is there to be used than having a rat epidemic as a prime symptom of this breach. Natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, floods, sinkholes or volcanic eruptions were common tropes in archaic stories of divine retribution but rat plagues become more prominent during the Middle Ages, when medieval storytelling was probably influenced by the deadliest pandemic known by man, the Black Death. Rat infestations make the scourge more intimate and personalised, especially due to the silent and secretive yet intrusive nature of the rats.

Another high influence on medieval storytelling would be the Christian tradition, and as we shall see later on, there are several clues that point towards the Christian foundation of this particular story. In the Christian worldview, living in sin feels somewhat analogous to living in a rat-infested house. The disintegration of meaning through the perpetual “missing of the mark” [6] of reality itself happens silently and secretly, but intrudes into the heart and infests the soul with a heavy presence that is impossible to get rid of without divine intervention. The piper can be seen as a manifestation of this divine intervention since his methods are magical and his results comprehensive, in terms of the full objective pattern of the story. However, before investigating his methods, it is crucial to analyse the symbolic attributes of the piper character himself.

The story of the pied piper of Hamelin can be read as a classic cautionary tale about what happens when one fails to pay attention to the fool. The piper character ticks more than enough boxes to be classified as such. Taking Robert Browning’s 1842 poem [7] as a popular reference, he is clad with a “queer long coat… half of yellow and half of red”, hence his titular adjective “pied” which literally means he is adorned with two or more different colours. He has “light, loose hair, yet swarthy skin” and “there was no guessing his kith and kin”, making it clear that he is an outsider and absolute foreigner to the town of Hamelin. His dark complexion and untold circumstances reinforce his identity as the stranger, but in the chaos of the strange unknown, there lies potential, and in this particular case, potential comes in the form of a magical, musical, wind instrument.

The jester is a recurrent symbolic trope in medieval stories [8]. Historically, this figure was considered to be an indispensable part of any nobleman’s or monarch’s tribe. Primarily, most were employed to serve as entertainers, and their professional habits would entail juggling, acrobatic feats, storytelling, mocking stereotypes, play-acting, imitating and telling jokes, but naturally they were sought after by the monarch or head of the household for advice or providing insight. Now, why would a king seek advice from someone as lowly and honest as the jester? Embodying such a humble disposition is precisely the reason why the king would trust the jester’s intuition. His attitude does not tend to be humble in a submissive manner but in a humiliating fashion in order to poke fun at the hierarchy itself and to question the whole notion of its structure. A steady man-based structural organisation is not comprehensive in any way or form, neither in terms of space, nor in terms of time, and nobody knows this more instinctively than the jester.

More implicitly, the fool was there to identify and reveal the hidden hypocrisies and idiosyncrasies inherent to the community. Failure to address these issues could possibly lead to the demise and disintegration of the group or household in question. The fool would engage in questionable behaviour and this would serve the community as a reminder that the marginal will always be part of the whole, and no matter how flawless a hierarchy is set out to be, the edges of society are an inescapable part of the community itself. The jester accounts for the ones living on the border and outside of them and acts as a kind of prophet in terms of gauging the moral inclinations and desires of the group. His call for attention appears to be facile but his undertaking hides the key to unlocking the deeply rooted predicament of his observers. This pattern of salvation has been embodied and driven to its final resolution by only one person in the history of mankind [9], where the flip from death to glory goes beyond being simply a trick. The pied piper character is a world away from soteriological Christology and his modus operandi appears to be diametrically opposed to it, but if this analogy is to be of any use, it might call attention to the varying degrees on the spectrum of salvation. Discerning the nature of a false prophet in the pied piper is made easier by knowing the traits of a true one.

