Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore

Khalid Elhassan - June 30, 2024

The legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the colorful figure who seduces rats out of a town with his music, then the town’s children, is known to many around the world. Not many know, however, that the legend probably has a dark basis in reality. Below are some fascinating facts about the historic origins of that tale and other folklore and mythology from around the world.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
The Pied Piper leading out Hamelin’s rats. Pinterest

20. The Dangers of Stiffing Professionals for Services Performed

In the Pied Piper legend, the German town of Hamelin in Lower Saxony was overrun with rats, and all efforts to fight the infestation failed. Then along came a strange figure, clad in pied (multicolored) clothing, who asserted that he could rid the town of its pests. The authorities promised him a reward – 1000 guilders in some versions – if he succeeded. So the man, known thereafter as the Pied Piper of Hamelin, pulled out a pipe, and began to play it. The rats, entranced by his music, flocked to and then followed him out of town and into a river, where they all drowned. However, when he sought the promised payment, the good people of Hamelin stiffed the piper. They either refused to pay, or paid only a fraction of the promised amount – 50 guilders, in some accounts. The understandably upset piper left the town in a huff, vowing revenge.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
The Pied Piper leading out Hamelin’s children. Imgur

Most myths don’t have exact dates for when they’re supposed to have happen, and are more in the “once upon a time” category far as that goes. Not so the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, whose key event has a precise date: June 26th, 1284. It was on date that the Pied Piper supposedly returned to Hamelin. While all the adults were gathered in church, he played his pipe, and entranced Hamelin’s children – 130 of them – to follow him out of town. They were never seen again. Only three kids were left in Hamelin when the adults came out of church: a crippled child who could not follow the piper, a deaf one who had not heard his tune, and a blind one who was unable to follow the other children. It is a fascinating folk tale that, as seen below, had some possibly dark real life origins.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
The Earliest known image of the Pied Piper, copied from a stained glass window in Hamelin’s church, dating to circa 1300. Imgur

19. The Dark Origins of the Legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin

The earliest surviving mention of whatever happened in Hamelin comes from a 1384 entry in the town’s records, which bleakly states: “It has been 100 years since our children left“. The earliest record was a stained glass window made for the town’s church even earlier than that, circa 1300 – about sixteen years after the children were supposedly taken. The window was destroyed in the seventeenth century, but written descriptions of it survive, the oldest of which dates to around 1440. As to what was actually behind the legend, a leading theory is that the children starved in a famine, died in an epidemic, or otherwise perished in some disaster, and the Pied Piper symbolizes Death. Other theories have it that the Pied Piper was a recruiter for emigration to the east – popular at the time after victories opened up the Baltic region and Eastern Europe to German colonization.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Statue of the Pied Piper in Hamelin. Wikimedia

Recruiters known as lokators, glib talking and often dressed garishly and playing musical instruments, went to towns and villages in search of settlers. A lokator might have drained Hamelin of most of its youth. Another possibility is that in the midst of famine, Hamelin’s parents expelled their children. Life was orders of magnitude tougher back then, and desperate people were sometimes forced into desperate choices. Another theory is mass hysteria. The era witnessed numerous dance mania outbreaks. One such, in 1237, saw a large group of hysterical children travel from one town to another, dancing and jumping all the time. A darker possibility is that the Piper was a vicious pedophile, who crept into Hamelin to snatch sleeping children. We may never know the exact details, but it is clear that something bad that involved Hamelin’s children happened in 1284, and left the town traumatized for centuries afterwards.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Robin Hood. K-Pics

18. The Origins of the Greatest Outlaw Legend

The legend of the medieval outlaw who stole from the rich and gave to the poor is a fixture of English folklore. Robin Hood fought the Sheriff of Nottingham and the evil King John, and helped the rightful ruler Richard the Lionheart regain his throne. The outlaw hero first became popular because of plays originally staged for the upper classes in Elizabethan England. An unlikely boost for a story about a social disruptor who robbed the same privileged class swooning over his exploits, to the benefit of the lower classes. First, however, the playwrights gentrified Robin Hood from a commoner bandit, and into a nobleman to whom the well-heeled could better relate. Such gentrification can be traced to the playwright Anthony Mundy, who reinvented the outlaw as an aristocrat, the young Robert, Earl of Huntington, wrongfully disinherited by his uncle.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Fifteenth century print of ‘Robyn Hode’ on horseback. Wikimedia

So Robert flees to Sherwood Forrest where he becomes the outlaw Robin Hood, falls in love with Lady Marion, and becomes a legend. Of course, nobody in real life did all the awesome stuff ascribed to Robin Hood. However, many medieval criminals, nearly all commoners, became popular with the lower classes because they thumbed their noses at their upper class exploiters. In those days, “Robinhood” or “Rabunhod” or “Robehod” were common nicknames for criminals, as seen in many twelfth century court records. However, those Robin Hoods did not turn to crime out of any of high-brow motives. Instead, they became criminals for the typical reasons that made most people turn to crime back then, and still do today.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood. Imgur

17. From Robert Hod to the Legend of Robin Hood

Robin Hood was probably just a generic medieval English nickname for criminals. That makes the identification of the original even more difficult. In England, Robin was – and still is – a diminutive of the name Robert, which was a very common first name back then. Hood was also a common surname in Middle Ages England. As a result, to figure out just which criminals named Robin Hood or some variation thereof might have inspired the famous outlaw legend is particularly problematic. As a result, numerous candidates have been proposed over the years.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Statue of Robin Hood in Sherwood Forrest. Wikimedia

Earliest mentioned is a Robert Hod of York. He became an outlaw after his property, worth 32 shillings, was confiscated to pay a debt owed to a local church. The brothers Robert and John Deyville are two more possible inspirations. They fought in the Second Barons’ War (1264 – 1267), but their side was defeated. So the Deyvilles fled to the woods and became outlaws, until the records show that John, at least, was pardoned. However, the likeliest candidate seems to be Roger Godberd. He also fought in the Second Barons’ War, lost, and became an outlaw. What is known of Godberd’s activities led some historians to label him as “the prototype Robin Hood”.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Saxon warriors. Realm of History

16. The Background to Camelot

In the early fifth century, the Roman Empire was invaded by barbarians on multiple fronts. So Roman legions were withdrawn from the far off province of Britain, to defend territories deemed more important. The legions never came back, and Roman Britain was left on its own. The Romano-Britons were beset by their own invaders, most significantly the Picts in Scotland, and Saxons from across the North Sea. The locals reasoned that it takes a thief to catch a thief, and decided to hire Saxon mercenaries and settle them in Britain, to defend them from other Saxons and similar barbarians. It turned out to be a terrible idea.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Saxons slaughter Briton leadership at a meeting that came to be known as The Night of the Long Knives. K-Pics

Once the Saxons settled in and got comfortable, they decided they wanted more. So they accused their hosts of failing to meet their side of the deal, by shortchanging the Saxons on promised supplies. The Romano-Britons sent their leaders to try and negotiate with the Saxons. Unfortunately, the Saxons’ idea of negotiation was to suddenly pull out their daggers mid-talks, and massacre the native leaders. They spared just one Romano-Briton bigwig, a certain Vortigern, and kept him alive as a puppet ruler in exchange for his promise to grant the Saxons more territory. In the war that followed, as the Saxons seized more and more land from the locals, a legend arose of a mythical British leader, King Arthur, who valiantly fought the invaders.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
1903 oil painting of King Arthur, by Charles Ernest Butler. Wikimedia

15. The Roots of the Legend of Arthur, King of the Britons

The Saxons eventually launched a massive invasion that was described by Saint Gildas, a British cleric, who penned De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (“On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain”), circa 510 – 530. From gradual expansion, the Saxon effort – eventually joined in by fellow Germanic tribes the Jutes and Angles – became a war of conquest that aimed to capture all of Britain. As the invaders sought to displace the locals and replace them with Germanic settlers, the hard-pressed Britons found an effective warlord to rally and defend them. Over the years, that figure was morphed into the legend of King Arthur.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Middle Ages depiction of King Arthur and the Round Table. Imgur

