The musician, the mayor, his instrument, and their vermin

The Bizarro/Wayno collaboration on the 21st is another exercise in cartoon understanding (but a relatively easy one):


(#1) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 4 in this strip — see this Page.)

You need to know the basic outline of a European legend (the major clues to which are the reference to ridding a town of rats and the unusual word pied in the title), and you need to know something about musical instruments (to recognize that the sousaphone — named in the title — plays the role of the (musical) pipe in the legend).

Then there’s more to be said about the parallels between the cartoon world and the legend world, with special reference to wind instruments (of which the sousaphone is the largest). Which leads me to the rich world of the legend and its connection to the real world. And the fictivity of stories; there’s a fair amount of factuality, or at least real-world context, in the legend. And from there — surprise! —  to St. John and Paul’s Day next week (June 26th). And from there — another surprise! —  to eunuchs and the social world of the Roman Empire.

But first, about the title of this posting: it’s an echo of the title of the 1989 movie The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.

The legend: basics. The story of The Pied Piper of Hamelin. From Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1981 edition:

Pied Piper of Hamelin. The legend is that the town of Hamelin (Westphalia) was infested with rats in 1284, that a mysterious piper in a parti-coloured suit appeared in the town and offered to rid it of vermin for a certain sum, which offer was accepted by the townspeople. The Pied Piper fulfilled his contract [by leading the rats into the river Weser, where they drowned] but payment was not forthcoming [specifically, the mayor reneged on the deal]. On the following St. John’s Day he reappeared, and again played his pipe. This time all the children followed him and he led them to a mountain cave where all disappeared save two — one blind, the other dumb, or lame [in some versions three, the third being deaf]. Another version is that they were lead to Transylvania [a region now in central Romania] where they formed a German colony. The story, familiar in England from Robert Browning’s poem, appeared earlier in James Howell’s Familiar Letters (1645-1655).  [It’s also in the Brthers Grimm’s collection of folk tales.] The legend has its roots in the story of the Children’s Crusade [of 1212, in which some 40,000 German children and 30,000 French children set out to recover the Holy Land from its Muslim conquerors; most of the first group were turned back by Pope Innocent III, but all the rest disappeared, were shipwrecked, or were sold into slavery].

The three elements of the name: the adjective pied ‘parti-colored’,  the agent noun piper, and the place name Hamelin.Then the date of the abduction of the children.

On the first, from NOAD:

adj. pied: having two or more different colors: pied dogs from the Pyrenees. ORIGIN Middle English (originally in the sense ‘black and white like a magpie’): from pie ‘magpie’ + –ed.

(Nice sense extension, from ‘black and white’ to ‘parti-colored’.)

The word is rare in modern English; most modern speakers are likely to know it only from the name Pied Piper of Hamelin, and they probably don’t appreciate its meaning in that expression. Though some might know the related item:

adj. piebald: (of a horse) having irregular patches of two colors, typically black and white.

The parti-colored figure that probably plays some role in the Pied Piper’s costume is the mischievous Harlequin of British pantomime and of Punch and Judy puppet shows, and his antecedent, the Arlecchino of Italian medieval comedy, who “wears a tight-fitting spangled or parti-coloured” costume (Brewer’s):


(#2) Ad art from the late 1880s

Then the pipe that the piper plays. From NOAD:

noun pipe: a wind instrument consisting of a single tube with holes along its length that are covered by the fingers to produce different notes

Modern representations of the Pied Piper have him playing either a pipe that’s a plain tube, like a flute (or piccolo, penny whistle, or recorder) —


(#3) Scholastic Magazine‘s Pied Piper in Act 2 of the legend, luring the children

or one with a bell, like a clarinet (or oboe, horn, or trumpet) —


(#4) Disney’s Pied Piper in Act 1 of the legend, luring the rats

More on pipes below.

Then, on Hamelin. From Wikipedia:

Hamelin (German: Hameln) is a town on the river Weser in Lower Saxony, Germany. It is the capital of the district of Hamelin-Pyrmont and has a population of roughly 56,000. Hamelin is best known for the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

On the map of northern Germany:


(#5) Map centered on Hamelin

(The map is mostly Germany, with the Netherlands on the left; plus a little bit of Denmark at the the top center, a little bit of Belgium at the lower left, and a little bit of Czechoslovakia atthe lower right.)

Finally, a note on the date of Act 2 in the story, the abduction of the children. From Wikipedia:

Ratcatcher’s Day, Rat-catcher’s Day or Rat Catcher’s Day is celebrated on 26 June or 22 July, commemorating the myth of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The town of Hamelin in Germany uses the June date and the term “Pied Piper Day”. The confusion of dates is because the Brothers Grimm cite 26 June 1284 as the date the Pied Piper led the children out of the town, while the poem by Robert Browning gives it as 22 July 1376. It is a holiday remembering rat-catchers, similar to Secretary’s Day.

June 26th is St. John and Paul’s Day (on which more below). The Brewer’s entry misleadingly cites St. John’s Day, which is something else entirely — namely the Feast of St. John the Baptist, June 24, Midsummer Day. On July 22nd, see my 7/23/13 posting “Pied-Piping Day”; for linguists, this is a day celebrating the syntactic phenomenon known as pied-piping.

