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The Rat King

To me, New York means rats.

I first visited New York back in 2001, just a month prior to the events of September 11th. Rats have been visiting me symbolically and most heavily in my dreams many months before. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve experienced both in the same year, or maybe it’s because NYC is considered the rat mecca of the country that I associated the two together in the first place.

The curious thing about it all is that I have never once seen a wild rat, the primary focus of my obsession, before my most recent trip to the Big Apple. Since ’01 I began keeping domestic specimens of R. Norvegicus, an animal that is as different from the wild rat as a dog is from a wolf, but like the two, still possessing numerous similarities in trait and character. The pitter-patter of little rodent feet traveled from the realm of my dreams into my physical habitat. Somehow it wasn’t quite enough though. Something continued to gnaw incessantly on the periphery of my consciousness.

My most recent trip to NYC happened in mid-February of this year, roughly ten days after the death of my four-year old rat Mina, and roughly a week after the arrival of my fiancee from Germany. Throughout the trip I recounted the long legacy of rats (mostly all female), and the lessons they’ve taught me. I can say with the utmost confidence that any animal, however small, that comes into your life can change it forever. Mina certainly did. But in their own way they all did.

We stood on the subway platform, my fiancee and my parents and younger brother, killing time and waiting for the next train to arrive after a brief delay. I was zoning out, staring into the rails below. It was a long day with lots of walking, and I was exhausted. Suddenly, a portion of the sludgy grayness below jumped to life and began to move, darting suddenly across my vision. I blinked once, then twice, until I realized what I was looking at. It was a wild rat. I took off running down the platform alongside it, snapping pictures on my iPhone, and watching as a second and then a third appeared, prancing along the rails.

The Rat King finally decided to reveal himself.

The mythical Rat King has one of two origins. The first and more folkloric origin of a ‘rat king’ is when a bunch of rats become connected by their tails, and end up growing together. These mostly involve black rats.

There is yet a more contemporary and postmodern take on the rat king, one reported by municipal workers, police officers, exterminators, and many others. The Rat King in the postmodern age is an exceptionally large male rat, one commonly seen leading a pack of other rats.

From a postmodern shamanistic perspective, to me the Rat King represents the all-encompassing rat totem. The Big Rat.

To work with the Rat King is to work with an agent of balance and in-betweenness. In the West, poverty, the slums and misfortune are associated with rats. Poor housing. Disease–the rat was considered the main transmitter of the plague in Europe in the Middle Ages. In the East, when the rice harvest was good and the stores were full, people found rats. They symbolized abundance, wealth and plenty. While visiting the Chinatown district of NYC, my fiancee gifted me with a statue featuring a golden rat, seated upon a bed of coins, and surrounded by baby rats. A very classic and common figure of the rat in Eastern symbolism.

Two sides of the same coin. Balance and rhythm. Family, community, survival and persistence. Knowing and appreciating your origins. Where you are and where you are going.

This will be a first in a series of posts on my dealings with the Rat King, as well as rat symbolism and other related totemic and animistic information on things rat.

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  1. March 19, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    Oh, I can definitely see that (re the postmodern image of the Rat King)–close to how I tend to see Rat (as opposed to little-R rats), even did a bit of an inspired pic I don’t think I’ll ever be able to pull off again as a result…

    And I’m not surprised it would be in NYC. New York seems to be pretty firmly associated as a Rat City anyways. :3 (Certainly more so than Chicago, at any rate. Nobody ever talks about humongous Chicago rats.) What better place for Rat to hang out than the big city famous for its rats?

    You’re quite lucky for seeing that, IMHO. :3 And looking forward to seeing more in this series…

  2. March 19, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    Hmmm. This is some good food for thought. Do you mind x-posting it to the totemists comm.?

  3. Phil
    March 19, 2009 at 8:59 pm

    When you say “Rat King,” alas, the first thing I default to is the TMNT character of that name…Even worse, that character was not from the good ol’ B&W comic phase of that franchise, but from the color/TV show version. Alas…

    However, despite the action figure being marketed as a “bad guy,” the appearance of him on the show the one time I saw him was much more ambivalent–he appeared in the sewers and helped the turtles get to where they were going, and didn’t seem to be too stand-offish or upset for having done so.

    Trite, I know; but still, even in pop cultural manifestations, sometimes there can be an unexpected message, no? 😉

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