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 unfrequently 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.
Rats and mice were not, however, the only agents employed as avengers. In the year 350, during a long siege of the Roman stronghold, Nisibis, in Mesopotamia, by the Persian king, Sapor II., the inhabitants besought their bishop, St. James, to utter a malediction against the enemy. Accordingly the prelate, standing on one of the wall towers, prayed God that a host of flies might be sent to attack the Persians, and tradition has it that the prayer was answered at once. A multitude of the insects descended upon the besiegers, their horses, and elephants; and men and animals, thus goaded to frenzy, were compelled to retreat, and so the siege was raised. The Philistines of old worshiped a special deity, Beelzebub, to whom they attributed the power of destroying flies. This same region is still infested with insect plagues; but the modern traveler, who has no faith in Beelzebub, is more likely to employ fly-traps and energetic practical measures.
Such are a few instances of the supernatural employment of vermin and insects as instruments of vengeance; and we need hardly wonder that, conversely, people in olden times should avail themselves of supernatural methods in order to protect themselves or their property from the ravages of these noxious creatures.
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.