From: The Magic of the Horse-Shoe, with Other Folk-Lore Notes by Robert Means Lawrence [1898]



When in ancient times fields were overrun and crops destroyed by swarms of pestiferous animals or insects, these creatures were regarded either as agents of the Devil, or as being themselves veritable demons. We learn, moreover, that rats and mice were formerly especial objects of superstition, and that their actions were carefully noted as auguries of good or evil. A rabbinical myth says that the rat and the hog were created by Noah as scavengers of the Ark; but the rat becoming a nuisance, the patriarch evoked a cat from the lion's nose. In the "Horapollon," the only ancient work now known which attempted to explain Egyptian hieroglyphics, the rat is represented as a symbol of destruction. But the Egyptians also regarded this animal as a type of good judgment, because, when afforded the choice of several pieces of bread, he always selects the best.

According to an early legend, the Teucri, or founders of the Trojan race, on leaving the island of Crete to found a colony elsewhere, were instructed by an oracle to choose as a residence that place where they should first be attacked by the aborigines of the country. On encamping for the night, a swarm of mice appeared and gnawed the leathern thongs of their armor, and accordingly they made that spot their home and erected a temple to Apollo Smintheus, this title being derived from the word meaning "a rat" in the Aeolic dialect. In ancient Troas mice were objects of worship; and the Greek writer, Heraclides Ponticus, said that they were held especially sacred at Chrysa, a town famous for its temple of Apollo. At Hamaxitus, too, mice were fed at the public expense. Herodotus relates, on the authority of certain priests, that when in the year B.C. 699 Egypt was invaded by an Assyrian army under Sennacherib, it was revealed in a vision to the Egyptian king, Sethon, that he should receive assistance from the gods. And on the eve of an expected battle the camp of the Assyrians was attacked by a legion of field-mice, who destroyed their quivers and bows, so that, being without serviceable weapons, the invaders fled in dismay on the ensuing morning. And in memory of this fabulous event a stone statue of King Sethon, bearing a mouse in his hand, was erected in the temple of Vulcan at Memphis, with this inscription: "Whoever looks on me, let him revere the Gods."

Cicero, in his treatise on Divination, while commenting on the absurdity of the prevalent belief in prodigies, remarked that, if reliance were to be placed in omens of this kind, he ought naturally to tremble for the safety of the Commonwealth, because mice had recently nibbled a copy of Plato's "Republic" in his library. Pliny wrote that rats foretold the Marsian war, B. C. 89, by destroying silver shields and bucklers at Lavinium, an ancient city near Rome; and that they also prognosticated the death of the Roman general, Carbo, by eating his hose-garters and shoe-strings at Clusium, the modern Chiusi, in Etruria. The same writer, in the eighth book of his "Natural History," devotes a short chapter to an enumeration of instances, fabulous or historical, in which the inhabitants of several cities of the Roman Empire were driven from their homes by noxious animals, reptiles, and insects. He states, on the authority of the Greek moralist, Theophrastus (B.C. 372-287), that the natives of the island of Gyaros, one of the Cyclades, were forced to abandon their homes owing to the ravages of rats and mice, which devoured everything they could find, even including iron substances.

When the Philistines took the ark of the Lord from the camp of the Israelites, as recorded in 1 Samuel iv., a plague of mice was sent to devastate their lands, whereupon the Philistines returned the ark, together with a trespass-offering, which included five golden mice, as an atonement for their sacrilegious act.

In mediaeval legendary lore rats figure not infrequently as avengers. The Polish king, Popiel II., who ascended the throne in the year 820, rendered himself obnoxious to his subjects by his immorality and tyranny, and, according to tradition, Heaven sent against him a multitude of rats, which pursued him constantly. The king and his family sought refuge in a castle situated on an island in the middle of Lake Goplo, on the Prussian frontier. But the rats finally invaded this stronghold and devoured the king and all belonging to him.

Again, in the year 970, so runs the legend, Hatto II., Archbishop of Mayence, who had made himself hateful to his people on account of his avarice and cruelty during a season of famine, was informed by one of his servants that a vast multitude of rats were advancing along the roads leading to the palace. The bishop betook himself at once to a tower in the middle of the Rhine, near Bingen, still known as the "Mouse Tower," where he sought safety from his pursuers. But the rats swam out to the tower, gnawed through its walls, and devoured him. We read also in "A Chronicle of the Kings of England" that, in the reign of William the Conqueror, a great lord was attacked by mice at a banquet, and "though he were removed from land to sea and from sea to land again," the mice pursued him to his death.

In Mexico rats were anciently the objects of superstitious regard, for they were credited with possessing a keen insight into the characters of all members of a household, and were wont publicly to announce flagrant breaches of morality on the part of such members by gnawing various articles of domestic furniture, such as mats and baskets. It does not appear, however, that the rodents were sagacious enough to indicate the individual whose conduct had aroused their displeasure.

The Mexicans had also a superstition that whoever partook of food which had been gnawed by rats would be falsely accused of some wrong-doing.



The Grecian husbandmen were accustomed to drive away mice by writing them a message on a piece of paper and sticking it on a stone in the infested field. A specimen of such a message, beginning with an adjuration and concluding with a threat, is to be found in the "Geoponica," a Grecian agricultural treatise.

