The Truth Behind the Terrifying Legend of the Rat King
Imagine a group of rats whose tails have become so entangled that they've formed a grotesque, single entity - that's what's known as a "rat king." This monstrous creature has been talked about for centuries, and there are even specimens in natural history museums that prove their existence. And to make matters even worse, these tangled rats are often bound by other disgusting substances like blood, feces, and filth.
Rat Kings: A Legend is Born
The origin of the term ‘rat king’ has a fascinating backstory. According to one theory, the name was inspired by an old legend that suggested that wise and elderly rats would sit on the tangled tails of their fellow rats, thus earning the respect and adoration of the others. This rat was considered the king of the group, and the entangled mass of tails around it gave rise to the name ‘rat king’.
This phenomenon is not limited to rats alone. Occasionally, mice and squirrels have also been found entangled in large knots. However, it's unclear if the folklore behind the term 'rat king' applies to these creatures as well.
Despite being a legend, there is scientific evidence of the existence of these strange creatures. There are a number of preserved specimens of rat kings in various natural history museums around the world. So, while the origin of the term ‘rat king’ may be based on folklore, the reality of these tangled creatures is a fascinating study of the oddities of the natural world.
Rat king, Strasbourg ( Edelseider / CC by SA 4.0 )
Rat Kings Around the World
This phenomenon is most often associated with Germany, as the majority of stories about the rat king originate from this country. The existence of rat kings has also been reported in other countries such as France, Poland, the Netherlands, Estonia and Indonesia. Apart from this last country, it has been stated that two factors coincide in the areas where rat kings have been found. The first being cold winters, whilst the second being the presence of the black rat, Rattus rattus . Incidentally, it may be worth mentioning that the rat king found on Java, Indonesia, is by far the only one not consisting of black rats. Instead, this rat king is made up of sawah rats, Rattus rattus brevicaudatus .
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Fear and superstitions often accompany rat kings. In particular, rat kings are associated with the plague. This is a somewhat rational connection, as rat kings are said to form when there are too many rats living together in a cramped area. With the rise in the population of rats, there would also be an increase in the risk of disease breaking out. For instance, the Black Death, though not caused by the rats themselves, was spread to humans by the fleas they carried.
Considering that rat kings are regarded as bad omens, they were often killed immediately out of fear of disease. This seems to be the reason for the lack of live specimens. Still, there are between 35 and 50 preserved examples of rat kings in various natural museums. One of the largest mummified rat kings is displayed in the Mauritianum Museum in Altenburg, Germany. This particular rat king, which dates back to 1828, has 32 individual rats stuck together, and is alleged to have been found in Buchheim, Germany.
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Hoaxes or Reality?
There are those who remain skeptical about the natural occurrence of rat kings, arguing that if rats were to become entangled, they would most likely gnaw their tails off or attempt to pull themselves apart in order to survive. This has led to the belief that rat kings are actually hoaxes created by humans, similar to how some merchants in the Middle Ages would glue bat wings onto lizards to pass them off as dragons or how the infamous ‘Fiji Mermaids’ were made by stitching the top half of a juvenile monkey onto the tail of a fish. While the purpose for creating such hoaxes remains unclear, it is possible that at least some examples of rat kings may also fall under this category.
Rat king in the scientific museum Mauritianum Altenburg, Germany. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The legend of the rat king is a fascinating and terrifying one, rooted in both folklore and scientific evidence. While some doubt the possibility of rats becoming entangled in such a way, preserved specimens in natural history museums around the world prove that it does occur. The association with disease and bad omens adds to the fear and superstition surrounding these creatures, leading to their immediate killing in the past. Whether they are a product of nature or human invention, the rat king remains an intriguing and eerie phenomenon.
Top image: A fierce rat. Source: Kai Beercrafter / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren