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The Rat in Mythology and Folklore

When the water reaches the upper level, follow the rats.

No matter where you look; in history, society, folklore or mythology, the Rat carries with it the stain of darkness. It’s a product of its nature. The rat skulks and scurries, it carries an array of diseases, feeds on carrion, trash and will even feed on helpless humans if the opportunity strikes. Their very natures can inspire nightmares, and their myths and folklore follow the same trend.

 In Greek mythology the rat is associated with Arimanius – a dark god tainted by evil. In folklore? The rat is a combination of misery and bad luck and serves as a warning bell for disasters. In history it was once believed to be the single cause of the most vicious disease to tear across Europe; the Black Death. And due to its tendency to swarm and skulk in the depths of sewers, to gnaw, gnash, squeak and bite, in society it is feared and reviled for its very nature.

Superstitions range from the age-old beliefs from Europe that if a rat should jump off a ship, the ship was doomed to sink. If a Rat gnaws your clothes, you will die. A great increase in the rat population is an omen of impending war, see a rat in a mine and a cave-in is eminent, and if rats abandon your house, be sure to heed the warning and leave quickly, as a fire is most likely about to consume it.


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In Rome crucified bodies were often used to frighten off would be attackers or pillagers. Vlad the Impaler did the same, dead bodies were displayed in grotesque fashion as warnings. As the farmers needed to keep their lands safe, it is possible that Scarecrows (human like effigy’s) were rather used as a means to stake claims. Showing to all the world that this farm belonged to someone, and that they should think twice about trying to steal something or even set foot on the land. They are after-all made to look like crucified men.

Another possibility for the Scarecrow’s function is far more spiritual than territorial. In Europe the tradition of Corn Dollies might suggest a possible function for the Scarecrows. The tradition goes that the spirits of the corn fields resided within the fields, however after the harvest, the spirits had no home, and so the Corn Dollies were made. Simple designs to be hung around the neck or in the home of the farmers to give the spirits a home until the new fields were ready.

It is possible that the Scarecrow served a similar sort of function. Perhaps they hosted a home for something sinister, like ghosts? Seeing as some terms do suggest a more spiritual origin, like the Bogal. They might have been burned at the end of the harvest to ensure the evil spirits, which had been drawn in during the summer, where then disbanded. Cats were also burned in European times for both entertainment and to ward off evil spirits. However, in regards to the Scarecrow this is only conjecture and guess-work, as no proof has ever been found that they were burned.

However, Scarecrows, despite what we might think, were not always stationary. A scarecrow could also come in the form as children who hid in straw huts and chased the birds when they landed. One theory goes that during and after the nine-year plague of the 14th century, children were in short supply and so they started using other methods, like stationary men to frighten away the birds. Also, Scarecrows need not always be human shaped figures. Japan’s Kakashi’s (scarecrows) for example applies a more functional device. They are made up of shimmering string, pots, pans and other items that would frighten a bird. It is very possible that this sort of device used in Europe, but somewhere tradition replaced it with the effigy of a crucified man.

Whatever the Scarecrow was once used for its purpose today is moot. There is no reason to keep the strawman in our fields. Yet the scarecrow remains. Our own fascination and its own symbolism keeping it safe from disappearing entirely, its function a symbol of the time and its dark silhouette a place for our imagination to nestle and grow.


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