The cartoon world and the legend world. As I’ve written about other cartoons, a common scheme for cartoons is to translate the contents of one world (metaphorically) into another, thereby commenting on both worlds and making hay out of the resulting absurdities. See my 5/22/18 posting “(I just) can’t stop (it)”, on the translation of one world to another in cartoons, which are then “about” both worlds.

In #1, Dan and Wayno have taken the Pied Piper legend, with the characters the musician and the mayor, plus the musician’s instrument, the pipe, and the vermin, the rats, that are threatening the mayor’s town — the instrument serving to rid the town of the vermin by beguiling them to their doom — and translated the instrument and the vermin into absurd counterparts, a sousaphone and pestiferous moose. Moose can indeed be pests (certainly to my knowledge in Maine and Alaska, though I think not in Lower Saxony), and a sousaphone’s notes (not just trombones and drums) can be used to anchor a marching band, so we’re invited to imagine a sousaphonist rousing the moose to march to their doom. Then of course he’d be in a pied costume, with a suitably folksy hat. (The mayor is garbed appropriately for a medieval official of consequence in both worlds.)

(From NOAD: noun sousaphone: a form of tuba with a wide bell pointing forward above the player’s head and circular coils resting on the player’s left shoulder and right hip, used in marching bands. ORIGIN 1920s: named after J. P. Sousa, on the pattern of saxophone[named after Adolphe Sax].)

Instruments. That said, I’ll focus now on the translation of sousaphone to pipe — from the largest wind instrument to one of the smallest.  Dan and Wayno could have chosen someone other than a musician — a hunter, say — as the prospective second exterminator, or a musician other than a wind player — a percussionist, say (Pied Percussionist has a nice sound to it), but instead, they chose to stay within the category of wind players. That is, they preserved as much of the legend world as possible (for recognzability), while translating the instrument into one as far from the original as possible (for absurdity).

In this they exploited a taxonomy of the instruments of the orchestra  — a taxonomy according to the means by which an instrument produces sound: strings, winds, and percussion (giving these categories their customary names in English). With further divisions within the winds. From Wikipedia:

A wind instrument is a musical instrument that contains some type of resonator (usually a tube), in which a column of air is set into vibration by the player blowing into (or over) a mouthpiece set at or near the end of the resonator.

Wind instruments are typically grouped into two families:

– Brass instruments (horns, trumpets, trombones, euphoniums, and tubas)

– Woodwind instruments (recorders, flutes, oboes, clarinets, saxophones, and bassoons)

Although brass instruments were originally made of brass and woodwind instruments have traditionally been made of wood, the material used to make the body of the instrument is not always a reliable guide to its family type. A more accurate way to determine whether an instrument is brass or woodwind is to examine how the player produces sound.

– In brass instruments, the player’s lips vibrate, causing the air within the instrument to vibrate.

– In woodwind instruments the player…  : causes a reed to vibrate, which agitates the column of air (as in a clarinet, oboe or duduk) [these are reed instruments]; [or, in what you might call edge-blown instruments, where the player instead] blows over a fipple, across an open hole against an edge (as in a recorder or ocarina); or blows across the edge of an open hole (as in a flute).

(Note the technical term fipple. From NOAD: noun fipple: the mouthpiece of a recorder or similar wind instrument which is blown endwise, in which a thin channel cut through a block directs a stream of air against a sharp edge. [origin uncertain])

These category distinctions belong to the world of professional music and musicology, and the accompanying vocabulary is technical vocabulary — stuff you learn in school or by reading books. Pipe, on the other hand, is (or was; this usage is no longer very common) a bit of ordinary language, referring to a small hollow tube that produces shrill or chirpy notes (selected by closing or opening holes along the tube) by your blowing. The word can refer to a variety of instruments — folk pipes (#6 below), tin whistles (#7) and penny whistles of other materials, recorders, flutes and piccolos, simple clarinets.


(#6) A folk pipe


(#7) An Irish tin whistle

The Wikipedia article on pipes pretty much gives up and just enumerates stuff:

A pipe is a tubular wind instrument in general, or various specific wind instruments. The word is an onomatopoeia, and comes from the tone which can resemble that of a bird chirping. [The OED etymology doesn’t commit to an onomatopoetic origin, but it does have the musical instrument as the earliest sense, with the ‘hollow conduit’ sense of pipe later, presumably by metaphor.]

Fipple flutes are found in many cultures around the world. Often with six holes, the shepherd’s pipe is a common pastoral image. Shepherds often piped both to soothe the sheep and to amuse themselves. Modern manufactured six-hole folk pipes are referred to as pennywhistle or tin whistle. The recorder is a form of pipe, often used as a rudimentary instructional musical instrument at schools, but so versatile that it is also used in orchestral music[; ] it has seven finger holes and a thumb hole.

[Extensive discussion of three-holed tabor pipes and the orchestral instrument the flageolet that developed from it.]

