Updated date:

The Mythology of the Rat King

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

During the years of the Black Death in the Middle Ages rats were believed to spread the disease (actually it was fleas that lived on rats that were the villains). Stories sprang from this time period of nests of rats with their tails all knotted together. Finding such a group was said to be a bad omen. Such a collation of vermin was called a rat king, but do they even exist?

This alleged rat king was found in Dellfield, Germany in 1895. It is on display at a museum in Strasbourg, France.

This alleged rat king was found in Dellfield, Germany in 1895. It is on display at a museum in Strasbourg, France.

Origin of the Rat King Name

Much about rat kings is shrouded in mystery, even the origin of the name is in dispute. Most likely, it came from Germany, where the majority of rat king stories originate. At the time of Martin Luther’s schism from the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope became known as Rattenkönig―rat king. Somehow, this morphed into a description of actual rats in a gnarly state of entanglement.

About 35 of the 50 or so rodent tangles sightings have been in Germany. Why Germany and so few anywhere else? Doesn’t this point to the suggestibility of people and elements of mass hysteria?

A more fabled approach is that an elderly and wise rat sits on the tails of lesser rodents who give him warmth and food. The New York Tribune in 1857 likened this to monarchies in which “so many kings, princes, and democratic officer holders, [depended] upon the labouring classes for support.”

No. Not that kind of rat king.

No. Not that kind of rat king.

Rat King Exhibits

The Mauritianum Museum in Altenburg, Germany has a really grotesque exhibit; it consists of 32 mummified rats whose tails are inseparably tied together. Some of the rats appear to have died and partly rotted away before the rest of the horde croaked. It was said to been found by a miller in 1828.

Far away, in Dunedin, New Zealand, there’s a museum exhibit that has a bunch of pickled rats in a large jar, with a tangle of yellowing tails floating above them. Sometime in the 1930s, this collection of rodents fell out of the ceiling of a shipping office. The writhing heap was still alive until a clerk dispatched them with a pitchfork.

The Nantes Natural History Museum in France also has a jar of braided rats. This roi de rats is of relatively recent vintage having turned up in 1986, and they continue to arrive from time to time.

The most recent reported find of a rat king is from Estonia, discovered in 2005.

The most recent reported find of a rat king is from Estonia, discovered in 2005.

Are Rat Kings Cryptozoological Hoaxes?

There’s a body of pseudo science (although why the word science is attached is a complete mystery) that believes certain mythological critters, such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, exist. Could the rat king be one of these? The answer seems to be a definite perhaps.

One theory that undermines the existence of rat kings is that the animals will chew their own tales off if caught in a trap by the appendage. So, surely, if a dozen or so are knotted together they would simply gnaw their way out.

In the Middle Ages, tricksters created fantastic creatures to make money. Some creative types glued the wings of bats onto lizards―hey presto, a dragon. The so-called “Feejee Mermaid” was crafted out of a fish tail sewn onto a juvenile monkey.

So, it’s quite possible to view the rat king as a product of the fertile mind of a huckster.

Back at the Mauritianum Museum, Allison Meier ponders on this possibility: “What is more unsettling, a conjoined mess of rats scratching through the dark, or a person gathering up to 32 dead rats and knitting all their tails together with their hands just to freak people out?”

A Feejee Mermaid on display in California.

A Feejee Mermaid on display in California.

Suppose Rat Kings Are not a Hoax

There are those that say rat kings are for real. It’s noted that most examples are found in winter. Could it be that when they cuddle up to sleep to combat the cold their tails get all tangled up?

There’s a substance called sebum that mammals secrete; mixed in with feces and urine a sticky material emerges that can start gluing tails together. When they wake and realize they gummed up they may struggle to break free and simply tighten the knot.

Emma Burns is curator of natural science at that New Zealand museum. She suggests “Ship rats, according to some theories, are climbing rats, so their tails have . . . a grasping reflex. In the nest, they form a hold.”

However, the balance of opinion among zoologists is that the whole business of rat kings is simply myth, although they don’t rule out the possibility that some sort of weird accidents happening on very rare occasions.

So, there you have it, rat kings are very likely completely bogus, or they are not.

Bonus Factoids

In 2013, six young squirrels were found tangled together in Regina, Saskatchewan. City workers took them to a vet who was able to free them unharmed. It’s thought that tree sap and nesting materials combined to tangle the tails. There is photographic evidence to support the story. These so-called squirrel king events have been documented elsewhere.

The Dutch writer Maarten ‘t Hart investigated all the known occurrences of rat kings. He published his finding in his 1973 book Rats. He found most of the stories to be plausible although some he ruled as being dubious.

For an article on rats in general check here.

Sources

  • “The Complicated, Inconclusive Truth behind Rat Kings.” Alexandra Ossolad, Atlas Obscura, December 23, 2016.
  • “Curious Fact of the Week: The Rat King.” Allison Meier, Atlas Obscura, April 1, 2013.
  • “The Ancient Legend of the Monstrous Rat King.” Dhwty, Ancient Origins, May 15, 2016.
  • “An (Almost) Comprehensive History of Rat Kings.” Lucas Reilly, Mental Floss, October 24, 2017.
  • “SHIP RAT, Rattus rattus, VT2314.” OtagoMuseum, undated.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on February 26, 2021:

Rupert, interesting as the story is, I've not heard any myth or legend on the part of my world, Africa. It would be a make believe. Litter rats did not live separately. They live in groups to gain heat, warmth, and grow. And I've taken a photo of such little animals without they tails sticking nor kniting together with urine and faece! Rupert, if the myth is a reality, would they be a single rat again in this world. Thanks for sharing.

Related Articles