Rat Letters


"In New England, as well as in other parts of the United States, it is still believed, by certain persons, that if a house is infested with rats, these can be exiled by the simple process of writing them a letter, in which they are recommended to depart, and make their abode in another locality."
- Journal of American Folklore: Vol V (p.23)


There’s a bit of a rat problem over at the Family House.  We’ve got deterrents but I think we’d all like to avoid traps or exterminators (we don’t need to collect any more spirits in that house), so I’ve decided to have a little fun with the folklore regarding my dear ally, the rat.  Rats and mice resonate with me as a mole-person. All the mammals low to the ground who scurry in dark places and master the world by their wits are my kind of beast. Rabbits, raccoons, mice, moles and rats, they all have a phenomenal amount of magical folklore behind them; there’s even a set of divination and omens regarding rats and mice (myomancy), but one bit that goes overlooked today is the method of rat and mice removal by way of a politely written and concise letter, given to the rats to read.  

That's all there is to it really: Write a letter kindly explaining that they are no longer wanted, where they may relocate, what may await them there and a proper thank you for their acquiescence. James George Frazer's Golden Bough was my first exposure to the idea of Greek and New English "rat letters"; like most sources on this lore, Frazer's came from the same vein of sources- Greek agricultural treatise, French and Scottish anti-mice letters and lastly, the oral accounts of American farmers throughout the 19th century. These letters and their accompanying incantations are not always threats or demands, they are more like instructions; a proposition for the rats and mice that direct them to a specific place away from your stores and larders. 


"Some years ago an American farmer was reported to have written a civil letter to the rats, telling then that his crops were short, that he could not afford to keep them through winter that he had been very kind to them, and that for their own good he thought they had better leave him and go to some of his neighbors who had more grain.  This document he pinned to a post in his bard for the rats to read."
James George Frazer Macmillan, 1912, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Part 5, Volume 2 (p. 277)


It was particularly important that you state the place they are to go quite clearly in your missive- it can be a neighbors house or a barren patch in your own keeping. Point was, the mice and rats didn’t need to go home, they just needed to get the hell up outta here. The simplest charm of Rat Letters involved only a few simple steps; write a small letter to the rats (or mice, or moles) and (according to some sources) smear it with butter or grease before folding or balling it up and placing in their hole of a rat's nest- or, write the letter and place it in clear view on the wall near their entryway that they may see it on their way to and from. 


Having taken a leaf of paper, write on it the following words: “I conjure you, O mice who inhabit here, not to injure me yourselves, nor to allow any other mouse to do so; and I give you this field *(mention which one it is).  But if I find you residing here in the future with the aid of the mother of the gods, I will cut you up into seven pieces.” having written this, paste-up the paper at the spot where the mice are against a natural stone, taking care to keep the letters on the outside.  I have written this, in order not to leave out anything; but I o not believe all such things, heaven forbid! And I counsel every one not to pay any attention to such rubbish.”
- Cornelius Bassus, Geoponika


Charms and incantations to lead rats away by way of persuasion rather than extermination go far back in Western folklore- through Greece, France, Ireland, Scotland, and Americas, there are charms to dismiss rats and mice to another place; by music or note, by threat or citation. Rat-letters appear to be one of the rare regional folklore in the New World but do appear in a number of publications outside of the collections including popular women's magazines and Christian life publications of the 19th century.

In the new world, there was a good deal of humor behind the whole idea of writing a letter to the rats and it was a folklore found throughout New England, but the original sources were pretty serious about trying to get the rats to leave through peaceful-yet-dire methods, fearful of invoking their numbers in vengeance and weary of trying to annihilate the evil rather than transfer it elsewhere.  Hell, according to the Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World it was recommended in New England once to simply carry a rat and let it loose in a neighbors home, the rest would follow and settle there; delivering a message (one way or another) was a crucial point. 

While pest exorcism charms are a dime-a-dozen in folklore, the specific writing of a letter seems to be a rare and regional bit of folklore, and very cute. Scottish ejection charms were to be written legibly and in full view for the rats to see (and often accompanied by a rhyming charm) and we see this mentioned in the Journal of American Folklore, while those of the Geoponika and France were meant to be plugged into rat-holes and entryways (similarly, soap ((the enchanted kind is always best)) could be plugged in rat-holes with a small incantation spoken).  Those found in American folklore are primarily French, Scottish and English in origin and those charms were inspired in no small part by Roman agricultural lore collections of the 10th century and I'd wager that the transmission of this charm came to America by French and Scottish settlers familiar with this old world charm and its contemporary uses

As Hallows Eve approaches and the fruits drop and the corn withers, like our ancestors before us we turn to the simple agricultural rites of old, even the silly superstitions, just to feel a little bit better about the winter to come. I wondered what I could do with such a fun bit of folklore to help my family house… I settled on trying out a polite letter asking for our dear rats to depart the premises before we adopt the new house cat; except this is no simple letter, this one will be inked in banishment and censed in exorcism, and ultimately charmed for the purpose of magical persuasion.

