rats


rats
   Regarded as uncannily intelligent, hostile to humanity, dirty, and destructive. They are supposed to foresee the destruction of any house or ship they are living in, and to abandon it; hence the proverbial saying that 'rats leave a sinking ship'. *Fishermen think they must not be named on board, and say 'long-tails' instead (Gill, 1993: 86); an East Anglian girl told the Opies in 1953 that one should only speak of a rat as 'Joseph', to avoid bad luck (Opie and Tatem, 1989: 322-3).
   Plagues of rats were regarded as sinister. Charlotte Latham was told of a Sussex man whose cottage was said to be full of evil spirits in the form of rats; every night one would hear him cursing them and begging them to leave him in peace, and his neighbours thought they would eventually carry him off to Hell (Latham, 1878: 23). Charles Dickens recalled a terrifying tale his nurse used to tell him, about a carpenter who 'sold himself to the Devil for an iron pot and a bushel of tenpenny nails and half a ton of copper and a rat that could speak', and thereafter is so tormented by this rat that he tries to kill it, only to find himself haunted by dozens of them. He is pressed for a sailor, and finds rats on board, led by the speaking rat, gnawing the ship to pieces; nobody believes his warnings, and all are drowned (Dickens, The Uncommercial Traveller, chapter 15).
   Similar horror surrounds sewer rats. An elderly eccentric man in Worthing (Sussex) in the 1970s firmly believed that armies of them would emerge and overrun the town if he did not regularly scare them away by noisily thrashing lamp-posts and railings JS]. In Manchester in 1981, a woman told how, when her father-in-law was young, he once saw a horde moving from one part of the town to another, led by a King Rat, 'the biggest rat of the whole shebang' (Bennett, 1988: 17-18).
   A very different tradition is remembered in the families of 'toshers' who worked in London sewers in the late 19th century. They believed in a character called the Queen Rat, who could turn into an attractive girl and seduce any tosher she fancied; if he satisfied her, she would see to it that he had good luck and found money and other valuables lost down the gratings - provided he never boasted of meeting her, for if he did he might get drowned. Usually the man did not guess who she was, for she looked quite human, except that her eyes caught the light like an animal's, and she had claws instead of toenails; however, she might give him a rat-like love-bite on the shoulder or neck. The children a man had with his human wife after having been with the Queen Rat would have one blue eye and one grey one, grey being the colour of the river (Liz Thompson, FLS News 21 (1995), 5; 22 (1995), 4-6).
   Most people, however, wanted to get rid of rats. Like *mice, they were believed to respond to magic; a Cornish rat-charmer of the 1950s worked by whistling, which 'seems to have a hypnotic effect on rats, causing them to crawl to him, or, if fleeing, to stop: whereupon the rat-charmer is able to pick them up and subsequently to dispose of them' (Folk-Lore 64 (1953), 304).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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