Image credit: Edmund Evans, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every summer Sunday in the city of Hamelin, actors gather in the old town center to pay homage to a strange, enduring legacy. As the story goes, in 1284, townspeople hired a rat catcher to lure away the vermin that had overrun their village. He did, except the citizens of Hamelin cheated the man out of his payment. So the man—a “pied” piper—returned a year later and lured their children away, too.

A now-destroyed stained glass window from 1300 is among the first known records of the Pied Piper story, though there’s also a supposed eyewitness account from the time, which states in Latin that "130 children were taken from the town by a piper dressed in many colours.” Later on, a 15th century manuscript asserted:

In the year of 1284, on the day of Saints John and Paul on June 26, by a piper, clothed in many kinds of colours, 130 children born in Hamelin were seduced, and lost at the place of execution near the koppen.

The Brothers Grimm and Robert Browning brought the legend of the Pied Piper to the English-speaking world in the 19th century—but what of this 800-year-old tale is actually true?

For one, probably not the rats. They weren’t added to the story until the 16th century, which led some to believe that the Black Death was the true cause of the children’s deaths. That theory has been largely discarded, though, because the plague didn’t hit Europe until the mid-1300s. Several other theories—from a dancing illness, to recruitment by the doomed "Children’s Crusade," to pagan rituals—have been put forth in an attempt to get at the real roots of the story. It’s also entirely possible that the youngsters were part of a migration eastward, possibly to Transylvania of all places. (Maybe the colorful man with the flute was just a really convincing real estate salesman?) In any case, nearly all of the theorists seem to agree that the Pied Piper and his rat-whispering abilities were the personification of a force that those left behind in Hamelin could not control.

Today, the wounds have mostly healed. On the Bungelosenstrasse, the street where the Pied Piper House is located (and where the children were supposedly last seen), music is banned as a sign of respect. But in the rest of the town, rat iconography is everywhere. An automated clock tower tells the tale three times a day, there’s a Pied Piper statue, a musical take on the story, RATS, plus bars that serve “rat’s blood” cocktails (a mix of champagne and blackcurrant juice) and “rat’s tails” (pork, sliced thin). Twice a day, bells chime the Pied Piper melody. Whatever the cause of the eerie disappearance back in 1284, the children of Hamelin are certainly not forgotten.