Gearing up to represent the rat in a Chinese Zodiac art show I have been doing a spot of rodent reading. Turns out in my art practise, which is also my life practise, I display an array of metaphorical rat traits. Here is a passage about the rat as a symbol from the Wild Animals section of The Book of Symbols, Reflections on Archetypal Images, (Taschen), which magically arrived in my mailbox after a few clicks of a mouse from Matt Dooley in November. I have highlighted the most relevant parts in pink, for browsers.
Rats and mice are hard to pin down. Elusive by nature, surreptitious, they appear and disappear like diminutive magicians. Living in tandem with human beings, they are always coming from behind. They shadow us wherever we go, perpetual stowaways on our voyage through history and our passages to brave new worlds. They slip through the cracks of our physical and psychic terrain, privy to our closeted and cupboarded secrets. Like time, hunger and guilt they gnaw incessantly. They personify the labyrinthine restlessness beneath the surface of things. Their edgy commensalism is not widely appreciated. Vilified as vermin, feared as vectors of disease and death, despised as voracious plunderers of our amber waves of grain, mice and rats mostly exist at the margins. Denizens of basement and attic, sewer and alleyway, they furtive rummage the mountainous dumps of our collective rejectimenta. And yet, observing at dusk a happy group of rats recycling discarded Halloween treats or watching through the window of a passing bus the unmistakable silhouette foraging single-mindedly in the snowy darkness, you have to admire their tenacity, their eerie ability to beat the odds.
Like all rodents, rats and mice have prodigious incisal power. They can gnaw their way through just about anything, including brick, wood and lead. Unspecialized, omnivorous, they can adapt to almost any climate and resourcefully avail themselves to whatever they find at hand. The most prolific of any mammal, they persist, by sheer numbers, against the onslaught of their raptorial, mammalian and reptilian predators and the relentless persecutions of humankind. Curious, sociable, agile; endowed with an excellent sense of smell, fine-tuned hearing and taste-buds as sensitive as ours, mice and rats are portrayed in folklore and popular culture as heroes, helpers and even 5-star restaurant chefs. Gnawing through a net to free a trapped lion, dropping down a drain to retrieve a wedding ring, sewing intricate buttonholes a tailors hand can no longer manage, mice are suggestive of the small, invisible, intricate workings of the unconscious to overcome obstacles, even without our conscious participation. So, also, the rat companion and "vehicle" of the Hindu deity Ganesha chisels the knots that tie us up and gains entry to the bolted treasures of the psyche. As emblems of fertility, both mice and rats - especially white ones - can signify wealth, good luck and abundance, as in The Chinese Year of the Rat.
On the other hand, as secretive creatures active after dark, rats and mice are inevitably associated with subversive occult forces and devouring influx. Notorious as hosts of the fleas that spread Bubonic Plague to millions of people in the Middle Ages (and also killed millions of rats), they are mythic harbingers of scourge. Rats leaving a sinking ship, or mice scurrying from a house are familiar omens of imminent misfortune. Paradoxically, troops of mice and rats are often depicted in folktales as vehicles of a just vengeance, the executioners of those who escaped rightful punishment, especially for crimes against the poor and hungry.
There is a rat or mouse element within many of us: a small, feral, chthonic aspect of ourselves reprehensible in the eyes of the collective. It is tempting to relegate this "rat" to the furtive edges of consciousness, where it will remain all but invisible. But if we are willing to engage it, to give it a respectful space within which to reveal itself, its energy can become an invaluable ally. Oracular, with its ears close to the (under) ground, it can warn us of the dark patches, and mediate our way through them. It will teach us a kind of psychic street smarts, instill a scrappy determination to survive and, ultimately, reveal itself as the deity in disguise.