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The Enduring Legacy of the Pied Piper of Hamelin

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.

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Lucas Cranach the Elder via Wikimedia // Public Domain
10 Mythical Giants From Around the World
Lucas Cranach the Elder via Wikimedia // Public Domain
Lucas Cranach the Elder via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Giants loom large in world mythology, frequently representing the most ominous of foes. Their huge size immediately evokes ideas of superhuman strength and formidable abilities, and yet in many legends the giant is in fact a tragic character, often suffering an incongruous death. The giants below are a weird and wonderful sample from folklore around the world.

1. ATLAS // THE GIANT WHO HOLDS UP THE SKY

In Greek mythology, Atlas was one of the Titans who went to war against Zeus’s gods of Olympus. When the Titans lost, Zeus condemned Atlas to hold up the sky for all eternity. During the 12 labors of Heracles, one of his famous quests was to find the golden apples of Hesperides. Atlas offered to go and fetch the apples for Heracles if he would take his place holding up the sky. Atlas duly retrieved the apples and was about to take them to Eurystheus when Heracles asked if Atlas would mind just holding the sky again for a minute while he got comfortable. Of course, as soon as Atlas had re-shouldered his heavy burden, Heracles made off with the apples and continued with his tasks, leaving Atlas with his interminable duty.

Another legend involving Atlas featured the hero Perseus, who encountered Atlas in the northwest region of Africa. Atlas tried to scare Perseus away, and so Perseus took Medusa’s severed head from his bag. When Atlas saw the terrible Gorgon he turned to stone—becoming the Atlas mountain range.

2. BALOR // ONE-EYED GOD OF DEATH

In Irish mythology, Balor was the king of the Fomorians, a race of giants who were said to be early settlers of Ireland. Balor, much like the cyclops, was a one-eyed giant and the god of death—whoever was caught in his gaze would die instantly. Due to this unfortunate tendency, Balor kept his single eye closed until his terrible power was needed. According to a prophecy, it was said that Balor would be killed by his own grandson, and so he imprisoned his daughter, Ethlinn, in a crystal tower in a vain attempt to prevent her having any offspring. However, before long Cian, a minor god, snuck in and impregnated Ethlinn, who gave birth to three sons. On discovering the birth of his grandsons, Balor had them thrown into the sea, but one boy, Lugh, escaped his fate and was fostered by Manannan Mac Lir, the god of the sea. The prophecy finally played out when Lugh led the Tuatha De Danann (a race of Irish gods) into battle and killed Balor by ripping out his eye.

3. HRUNGNIR // DRUNKEN NORSE GIANT

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There are countless giants in Norse legends, and Hrungnir was one of the biggest and baddest. One day Odin, the leader of the Norse gods of Asgard, challenged Hrungnir to a horse race. Odin rode his super-fast eight-legged steed Sleipnir, and Hrungnir rode his standard-legged horse, Gullfaxi. Unsurprisingly, Sleipnir outran Gullfaxi and led him into the realm of Asgard, where, feeling sorry for the loser, Odin invited Hrungnir for a drink. Unfortunately, Hrungnir was not a good drunk and had soon become belligerent and argumentative, claiming that he could kill all the gods of Asgard, except for the goddesses Freya and Sif, whom he would carry off with him to Jotunheim, the realm of the giants. Becoming tired of Hrungnir’s arrogance, the other gods called upon Thor, who challenged Hrungnir to a duel. Hrungnir agreed, and on the day of the fight he turned up clad in stone armor and carrying a giant whetstone as a weapon. Thor threw his trusty hammer, Mjolnir, and it smashed through both the whetstone and Hrungnir’s head and the latter fell to his death. It is said that the fragments of the whetstone fell to the earth, and became the flint we see around us today.

4. JENTIL // HEATHEN GIANTS

Jentil are giants from the mythology of the Basque region of France/Spain, and are said represent the pagans who inhabited the land before Christianity. Jentil were enormous, strong, and hairy, and loved to throw rocks; because of this they were thought to have built the many megalithic stone circles and dolmens in the Basque region. According to legend, the Jentil died out after a huge, bright cloud appeared heralding the birth of Jesus—the frightened Jentil did not want change and ran down the mountains and hid in a dolmen, never to return.