The legend and its connection to the real world. The legend is located in both place (in the real town of Hamelin) and time (on a specific date in a specific year, though what those are depends on who you read). One of those accounts, from the Wikipedia article on Saints John and Paul, who were martyred on June 26th:

The Lüneberg manuscript (c. 1440–1450) mentions the day of John and Paul in an early German account of the Pied Piper of Hamelin:

In 1284 on the day of John and Paul on 26th June
130 children born in Hamelin were led away
by a piper [clothed] in many colours
to [their] Calvary near the Koppen, [and] lost’.

The Koppen reference is (presumably) to one of the hills surrounding Hamelin (these are not as Alp-like as the mountains in #1 — we’ll have to grant some license to the artists).

In any case, there’s some specificity in early versions of the legend, but some of the narrative sounds more like parable than transformed history. In particular, the two central characters have only descriptive titles, not names.

The basic plot of the story is: first the rats, then the children. The Pied Piper lured the rats into the river Weser. And the children into a cave, after which they were never seen. Not much variation on the rats. On the children, however, there are many alternative endings. From the Wikipedia Pied Piper article:

Other versions relate that the Pied Piper led the children to the top of Koppelberg Hill, where he took them to a beautiful land, or a place called Koppenberg Mountain, or Transylvania [in what is now Romania], or that he made them walk into the Weser as he did with the rats, and they all drowned. Some versions state that the Piper returned the children after payment, or that he returned the children after the villagers paid several times the original amount of gold.

Some of the details that seem fanciful to modern audiences are entirely appropriate to the time. In particular, itinerants providing services of many kinds were commonplace: traveling bands of musicians, actors, and puppeteers; itinerant teachers and preachers; itinerants providing all sorts of household services; and so on. The family story — almost surely inaccurate, but it’s a good story — has it that my Pa. Dutch grandmother, as a girl in her early teens, met her husband when his traveling band came though her tiny farm town. But traveling performers go back to the early days of the U.S., and in Europe many hundred of years before that. I’m old enough to recall an itinerant knife-sharpener in a horse-drawn caravan, when I was maybe 7 years old.

The itinerants not only provided services that tiny villages could never have supplied on their own, but also carried news throughout the countryside. They were a significant part of the rural social landscape.

The functions of the legend. As popular narrative forms, myths, fables, legends, folk tales, and parables all serve as moral stories (as do, on tv in modern times, sitcoms and police / detective dramas). The power of the Pied Piper legend lies in its two-act form, with the mayor’s reneging on the original deal as the link between the two. Piping rats to their death (on its own) is a demonstration of the power of music; piping children to their death (on its own) is also such a demonstration, but it’s also a warning about the dangers of seductive leaders; and framing the second as terrible revenge for the mayor’s failure to honor his commitment on thefirst sends a stark monitory message These aren’t, of course, the only lessons you  might draw from the story.

More on Saints John and Paul: eunuchs. More from their Wikipedia page:

John and Paul (Latin: Ioannis, Paulus) are saints who lived during the fourth century in the Roman Empire. They were martyred at Rome on 26 June. They should not be confused with the famous apostles of the same name (see Saint Paul; Saint John the Apostle). The year of their martyrdom is uncertain according to their Acts; it occurred under Julian the Apostate (361–3).

… According to their Acts, the martyrs were eunuchs of Constantina, daughter of Constantine the Great [Roman Emperor from 306 to 337 CE], and became acquainted with a certain Gallicanus, who built a church in Ostia. At the command of Julian the Apostate, they were beheaded secretly by Terentianus in their house on the Caelian Hill, where their church was subsequently erected, and where they themselves were buried. Three Christians who were ministering to them were also executed and buried nearby: Crispus, Crispinianus, and Benedicta.

Now we are in a very different social world. Slavery and indentured servitude were routine features of this world, and eunuchs (in the sense ‘castrated men’) performed a number of functions in both private and public life.

However, the meaning of eunuch in biblical and saintly-life accounts is unclear: on the one hand, it might refer to a body-servant or a chamberlain or secretary; on the other, to a castrated man. In fact, the two statuses overlapped. Wikipedia on eunuchs:

Castration was typically carried out on the soon-to-be eunuch without his consent in order that he might perform a specific social function; this was common in many societies. … they have performed a wide variety of functions in many different cultures: courtiers or equivalent domestics, treble singers, religious specialists, soldiers, royal guards, government officials, and guardians of women or harem servants.

Eunuchs would usually be servants or slaves who had been castrated in order to make them reliable servants of a royal court where physical access to the ruler could wield great influence. Seemingly lowly domestic functions — such as making the ruler’s bed, bathing him, cutting his hair, carrying him in his litter, or even relaying messages — could in theory give a eunuch “the ruler’s ear” and impart de facto power on the formally humble but trusted servant…

Eunuchs supposedly did not generally have loyalties to the military, the aristocracy, or to a family of their own (having neither offspring nor in-laws, at the very least), and were thus seen as more trustworthy and less interested in establishing a private ‘dynasty’. Because their condition usually lowered their social status, they could also be easily replaced or killed without repercussion.

That’s Tuesday, for those of you keeping track of things on your calendars.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: