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The Ancient Legend of the Monstrous Rat King


A rat king is the term used to describe an agglomeration of rats whose tails have entangled together. As a result of this entanglement, a large single entity is formed, which is usually further bound by other substances, such as blood, feces or other filth. The concept of this monstrous creature is said to have existed for centuries, and there are a number of specimens in natural history museums that seem to attest to their existence.

Rat King Origins

According to one source, the name ‘rat king’ may have its origins in an old belief which states that elderly rats known for their wisdom would sit on the entangled tails of his fellow rats. This rat was believed to have been treated as royalty by the other rats, hence giving rise to the term ‘rat king’. Interestingly, this phenomenon is not limited to rats alone, but mice and squirrels have also been found occasionally to be caught in large knots. It is unknown, though, if the old folklore applies to these creatures as well.

"Roi des rats" found in 1986 in Vendée, France ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Rat Kings Around the World

This phenomenon is most often associated with Germany, as the majority of stories about the rat king originate from this country. The existence of rat kings has also been reported in other countries such as France, Poland, the Netherlands, Estonia and Indonesia. Apart from this last country, it has been stated that two factors coincide in the areas where rat kings have been found. The first being cold winters, whilst the second being the presence of the black rat, Rattus rattus . Incidentally, it may be worth mentioning that the rat king found on Java, Indonesia, is by far the only one not consisting of black rats. Instead, this rat king is made up of sawah rats, Rattus rattus brevicaudatus .

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Bad Omens

Fear and superstitions often accompany rat kings. In particular, rat kings are associated with the plague. This is a somewhat rational connection, as rat kings are said to form when there are too many rats living together in a cramped area. With the rise in the population of rats, there would also be an increase in the risk of disease breaking out. For instance, the Black Death, though not caused by the rats themselves, was spread to humans by the fleas they carried.

Rat King, Woodcut emblem, i.a. from J. Sambucus, Emblemata (i.a. 4th ed., Antwerp, 1576)

Considering that rat kings are regarded as bad omens, they were often killed immediately out of fear of disease. This seems to be the reason for the lack of live specimens. Moreover, no credible sighting of a live rat king has ever been confirmed. Still, there are preserved examples of rat kings that can be found in various natural museums, between 35 and 50, according to some sources. One of the largest mummified rat kings is displayed in the Mauritianum Museum in Altenburg, Germany. This particular rat king, which dates back to 1828, has 32 individual rats stuck together, and is alleged to have been found in Buchheim, Germany.

Hoaxes or Reality?

Not all people, however, are convinced that rat kings occur naturally. If a group of rats were to find themselves entangled, they would most likely gnaw their tails off in order to break free and save their lives. Even if they did not do so, they would at least try to pull themselves apart. If they were to pull hard enough, they would be able to free themselves. Thus, it has been argued that it is impossible for rat kings to occur in nature.

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Rat king in the scientific museum Mauritianum Altenburg, Germany. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Rather than being the products of nature, it is believed that rat kings are hoaxes created by human hands. During the Middle Ages, certain merchants glued bat wings onto lizards in order to pass them off as dragons. Additionally, there are creatures known generally as ‘Feejee Mermaids’, which were made by sewing the top half of a juvenile monkey onto the tail of a fish. Perhaps the rat king was such an invention as well, though the purpose for its creation remains unclear.

Featured image: Picture of the Rat Kings. Photo source: TmoeGee ( CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 )


The Minotaur And Knossos: An Ancient Artistic Legacy

The Greek legend of the Minotaur and the city of Knossos have long been the subjects of artistic fascination. Merging history, mythology, and art, we take a closer look at the legacy of the Minotaur in art.

The origins of the Minotaur, half bull and half man, lie in the ruins of Knossos the main city of the bronze Minoan civilization in the Greek island of Crete. A mixture of fact and mythology, this ancient civilization revered the monstrous bull-like creature, and there are many remnants of its presence in Minoan culture. A bust of the Minotaur can be seen in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

The monster was believed by the Minoans to have lived below the palace of King Minos in a dark labyrinth. This labyrinth was designed by Daedalus, so skilfully that no one could ever escape. The Minotaur lurked among its dark passages waiting to attack his victims. No one ever left the labyrinth alive.

One idea is that the labyrinth could have been based on the plan of the building. Perhaps there was a labyrinth underneath the palace, but no evidence has yet been found. The plan of the palace itself looks like a labyrinth, and some archaeologists have suggested a connection.

The origin of the Minotaur may also be based on geographical location, as Knossos lies in the center of an earthquake zone. The earthquakes’ roaring sound was rumored to be made by a great roaring bull below the palace, creating loud quakes.