However, one Jentil survived: Olentzero, an especially large and grumpy giant who enjoyed a tipple. Having survived the death of his people, he is said to have walked to the nearest village and cut the throat of all the greedy people who had eaten too much. This legend was soon adopted and adapted during the rise of Christianity, and Olentzero was re-packaged as a Basque version of Santa Claus. In this sanitized reimagining, he visits children on Christmas Eve bringing toys he has crafted himself.

5. GOLIATH // BIBLICAL GIANT

Goliath was the biblical giant defeated against the odds by the shepherd David. Described in the Book of Samuel, Goliath was a Philistine Champion from the city of Gath, which was where an ancient race of giants were said to originate. The exact size of Goliath is debated, but it seems he was either 6 foot 8 or 9 foot 7; either way, he was a lot bigger than his seemingly puny opponent, David. He is also described in the Bible as being clad in an imposing amount of bronze armor.

In a classic story of the plucky underdog, David strides out to face Goliath with nothing but a humble slingshot, the fate of his people in his hands. David launches a stone from his slingshot, which hits Goliath right between the eyes and he falls down dead. In a rather gruesome turn of events, David then cuts off Goliath’s head with the giant’s own sword. As most of us know, the story of David versus Goliath has since come to represent the ultimate victory of the underdog.

6. POLYPHEMUS // ONE-EYED CYCLOPS

steveilott via Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0

Polyphemus is perhaps the most famous of the Cyclopes—the one-eyed giants from Greek mythology. According to Homer’s legend of the Odyssey, Polyphemus was the son of the sea god Poseidon and the sea nymph Thoosa. He lived on the island of Sicily with his fellow cyclops, where he tended a flock of sheep. When the great adventurer Odysseus landed on the island, he introduced himself to Polyphemus as "No one." The cyclops seized Odysseus and his men and trapped them in a cave, covered by a giant boulder. He also began eating them.

Odysseus hatched a plan to escape and drove a stake into the giant’s only eye, blinding him. Polyphemus cried out in pain, and his brother cyclops came to his aid, but when they asked who was attacking him, he replied "No one," so they thought him mad and went away. Odysseus and his crew then tied themselves to the underside of Polyphemus’s flock of sheep so that in the morning, when he pushed aside the boulder to let out his sheep, the now-blind giant patted the back of each sheep as he counted them out, not noticing the brave adventurers clinging the animals’ undersides.

7. ONI // JAPANESE GIANT DEMONS

In Japanese folklore, oni are often hideous giants in demon form. They are depicted looking fearsome, with red or blue skin, three fingers and toes, and grotesque horns. They are also often naked, save for a loin cloth made from the pelts of wild beasts. Described as super-strong, they're also very keen on human flesh.

Oni usually live in hell, having been sent there and transformed into oni for living an evil life while on earth. However, the very worst kind of oni are those who are so unspeakably wicked that they are turned into oni while still living, and roam the earth causing misery to others.

Japanese people traditionally celebrate the Setsubun festival in the spring to drive out the oni. During the festival celebrations, soy beans are thrown in the air to ward off any lurking three-fingered beasts.

8. GOGMAGOG // THE LAST BRITISH GIANT

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Gogmagog is said to have been the last giant in the British Isles. The source for most of our information on him comes from the Welshman Geoffrey of Monmouth, who in circa 1136 wrote Historia Regnum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain), in which he describes how early Britain (then called Albion) was inhabited by a race of giants. One such giant was the 12-foot tall Gogmagog, a rough and strong being who could uproot an oak tree as if it were a twig. One day, a group of giants including Gogmagog attacked Brutus, a descendent of the Trojans of Greece who had claimed Albion as his own. The giants killed many Britons before they too were killed, and only Gogmagog survived.

Brutus took Gogmagog to his second-in-command, Corineus, the founder of Cornwall, who was a keen giant-wrestler. The two began to wrestle, and Gogmagog used his brute strength to crush three of Corineus’s ribs. Corineus was so enraged by the injury that he quickly picked up the giant and ran with him up a hill, finally throwing him to his death off a cliff—and thus, it's said, ridding Britain of the last giant.

