Paying the piper

I sometimes tease my wife that she has saved our family thousands of dollars because she doesn’t need a psychiatrist to interpret her dreams. Their meanings are so obvious that an amateur can tell what they mean. Frequently, when she reports a dream, I can recognize elements from our lives that are a part of the dreams. One of the strongest examples of this was that not long after our son had gone away to college, she had several dreams in which there was a missing baby and a frantic search for the child. In a sense, we had “lost” a baby. That infant we had loved since his birth had grown into an adult. As an adult he continues to be fascinating and beloved, but he no longer is the baby we once knew.

Of course, we are among the most fortunate of parents. There are real live stories of children who go missing. You hear their stories on the news. We used to see their faces on milk cartons. Parents everywhere fear the loss of their babies in part because babies are, on occasion, stolen.

Perhaps the most famous story of a stolen child is The Pied Piper of Hamelin. The ancient tale is retold in several famous places including a Goethe verse, Der Rattenfänger; a Grimm Brothers’ legend, The Children of Hamelin; and one of Robert Browning’s best-known poems, The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Each writer adds his own twists to the story, but the basic tale is the same: the Piper was hired by Hamlin to rid the town of a plague of rats. The rat-catcher has a magic flute which hypnotizes the rats and they follow him out of the city gates and the city is freed from the rats.

The music worked to lure more than rats, however. When the town refused to pay the Piper, he transfixed boys and girls with the music of his flute and led them out of the town where they vanished.

Old legends often have their origin in some actual historical event. In the town of Hamelin, Germany, there is an etched inscription on the window of a private home that says: “A.D. 1284 - on the 26th of June - the day of St John and St Paul - 130 children - born in Hamelin - were led out of town by a piper wearing multicolored clothes. After passing the Calvary near Koppenberg they disappeared forever.” It is possible that the inscription is just part of the town’s tourist industry, which is now based on the ancient tale. The town pays an actor to dress up as the piper and lead tours of the city. Restaurants feature foods shaped like rats, and tourist shops sell t-shirts and refrigerator magnets depicting the piper leading the children. It is big business for the town.

The specific date and the naming of specific places along with a specific number of children, however, are indications that there might be an actual event, deep in the town’s history, when children or youth were led to leave the town.

Whether or not there once was a piper whose music was used to inspire the exodus of young people, the story goes deep into the human story to uncover a nearly universal fear. No only do we fear the loss of childhood, we fear our own death as well. In a way every human being’s story ends at a point where we simply vanish. Legends, stories, dreams - they all reveal a fear that we share.

Fear of mortality has been heightened by the current pandemic. We may not be suffering a plague of rats, but the world is undeniably in the shadow of a deadly disease. With a grim fascination we read the stories in the news of the spread of the disease and its affects. The statistics about the number of people who have died continue to hold a fascination. We all have experienced changes in our routines and lives because of the illness. The masks we see in public have become more than simple devices to slow the spread of the disease. They have become political statements and signs of the worries of our communities. The very real economic impacts of the pandemic are affecting the lives of millions. We don’t yet know how or when this will come to its conclusion.

So we worry. I read one report that says that nearly 25% of the adults in the United States are currently suffering symptoms of depression. In addition to the crisis of the physical illness, we are in the grips of a devastating wave of psychological illness that has reached crisis proportions. Our communities do not have the resources to provide professional mental health care to such large numbers of people.

The depression is a direct result of the worry that occupies our minds and spirits. The cycle of fear and worry leads to a sense of powerlessness in the face of global events.

Perhaps it isn’t the best time to return to the stories of ancient fears such as the legend of the Pied Piper. On the other hand, it is worth noting that key to the story is the town’s refusal to pay the piper.

Scientists tell us that the global pandemic has a direct relationship to the overpopulation of our planet and the stretching of the boundaries of human habitation of spaces that were the habitat of other species. In the face of sudden changes to the environment virus mutate quickly and the conditions are right they multiply at alarming rates, introducing the world to a new disease. Because we have not paid the price of care of the environment, the costs are extracted in the form of deadly diseases.

Enduring tales have the function of not only encouraging us to learn them, but also for us to learn from them. They are told to teach lessons. The piper must be paid in one form or another. The question that remains is whether we will simply reenact the old story or change our tune to create a new legend for future generations.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!