Of the many stories of the Minotaur, there is the famous legend that once a year the people of Athens had to send seven boys and seven girls to be fed to the Minotaur. One year Theseus, son of Aigeus the King of Athens, offered to take his place among the young men. He devised a plot to kill the Minotaur.

When Theseus arrived at Knossos, Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos, fell in love with him. She gave Theseus two gifts, a sword to kill the Minotaur and a ball of thread. Ariadne told Theseus to fasten one end to the entrance of the labyrinth, hold the ball and after he had killed the Minotaur he could find his way swiftly back to daylight by following the thread.

Images of the bull and Minotaur were very popular in Minoan times and the modern day depiction of the Minotaur is borrowed from Minoan artistic creations. The Minoans were a peaceful, trade faring civilization, as well as being rich and advanced.

The Minotaur is not fully human, animal or God. The ambiguity of the figure places him outside the bounds of morals and reason. Images and stories of the Minotaur still influence European writers and artists.

An example of this monstrous creature in modern Greek art can be seen in the 1961 work Theseus with Founstanella and the Minotaur by the artist Nikos Engonopoulos.

One artist who deeply explored the subject of the Minotaur in his work is Pablo Picasso. Some of his work show the Minotaur as violent a rapist and a murderer. In other works, he is depicted as a lover rather than a monster, appearing to be in a consensual relationship with women. In some paintings he draws directly on the homage to the myths of Theseus and the Minotaur and also the Minoan tradition of bull-leaping.

Sometimes Picasso uses the Minotaur to represent himself or his sexual urges, bringing out the beast in man. The Minotaur represents man’s animalistic nature. Picasso brings to life the Minoan Minotaur as a man-like beast with a timeless fascination.

#knossos #crete #greece #palace

A photo posted by Настя-путешественница (@nastyapoltorak) on Sep 16, 2016 at 10:52am PDT


2. Peplos Kore

Kore means “pure girl” and a peplos was a shawl worn by women in ancient Greece. The girl in the sculpture can be seen wearing one of these. This sculpture was created during the Archaic period and is a stylized image of Athena, the goddess of war. Athena was the least selfish and most noble goddess of the Greek pantheon.

The statue stands 1.18m high, is made of white marble, and is decorated with bronze pieces of metal all over the head and shoulders. Its facial features are beautifully carved, demonstrating the skill and artistry of the craftsmen at that time. The Peplos Kore is now kept in the Acropolis Museum in Athens.


Origins of the Myth

The myth of the minotaur is a famous legend from Ancient Greece.

Minos was the king of Crete, and the legend possibly derives from his demands of human sacrifice from other Greek cities. It is likely the ceremony was performed by a priest wearing a bull head or mask.

Also, archaelogists have found that the ancient royal palace of Crete was laid out like a maze, and that a dangerous sport similar to bull-fighting was very popular. The myth of the minotaur might have arisen from stories about them.

There are many myths about a hero called Theseus who became king of Attica in Greece. Historians have proved that a real king Theseus did once exist. He is often credited with building Athens into an important centre of power. Today it is the capital of the country


Monsters and men

The most interesting aspect of Plato’s passage concerns the “protector-turned-tyrant”, also known as the mythical king, Lycaon. Expanded further in Latin texts, most notably Hyginus’s Fabulae and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Lycaon’s story contains all the elements of a modern werewolf tale: immoral behaviour, murder and cannibalism.

An Athenian vase depicting a man in a wolf skin, circa 460 BC. Wikimedia

In Fabulae, the sons of Lycaon sacrificed their youngest brother to prove Zeus’s weakness. They served the corpse as a pseudo-feast and attempting to trick the god into eating it. A furious Zeus slayed the sons with a lightning bolt and transformed their father into a wolf. In Ovid’s version, Lycaon murdered and mutilated a protected hostage of Zeus, but suffered the same consequences.

Ovid’s passage is one of the only ancient sources that goes into detail on the act of transformation. His description of the metamorphosis uses haunting language that creates a correlation between Lycaon’s behaviour and the physical manipulation of his body:

…He tried to speak, but his voice broke into
an echoing howl. His ravening soul infected his jaws
his murderous longings were turned on the cattle he still was possessed
by bloodlust. His garments were changed to a shaggy coat and his arms
into legs. He was now transformed into a wolf.

Ovid’s Lycaon is the origin of the modern werewolf, as the physical manipulation of his body hinges on his prior immoral behaviour. It is this that has contributed to the establishment of the “monstrous werewolf” trope of modern fiction.

Lycaon’s character defects are physically grafted onto his body, manipulating his human form until he becomes that which his behaviour suggests. And, perhaps most importantly, Lycaon begins the idea that to transform into a werewolf you must first be a monster.

The idea that there was a link between biology (i.e. appearance) and “immoral” behaviour developed fully in the late 20th century. However, minority groups were more often the target than mythical kings. Law enforcement, scientists and the medical community joined forces to find “cures” for socially deviant behaviour such as criminality, violence and even homosexuality. Science and medicine were used as a vehicle through which bigotry and fear could be maintained, as shown by the treatment of HIV-affected men throughout the 1980s.

However, werewolf stories show the idea has ancient origins. For as long as authors have been changing bad men into wolves, we have been looking for the biological link between man and action.


A labyrinthine myth

Classical authors have told and retold the tale of the Minotaur. The tellings vary, but there are common traits throughout each one. Bulls, in various forms, play crucial roles in the story. In the most common version, Zeus, king of the gods, falls in love with Europa, a Phoenician princess. He turns himself into a gentle, white bull, charms her, and carries her off to the island of Crete. She later gives birth to his son Minos, who grows up to become king of Crete.

To seal his reign’s legitimacy, Minos asks the sea god Poseidon to send him a bull that he will sacrifice in the god’s honor. Poseidon duly sends a magnificent white bull from the surf. But at the moment of sacrifice, Minos, fascinated by the beauty of the animal, spares his life.

Furious at this disrespect, the sea god makes Minos’s wife, Pasiphae, go mad with desire for the bull. Pasiphae asks the Athenian inventor Daedalus to design a disguise for her so she can get close to the beast. He creates a life-size hollow cow, and Pasiphae climbs inside it to entertain the bull. The result of their union is a bull-human hybrid child she names Asterion. Better known as the Minotaur, he is imprisoned by King Minos in an intricate Labyrinth designed by Daedalus.

Meanwhile, in Athens, a young prince, Theseus is coming of age. Some years before, the Athenians killed one of King Minos’s sons, for which the Cretan king exacted a terrible price: Every nine years, Athens should send to Crete 14 young Athenians (seven maidens and seven youths) for the Minotaur to devour. Theseus volunteers as one of the sacrificial victims and vows to slay the Minotaur.

When the Athenians arrive at the island of Crete, Ariadne, daughter of King Minos, falls in love with Theseus. Before he enters the Labyrinth, she gives him a ball of thread (the idea of Daedalus the architect) so that he will be able to find his way back out. Ariadne stays outside, holding one end of the thread, while Theseus walks through the maze, the thread unraveling as he walks. When he finds the Minotaur, he fights and kills him, freeing the other young Athenians. Everyone follows the thread he left behind to safety. Finally free, Theseus sets sail for Athens, taking Princess Ariadne with him. But Theseus abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos before continuing on to Athens with her sister, Phaedra, whom he marries.


A source for the Moses story?

Some assume that the biblical story of Moses’ birth was based on the Sargon Birth Legend, but this is unlikely. Although ancient Sumerian accounts of Sargon the Great date back to his lifetime, the legendary account of his birth is known from only four fragmentary tablets—three from the Neo-Assyrian period (934–605 bc) and one from the Neo-Babylonian period (626–539 bc). During the Neo-Assyrian period an Assyrian king took the name Sargon II and likely commanded the legends to be written about his namesake (722–705 bc). By doing so, he would have linked himself to the ancient hero and glorified himself as a “revived Sargon” figure. This would suggest that the birth legend was composed for propaganda purposes well after the biblical story of Moses.


Find out more

Arthur of Britain by EK Chambers (Speculum Historiale, 1996)

The History of the Kings of Britain by L Thorpe (Penguin Books, 1973)

Geoffrey of Monmouth by MJ Curley (Twayne Publishers, 1994)

The Holy Grail by Richard Barber (Penguin Books Ltd, 2004)

King Arthur's Round Table by Martin Biddle (The Boydell Press, 2000)

Arthur's Britain by Leslie Alcock (Penguin Books Ltd, 2002)

Britain AD by Francis Pryor (HarperCollins, 2004)

King Arthur in Antiquity by Graham Anderson (Routledge, 2003)


The Great Julius Caesar

Few leaders in Ancient Rome are as well-known as Julius Caesar. In his short life from 102 to 44 B.C., Caesar left a lasting impression on Roman history. He was a general, statesman, lawgiver, orator, and historian. Most famously, he did not fight a war he did not win.

Julius Caesar was the first of the 12 Caesars of Rome. Yet, he was not the only Roman hero of his time. Other notable names in the final years of the Roman Republic included Gaius Marius, "Felix" Lucius Cornelius Sulla, and Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great).

On the flip side, this period in Roman history also saw the great rebellion of enslaved people led by the heroic Spartacus. This gladiator was once a Roman legionnaire and in the end, he led an army of 70,000 men against Rome.


Watch the video: Rat King (January 2022).