9. KUMBHAKARNA // GIANT APPETITE

Kumbhakarna is a giant demon featured in the Hindu epic the Ramayana. Kumbhakarna was giant in size and giant in appetite, but due to a trick played by the goddess Saraswati his tongue was tied so that when he tried to asking for a blessing, instead he asked for a bed, and as a result he was doomed to sleep for six months of every year.

Despite being of a generally kindly character, after six months of deep sleep, Kumbhakarna would wake up so hungry he would consume anything in his path, including hapless humans. At one point Kumbhakarna’s brother, Ravana, needed the giant’s help to win a battle, but Kumbhakarna was sleeping and it took a thousand elephants trampling over him to rouse him from his slumber. Kumbhakarna then gamely joined the war against Prince Rama, but instead of achieving glory, he got rather drunk and blundered around the battlefield doing more harm than good before being killed.

10. ORION // LEFT HIS MARK IN THE STARS

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Many different legends surround the Greek giant Orion. In one version he is an egotistical hunter who brags that he can kill any beast alive. On hearing of his boast, a tiny scorpion stings Orion and he falls down dead. Another story has it that Orion was left blind after he tried to take Merope as his wife against the will of her father. To regain his sight, Vulcan bid his friend Kedalion to sit on Orion’s shoulders and lead him towards the east where the sun-god dwelled. As the sun rose, Orion’s sight was restored by the beams. Orion then went to live and hunt with Diana, but her brother Apollo grew jealous of their close relationship, and when Orion was walking through the water with just his head above the waves, Apollo bet Diana she couldn’t hit the far-distant form on the horizon. Taking the bait, Diana released a slew of arrows and fatally hit Orion, but when the waves washed his body ashore she realized her grave mistake. Weeping over the loss of Orion, she had him placed in the sky among the stars as the constellation Orion.

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25 Things You Should Know About Stockholm
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Stockholm’s 73 square miles stretch over islands and hills [PDF], encompassing modern Scandinavian designs and cobblestone streets that look straight out of a fairytale. Located where the Baltic Sea meets Lake Mälaren, Sweden's waterfront capital has as little as six hours of daylight in the winters and as much as 18 hours of sun in the summers. Read up on 25 other tidbits about the city nicknamed the Venice of the North.

1. The name Stockholm comes from the words stock meaning "log" and holm meaning "islet." No one seems to know exactly how the town got its tag; one account claims that Vikings trying to determine the location of their new settlement used a log bound with gold, while others point to the masses of logs driven into the waters near Old Town.

2. The first recorded use of the name "Stockholm" dates back to 1252 when it appeared in a letter written by Swedish statesman Birger Jarl.

3. Stockholm was built on 14 islands, connected by 57 bridges, earning the Swedish capital the nickname "Beauty on the Water."

4. Kungliga Operan—the Royal Swedish Opera—was founded by King Gustav III in 1773. Nineteen years later, he was shot at a masked ball at the venue and died. The building stood for another century, then was torn down in 1892. A new opera house was built in 1898 and inaugurated by King Oscar II. Today, the theater still stands in the same spot across the Norrbro bridge from the Royal Palace.

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5.
Stockholm’s Old Town, or Gamla Stan, remains one of the best preserved historic districts in Europe—partially due to the fact that its cobblestone streets are reserved for pedestrians only.

6. The narrowest street in Old Town is Mårten Trotzigs alley, which has 36 steps and is a mere 35 inches wide at its slimmest point.

7. The Baroque-era Royal Palace on the Old Town island has more than 600 rooms spread across seven floors and a daily Changing of the Guard at 12:15 p.m. (1:15 p.m. on Sundays).

8. In 1628, the great Vasa warship, which took three years to build, sunk in the Stockholm harbor after sailing barely 4200 feet. It took a whopping 333 years to salvage the remains. Today the iconic ship stands in its own equally striking 134,979-square-foot museum, which features 55 outer wall corners.


9.
Sweden’s oldest amusement park, Grona Lund, dates back to 1883, when a garden inside Djurgårdsstaden was transformed into the fairgrounds. Among the 30 rides are the Lustiga Huset (Fun House), which opened in 1917, and the Blå Tåget (Ghost Train), which has been scaring thrillseekers since 1935.

