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Field work on the trail of the Pied Piper

Field work on the trail of the Pied Piper

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Published by Julian Scutts
Instead of theorizing let's go to the scene of action (possibly of the crime) and attempt doing some detective work by asking a local expert.
Instead of theorizing let's go to the scene of action (possibly of the crime) and attempt doing some detective work by asking a local expert.

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Julian Scutts on Feb 28, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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The figure of the Pied Piper resides in a grey zone between myth and history. A recent visit to the townof Hamelin / Hameln offered me the chance to leave study rooms and archives and encounter interesting places and people in some way associated with what remains one of the most intriguingand mysterious of figures, whether in literature, legend or history. Finally< you may read an interviewwith the Director of the Museum of Coppenbrügge, near Hameln. It has been translated from theGerman
Exodus or Exitus? Reflections on the Pied Piper on Visiting Hamelin and CoppenbrggeThe Grimm brothers and Robert Browning have doubtless done more than anyone else to make the story of the PiedPiper of Hamelin or "der Rattenfnger von Hameln" one of the most celebrated legends in the world. In case any reader has forgotten or perhaps never learned. the details of the popular account of the story, I venture to summerize it asfollows:Once the town of Hamelin near Hannover was afflicted by a terrible plague of rats against which no conventionalmeans of extermination availed. During this time a piper dressed in a garb of many colours claimed that he could ridthe town of this plague, in return for a financial consideration, of course. The mayor of the town agreed to this offer,whereapon the piper produced a melody on his flute which made all the rats follow him to the river Weser, where theydrowned. However, the ungrateful elders of Hamelin refused to pay the piper the agreed sum. Later he played hisinstrument to a different tune and this time it was the children of Hamelin who followed him. He led them away to a hillwhere he and the children disappeared into a mysterious cavern and none of them - with the exception of a lame boyand possibly a blind one too - was ever seen again in Hamelin, though it was rumoured that a people with vaguememories of Hamelin settled in Romania or another place in eastern Europe. As a recent visitor to Hamelin I can well attest that the town is still very much indebted to the Piper. Though the townis certainly worth a visit on the strength of its impressive architecture, typically adorned with ornate Renaissancefacades, and of its pleasant natural setting, it could never have attracted such droves of tourists as it does from theFar East, America, not to mention families from all over Germany and Europe. Many shops offer a vast array of piedpiperabelia from ratlike figurines made of hardened bread to rat-suits comparable in size to Micky Mouse in DisneyLand. In an unguarded moment I ordered a bottle of beer that cost 3.20 Euro against 1.80 in my home village. Thetown authorities, by the way, were not always so smitten by the town's association with the Piper, for they did notencourage the famous author Merian to include the story about the bad faith of an earlier mayor in his traveller's guideto noteworthy places. During the summer period (May to September) the town stages two public performances tocommemorate the Pied Piper. Every Sunday the story is dramatized on a platform in the town's main square and it ishere also that every Wednesday afternoon in the summer season the public enjoys performances of a musical -entitled - appropriately enough - "Rats".While the play keeps reasonably close to the traditional story of the ratcatcher presented in the folktales recorded bythe Grimm brothers, the musical betrays the strong influence of Robert Browning's "The Pied Piper of Hamelin"introducing into the story a fable in which one surviving rat escapes to Ratland and gives a glowing account of theglorious consumerist paradise that the Piper's music has conjured up in his mind. In the musical the rats are endowedwith the ability to speak and the sing. The satirical element implicit in Browning's poem is enhanced by the figure of the rat king, who strikes a bargain with the equally rapacious mayor of Hamelin. The story is suitably updated byreferences to the "drug"-like effect of the Piper's music, his "hippy" appearance and the bankrupt town's empty coffers.The music ranges from romantically evocative melodies to rousing tunes somewhat reminiscent of the "Marchingthrough Georgia" song of the American Civil War.This musical is yet one further eloquent testimony to the adaptability of the basic story as one ever able to convey animportant message to the contemporary age without losing its essential matrix of associations. It is timely to recallwhat the earliest known account of the story was. This is to be read on the words inscribed on a beam of wood visible(to those willing to crane their necks) on the right side of the so-called "Rattenfngerhaus" standing next to the placewhere the east gate of medieval Hamelin used to be. The name of the lane flanking the wall translates into English asthe lane without drums, the very street where even today music and dancing are forbidden in remembrance of the lostchildren of Hamelin. The very short account written in low German may be translated as follows:
On the 26th of June in 1284 on the day of John and Paul a piper dressed in many colours led away 130 children bornin Hamelin to Koppen by Calvary, where they were lost.First obvious point about this account is its noninclusion of any mention of rats. What, no rats! The first account inwhich the original story merges with the tale of a ratcatcher cheated of his pay dates from the mid sixteenth century.By this stage the Piper had become well and truly demonized. The first version is, for sure, darkly ambiguous with itsominous implication that an ill fate befell the children of Hamelin, as it states that they were finally "lost". But in whatsense? - Lost to the town, lost like sailors at sea or lost in theological terms? Writers in the 16th and 17th centuriesplaced the most severely negative construction on the story by identifying the Piper with the devil. However, it isinteresting to note that the date of the Piper's final appearance was given as the festival of Mary Magdalene (the 22ndof July) about "two hundred years ago" (i.e. in the latter half of the fourteenth century) in a Latin version of the story,the same date quoted by Browning in his poem about the Pied Piper. Both this and the earliest account of the taleconnect the exodus of Hamelin's children with a saint's day, and in line with this precedent Prosper Merime makes thestory an omen of the massacre of Protestants on Saint Bartholomew's day, the 23rd of August, in his novel "Chroniquedu Regne de Charles IX". These datings seems to reflect an ambivalence associating the demonic and sacred, which ascholar Gernot Hsam, cited below, interprets as the attempt of the Church to combat paganism by blotting out thememory of pre-Christian practices and cultic sites by giving them a Christian nomenclature. By the same token, thenegative constructions placed on the Piper could be readily inverted by later authors.Browning's reinterpretation of the Piper as the risen Christ, the Unconquered Sun, accords with the impied connectionwith Mary Magdalene, in the gospels the first witness of the Resurrection. Similarly, "Calvary, associated in medievaltimes with the skull of death swallowing sinners through the mouth of hell, becomes the Calvary of the New Testamentin Browning's poem (click site of Iacov Levi below)In keeping with its power to absorb new narrative elements that in turn reflect major historical developments, the ratsrecall the Black Death and all its havoc and terrors. The Piper associated with the rats also conveys something of thehysteria of an age obsessively fearful of witches, heretics and outsiders in general. Stories about a man who removesvermin from a town by some magical means are in fact quite widespread throughout Europe and farther afield, but tointertwine the original tale with an account concerning a ratcatcher required some fiction or device, clearly in this case,the unkept bargain between Piper and the authorities of Hamelin, an invention which in turn most probably reflected theconcern of people in the mid-sixteenth century with matters concerning money, contracts and the payment of wages.It seems likely that the revamped story expresses deep misgivings concerning the rise of a new wage-earning classthat attended the emergence of money-based non-feudal capitalism and unrest, particularly among the peasantpopulation. The dissatisfied classes had open ears to those challenging medieval Catholicism such as Wicliffe andLuther and Mntzer. I raise this question again at the close of this report. The negative consructions placed on the storycontinue in interpretations according to which the parents of the town were in church when their children were ledaway, implying that the children under the Piper's influence became apostates from the Church. An explanation of theorigin of the Piper story to which I shall later refer could well account for such a negative conclusion.From the Romantic period onwards writers and musicians managed to rehabilitate the Piper, for the devil figure of medieval times became introverted so as to epitomize none less than Jesus Christ. As already noted, in Browning'spoem this identification is at least implicit from a close reading of its text, for a constrast of good and evil emergesfrom a bifurcation in the way the main players in the story are presented. The greedy rats and adults on one side standagainst and the innocent and righteous Piper and children on the other. The Piper becomes the Great Unrecognized. As noted above, the noted psychologist Iakov Levi unreservedly identifies Piper with Christ, evidently on the basis of noting the words found in Browning's poem (see website address below). A question arises. What are the secret ingredients of success in the original story? Is it in any case necessary to tryto unravel origins of tale in terms of some historical event? - Nobody, not even poets like Goethe and Browning, havesolved the riddle - but these poets were still able to interpret it in a new and significant light. However, a discussion of its origins may help us to better understand why the story has gained such vast and apparently contradictoryramifications.
I return to the Hamelin I find today. I visited the town archives during my recent visit. The most exhaustive collection of early accounts of the Pied Pied piper story I found were cited in a work by one Herr Hans Dobbertin, who supportedthe still most widely held view among scholars that the origin of story lies in some migration from Hamelin to places ineastern Europe, probably under the direction of a count from a neighbouring settlement, Nicholaus of Spiegelberg, in1284. Dobbertin cites place names in Brandenburg and elsewhere comprising the word 'Coppen'. I then vaguelyremembered seeing signpost in Hamelin giving the direction to Coppenbrgge, only nine miles or so down the road andleading in an easterly direction.In the early evening I took a train to Coppenbrgge, recklessly trusting that the town or village offered a place to stay for the night. As I approached the town the silhouette of a high wooded hill loomed behind the surrounding fields. Luckily Iwas able to book a room at the town's only hotel. I mentioned to a gentleman in his fifties, the sole customer at thebar, something about my interest in the legend of the Pied Piper. At this point his hitherto dull eyes flared up andseemed to glint with a strange inner fire. He assured me that the Koppen mentioned in the legend was none other thanthe dark mountain I had just seen. To justify this claim he produced a book about town and its history. Without theleast need to ply through its pages I opened it at the place where it revealed pictures of eerie headlike rocky outcrops.It transpired that these had been carved by human hand in megalithic times, about eight thousand years ago. He wenton to affirm that the Calvary referred to in the original versions of the Pied Piper story was located at what is now thesite of a gravel pit, the very one that I would have seen as the train approached Coppenbrgge. It had been a place of execution, the grim scene of gallows.The heights of the Koppenberg, now the Ithberg, he explained, were adopted by German tribes as sacred sites - hencea reference "Woden heads" in an old folksong. The Devil's Kitchen ("Teufelskche") near summit of the Ithberg is a levelbasin-like structure scooped in the rocks and full of boulders strewn around as though shaken by the Deel himself.This was reportedly the site of human sacrifices or at least occult events in the past, some of them even after theintroduction of Christianity. Norbert, the gentleman I referred to, is convinced that Count Nikolaus of Spiegelberg withthe help of his two younger brothers, in order to get into the good books of the Church and civil dignitaries, organized amassacre of youthful miscreants execrated as dancing devil-worshippers who allegedly performed forbidden rites onthe Koppenberg. In much the same temper of mind Charlemagne had had thousands of heathen Saxons slaughted inthe eighth century. But Christianisation was a slow process in parts of Germany - the Brocken (in the Harz mountains)and Luneburger Heath have harboured nature worshippers and their doings until recent times - perhaps even into them.The oldest church in Hamelin is dedicated to Saint Boniface, the Anglo-Saxon monk who greatly contributed to theChristianization of German tribes in the ninth century. As to Count Spiegelberg, he disappeared from historical recordsonly weeks after the 26th of June, his last location being Stettin on the east German border. According to which theoryyou choose, he was either about to embark on an ill-fated voyage in the Baltic and drown with his youthful followers or he was on the run after instigating a bloodbath. the first pictorial representation of the Pied piper story providesevidence supporting the explanation of events put forward by Norbert. The painting by Augustin von Mrsperg from Alsace done in the year 1592 evidently consolidates a good amount of local research. The three hinds shown in thispicture represent the coat of arms of the Spiegelberg line. "Calvary" is marked by the gallows drawn near the top of the Koppenberg, above which is a cavelike opening in the rocks, most probably the "Devil's Cauldron" or "Teufelskche".Now the readiness of medieval narrators of the Piper legend to identify the Piper with the devil becomesunderstandable. Prosper Merime in his Chronicle of the Reign of Charles IX makes the telling of the story an omen of the infamous massacre of Huguenots on another saints' day, on St Bartholomew's Eve in 1572. The more zealous andintolerant defenders of the Church indeed saw little difference between heathens and "heretics". Norbert's account of these matters was to a great extent confirmed by the director of Coppenbrgge's museum, Herr Gernot Hsam, whom Ibriefly met on the following morning. His thesis is lucidly and cogently set forth in his brochure entitled "Der Koppen"(which may be bought at Coppenbrgge's museum). He states that the Koppen referred to in the earliest version of thePied piper legend is indeed the hill now known as the Ithberg, formerly as the Koppenberg noted in sources dating fromthe 11th century. The etymology of the name may mean "head", which is interesting in view of the ancient sculpturesatop the Ithberg, or alternatively it may be derived from the word "cupa", a cup or grail, itself possibly alluding to theTeufelskche and its scooped-out formation and dark associations with cultic practices. Heads of the kind found on theIthberg have been discovered throughout Europe and catalogued by Dr Elisabeth Neumann-Gundrum. Typical of theseis the appearance of a blind or vacant eye signifying inner vision. They also show the faces of humans and animalsemerging from the mouth or head of a larger figure. They exhibit what appears to be astral signs including thehexagram. This fact has led to speculations that the Ithberg and similar sites once served as observatories or astralcomputers like Stonehenge. It is notable that the sun appears at the crest of the Ith when viewed from Hamelin on

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