I imagine this little folk charm could be easily adapted for hex-craft; sending away your rats to pester the home of your enemy... but I wouldn't recommend that, not unless you want that enemy sending an even more politely written letter to the rats directing them back to you.... I hope they receive my letter in good humor… but if they don’t? Cats. Always bet on cats.



Resources:

  • Geoponika by Various; Anatolius, Pliny, Brassus et al
  • Journal of American Folklore, Volume V by American Folk-lore Society, 1892
  • Charms, Charmers and Charming: International Research on Verbal Magic by J. Roper Springer, Nov 19, 2008
  • The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Part 5, Volume 2 by James George Frazer, Macmillan, 1912
  • Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World: A Comprehensive Library of Human Belief and Practice in the Mysteries of Life by Mrs. Cora Linn (Morrison) Daniels, Charles McClellan Stevans, J. H. Yewdale & sons Company, 1903
  • Folklore From the Working Folk of America by Tristram Potter Coffin, Hennig Cohen, Anchor Press, 1973 
  • Arthur's Lady's Home Magazine, Volumes 37-39 by T. S. Arthur & Sons, 1871
  • The Congregationalist and Christian World; The Conversation Corner: Rats (p. 130)

An All Hallows Party



Hey-ho for Halloween! 
All the witches to be seen, 
Some in black, and some in green, 
Hey-ho for Halloween


The Hallows Folklore Herbal...


Apples
Most of the Halloween love charms in our folkloric collections like that of the Journal of American Folklore, Memoirs of the American Folklore Society, Green Collection, Frank C. Brown Collection, Duncan Emrich, Ruth E. Kelly, C. L Daniels Collection and B.A Botkin Collection reference apples as the core fortune-game of the season (the same being true for May's Eve, and to a lesser extent, Midsummer and New Years).  Apples were split, bobbed for, counted, hung from doors, skinned and sectioned all for the chance to see a future, see a spirit, see a lover...


Pumpkin
The great Hallows fruit of the new world, pumpkins are the customary symbol of America's Halloween and its primary function for the day is decoration (jack-o-lanterns), food (flesh and seeds) and storage (of nuts, apples, candies, and brews).  A tasty dish and a fun bit of decor; these can be used for several different divination games.


Turnip
Traditionally, jack-o-lanterns had been carved from turnips in Ireland, however, when the custom came to America, pumpkins would quickly replace turnips as a staple symbol of the season as they were far easier to carve, decorate with scary faces and illuminate. 


Cabbage
In the folklore of the South, especially in places like Missouri and Tennessee, there are Halloween charms pertaining to the obtaining of a cabbage, taken especially on Halloween from a nearby garden, in stealth and either blindfolded or walking backward or both.  The stock would determine, by its length and shape, the qualities of one's future mate. In other folklore of Western European origin, is the cooking of the cabbage which has charms hidden within for partiers to foretell their future-- this was also done with mashed potatoes.


Nuts
Nut charms accompany apple games at Hallows eve; inscribed nuts would be cast in the fire, and the first to pop would tell the future.  These nuts are referenced as hazelnuts and chestnuts most often.


Evening Hymnal...


There Was An Old Witch
*Traditional Halloween Folk  Song*


There was an old witch 
Believe it if you can
She tapped on the windows 
And she ran, ran, ran
She ran helter-skelter 
With her toes in the air,
Cornstalks were flying 
From the old witch's hair.


Swish goes the broomstick
Meow goes the cat,
Plop goes the hop-toad
Sitting on her hat.


"Whee!" chuckled I,
What fun, what fun!
Halloween night 
When the old witch runs.


Opener: Dumb Supper



Set the table with the materials all backward (forks and spoons and glassware on opposite sides, courses served in reverse, etc); let there be chairs and settings left for the spirits and black candles.  The supper doesn't have to be an entire meal, it can be a small portion of it or a single dish (we're only eating a slice of pie, eating the actual dinner food later). This year, our menu is apple pie (apples, an Old World fruit, being the traditional symbolic Halloween food along with pumpkins- the New World's Halloween contribution), pumpkin pie (featured above), cooked cabbage (stolen at midnight from the garden), mashed potatoes (mashed potatoes and peas are each utilized for divinations and fortunes at Allhallows) and cider.  


