If like me you’re a little bit phobic about rats you probably don’t want to read this story about the rat plague afflicting the Myer Building in Sydney, or the swarms of them that rise up out of the foundations every night to take over the Food Court. And you definitely don’t want to read this piece by Sean Wilsey about the rats of New York City. Or hear the story I heard years ago about the tide of rats that swept across the lane behind the old Rex Hotel and into the building opposite when demolition began (apparently it looked like the ground was moving). And you absolutely, positively don’t want to read my Rat-King post again.
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.