10. Built in 1891, Stockholm’s Djurgården island is home to Skansen, the world’s first open-air museum. The 150 buildings are a journey through 500 years of Sweden’s history, including Skåne farmsteads and Sami camps.

11. The Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine and literature have been awarded in Stockholm every year since 1901 on December 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death. Why? The Swedish-born inventor requested so in his will. As for the Nobel Peace Prize? That honor is bestowed in another Scandinavian capital: Oslo.

12. If a local invites you to join him or her for fika, they're really just asking you if you'd like to take a coffee break. (Usually there's also some kind of pastry involved.)

13. When an architecture student discovered that 13 elm trees were scheduled to be chopped down in Stockholm’s Kungsträdgården for construction of a metro station, he got his hands on a copy of the plan—as well as three alternate plans which didn’t involve touching the trees—and spread the word. The day before they were supposed to be cut on May 13, 1971, almost 1000 Swedes gathered in protest, some even climbing the trees. Trees from the Battle of the Elms still stand today—although scars from a chain saw can still be seen on one.

14. The Nordic tradition of saunas is still alive at the 32,292-square-foot Centralbadet bath house in the heart of Stockholm. Designed by architect Wilhelm Klemming and opened in 1904, the spa’s main pool has hosted world-class competitions, including several with five-time Olympic medalist Arne Borg.

15. Craving some art? Head down into Stockholm’s metro stations. Dubbed the World’s Longest Art Gallery, more than 90 of the 100 stations along the 68 miles of track have been decorated with mosaics, paintings, sculptures, and carvings by artists since the 1950s.

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16.
Sweden’s national treasure, the global furniture chain IKEA, boasts a 594,167-square-foot location in Stockholm’s Kugens Kurva municipality. Opened in 1965, it remained the world’s largest for 49 years, until the 2014 construction of a 635,070-square-foot store in South Korea’s Gwangmyeong.

17. The term "Stockholm Syndrome" was coined by criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot after hostages from a six-day siege at Norrmalmstorg Square’s Kreditbanken bank in 1973 developed a liking for their captors. As one of the victims, Kristin Ehnmark, explained in 2009: "It's some kind of a context you get into when all your values, the morals you have, change in some way."

18. Sweden’s literacy rate is 99 percent, so it’s no surprise more than 4 million books are borrowed from Stockholm’s libraries annually.

19. What do Nelson Mandela, Beyoncé, and the Swedish national hockey team have in common? They’ve all taken center stage at the 16,000-seat Ericsson Globe, the world’s largest spherical building, which opened on February 19, 1989.

20. True Swedish Blood: Alexander Skarsgård was born in Stockholm on August 25, 1976 to actor dad Stellan Skarsgård, who has starred in 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, 1997’s Good Will Hunting, 2006’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, and 2008’s Mamma Mia.

21. Swedish commuters love their bikes: approximately 70,000 cyclists cross Stockholm’s city borders daily.

22. Tourism has been on the rise in Stockholm, with more than 26.5 million passengers arriving at Stockholm’s five area airports and more than 12 million overnight commercial hotel stays in 2014 [PDF].

23. To encourage people to take the stairs, in 2009, Volkswagen turned a staircase in the Odenplan metro station into a Big-like giant piano keyboard, so that Swedes could literally dance over musical notes as they exited. They found 66 percent more people opted for the stairs over the the escalator next to it.

24. When in Sweden, indulge in the Swedish meatballs. At Stockholm’s Meatballs for the People, you can sample14 kinds of meatballs, including ones made from turkey, reindeer, salmon, pork, boar, ox, moose, and rooster—all of which are “ecologically bred.”

25. Mamma mia: Stockholm has an entire museum dedicated to ABBA. While visitors can get a glimpse at some of the 1970s band’s gold records, wardrobe pieces, and gadgets, the true goal of the museum is to let you “experience the feeling of being the fifth member of ABBA,” by trying on clothes, singing in the Polar studios, and even channeling your inner dancing queen by getting on stage with holograms of the band.

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