Rat Letters

12:00:00 PM


"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)

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