Life

The return of the rat king: The truth behind the mythical rodent monster… and how likely you are to spot it

By Ben Ireland

An ancient German legend, the ‘rat king’ was an urban myth that was an apparent cause of the plague.

Contrary to what you might think – and I’m looking at Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles fans – it is not a solitary evil rat leader, but instead, an amalgamation of numerous rats into one organism.

The urban myth, as it was known, may be truer than widely believed, and Crypto-zoologist Jon Dawes confirmed the conflation is not merely a figment of medieval German imaginations.

At birth, young rats – forced to cohabitate in the confines of a small nest – become tangled at the tail and become anatomically interwoven whilst they’re still growing.

Understandably, most would laugh off suggestions that such a hideous mutation exists, but, although rare, the rat king lives on.

Tangled together like a set of rodent headphones, they are fused with a combination of blood, ice, dirt and their own excrement.

Some rats can produce a litter of eight to twelve babies, and breed as often as every two or three months, so you can see why around 50 sightings have been made.

The most famous of the rat kings, found in 1828, is housed in Germany’s Mauritanium museum in Altenburg, and contains 32 mummified rodents, attached at the tail.

Our crypto-zoologist said: “The idea of the rat king being a demonic ‘king of the rats’ is just an amusing piece of folk lore.

“They are not like Siamese twins,” he added. “The same thing is known to happen in mice, and even squirrels!”


PRESERVED: A ‘rat king’ in Germany (Photo courtesy of Selbymay via Wiki Commons, with thanks.)

The bushy tails of squirrels may not be as likely to tangle together, but Mr Dawes explained that the mishap is not species specific, but a product of environment.

British people would have been glad to know that black rats are now very rare in the country, but Mr Dawes confirmed it is not confined to one type of rat.

Some believed, with the mythological links to the bubonic plague, that the rat king, or Rattenkönig, was purely an unfortunate consequence of the black rat species (rattus rattus).

The theory that the rat king is an omen for plague is not as ridiculous as you might think, given the higher proportion of rats around is likely to increase the chances of both eventualities occurring.

To put your minds at rest, however, MM contacted the Manchester branch of Premier Environmental pest control who confirmed there have been no incidents in the area.

Dave Booth, a pest control agent, said: “In any instance where a rat has had its tail caught or tangled, they usually just chew themselves free.

“In the animal kingdom, and especially with rats, if they saw anything out of the ordinary, the others would probably just attack it before it got out of hand.”

You may be wondering why a mutation of rats is described in the singular.

The etymology is interesting, as it springs from a medieval belief that the king rat was one animal with numerous bodies.

Legend has it the king perched itself on the tails of the bodies and would direct the movement of the tangled bodies from there.

The French variant, however, is rouets des rats, meaning a wheel of rats, which is perhaps more suited to the being.

However you take the tale of the rat king, the myth may be fantasy, but the truth is evident.

Beware of the rat king.

Image courtesy of Museum Mauritianum in Altenburg, via Wiki Commons, with thanks.

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