Blow out the black candles to end the Supper-- one is supposed to use this moment of darkness to divine the face of a spirit in the empty chairs at the table, or in the reflection of the plates on the table.  Turn on the lights and music!


First Game: Pumpkin-Water Divination



Gather round a bowl of water (traditionally a pure white one but I find a hollowed pumpkin more fun) and fill it with the letters of the Alphabet.  Each take a turn, blindfolded, pulling out the first letter of their future lover's name saying an old charm:


"Kind fortune tell me where he is,
who my future lord shall be;
from this bowl all that I claim
is to know my lover's name.”


Alternately, you could forego the water and carve the letters on the flesh of the pumpkin as detailed by Ruth Edna Kelly in The Book of Halloween published in the early 20th century.  A blind-folded participant would use a pin to locate the initial of her love-to-be in a sort of Pin the Tail on the Donkey style game. 


Second: Apple Fortune



Gather your party around the table set with apples at every seat (apples that have been bobbed for are best).  Spear the apples with silver forks or prongs and dip in caramel! The seeds collected during the slicing process can be used in counting-out charms.


"One, I Love; two, I love; three, I love, I say,
Four, I love with all my heart; five, I cast away.
Six, he loves; seven, she loves,
Eight, they both love.
Nine, he comes; ten, he tarries,
Eleven, he courts; twelve, he marries.
Thirteen, honor, fourteen, riches;
All the rest are little witches!"


Third Game: Twelve Candle Leap



Light twelve candles and place a safe distance apart on a hard floor (this is probably best done outside but with the right sized candle (tealight, votive) and proper holders (as well as no loose clothing) it can be done indoors on hardwood or cement flooring.  In the old days, this charm was used to foretell the wedding month of the participant depending on whether or not the candle blew out or remained lit. I've adapted the charm for my own purposes; each participant stands before a tealight candle on the floor and jumps over a candle asking a yes/no question; everyone jumps at the same time and whoever's candle blows out will indicate a no.


Closer: Mirrors in the Dark



Darken the room and perform any number of mirror charms; this must specifically be done at midnight and preferably during a full moon.  Friends can sit around and in silence, count out a rhyme (this used to be done with apple slices, or with comb-strokes through the hair) to the number nine, or, to when the clock strikes midnight and, just as in the Bloody Mary games of our childhood parties, a spirit is supposed to appear in the mirror-- only not an entity, but a portent of one's future lover.


Additional Traditional Activities: scary stories, seances, shadow puppetry, candy devouring, mischief of all kinds!

Party Packs: Candy, pumpkin seeds, apple seeds (for counting), nuts for fire fortune-games, orange, black, yellow and/or white candles, placed inside a small pumpkin, hollowed out and ready for decorating! Also, you could bake some small cakes with a single charm inside for partiers to fortune game with, or, bake little soul-cakes for family and friends who come to visit.
This year, our party packs are pumpkin seeds, rock candy sugar, and acorns for fire-fortunes in a take-home mini-pumpkin.

 Witchy Movie Playlist for Hallows Eve:

The Witch
The Witches
The Love Witch
The Craft
Hocus Pocus
Suspiria (2018)
Sleepy Hollow
Death Becomes Her
Adam's Family Values

Music Playlist for Hallows Eve:

Season of the Witch- Donovan
Black Magic Woman- Santana
Sick Child- Siouxsie and the Banshees
You're A Wolf- Seawolf
Under Your Spell- Timber Timbre
Toes- Glass Animals
Get Ur Freak On- Missy Elliot
Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See- Busta Rhymes
Luv 2 Luv U- Timbaland & Magoo
Feed My Frankenstein- Alice Cooper
Devil Inside- INXS
I Put a Spell on You- Screamin' Jay Hawkins
The Monster Mash- Bobby Pickett

Fill one bowl with water, one with dirt and one with rings.  Blindfold your party guest and shuffle the bowls.  let them, choose their bowl.  A person who chooses water will marry a traveler, a person who picks dirt will be dirt-poor when wed (or be first in the marriage to their grave), and a person who picks the ring bowl will be rich when wed.

Heart of Wax


“Make a little wax figure, put some of his hair, paring of his nails and any small possession of his in the was and burn it.  This is a death charm.”- FCB, Green Collection, (5549)

"To cause the death of an enemy, mould a heart of wax and stick pins in it till it breaks. Another charm is to hold the waxen heart before a slow fire.  As it melts, the life of the enemy will depart."
- C.L Daniels, Encyclopædia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World

*gossip nails in last photo provided by Troll Cunning Forge!*
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