What distinguishes the piper as such, is his distorted pledge of salvation, where instead of the promised glory of life, his methods bring the town of Hamelin closer to annihilation. However, the degree to which he can be considered a false prophet is somewhat inconclusive due to his promising first act of deliverance. Purging the town of the scourge of rats is nothing short of an act of providence for a community riddled with death. His undertaking is a godsend, but his outlandish appearance might have something to do with their failure to commit to their consensual covenant. The ingratitude of the villagers has its consequences and here is where the piper lives up to his reputation as a trickster. Until that happens, what better way to disguise his charade than being merely armed with a simple, modest, seemingly innocent, musical pipe?

The magical pipe is an extension of paramount importance to this fool character, so now would be a good time to delve into the symbolism of the musical instrument itself and how its use leads to its ramifications. To begin with, since the story of the pied piper has its roots in the archaic patterns of storytelling, we need to re-emphasize our symbolic worldview in order to make sense of what transpires when the piper plays his pipe. First and foremost, the world consists of time and space. These two forces are interrelated and opposite at the same time [10]. Space is a force of stability whilst time caters for that which is unstable and ever-changing. As pointed out by Matthieu Pageau in his book “The Language of Creation”, a primeval symbol or manifestation of spatial stability is the construction tool, which is characterised by its purpose of fixing or being used to fix an object into place. By contrast,

“the horn or trumpet seems to be one of the oldest symbols of the cosmic axes. The main reason for this symbolism is that the horns of a beast are wild outgrowths that twist and turn as they grow. Also a horn is made into a musical instrument by hollowing it out and removing its point, making it empty, pointless and curved, which are the defining characteristics of cyclical time.” [11]

The pied piper’s pipe may not be the curved horn described above but its linear symmetry hides its bewitching powers and this intrinsic appearance mirrors the trickster nature of the piper himself. Being a wind instrument, the pipe enables its piper to manipulate that which is “outside” in order to create new spiritual meaning in the guise of music. Needless to say, spiritual expression created by man is inherently dangerous to the soul. This point is made by Pageau when he says that

“all musical instruments symbolise the cosmic axle that makes the universe pointlessly turn and dance. They are implements of diversion and distraction which lead to relaxation, rest, sleep and even death.” [12]

This notion elucidates the way in which the piper conducts the danse macabre on the two separate occasions in the story. The spiritual expression mediated by the music is also cyclical in nature and therefore does not orient the listener to concrete spiritual meaning.

In this day and age, this kind of cyclical spirituality is epitomised by the spiralling and revolving fractal patterns reported by people who experience psychedelic states of consciousness. Shamanic healing ceremonies typically entail the use of music, whistling and songs as guides during these trance-like states and participants tend to lose touch with our accustomed estimation of time. Furthermore, these altered states are inundated with semblances of near-death experiences and dreamlike trips to the underworld where the observer is exposed to ethereal visuals that are up for interpretation. The dances induced by these altered states are attempts at interpreting this confused form of spirituality and their final purpose is to embody the emergent meaning of these fractal patterns.

This dance of death was not just an artistic allegory in medieval literature. Dancing plagues were real-life phenomena that were even recorded historically in the late Middle Ages, most famously in Apulia, Italy [13] and Strasbourg [14], France, in the 15th and 16th centuries respectively. Such outbreaks would begin with a small group of people, or even a single individual dancing erratically, which would eventually lead to larger numbers of people joining in to participate in these wild outbursts of mass hysteria. These would sometimes last for days and participants would dance until they black out or even die of exhaustion. Music and dance have been inextricably linked and associated with ritual sacrifice since time immemorial, but these occurrences would definitely have left an imprint on contemporary social consciousness, and such an impression would certainly manifest itself in the emergent folklore and stories of the time.

Coming back to the pied piper story, we have established the piper’s music as a symbol of cyclical time, which is just one part of this force that pushes towards death. The other half of this same push would be the rat plague, or as we have established earlier, our inherent sinful nature. However, the piper is a trickster and in administering his dance of death onto the rats, he offers a flip, from death into life, from annihilation into the next generation. The piper’s promise of a brighter future is solely dependent upon his payment and therein lies the crux of the story.

Payment is a form of self-sacrifice. Symbolically speaking, this would mean giving up a part of oneself in return for something better. This archaic concept has been symbolically manifested in ventures that range from the waging of wars to the buying of milk cartons at the grocery store. It has shaped our world in profound ways and its attributes have become intrinsic to our nature. Proper child-rearing is a first-rate example of self-sacrifice since it entails the death of a past life and the resurrection of a new one with the renewed sense of responsibility for creating a better future for the community. The townsfolk want a better future, but they are not willing to offer the proper sacrifice. If this community is a symbol of spatial stability in constant struggle with the force of time, then self-sacrifice is a form of conservation of this same space. This picture would frame the idea of payment as a strike in the balance of space and time, a token for the proposed equilibrium. Investment might feel like a more appropriate term than payment due to its allusion to clothing. The wearing of garments of dead animal skins, or, as we like to call them, clothes, is also an act of using death in order to resist further death [15].

The piper might be postponing death but he is not offering the proper key to solving the issues of the community. He hints at possible solutions but being simply a fool or jester will not push him on to become a saviour. He wields his pipe and beguiles his victims through music and altered states of consciousness but these are highly fragmented and illusive distortions of the truth that tip the balance in favour of the destruction of space by the force of time. The community needs more than a fool to be set free. The piper asks the townsfolk to give up an ounce of themselves as payment for his deeds but this suggestion proves counterproductive as the villagers fall deeper into unconsciousness in terms of their oblivious disposition to sin. This kind of payment is taken to be a false sacrifice instigated by a false prophet and its ultimate road leads to certain death. The corrupt sinful nature of the community will only be redeemed through full-on self-sacrifice, which is ultimately forced onto the village through the death of the offspring. This might just bring back the restored equilibrium of time and space, but there is one final twist to the story.

The abduction or death of the children might suffice as an attempt at the restoration of this equilibrium, but in and of itself, this doomed scenario is nothing short of a symbolic eschaton for the town of Hamelin. Biologically speaking, children are the only hope of any population, and their demise spells the end of the people in question, but despite this apocalyptic turn of events, the final outcome of this story is an act of mercy. The disappearance of the children themselves feels somewhat biblical in nature due to the manner in which it happens. The climb onto a mountain and vanishing into a cave hints at a symbolic inversion of the Incarnation, whereby the death of the children as restoration of the equilibrium is a directly proportional antithesis to the birth of a child that will lead to the exposure and destruction of that same equilibrium, as a triumph over death itself. The mercy shown to the blind, deaf and lame is the first intimation that the preceding mechanism of the balancing of time and space can be overthrown. The distinction of the innocent from a crowd of scapegoats is a powerful implication that the whole sacrificial process is unjust and the survivors are the living proof of this assertion. The fact that the retelling of their tragic fate is done by the surviving victims themselves is highly reminiscent of the shift in perspective from mythological narratives to the Christian account of the Passion, wherein the immoral violence of the perpetrator is exposed for all to see.

This salient finish to the traditional story is a strong piece of evidence of the Christian roots of the legend of the pied piper. Other than the rat plague being a symbol of original sin, another important detail that hints at the same prospect would be the townspeople’s alibi of being in a church celebrating mass while the abduction is taking place. The amalgamation of self-righteous hypocrisy and sacrificial scapegoating is evocative of the parable of “whitewashed tombs” from the Gospel of Matthew (Matt. 23:27 NKJV). The villagers correspond to the same accusation of the Pharisees because they celebrate their redemption without paying its proper price. In the end, the children suffer the same fate as the rats, not only because of inheriting their predecessors’ innate corrupt nature, which gets heavier from one generation to the next, but mostly due to the parents’ refusal to take the road to self-sacrifice.

To sum up, or rather, boil down to the bare essence of the story, we need to reiterate that the town or community of Hamelin is a manifestation of spatial stability. The rat plague is identified as the competitive, opposite force of time. The overwhelming nature of the plague suggests the dominion of time over space. Time will transform space, bring it to its knees and ultimately destroy it, but time also has a trick up its sleeve. Time, being a cause of change, and cyclical in nature, offers a flip, a chance at overturning death into renewal. This offer is symbolised by the arrival of the piper, who exposes the faults of the old and the hopeful potential of the new. This fresh sense of perspective is a newfound opportunity to reclaim spatial stability, and bring back the equilibrium of time and space.

The story of the pied piper of Hamelin should serve as a testament to this kind of symbolic wisdom as long as we thrive. At the end of the day, the piper must be paid, and his preferred currency is our attention. Humanity’s own current circumstances make this story highly relevant in this day and age and embellish it with a kind of prophetic intensity. Retelling his story might be the optimum way of paying the piper’s fees but our colossal advance in technological capacities has put our own fate into our own hands. Nothing could be more dangerous than our own bad decisions when it comes to making the proper sacrifice. Paying heed to the piper seems to be one of our last resorts and therein lies the value of the fool. In conclusion, we must realise that time will inevitably destroy space through the sacrifice of others but space will inevitably destroy time through self-sacrifice in love. Let us hope that we all agree that this sounds worthy of our attention.

 

[1] William A. Craigie, Scandinavian Folk-Lore: Illustrations of the Traditional Beliefs of the Northern Peoples (Paisley and London: Alexander Gardner, 1896), pp. 370-71.

[2] Sheykh-Zada, The Lady’s Twenty-Eighth Story, The History of the Forty Vezirs; or, The Story of the Forty Morns and Eves translated by E. J. W. Gibb (London: George Redway, 1886) pp. 300-302

[3] Norman AF, Regnery R, Jameson P, Greene C, Krause DC. Differentiation of Bartonella-like isolates at the species level by PCR–restriction fragment length polymorphism in the citrate synthase gene. J Clin Microbiol. 1995;33:1797–803

[4] Michael Greshko, 2018, Maybe Rats Aren’t to Blame for the Black Death, National Geographic, Published January 15th 2018 (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2018/01/rats-plague-black-death-humans-lice-health-science)

[5] Pageau Jonathan – “The Symbolism of Epidemics,” at 5:47. Youtube, March 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EIHJ0K8gT2U

[6] Pageau Jonathan – “The Symbolic Meaning of Sin,” at 4:35. Youtube, March 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbWRt2ck_So

[7]The World’s Best Poetry, by Bliss Carman, et al. Philadelphia: John D. Morris & Co., 1904; Bartleby.com, 2012

[8] Pageau Jonathan – “The Metaphysics of Clown World,” at 28:00. Youtube, April 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzEwaUCw9Bo

[9] Pageau Jonathan – “The Fool in Scripture and Culture – Saskatoon Talk,” at 47:45. Youtube, January 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zxltkn90Qag

[10] Pageau Matthieu, The Language of Creation: Cosmic Symbolism in Genesis Chapter 31 (pp.115-117)

[11] Pageau Matthieu, The Language of Creation: Cosmic Symbolism in Genesis Chapter 42 (pp.155-157)

[12] Pageau Matthieu, The Language of Creation: Cosmic Symbolism in Genesis Chapter 42 (pp.156)

[13] Soth, A., 2020. When Dancing Plagues Struck Medieval Europe | JSTOR Daily. [online] JSTOR Daily. Available at: <https://daily.jstor.org/when-dancing-plagues-struck-medieval-europe/> [Accessed 20 August 2020].

[14] MacGowan, D., 2020. Dancing Plague of 1518 | Historic Mysteries. [online] Historic Mysteries. Available at: <https://www.historicmysteries.com/dancing-plague-of-1518/> [Accessed 20 August 2020].

[15] Pageau Jonathan – “Garments of Death and Garments of Light,” at 2:00. Youtube, May 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k4W0b-hmG1E