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The Ancient Legend of the Monstrous Rat King

The Ancient Legend of the Monstrous Rat King

A rat king is the term used to describe an agglomeration of rats whose tails have entangled together. As a result of this entanglement, a large single entity is formed, which is usually further bound by other substances, such as blood, feces or other filth. The concept of this monstrous creature is said to have existed for centuries, and there are a number of specimens in natural history museums that seem to attest to their existence.

Rat King Origins

According to one source, the name ‘rat king’ may have its origins in an old belief which states that elderly rats known for their wisdom would sit on the entangled tails of his fellow rats. This rat was believed to have been treated as royalty by the other rats, hence giving rise to the term ‘rat king’. Interestingly, this phenomenon is not limited to rats alone, but mice and squirrels have also been found occasionally to be caught in large knots. It is unknown, though, if the old folklore applies to these creatures as well.

"Roi des rats" found in 1986 in Vendée, France

"Roi des rats" found in 1986 in Vendée, France ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

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 .

Bad Omens

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.

Rat King, Woodcut emblem, i.a. from J. Sambucus, Emblemata (i.a. 4th ed., Antwerp, 1576)

Rat King, Woodcut emblem, i.a. from J. Sambucus, Emblemata (i.a. 4th ed., Antwerp, 1576) ( Public Domain )

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. Moreover, no credible sighting of a live rat king has ever been confirmed. Still, there are preserved examples of rat kings that can be found in various natural museums, between 35 and 50, according to some sources. 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.

Hoaxes or Reality?

Not all people, however, are convinced that rat kings occur naturally. If a group of rats were to find themselves entangled, they would most likely gnaw their tails off in order to break free and save their lives. Even if they did not do so, they would at least try to pull themselves apart. If they were to pull hard enough, they would be able to free themselves. Thus, it has been argued that it is impossible for rat kings to occur in nature.

Rat king in the scientific museum Mauritianum Altenburg, Germany.

Rat king in the scientific museum Mauritianum Altenburg, Germany. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Rather than being the products of nature, it is believed that rat kings are hoaxes created by human hands. During the Middle Ages, certain merchants glued bat wings onto lizards in order to pass them off as dragons. Additionally, there are creatures known generally as ‘Feejee Mermaids’, which were made by sewing the top half of a juvenile monkey onto the tail of a fish. Perhaps the rat king was such an invention as well, though the purpose for its creation remains unclear.

Featured image: Picture of the Rat Kings.  Photo source: TmoeGee ( CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 )

By Wu Mingren

References

Atlas Obscura, 2016. Nantes' Natural History Museum. [Online]
Available at: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/nantes-natural-history-museum

Meier, A., 2013. Curious Fact of the Week: The Rat King. [Online]
Available at: http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/curious-fact-of-the-week-the-rat-king

Miljutin, A., 2007. Rat kings in Estonia. [Online]
Available at: http://www.kirj.ee/public/Ecology/2007/issue_1/bio-2007-1-7.pdf

Stoddard, C., 2012. Your Tail's Looking Rather Tangled There. [Online]
Available at: http://www.quailbellmagazine.com/the-real/the-myth-of-the-rat-king

Weird Admin, 2015. Rat King. [Online]
Available at: http://www.weird-encyclopedia.com/rat-king/

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