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All hail the Rat-King!

The Rat-King on display in the Mauritianum Museum, Altenburg, Germany

The Rat-King on display in the Mauritianum Museum, Altenburg, Germany

I was reminded last night of one of the more repulsive bits of cryptozoological folklore, the Rat-King. And since the two people I was with had never heard of them, I thought I might share the concept with the world. A Rat-King is created when a rat nest (a horrible concept all on its own) becomes so crowded that the tails of the rats become physically entangled, and slowly but surely, the separate rats begin to fuse into a single organism.

Perhaps not surprisingly the concept of the Rat-King is regarded with some scepticism by contemporary science, but belief in their existence has persisted in European countries, and particularly Germany, since the Middle Ages, and over the years various specimens have been displayed in museums and private collections.

Of these the most famous is probably the one owned by the Mauritianum Museum in Altenburg, which is comprised of the mummified remains of 32 rats, and was reportedly found in a miller’s fireplace in Buchheim in 1828, although specimens from as far afield as Java and New Zealand have also been collected through the years (Wikipedia has a brief survey of the various extant specimens, and you can see images, including x-ray images of one of the Dutch specimens on the Museum Kennis website).

As someone who’s not keen on rats at all, the Rat-King is a thing of nightmares. But I’m not sure you’d need to be as phobic about rats as I am to feel there’s something deeply unsettling about the whole idea, and not just because the thought of all those rats, scrabbling and hissing and seething together is inherently repulsive. Rather I suspect that just as the idea of zombies, and vampires, and the living dead  break down the ontological categories which order our world, the idea of several creatures merging into one super-organism, something smarter and more malign than any of its individual constituents, so offends our most primal suppositions about individual identity that we have few reactions open to us beyond fear, and disgust.

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8 Comments Post a comment
  1. I have very little affection for rats. But any residual positive feeling I might have had was greatly augmented when I read an article about the making of Herzog’s Nosferatu in Granta quite a few years ago – I’m pretty sure it’s by Maarten t’Hart, called Rate on this page here.
    Apparently there were serious issues with animal welfare in the making of that film (and yes, we’re talking Hamelin proportions here.)

    I really should order that issue, I’ve been talking about this for years.

    March 27, 2009
  2. Bother, the link did not travel, here it is again:
    http://www.granta.com/Magazine/86

    March 27, 2009
  3. My Grantas are in a box somewhere, so I can’t check it, but I remember the article, which was very upsetting (I seem to remember there was a weird lack of affect about the writing as well, which made it quite odd to read, but I may be misremembering). But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – rats are Satan’s matchbox cars.

    March 27, 2009
  4. oh lucky you, a box of Grantas.

    March 27, 2009
  5. Horrible! You should read Terry Pratchett’s _The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents_ (which won the Carnegie Medal in 2001) and China Miéville’s _King Rat_ for two very different takes on the subject (and on the Hamelin tale too, of course).

    March 31, 2009
  6. I haven’t but I will. There’s also a Michael Dibdin novel called Ratking, though I think the Ratking there is a metaphorical one.

    March 31, 2009
  7. But surely they would eat each other? The rats, that is, not the Grantas.

    April 1, 2009
  8. We lived in a basement apartment in New York over-run with rats – they’d hunt in the bins outside the front window, and sometimes, they’d fall down the chimney and come out the fireplace. Our twins were two years old. They never got bitten, though.

    April 17, 2012

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