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In the year of the 700th anniversary of the German legend of "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" (1284-1984) it might be of interest to take a glance at how this folk narrative has also survived in the short form of a proverbial expression.1 In the German language we have the expression "Er ist ein chlauer Rattenfänger von Hameln" (He is a smart rat-catcher [pied piper] of Hamelin) or also simply "Ein Rattenfänger sein" (To be a rat-catcher [pied piper]).2 This phrase can be used and interpreted positively or negatively, just as the original legend itself actually portrays the pied piper as an ambivalent figure, both good and evil. As a rat-catcher he is altogether a benevolent magician, but as an abductor of 130 innocent children (young adults) he becomes malevolent and evil as the devil himself. Once the legend became popular in the Anglo-American world through Robert Browning’s well-known poem "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" (1842),3 a similar phenomenon can be observed for the English language as well. The legend that was retold in Browning’s extremely popular poetic version resulted in the short proverbial expression "To be a pied piper" which is used to refer positively or negatively to various types of figures who want to bring people of all ages and walks of life under their spell. Such modern pied pipers could be politicians, leaders of religious sects, rock stars, teachers or whatever – but all attempting to lead people to some kind of goal.

In both German and English (and in most European languages for that matter) we find these ambigous connotations of the proverbial expression "to be a pied piper" or the mere title: "Pied Piper." But for the English language there is an additional curiosity that must be looked at, since many people connect the proverbial expression "To pay the piper" with the Pied Piper of the Hamelin legend as well. A check into the standard proverb collections reveals that this is actually a shortened version of such proverbs as "Who pays the piper, calls the tune" (1611), "Those that dance must pay the music" (1638), "He who pays the piper may order the tune" and "He who pays the piper can call the tune," for which 1611 is the earliest reference, but which are probably older.4

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The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 9:1999 & Issue 10:1999, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

In the meantime, the figurative meaning is listed in a number of the large dictionaries of the English language, of which three must suffice as final examples:

Pied Piper – a person who induces others to imitate his example, esp. by means of false or extravagant promises.15

pied piper – one that offers strong but delusive enticement; a leader who makes irresponsible promises. 16

pied piper – a person who entices or misleads others.17

Judging by these figurative meanings, the negative characteristics of the legendary Pied Piper are definitely being stressed. Yet many modern examples of the use of the "Pied Piper" exist that indicate a very positive understanding of this metaphorical expression. The editors of such dictionaries would be well advised to stress the fact that today the Pied Piper is seen as an ambigous person who can fit almost any leadership situation -- from the worst political demagogue to an innocent little drummer boy. But no matter which Pied Piper we might choose to follow, we will certainly have "to pay the piper" in the end.


Permission to publish this article granted by Proverbium (Editor: Prof. Wolfgang Mieder, University of Vermont, USA).
Previously published in Proverbium 2 (1985), pp. 263-270.

1For a detailed account of the origin and history of this legend see above all Willy Krogmann, Der Rattenfänger von Hameln. Eine Untersuchung über das Werden der Sage (Berlin: Emil Ebering, 1934; rpt. Nedeln/Liechtenstein: Kraus, 1967); Wolfgang Wann, Die Lösung der Hamelner Rattenfängersage (Diss. Würzburg, 1949); Heinrich Spanuth, Der Rattenfänger von Hameln. Vom Werden und Sinn einer alten Sage (Hameln: C. W. Niemeyer, 1951); Hans Dobertin, Quellensammlung zur Hamelner Rattenfägersage (Göttingen: Otto Schwartz, 1970); Norbert Humburg, Der Rattenfänger von Hameln, Ein Lese-, Lieder, Bilder-Buch (Hameln: C. W. Niemeyer, 1984). For the modern survival of the legend in literature, art and mass media see Wolfgang Mieder, "Die Sage vom ‘Rattenfänger vom Hameln’ in der modernen Literatur, Karikatur und Werbung," Muttersprache (im Druck).

2See Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Wander, Deutsches Sprichwörter-Lexikon (Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1877; rpt. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1964), vol. 3, col. 1495, "Rattenfänger" No. 1. See also Lutz Röhrich, Lexikon der sprichwörtlichen Redensarten (Freiburg: Herder, 1973), vol. 2, p. 762.

3For a discussion of Robert Browning’s importance for the legend in the English speaking world see Arthur Dickson, "Browning’s Source for the ‘Pied Piper of Hamelin,’" Studies in Philology, 23 (1926), 327-336.

4See Morris Plamer Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1950), p. 541; Vincent Stuckey Lean, Lean’s Collectanea, ed. T. W. Williams (Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith, 1903; rpt. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1969), vol. 3, p. 494; G. L. Apperson, English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (London: J. M. Dent, 1929; rpt. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1969), p. 487; F. P. Wilson, The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), p. 615.

5Wilson, p. 615.

6See Richard Verstegan, A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence in Antiquities (Antwerp: Robert Bruney, 1605; London: John Norton, 1634), pp. 85-87. Also reprinted in Dobbertin, pp. 57-59.

7See for example Archer Taylor and Bartlett Jere Whiting. A Dictionary of American Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1958), p. 131.

8See A. C. Mounsey, "England must pay the piper," Notes and Queries, 6th series, 9 (March 29, 1884), pp. 248-249. Brewer repeated his claim in The Reader’s Handbook (Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott, 1893), p. 766.

9See Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, revised by Ivor H. Evans (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), p. 812 and pp. 832-833.

10Albert M. Hyamson, A Dictionary of English Phrases (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1922; rpt. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1970), p. 274.

11Charles N. Lurie, Everyday Sayings. Their Meanings Explained. Their Origins Given (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1928; rpt. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1968), pp. 259-260.

12Laurence Urdang and Nancy LaRoche, Picturesque Expressions: A Thematic Dictionary (Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1980), p. 53.

13The 1816 Grimm version of the legend (the composite standard form in the German speaking world) was not available in English translation, even though Browning probably knew it through its German text. In 1981 Donald Ward, superb translator of Grimm’s legends, could claim that his translation is the first printed English text of the Pied Piper legend; see D. Ward, The German Legends of the Brothers Grimm (Philadelphia; Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1981), vol. 1. P. 393 (the translated legend is to be found on pp. 207-208).

14Lurie, p. 259.

15The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, ed. Jess Stein (New York: Random House, 1967), p. 1090.

16Werbster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, ed. Philip Babcock Gove (Springfield/Massachusetts: Merriam, 1971), p. 1712.

17The World Book Dictionary, ed. Clarence and Robert Barnhart (Chicago: World Book, 1976), vol. 2, p. 1578. It is interesting to note that the figurative meaning is not yet included in The Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933; rpt. 1961), vol. 7, p. 896. 

Wolfgang Mieder
Department of German and Russian
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont 05405


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