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Pseudoscience, quackery, “magic”, and deceptive supernatural practices meant to defraud people (often including the practitioner…for our need to believe in things is deep and desperate indeed) are as old as humankind, but I doubt that many schools of augury are quite as outwardly preposterous as myomancy, divination by means of rats and mice.

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The Romans were into augury of every sort, but they seem to have had a particular fondness for myomancy, and Pliny the Elder refers to it directly several times in his histories (although, in the end, all that study of rat augury doesn’t seem to have kept him safe from unexpected volcanic eruptions).  Myomancy could be “practiced” by freeing rats or mice and seeing which way they fled, by watching the rodents navigate mazes/pictograms, or by simply observing their lives in the wild.

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This last “wild” myomancy was perhaps the most highly regarded, yet it was also the most rare and spontaneous.  Mice and rats were sometimes thought to scream out before a disaster…or to just run away before a calamity.   If rats suddenly fled a house or community, it was thought to be bad luck of the most astonishing sort. Likewise. if a huge number of rats or mice simply appeared, it betokened a coming war or illness.  If rodents were spotted gnawing clothing (or, worse, armor or military equipment) it was regarded as a sign of incipient defeat.

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Now, animals perhaps don’t have occult connections to the forces of fate and divinity, but they have extreme sensory acuity (or sometimes they have entire senses we lack!).  Modern scientists have noticed that animals, particularly rats and mice, can predict earthquakes or extreme weather events.  Rats and mice are sensitive to air changes which betoken fire, pollution, or anoxygenic conditions.  Additionally, if a bunch of rats suddenly appear seemingly out of nowhere it is a pretty dire sign that something has gone very wrong with some fundamental link in an ecosystem.  Famine or pestilence may indeed be on the way.  The link between rats and bubonic plague is direct and (now) well known.  If rats start stumbling out of the woodwork and dying, collect all of your strongest antibiotics and RUN.

So I started this post by belittling myomancy, which certainly sounds less august than reading the stars or speaking to the dead or what have you.  However, on closer examination, it seems like myomancy might provide some real and useful information, which other schools of augury lack entirely.  This is not because myomancy is magical, but instead because rats and mice are clever and sensitive and must stay hyper-alert to survive in a world of poisons, predators, giants, and catastrophes.  Pliny the Elder was one of the forefathers of the natural sciences–perhaps we can still learn some things from him (see more next week), so keep an eye out for mysterious rodent happenings.  You never know what they will tell you! If Pliny hadn’t gotten distracted by the giant mushroom cloud above Vesuvius, he probably would have noticed rats running the other way as fast as they could.

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Eastern Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum)

Eastern Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum)

Thanks to a milk snake, I now have a beautiful new set of cookware!  I know that sounds like a Russian fable or something that happened on a sadistic Japanese game show, but it is true.  For years my mother has kept an extra set of hard-anodized nonstick cookware along with a full surplus set of spatulas, whisks, tongs, etc…  The other day one of her spatulas broke and she went out to the garage to find a replacement.  She reached her hand into a dark dusty drawer of dark red kitchen implements and pulled out a dark red eastern milk snake!  Eek!  Apparently the little reptile had been living in the spare utensil drawer and subsisting on field mice which sometimes seek shelter in the garage.

Red Spatula

Red Spatula

After this unfortunate encounter, Mom decided that she had too many pots and pans lying around–so actually the snake was just a catalyst and, as with most of the good things in my life, I have my parents to thank for my new dishes.  I don’t need to join a snake cult just yet (although it is always in the back of my mind).

The eastern milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum) does not merely startle parents and dispense fancy pots, pans, and spatulas.  The snakes, which range from Ontario down to Alabama are a species of kingsnake.  Milk snakes often live on farms where they prey on the local rodent populations (although the snakes can also be found in meadows, fields, and forests).  Since milk snakes have always been frequently spotted in dairy barns, our credulous forbears believed they milked livestock.  This is obviously a myth since, even if serpents did enjoy dairy, they would hardly wish to venture among they heavy sharp hooves of sheep, cows, and goats, however it has provided the milk snake with a colorful name.

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Like the mighty giants of the snake world, milk snakes are constrictors, which wrap up their prey within a suffocating coiled embrace.  Milk snakes, however, are little: adults range in size from 60 to 91 centimetres (24 to 36 in) in length.  The baby snakes are only a few inches long and they are insanely colorful (although the beautiful bright red fades to maroon, rust, or brown as they grow older.

The milk snake in the garage was escorted out to the field.  The snakes live up to 12 years in the wild and it’s good to have them around since they eat pests.

And what is the review of my new pots?  Of course I was extremely excited to use my lovely new cookware which can be used in the oven as well as on top of the stove.  I turned the oven on and waited eagerly for the little beeper to let me know when the temperature was hot enough to cook…and then I waited and waited and waited.  I guess the wild electrical surges that have been hitting the grid must have knocked out the little electronic lighter/valve in the oven—so no more baking for me until we get that fixed (or convince the landlady to buy a new range).  It also seems like a Russian fable that I have wonderful new pots but no oven…

Is this snake laughing?

Is this snake laughing?

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