Arthur does not appear in any contemporary sources. However, we know that a British war leader, perhaps named Arthur or something close, was active during this period. For example, a sixth century engraving found in Cornwall bears the name of an important figure named “Artognu”. In 2010, Archaeologists found what might have been Arthur’s Round Table at the site of his reputed Camelot. It was not inside a purpose-built castle, but was housed instead in a preexisting structure: a Roman amphitheater in Chester. The Round Table was not a literal piece of furniture, but a vast wood and stone structure that could have allowed up to 1,000 of Arthur’s men to gather. Historians believe noblemen would have sat in the front rows of a circular meeting place, while lower ranked attendees sat on stone benches further back.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Seventeenth century painting of Vlad the Impaler. Wikimedia

14. The Start of the Dracula Legend

Vlad III, the real life inspiration of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, was a medieval ruler of Wallachia, a region in today’s southern Romania. Better known to history as Vlad Dracula or Vlad the Impaler, his methods of governance and warfare terrified contemporaries. They still send shivers down spines today. Vlad’s nickname, Dracula, means “son of Dracul”. It is from the Latin draco, or dragon: Vlad’s father had been inducted into the Order of the Dragon, created by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to rally Christians against the Ottoman Turks. Vlad’s other nickname, The Impaler, he got from his preferred method of punishment. The real life Dracula did not suck people’s blood. Instead, he shoved sharp stakes up their rears.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Bela Lagosi as Count Dracula. Pinterest

Vlad III, a son of exiled aristocrat Vlad II, was born sometime around 1430 in Transylvania. The father took over the throne of Wallachia in 1436, but rivals kicked him out a few years later. So he switched sides, and allied with the Ottoman Sultan, who restored him to power. To ensure his loyalty, he was required to send two sons, Vlad III and his brother Radu, to the Sultan’s court as hostages. Radu eventually converted to Islam, but Vlad came to loathe the Ottomans. He resented his father for his betrayal of the Order of the Dragon, into which Vlad himself had been inducted when he was five-years-old.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Vlad earned his nickname, The Impaler. Imgur

13. The Start of the Legend of the Impaler

Vlad Dracula’s father was overthrown once again in 1447. This time, his enemies made sure there would be no restoration, and killed him. The Ottomans marched in and installed Vlad on Wallachia’s throne, but his rule lasted only a few months before he was also overthrown. He regained the throne in 1456, this time with help from the Ottomans’ enemies, the Hungarians. To celebrate, Vlad invited two hundred aristocrats and their families to an Easter Sunday feast in 1457. At some point, he asked his guests how old they were. He wanted to know who had been old enough to have participated in his father’s overthrow back in 1447.

He then ordered those who fit the bill dragged outside, where they were promptly impaled. Victims had large, sharpened, wooden stakes driven through their bodies, often through their butts. The stake was then planted vertically into the ground, so that the victim was left to dangle in the air. Vlad had people impaled in a manner that avoided damage to vital organs, and thus averted immediate death. Instead, the victims suffered hours or even days of agony before they perished. To add an artistic touch to the horror, Vlad arranged the impaled aristocrats in rows that came to be known as “The Forrest of the Impaled”.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
A fifteenth century German woodcut of Vlad the Impaler dining as his victims are impaled. Wikimedia

12. The Scariest Vlad of Them All

Vlad the Impaler’s Easter Sunday feast was not halted by the mass impalements, and the party went on. Afterwards, the impaled aristocrats’ wives and children were taken to the mountains to rebuild a fortress, still dressed in their Easter finery. Vlad worked them hard, until most died of exhaustion. When the task was finally finished months later, Vlad’s reward for the few survivors, now skeletal figures clad in tattered rags, was to impale them. That was just the start of his passion for impalement. To solidify his rule, Vlad systematically exterminated the aristocratic class that had given his family so much grief. Impalement was his preferred method to deal with them and with all others who displeased him.

Vlad also warred against the Ottomans, and added new chapters to his horrific legend. Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, who had seized Constantinople and extinguished the Byzantine Empire a few years earlier, sent a force of 10,000 cavalrymen to deal with him. Vlad ambushed and defeated them, then impaled the survivors, with their leader mounted on the highest stake. In 1462, the Sultan led an army of 90,000 against The Impaler. As they approached Vlad’s capital, the Ottomans met no resistance. Instead, the road was lined with 20,000 impaled Turks and Muslim Bulgarians. The horrific sight terrified the Sultan, who, according to legend, promptly turned his army around and went back home.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Midas inadvertently turns his daughter into a golden statue. Library of Congress

11. The Ancient Roots of the Midas Legend

In ancient Greek mythology, King Midas of Phrygia helped a drunk satyr – a male nature spirit with a horse’s tail and ears – who rewarded Midas by granting him a wish. Midas’ wish to turn everything he touched into gold was granted, but it backfired on him. It made Midas fabulously wealthy, but he could not turn his newly acquired superpower on and off. All that Midas touched turned into gold, whether he wanted it to or not. That included his beloved daughter, who was killed when Midas inadvertently turned her into a golden statue by touching her. His food and drink was also turned into gold, so Midas died of thirst and starvation – although in another version of the legend, the god Dionysus lifted the curse after Midas learned his lesson.

The experience made Midas hate wealth and riches. So he left his palace and moved to the countryside, to follow the simple life as a worshipper of Pan, the god of the wild. At some point, Pan challenged the god Apollo to a musical contest, and Midas was one of the judges. All the judges and witnesses declared Apollo the winner, except Midas, who sided with Pan. An irate Apollo stated that Midas “Must have the ears of an ass!“, and promptly turned his ears into those of a donkey. Of course, such supernatural events never actually happened in real life. However, there were several real life ancient kings of Phrygia, in modern Turkey, who were named Midas.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Remnants of a feast found in the Tomb of Midas. Atlas Obscura

10. The Real King Midas

We know from ancient Greek and Assyrian sources that there actually was an eighth century BC King Midas of Phrygia. Per Greek accounts, this Midas married a Princess Hermodice, whom some ancient sources credit with the invention of Greek coinage, or money. Thanks to Midas’ wife, Phrygia, as an early adopter of coined money, probably experienced an economic boom compared to its neighbors, who still relied on barter for trade. From that perspective, it is easy to see how the stories of Phrygia’s King Midas having a golden touch might have gotten started. Simultaneously, Assyrian tablets from that period refer to a King “Mita” who attacked Assyria’s east Anatolian territories.

Even more evidence of Midas’ existence emerged in 1957, when archaeologist Rodney Young opened a massive tomb near the site of ancient Gordium, in today’s Turkey. It contained a royal burial from circa 740 BC, with the remains of a coffin in which lay a 5 foot 3 man in his 60s. He was accompanied into the afterlife by ornate tables and bronze vessels that contained traces of alcohol – apparently, a final feast for the departed. Young named the tomb the “Midas Mound”, after the legendary king of the golden touch. However, later dating indicates that it was probably not the grave of the Midas of legend, but that of his father

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Saint Nicholas resurrects butchered children. Wikimedia

9. Was Saint Nick Really That Nice?

Santa Claus is a product of inputs from various cultures. The biggest single figure behind Santa is probably Saint Nicholas of Myra, also known as Nicholas of Bari (270 – 342 AD). A popular minor saint in both the Western and Eastern churches, he was a generous man known for his gifts. He became associated with Christmas, and the tradition of gifts given that day. Nicholas was born into a rich family, and he used his wealth to help those in need. He traveled around, and went on pilgrimage to the Holy Lands. Along the way, he became associated with various good deeds, such as saving three innocent soldiers from wrongful execution.

Legend also attributed to Nicholas numerous miracles. He reportedly chopped down a demonic tree, calmed down the sea, and resurrected three kids who had been murdered by a butcher and pickled in brine for sale as pork during a famine. No wonder he became the patron saint of children. So Saint Nick was a good guy, and a worthy foundational figure upon whom to build the legend of the lovable and kindly Santa. However, Nicholas was not nice all the time. As seen below, he had a mean – and violent – streak, and at times settled debates by beating up those with whom he disagreed.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Saint Nicholas. National Today

8. The Parts Often Skipped About the Santa Claus Legend

Things were often chaotic in early Christianity, with little consensus about the new faith’s doctrine. In 325 AD, Emperor Constantine the Great invited bishops from across Christendom to Nicaea, in today’s Turkey, to sort things out in what came to be known as the First Council of Nicaea. The council settled some things, such as the divine nature of Jesus and his relationship to God, the first part of the Nicene Creed, and when to celebrate Easter. Passions ran high and tempers soared during the debates, though. They were not like modern academic panels, where violence is the last thing expected from professors in bowties and thick glasses. The Council of Nicaea’s participants could and did settle debates with their fists. Passive aggressive cutting remarks were for pikers: early church fathers could pull out knives in the middle of discussions to literally cut each other.

Saint Nicholas was one of the bishops at Nicaea, and he settled a discussion there with his fists. His victim was a priest named Arius, whose teachings had roiled Christianity and caused the convocation of the council in the first place. The controversy’s details come across as esoteric nowadays and make little sense to modern ears. However, they mattered a whole lot to people back then. Arius, who was accused of heresy, was invited by Emperor Constantine to defend his position. He got up and began to do so. His speech angered opponents, whose numbers included Nicholas – by then middle-aged, and apparently short tempered. He reportedly did a Will-Smith-at-the-Oscars, rose from his seat, rushed Arius, and interrupted his speech with a punch to the face. For that, Nicholas was stripped of his bishopric, and imprisoned for a time.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Bluebeard going after one of his wives. K-Pics

7. The Roots of the Bluebeard Legend

The legend of Bluebeard, about a serial wife killer, can be traced back to Gilles de Rais (1404 – 1440). A nobleman from Brittany, he was born into the House of Montmorency, one of France’s oldest and most distinguished aristocratic families. From an early age, Rais lived up to the high expectations of a scion of such an illustrious clan. By the time he was fifteen, he had distinguished himself militarily in a series of wars that wracked the Duchy of Brittany. Rais won even more accolades in Anjou, where he fought for its duchess against the English in 1427. He eventually became a national hero, as Joan of Arc’s chief lieutenant and right hand man. Then Rais’ true nature emerged, and his celebrated career was cut short, along with his head, when it was discovered that, away from the limelight, he was a monster.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Gilles de Rais, Marechal de France, by Eloi Firmin Feron, 1835. Wikimedia

By the time Joan of Arc rose to prominence in 1429 to challenge the English, who had been rampaging throughout France for decades, Gilles de Rais had already cemented his reputation as an accomplished military man. He was assigned to Joan as one of her guards, and fought in several battles at her side. Rais particularly distinguished himself in her greatest victory, when the French under Joan’s inspired leadership lifted the English siege of Orleans. He then accompanied her to Reims for the coronation of King Charles VII, who made Gilles de Rais Marshall of France – a distinction awarded to generals for exceptional achievements.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Gilles de Rais went from hero to monster. Wikimedia

6. A Hero’s Decline From National Legend to Monster

Gilles de Rais inherited vast estates and landholdings from both his father and maternal grandfather. He then married a rich heiress, a match that brought him even more extensive holdings, and made him one of France’s greatest landowners. With so much wealth and property at his disposal, Rais retired from the military in 1434. However, it soon became clear that while Rais knew how to fight and manage men in combat, he was not nearly as good when it came to money management. He soon blew his fabulous wealth with a lavish lifestyle that rivaled that of the king who, unlike Rais, had an entire country that he could tax in order to refill his coffers.

Within just one year retirement, Rais managed to lose most of his lands. Indeed, he was so inept that his family secured a decree from the king that forbade Rais from mortgaging what was left of his property. So to raise more cash, Rais fell in with some charlatans, who got him hooked on alchemy – a medieval version of the Nigerian Prince scam. Rais began to sink both his time and whatever money he could get a hold of, to invest in “research” that he was promised would lead to the discovery of a way to turn base metals into gold. He also turned to Satanism, hoping to gain knowledge, power, and riches, by summoning the devil. That was not the worst of it, however: another thing that Rais turned to was the serial abuse and murder of children.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
The execution of Gilles de Rais. Loire Atlantique Archives

5. From Wanton Spending to Just Wanton

Gilles de Rais grew increasingly more erratic, and in 1440, he quarreled with local church figures. A hot headed nobleman, hopped up on machismo and unused to having his wishes denied, Rais escalated things, until he eventually kidnapped a priest. That triggered an ecclesiastical investigation, which uncovered some horrific stuff. It turned out that the once celebrated national hero had been murdering children – mostly boys, but also the occasional girl – by the dozen. He often lured children from peasant or other lower class families to his castle with gifts, such as candies, toys, or clothing. He initially put them at their ease, fed and pampered them, before he led them to a bedroom where Rais and his accomplices seized their victims.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Gilles de Rais inspired the legend of Bluebeard. Reactor Magazine

As he confessed in his subsequent trial, Rais derived sadistic joy from his victims’ fear, when he explained what he planned to do to them. What he planned was nothing good – but we can skip the gory details. Suffice it to say that it involved torture and abuse, and ended with the child’s murder. The victims and their clothes were then burned in the fireplace, and their ashes were dumped in a moat. After Rais confessed to his crimes, he and he and his accomplices were condemned to death. He was executed on October 26th, 1440, by burning and hanging, simultaneously. His infamy inspired the fairy tale of Bluebeard, about a wealthy serial wife killer.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Atlantis beneath the waves. K-Pics

4. The Natural Disaster Behind the Legend of Atlantis

In the second millennium BC, the Minoans, based out of the Mediterranean island of Crete, created history’s first naval trade empire. They also developed what, for the era, was a particularly sophisticated and advanced civilization. Then it all crashed down, due in large part to a natural disaster: the Thera Volcanic Eruption, circa 1642 – 1540 BC, in today’s Greek island of Santorini. It was one of the most powerful volcanic blasts in recorded history, estimated to have been about four times stronger than the gigantic Krakatoa explosion of 1883. The eruption sundered the island of Thera, and wiped out the flourishing Minoan settlement of nearby Arkotiri and surrounding islands.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
The Thera Eruption. Earth Magazine

In addition to the immediate destruction of Thera and nearby islands, the eruption produced powerful tsunamis that devastated Crete. The catastrophe contributed to the decline of the Minoan civilization, and paved the way for its extinction. That gave rise to the legend of the vanished civilization of Atlantis, which was doomed by a natural catastrophe and swallowed by the sea. However, the impact of the Thera Eruption went beyond serving as the source material for a legend about a vanished civilization. It was one of history’s most impactful natural disasters. Its consequences were not limited to its own era, but had knock on effects and a chain of causation that leads directly to the world in which we live today.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Minoan ruins at Knossos, Crete. Imgur

3. From Thera to Atlantis

The Minoans eventually morphed in Greek mythology into the legend of the vanished civilization of Atlantis. They had been the Mediterranean’s greatest naval power, as well as the dominant force in the Aegean, including what became Greece and the Greek world. The Minoans were primarily commercial sea traders. They were oriented towards Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean, and were strongly influenced by those civilizations. While the Minoans flourished, the Aegean world in their thrall was oriented in the same direction, and strongly influenced by the Egyptian and eastern civilizations as well. Then came the Thera Eruption, which weakened Crete and the Minoans sufficiently to create a power vacuum in the Aegean. It was filled by the Mycenaeans in mainland Greece. They went on to conquer Crete and destroy the Minoans, and became the Aegean’s dominant power.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Santorini, site of the Thera Eruption, today, top, and how it was before the eruption, bottom. Archaeology Wiki

Unlike the Minoans, the Mycenaeans’ energies were focused not on trade with Egypt and the Levant, but on the colonization of the Aegean, the western coast of Asia Minor, the Black Sea coast, and the western Mediterranean. That change of orientation significantly reduced Egyptian and eastern influences upon the Greeks. Thus, when the Greek world flourished centuries later, long after the Mycenaeans had themselves vanished, it did so as a civilization distinct from those of Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean, rather than as an extension and outpost of those cultures. Since western civilization is founded upon that of the ancient Greeks, an argument could be made that today’s western civilization and its impact on the modern world would not exist but for the Thera Eruption.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Sinterklaas. Discovering Belgium

2. From Saint Nick to Santa

In some ways, Santa Claus has come to resemble God. Santa knows who has been naughty or nice, and rewards us accordingly with either goodies in our stockings, or a lump of coal. Every Christmas, children, and many adults, grow giddy with anticipation and thoughts of what Santa has in store for them. As seen above, the real Saint Nicholas, the inspiration for Santa, was a bit of a badass, and could even be a violent bully on occasion. So how did he morph from a guy who punches people in the face to settle debates, into the lovable Santa Claus?

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Father Christmas. English Heritage

The American version of Santa became the globally dominant depiction of the legend, of a fat, jolly, and bearded grandfatherly figure. Like many things American, it resulted from a cultural melting pot in which folklore from various people was melded. As a result, Santa as we know him today is a blend of various inputs that originated in western Christian culture. From English folklore are drawn aspects of Father Christmas, the gift giver. From Dutch folklore, there is Sinterklaas, whose feast occurs in early December. For good measure, there is even a touch of the ancient Germanic god Odin, who is associated with the pagan midwinter festival of Yule. However, the chief figure behind Santa is Saint Nicholas, the fourth century AD Greek bishop of Myra.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Saint Nicholas secretly gives dowries to three poor girls, by Missel d Jean Rolin, fifteenth century. Wikimedia

1. The Nice Side of Saint Nick

Saint Nicholas lived in the Roman Empire at a time when Christianity was persecuted, with real life stakes higher than depictions on coffee cups or words used in season’s greetings. Nicholas hailed from a wealthy family, and his parents died when he was a young man and left him a considerable inheritance. He did not do what most young men would when given a lot of money. Nicholas did not party it up and splurge when he came into a huge inheritance. Instead, he used his newfound wealth to care for those in need. For instance, he helped a poor man with three daughters who could not afford a dowry. Without dowries, the girls’ father would have sold them into slavery – it was a harsh world back then.

Legend of the Pied Piper’s Dark Origins, and Other Historic Folklore
Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas. Greek Reporter

On three occasions, a bag of gold appeared in the girls’ home, secretly tossed through a window by Nicholas, to land in a shoe or stocking left by the fireplace. His reputation as a secret gift-giver grew over time. Nicholas often deposited coins or treats in the shoes of children, who left them out for that purpose. Eventually, he became bishop of Myra at a young age. However, his bishopric was interrupted when Emperor Diocletian launched a round of Christian persecutions. Nicholas ended up exiled and imprisoned, until freed by Constantine. He lost his bishopric once again, as seen above, for punching a priest. When he wasn’t punching people in the face, however, Nicholas was a great guy. Stories of his generosity grew, entered folklore, and spread. He was canonized after his death, and became the patron saint of children, as well as the chief inspiration behind Santa Claus.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading


Adams, Mark – Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City (2015)

Ancient Origins – The Disturbing True Story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin

Archaeology Magazine, September 23rd, 1998 – King Arthur Was Real?

Atlas Obscura – Recreating King Midas’s 2700-Year-Old Feast

Baldwin, David – Robin Hood: The English Outlaw Unmasked (2010)

Callendar, Gae – The Minoans and the Mycenaeans: Aegean Society in the Bronze Age (1999)

Daily Beast – Was Santa Actually a Badass Who Beat Up a Priest?

Encyclopedia Britannica – Giles de Rais

Encyclopedia Britannica – Saint Nicholas

Federer, Kenneth L. – Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology: From Atlantis to the Walum Olum (2010)

Fortean Times, No. 264 – The Lost Children of Hamelin

Friedrich, Walter L. – Fire in the Sea: The Santorini Volcano: Natural History and the Legend of Atlantis (1999)

Greeka – Myth of Lost Atlantis

History Collection – Textbooks Rewritten by Governments, and Other Fake and Hidden History

Live Science – Santa Claus: The Real Man Behind the Myth

Malory, Thomas – Le Morte d Arthur, Book I

Museum of Unnatural Mystery – The Real Dracula: Vlad the Impaler

National Geographic History Magazine, February 5th, 2019 – Who Was the Real Robin Hood?

Orthodox Church in America – Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker, Archbishop of Myra in Lycia

Pollard, Anthony James – Imagining Robin Hood: The Late Medieval Stories in Historical Context (2004)

Storr, Jim – King Arthur’s Wars: The Anglo-Saxon Conquest of England (2016)

Theoi, Encyclopedia of Greek Mythology – Midas

Treptow, Kurt W. – Vlad III Dracula: The Life and Times of the Historical Dracula (2000)

Wolf, Leonard – Bluebeard: The Life and Times of Gilles de Rais (1980)