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Monday, June 6, 2022

Reading the Pied Piper of Hamelin

 Reading the Pied Piper of Hamelin



John and Paul’s Day
was celebrated throughout Europe on June 26 but was originally a pagan festival commemorating the summer solstice. On this day it was custom for huge throngs of people to gather and dance around a bonfire, play music, sing, and augur the future. According to Petrarch, it was the custom of women in Cologne to bathe in the Rhine River on the evening before St. John’s Day. The surging waters supposedly washed away all evil and misfortune from the bathers. The custom was apparently practiced throughout Germany in its largest rivers and was considered to be distinctly pagan. Processions and parades, dancing and singing, bathing in the river and jumping through or dancing around bonfires were all part of the revelry. Frowning on the unbridled passion of townspeople engaged in such activities, the early Christian Church appropriated the day. It linked the custom of river bathing to John the Baptist and symbolical purification through water. These summer celebrations coincided with the sun reaching its highest point in the sky and usually lasted several days. The dates given in the Pied Piper of Hamelin are the exact days this celebration would have been held and the saga accurately incorporates elements of this folk tradition.


In the Pied Piper of Hamelin we find the elements of playing music and processing down to a river (and immersing oneself in the water) to eradicate pestilence. The figure charged with the expulsion of rats and mice is distinctly pagan. He uses magic and music to take control of the rats first and children second. He is a wandering rogue of a most peculiar sort. His clothing and visage are described in some detail. His coat of many colors is reminiscent of that other famous wanderer in Germanic mythology, Woton (as called by Southern Germanic tribes) or Odin (as called by Northern Germanic tribes). Woton traditionally wears a blue cloak with golden flecks and broad hat. The Germanic God Woton underwent many transformations at the hands of Christian priests, who attempted to Christianize the deity. Wotan alternately became the Archangel Michael, the Holy St. Martin, the Wild Huntsman and finally the devil. In his role as Wild Huntsman, Wotan was said to lead a fearsome procession that raced through the air and lasted 12 days. Other pagan figures lead similar parades or processions including Frau Holla and True Eckhart, and Tannhäuser and Frau Venus. These duos always have the same destination: the inside of a mountain. In many folk tales and saga, entering a mountain as part of a procession is actually a metaphor
for dying (see Gratzug). In fact there were many mountains throughout Europe that were considered sacred to Woton (Othensberg, Odensberg, Godesberg, Gudenesberg and Wodenesberg to name a few).


There are sagas and legends from the Middle Ages which reflect the dismay and even anger of the deposed deities toward the rising power and prestige of Christian intruders. Tannhäuser and Frau Venus are perhaps the most well-known examples. But is it possible to interpret the tantalizing character of the Pied Piper and the disappearance of 130 children within the context of an enraged (and perhaps, dislodged) deity?


This extraordinary tale reads like an historical narrative with eye-witness accounts to bolster its veracity. I am inclined to view the story as a cautionary tale to a population wavering between the older pagan belief and the newer Christian belief systems. Participating in pagan revelry, with its gods, music, dancing and wildness, can have dire consequences. The old deities are no longer mourning their loss of status, but ready to take revenge. At the end of the tale, a ban on music is imposed and presumably the pagan revelry and festivities that accompanied it. But the surface message of the tale is also quite clear. The mendacity of town leaders contradicts the Gospel message that “a laborer is worthy of his hire.”


The mountain where the children disappeared has been renamed Calvary, or the Place of the Skull (Köppen = obsolete German word for head or skull). As Europe became Christianized, it was common to rename pagan sites to give them Christian significance. Calvary or site of the Crucifixion would be a fitting name for a place of great tragedy. After reading this tale it is easy to imagine that the story is based on a folk memory of a tragic event involving the loss of children.


Ancient Bone and Ivory Flutes


The Pied Piper is playing one of the oldest known musical instruments: the flute or pipe. Archaeologists have found numerous flutes fashioned from bone or ivory throughout Germany and Switzerland. At the Cloister in Müstair, Switzerland, archaeologists found two bone flutes which they have dated to the Carolingian period and two from the 11th/12th and 14th centuries. They are made from the tibia bone of a sheep or goat and have three finger holes. These Müstair flutes are capable of producing a five-tone or eight-tone scale respectively.


A flute that is believed to be between 30,000 – 37,000 years old was found in pieces in the Geissenkloesterle Cave in Southern Germany. It was made in the Upper Paleolithic Era, a time when Europe was occupied by the last Neanderthals and the first modern humans. This flute was carved from solid ivory and was capable of playing relatively sophisticated tunes. Based on experiments, it seems the flute followed the pentatonic scale.


The sound of these flutes was shaped by human breath. After singing, playing the flute was the most immediate form of communication. Because of its special sound and shape, the flute was also used in religious and cultic ceremonies. The music of the flute or pipe was said to have magical and healing properties. The shepherd played the pipe to calm his flock and keep them together. And in the saga, the Pied Piper uses the magical tones of the flute to exercise control over both animals and humans. The ancient Greeks mistrusted flute music as being overly powerful and seductive and according to Indian tradition, when Lord Krishna played his flute, listeners forgot their individuality and were drawn irresistibly to the music.






Grimm's Saga Number 245: The Pied Piper of Hamelin



In the year 1284 a strange man was seen in the town of Hamelin. He wore a parti-colored coat and a colorful scarf and that is why he was called Bundting (one colorfully dressed). He claimed he was a rat catcher and promised to free the town of all mice and rats in return for a certain sum of money. The town folk reached agreement and assured him he would receive the designated wage. Thereupon the rat catcher pulled out a little flute from his pocket and began to play. Immediately the rats and mice crept out from every house and gathered round him. When it seemed he had collected them all, he went out from town and the entire throng of mice and rats scampered behind him. And so he led them to the Weser River. Binding up his colorful cloak, he entered the swift waters. The animals eagerly following him were swept up by the swift current and drowned. But when the townspeople saw that they were free from the pestilence, they regretted the promised reward and they denied him his wage with every manner of excuse until he became enraged and went away embittered. Early in the morning at 7 o’clock on June 26, John and Paul’s Day, (but according to others in the afternoon) he appeared again, but now in the shape of a huntsman with frightful visage and a strange red hat. He sounded his pipe in the alleyways and narrow streets. This time it was not rats and mice that came running but rather children, boys and girls aged four and up, in large numbers. Among them, was the grown daughter of the mayor. A procession of children followed him and he led them out to a mountain, where they all promptly disappeared. A child’s maid had seen it all; she carried a babe on her arm and had followed the crowd from afar, but returned to town to tell the story. The parents streamed out of the city gates and laden with grief, searched for their children. Mothers bewailed their loss. At that hour messengers were sent by land and water to all the surrounding towns to find out whether the children had been seen, but it was all for naught. In total, 130 children were lost. Some said two children had hurried behind the throng but were too late and had to return. The one was blind, the other mute, so that the blind child could not tell the location, but could only tell how they had followed the music. The mute child could point to the location, but couldn’t say anything. One boy ran out of the house only in his shirtsleeves. He returned to the house to get his jacket and thus escaped the misfortune. When he followed, he could see the other children arriving at the bottom of the mountain then he saw them vanish. The street, where the children left the town through the gate was still called the Bungelose (silent street, where no drumbeat or music is heard) in the mid-eighteenth century because no one was allowed to dance or strum a musical instrument there. When a bride was brought to the church accompanied by music, the players had to silence their instruments when they crossed the road. The hill near Hamelin, where the children disappeared, is called Poppenberg. Here at the left and right two stones have been set up in cross-shape. Some say the children were taken into a cave and came out on the other side in Siebenbuergen (Transylvania). The citizens of Hamelin had the story recorded in their city register and after that they always counted years and days according to the loss of their children. Seyfried recorded that it was the 22nd of June instead of the 26th when it happened. At the town hall the following words can be read: In the year of our Lord 1284 in Hamelin, 130 children were lost to a piper at the place called Calvary. In 1572 the Mayor had the story memorialized in a church window with the necessary caption, but the words are mostly illegible today. A coin was also made to commemorate the event. 


To read more about the Pied Piper of Hameln: http://www.fairytalechannel.com/2008/07/reading-pied-piper-of-hamelin.html 
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