Rat king (folklore)
While the term "Rat King" has folkloric associations and many resonances within folklore, the phenomenon of tail-tangled rats is quite real.
Rat kings involve a number of rats intertwined at their tails, which become stuck together with, for instance, blood, dirt, ice, horse-hair, or feces—or simply knotted. The animals reputedly grow together while joined at the tails. The numbers of rats joined together can vary, but rat kings formed naturally from a large number of rats occur more rarely. The phenomenon is particularly associated with Germany, which may have produced the majority of reported instances. Historically, various superstitions surround rat kings, and they were often seen as a bad omen, particularly associated with plagues.
Origin of the name
The original German term, Rattenkönig, was calqued into English as rat king, and into French as roi de rats. The term was not originally used in reference to actual rats, but for persons who lived off others. Konrad Gesner in Historia animalium (1551–58) stated: "Some would have it that the rat waxes mighty in its old age and is fed by its young: this is called the rat king." Martin Luther stated: "...finally, there is the Pope, the king of rats right at the top." Later, the term referred to a king sitting on a throne of knotted tails.
Medieval scholars have debated whether people may have been under the impression that the rat king was actually one animal with many bodies, with the “king” referring to the animal's aggregate size and weight. Legends have suggested that a “king rat” sat on the tails of the rat king, overseeing the movement of the animals as they attempted to navigate with their matted tails.
An alternative theory states that the name in French was rouet de rats (or a spinning wheel of rats, the knotted tails being wheel spokes), with the term transforming over time into roi de rats.
The phenomenon may have diminished when the brown rat (Rattus norvegicus) displaced the black rat (R. rattus) in the 18th century. Sightings have been sporadic in the modern era; most recently comes an Estonian farmer's discovery in the Võrumaa region on January 16, 2005.
Specimens of purported rat kings are kept in some museums. The museum Mauritianum in Altenburg (Thuringia) shows the largest well-known mummified "rat king", which was found in 1828 in a miller's fireplace at Buchheim. It consists of 32 rats. Alcohol-preserved rat kings are shown in museums in Hamburg, Göttingen, Hamelin, and Stuttgart. The Tartu Ülikooli Zooloogiamuuseum (Museum of Zoology in Tartu, Estonia) has a specimen. A rat king found in 1930 in New Zealand, displayed in the Otago Museum in Dunedin, was composed of immature Rattus rattus whose tails were entangled by horse hair. Relatively few rat kings have been discovered; depending on the source, the number of reported instances varies between 35 and 50 finds.
Most extant examples are formed from black rats (R. rattus). The only find involving sawah rats (Rattus rattus brevicaudatus) occurred on March 23, 1918, in Bogor on Java, where a rat king of ten young field rats was found. Similar attachments have been reported in other species: in April 1929, a group of young forest mice (Apodemus sylvaticus) was reported in Holstein, Germany; and in June 2013 a "squirrel king" of six living squirrels were found in Regina, Saskatchewan, and separated by veterinarians.
The rat king discovered in 1963 by the farmer P. van Nijnatten at Rucphen, Netherlands, as published by cryptozoologist M. Schneider, consists of seven rats. X-ray images show formations of callus at the fractures of their tails which according to proponents show that the animals survived for an extended period of time with the tails tangled.
In popular culture
The rat king appears in novels such as The Tale of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot, Ratking by Michael Dibdin, Peeps by Scott Westerfeld, The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding, Rats and Gargoyles by Mary Gentle, Luther: The Calling by Neil Cross, The War for the Lot by Sterling E. Lanier, and The Rats by James Herbert. A rat king portentously appears in a sub-section of the same name in E. Annie Proulx's fictional work Accordion Crimes, and a seven-rat "King Rat" appears in Lars Von Trier's 1987 movie Epidemic. A rat king appears in Lorrie Moore's story "Wings". Rat kings inspired the title character in The Wyrm King, the finale of Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi's Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles series. A rat king is prominent in James Tiptree, Jr.'s novelette The Psychologist Who Wouldn't Do Awful Things to Rats, originally published in New Dimensions 6, 1976. In Alan Moore's and Ian Gibson's comic book series The Ballad of Halo Jones, the Rat King was a weapon of war, a super-intelligent collective of five rats with entwined tails who were able to communicate via a computer terminal.
In The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett, Keith skeptically notes that the filth associated with supposedly tying the young rats together at a young age is not found in a rat's nest, and suspects that a rat king is created as a sort of project by a rat catcher himself. In an author's note at the end of the novel, Pratchett ventures the theory that "down the ages some cruel and inventive people have had altogether too much time on their hands".
E. T. A. Hoffmann's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King features a "Mouse King" (Mausekönig) with multiple heads, seemingly inspired by the multiple-bodied rat king. The character is typically not retained in productions of the Tchaikovsky ballet The Nutcracker, based on the novella.
Dutch writer Harry Mulisch's book Bericht aan de Rattenkoning (1966) (trans. Message to the Rat King) mentions the phenomenon as a metaphor for the "old" (pre-1940) social structure and more specifically, the newly wedded crown princess (Beatrix) and her husband, Claus.
In the sixth episode of the first season of the television show 30 Rock, "Jack Meets Dennis", Liz Lemon's boyfriend Dennis Duffy lies and claims to have seen a rat king. This later becomes a metaphor for his destructive effect on Liz.
In the Adventure Time episode "Little Brother", a rat king was the primary villain. The rat king consisted of a king rat as head atop a body made of a swarm of rats. The Rat King had its front teeth removed by Butty Butterson (a.k.a. Kent) for chewing the roots of Finn and Jake's treehouse.
In the short story The Tail-Tied Kings by Avram Davidson a group of rodents with intertwined tails called "Mothers and Fathers" acted as a government in the rodents' community. The "Kings" were totally dependent on their servants and had all perished in the fire with the exception of one female whose tail was chewed off.
- Hart, Martin (1982). Rats. Translated from 1973 Dutch edn by Arnold J. Pomerans. Allison & Busby. p. 66. ISBN 0-85031-297-3.
- Hart, Martin (1982). Rats. p. 67.
- Miljutin A (2007). "Rat kings in Estonia". Proc. Estonian Acad. Sci. Biol. Ecol 56 (1): 77–81.
- "Rat King". Galleries > Animal Attic. Otago Museum. Retrieved 2007-06-09.
The Otago Museum’s rat king: This display features a family of Rattus rattus, discovered in the 1930s. They had fallen from their nest in the rafters of a shipping company shed, and were immediately followed to the floor by a parent who vigorously defended the young.
- McDonald, Alyssa (2013-06-11). "Photos: Regina squirrels tangled by sticky situation". Metro News. Retrieved 2013-06-14.
- "Rat king Rucphen". Rucphen. 2007-01-21. Retrieved 2007-01-21.