An Omen of Plague–The Rat King

Wood cut of a rat king from the 1500s

Wood cut of a rat king from the 1500s

Mummies come in a variety of forms. Jeremy Bentham had his head preserved while his skeleton was dressed in his clothes and propped up in a mobile glass case for all to see. Elmer McCurdy never asked to be mummified, but a small town funeral parlor owner took that matter into his own hands and produced a mummy that had a pretty strange after-life. Other mummies wound up ground up and slurped down by sick Europeans who believed it would cure what ailed them.

But mummies don’t have to be human. Animals too could be preserved, whether by accident or otherwise. A particularly strange type of animal mummy can be found in European museums. They consist of several rats, from nine to as many as thirty, joined together at the tail. These macabre conglomerations of critters are known as Rat Kings, and they have a strange history all their own.

 

Signs and portents

The first historical report of a Rat King occurred in 1564. In those days, the phenomena was seen as a bad omen. Especially, it was a portent of a coming plague, mostly because it occurred most often with black rats, a species associated with the bubonic plague. The term “Rat King” originally referred to political figures or anyone who lived off the hard work of others.

The term came to describe the rats who would find themselves in the unfortunate position of being entangled with their fellows. People at the time saw Rat Kings as a kind of super organism, one animal with many bodies. Others theorized that there was literally a Rat King who sat on the knotted tails and directed the whole group.

 

A real phenomena?

About 58 Rat King specimens have been preserved in various museums in Central Europe. It is not clear exactly how they form, and for a long time it was not clear whether they formed naturally in the first place. It would be easy for a hoaxster to fake a Rat King, although it isn’t clear exactly why someone would want to go through the time to do so.

A case from Estonia in January 2005 confirmed that Rat Kings are natural occurrences, and gave a bit of insight into how they form. An Estonian farmer found a cluster of 16 rats clumped together in the sandy floor of a shed. Nine were alive when the rat king was found. The farmer’s son killed the live ones. Intrigued by what he found, the farmer put the rat king on display for neighbors to see. A local reporter happened by and saw the strange mummified mass. He contacted a zoologist for comment, which led the rat king to eventually be analyzed at The Natural History Museum in Sartu.

The analysis concluded that the rat king probably formed when the rats huddled together for warmth and their tales froze together in the sandy soil. Blood, feces, and food matter could also serve to cement the rat kings together in other cases. As the rats wiggled their tales in an attempt to escape, their tails became entangled to the point where even melting the frozen soil could not separate them.

Black rats have long, slender tails. Thus, they are more likely to become tangled together. That is why rat kings are predominantly made up of black rats. It is no coincidence that reports of rat kings began to drop off as brown rats became more common in Europe; their tails are shorter and less flexible, so they’re less likely to tangle. Also, rat kings form in areas where it is cold. The Estonian rat king formed after a sharp drop in temperature. Cold winters and the presence of black rats explains why the phenomena is predominately found in Central and Eastern Europe. Southern Europe, despite the presence of black rats, has mild winters. Northern Europe has very few black rats.

 

Sources:

Miljutin, Andrei. “Rat Kings in Estonia.” Short Communications. Proc. Estonian Acad. Sci. Biol. Ecol., 2007, 77-81. Retrieved from: http://www.kirj.ee/public/Ecology/2007/issue_1/bio-2007-1-7.pdf

“Rat king (folklore).” Wikipedia.org. April 1, 2014. Wikipedia. April 4, 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rat_king_%28folklore%29>

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