In a recent interview, Jordan Peterson attempted to sound impressive by explaining to his host what a Rat King was, but ended up reciting a scene from James Bond as if it were true. Of course, the constantly controversial Peterson has since been criticized for this blunder, but it does highlight the fascinating and potentially real phenomenon that goes by the name “Rat King”, but it isn’t what you think.
During his recent appearance on the This Weekend Past podcast, Peterson commented on host Theo Von’s T-shirt, which displayed an image of a crowned rat. After learning that Von’s friends refer to him as “Rat King”, Peterson launched into an explanation of what a Rat King really is.
“Do you know what a Rat King is? Oh my God, it's a terrible story," Peterson confidently proclaimed.
He then went on to essentially retell – though without reference to the source – a half-remembered story about rats being turned into cannibals in order to kill off other rats in a specific location.
“There is this theory, this is the theory, I don't know if people ever did this, but imagine your village is full of rats. So you go catch 10 rats and throw them in a pit... soon there is one rat because he gets all the other rats, he's a champ."
Then, Peterson explains, you throw in ten more rats and repeat this procedure several more times until you have one last rat that now has a taste for its rodent kind. You then release this monstrous creation to wreak havoc on your local rat population.
“And soon there are no rats in the village, really. So it was like the toughest of them all and then he learns to eat rats", Peterson explained.
However, Bond fans have pointed out that Peterson’s “Rat King” explanation has a more than close resemblance to the fictional story told by Javier Bardem’s villainous character in Skyfall. And, unfortunately for Peterson, there does not seem to be any actual evidence that this little anecdote has a basis in reality.
However, the name Rat King does relate to a potentially real rodent phenomenon, which has nothing to do with acquired cannibalism but is much much weirder. You may or may not wish to continue.
All hail the Rat King
Rat Kings are not super-sized cannibal rats or the leaders of some subterranean fantasy realm built by chittering armies. In reality, a Rat King refers to a reported phenomenon where a bunch of rats become entangled by their tails and form a grim rodent mass. Although it is not clear whether Rat Kings are actually an urban legend, there have nevertheless been reports about them for centuries.
In the 1500s, stories of Rat Kings started to spread across Europe from Germany around the time that Lutheranism was growing in influence. It seems the lower classes were becoming increasingly frustrated with the ruling elite, whom they referred to as Rat Kings – corrupt leaders exploiting the lives of the common folk. It is believed this idea stemmed from the term Rattenkönig – an insult thrown at the Pope that likened him to elderly rats who were thought to make their nests among the tails of their younger subordinates. If the tails became entangled, the elderly rat would then supposedly live off the labors of the scurrying underlings.
Martin Luther even referred to this metaphor when he said “finally, there is the Pope, the king of rats right at the top.”
It seems the idea stuck.
But what evidence is there for these monstrous amalgamations outside of folklore? Well ever since then, various specimens have turned up from various locations. However, scientists and historians are hesitant to say they are real examples of Rat Kings. This is because we cannot rule out trickery, especially when many specimens come from periods in history where hoaxsters liked to blend animals together to create the remains of supposedly mythical creatures. However, researchers in Estonia have identified 58 “reliable” Rat King specimens, six of which can be viewed by the public today.
To date, it seems the phenomenon has only been recorded in black rats (Rattus rattus), but it has also been seen in other rodent species. In 1951, a zoo in South Carolina reported the existence of a “squirrel king”. Then, in 2013, another bunch of entangled squirrels were saved in Canada and another group was recorded in a park in 2017.
If the Rat King phenomenon is real, then there are various reasons why this may occur. Some have speculated that maybe the rat’s tails become knotted during birth and effectively glued together by the afterbirth. Others have suggested that rats may coil their tails together to comfort one another when stressed. The idea here is that they then get accidentally enmeshed. Finally, some believe the rat’s tails get stuck together when they huddle for warmth. A mix of sticky substances like sap, food, frozen excrement, and sebum then forms to glue them together.
Whatever the causes, it seems the Rat King may well be a real and far more interesting thing than the villainous rantings of a fictional Bond character.
All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.