In the endeavor to justify the employment of radical measures against vermin, some curious questions of casuistry were involved. Rats and mice being God's creatures, one ought not to take their lives. But it was considered entirely proper to drive them off one's own domain, while recommending as preferable the well-stocked cellar of a neighbor. Formulae of exorcism, or sentences containing warnings to depart, were written on scraps of paper, which were then well greased and rolled into little balls, or wrapped about poisoned edibles, and placed in the rat-holes.

Conjurations of vermin were usually in the name of St. Gertrude, the first abbess of Nivelle in Belgium, and also the patron saint of travelers and cats, and protectress against the ravages of the smaller rodents.

The Spanish ecclesiastic, Martin Azpilcueta, surnamed Navarre, stated that when rats were exorcised, it was customary to banish them formally from the territory of Spain; and the creatures would then proceed to the seashore and swim to some remote island, where they made their home.

The public records of Hameln, in the kingdom of Hannover, state that in the year 1284 a stranger, in gay and fantastic attire, visited the town and proclaimed himself a professional rat-catcher, offering for a consideration to rid the place of the vermin which infested it. The townsfolk having agreed to his proposal, the stranger began to play a tune upon his pipe, whereupon the rats emerged in swarms from their hiding-places and followed him to the river Weser, where they were all drowned. The people of Hameln now repented of their bargain and refused to pay the full amount agreed upon, for the alleged reason that the rats had been driven away by the aid of sorcery. In revenge for this, the piper played the same time on the next day, and immediately all the children of the town followed him to a cavern in the side of a neighboring hill, called the Koppenberg. The piper and the children entered the cavern, which closed after them; and in remembrance of this tragic event several memorials are to be seen in Hameln. Indeed, some writers maintain that the legend has an historical foundation, and such appears to have been the opinion of the townspeople, inasmuch as for years afterwards public and legal documents were dated from the mournful occurrence.

An old tradition says that mice originally fell upon the earth from the clouds during a thunder-storm, and hence these animals are emblematic of storms; they are also mystical creatures, and have a relationship with Donar, Wodan, and Frigg. In Bavaria profanity is thought to increase the number of mice in a dwelling, and their appearance in the fields in large numbers indicates war, pestilence, or famine. Bohemian peasants are wont to make a certain provision for these elfish rodents; on Christmas Eve and on the first holiday of the year, whatever food remains from the midday meal is thrown upon the barn floor, and the following sentence is repeated: "O mice, eat these remnants and leave the grain in peace!" On Christmas Eve, also, peas are placed in heaps, shaped like a cross, in the four corners of a mouse-infested room, lest the vermin get the upper hand and the premises be overrun. In eastern Prussia, when the harvest is gathered, the last sheaf of corn is left standing in the field, while the peasants surround it and sing a hymn as an incantation against future devastation of their lands by rats or mice. Or, when the corn is harvested, three inverted sheaves are fixed upon the barn floor for a like purpose.

According to a Bohemian legend, the mouse was originally a creation of the Devil, at the time when Noah entered the Ark, attended by the members of his family and followed by a numerous retinue of animals. The Devil, so runs the tale, hated the patriarch for his piety, and with evil intent created the mouse, whom he sent to gnaw a hole in the side of the Ark, through which the water might enter. But God then created the cat, who pursued and devoured the mouse, thus frustrating the design of the Evil One.

The French writer, St. Foix, in his "Essais historiques sur Paris," has recorded that in the year 1120, the Bishop of Laon, in the Department of Aisne, pronounced an injunction against field-mice, on account of their ravages; and St. Bernard, a contemporary of that prelate, while preaching at Foigny in the same diocese, in order to relieve his congregation of the annoyance caused by a multitude of flies, repeated a formula of excommunication against them, whereat, according to monkish records, the flies fell dead in heaps and were gathered up with shovels.


In a treatise against superstition by a French savant, Martin of Arles, published in 1650, it was stated that the friars of the monastery of Ardennes were wont to boast that no rats could thrive in their neighborhood, and that this fact was due to the merits of St. Ulric, Bishop of Augsburg some of whose relies were deposited in their church. In this monastery also it had been formerly customary to scatter crumbs of bread which had been blessed, in places infested by vermin, and the monks believed that this procedure either caused the death of the animals or frightened them away.

Thuringian houses are sometimes cleared of rats in the following manner: Before sunrise on Good Friday morning, the master of the house, barefooted and in his shirt-sleeves, goes through every room blowing on a tiny whistle made out of the thigh bone of a rat's hind leg. Another curious method of expelling vermin from a dwelling is in vogue in some portions of the Austrian Empire. Before the dawn of a principal feast day, one must take an old shoe which has not been recently cleaned, and lay it on the ground at a place where two roads cross. No word must meanwhile be spoken aloud, but a Paternoster is to be silently repeated. The direction in which the shoe points indicates the course to be taken by the rats in their flight. In the village of Bechlin, a few miles north of Prague, troublesome mice are thus dealt with: Very early on an Easter Sunday morning, before the bells have rung for the first Mass, the peasant matron collects and fastens together all the house-keys. Then she waits until the first stroke of the bell for High Mass at noon, whereupon she proceeds to the cellar, meanwhile jingIing the keys vigorously so Iong as the church-bells ring; when they cease she retraces her steps, still rattling the keys; and these measures are believed to permanently frighten away the mice.



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