Rat Tales From Around the World

Rats have pretty bad press, none of which was helped by the Black Death. Still, where there are people, there are rats; likewise, where there are people, there are folktales and myths, and thus our pestilent rodent companions have burrowed their way into almost every culture. Here, then, are a small, non-representative sampling of rat tales from around the world.

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Europe: the Rat King

Rat King
Rat king from Dellfeld, Germany, found in 1895. Currently on display in the Musée zoologique de la ville de Strasbourg, France.

What makes the Rat King truly disturbing is that isn’t fictional at all; finding a “wheel of rats” was a reality for many Europeans, and it typically was seen as a bad omen….

A harbinger of the plague.

It was also a slanderous insult: for instance, Martin Luther, the most celebrated figure behind the Protestant Reformation, frequently used the term to describe the Catholic Pope.

Another interesting bit of folklore trivia: the novella that Tchaikovsky based The Nutcracker on, E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, featured a “Mouse King”, or Mausekönig, which was a multi-headed mouse, a variant on the Rat King.

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India and Southeast Asia: Mooshika and Ganesha

In Hindu cultures, which are present through-out Southeast Asia, one of the most popular deities is the elephant headed Ganesha.

mooshika2
Bronze Ganesha; note the creature at the bottom right

Ganesha creates and removes obstacles, which makes Him an embodiment of paradoxes.

Given that, what could possible make a better ride than a mouse? After all, aren’t elephants supposed to be scared of these critters?

Apparently, not Ganesha. His Vahana, or vehicle, is named Mooshika, and he is a rat…

Mooshika
Mooshika, Ganesha’s Vahana (vehicle)

Incidentally, a Mooshika/Mushika kingdom existed in South India for quite a while; they’re even mentioned in the epic poem the Mahabharata. Their last related representatives are the Travancore dynasty, who have made several unwanted guest appearances on Ancient Aliens due to a mysterious, still sealed vault at the base of one of the many temples they built, the Padmanabhaswamy Temple…

vault b
Are there Ancient Aliens/Rats/Pots of Gold hiding behind vault B? We may never know…

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China: Cats and Rats and Zodiacs

One notable animal not in the Chinese Zodiac is the Cat. The Rat, on the other hand, starts of the procession:

Chinese_Zodiac_carvings_on_ceiling_of_Kushida_Shrine,_Fukuoka
Image of Chinese Zodiac, ceiling of the gate to Kushida Shrine in Fukuoka

So where is the Cat?

Apparently, when the Jade Emperor was preparing the zodiac, all of the animals were invited. The Rat either let Cat sleep in, or in a more malicious telling, pushed the Cat off of the Ox’s back while they were crossing a stream to get to the Jade Emperor’s palace. Either way, the Rat got there first, and the Cat never made it.

And that explains the relationship between cats and rats…

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Japan: the Rat King’s Daughter

The Rat King was very proud of his daughter, whose beauty was unquestioned. Therefore, he wanted to find her the most suitable husband.

She, on the other hand, was enamored with the Old Grey Rat.

This, of course, would not do for his precious princess.

And so he started searching for a perfect match.

*

After much consultation with his advisors, he decided that the Sun was a worthy husband, and so he approached the Heavenly Light.

The Sun smiled, and pointed out that the Clouds were mightier than him, since they could block him out.

“Hmmm…” thought the Rat King.

*

The Rat King then went to the Clouds, offering his fair daughter as a bride.

The Clouds smiled, and then pointed out that the Winds were stronger, since they moved the Clouds.

“Hmmm…” thought the Rat King.

*

The Rat King then proceeded to the Winds.

“Sorry,” replied the Winds. “The Walls of Man are greater than me, since I can’t blow them down.”

“Hmmm…” thought the Rat King.

*

The Rat King went to the Walls, expecting to finally marry off his daughter.

The Walls benevolently pointed out that there was one who was even greater;

The Old Grey Rat, because even the mightiest Wall can be undermined by a Rat.

The Rat King sighed, and allowed his daughter to marry the Old Grey Rat who she had desired all along.

*

What’s the takeaway?

Nothing. Rats are still awful critters.

Steamboat-willie
An example of a terrifying Rat, somehow still copyrighted by the people who now bring you Star Wars.

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