Sketching in the Field
The Crafty One
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The Art and Life of Sulamith Wulfing
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EMG news for February 2008
The Crafty OneMyths and Symbols
by Marina Bonomi
Its modern popularity as a pet notwithstanding, the old agricultural civilizations did not have a very flattering view of the rat (or its mouse cousin) -- although, as usual, there was more than one folkloric and symbolic view of this very adaptable mammal.
In ancient Egypt, the ‘rat’ hieroglyph stood for ‘plague’ (the bubonic plague is, in fact transmitted by fleas feeding off rats). In Homer’s Iliad, the god Apollo is called Smintheus (from sminthos, mouse). The appellative is often translated as ‘mouse-killer’, even though, given the adjectival ancient Greek word, the alternate translation ‘rat-god’ (or god of rats, as in ‘related to’ or ‘having power on’) seems to be more accurate. Apollo was both the god of medicine and a deity linked to the fields and the harvest, invoked against pestilence but also, as we see in the Iliad, a bringer of plague. In this double capacity he was seen as ‘mouse-god’ or ‘lord of mice’, one who could protect the harvests (he was also invoked against locusts) and the lives of people, but could also send them to those that offended him or acted against his will.
Another possible association of the rat with Apollo is due to his role as god of prophecy. Just like the snake, the rat, believed to be born from earth vapours, was seen as a chthonian animal, one who knew the secret ways of the dark places and could retrieve and bring to light secret and deep knowledge. Pliny the Younger wrote that rats and mice were bred in the temple of Apollo Smintheus in Tenedos and that their behaviour was used as a way to draw omens. For example, the birth of a white litter was interpreted as a good sign. A similar divining function is given to rats and mice, as principal omen-bringing animals, by many peoples of West Africa, chief among them the Bambara.
In the Chinese traditional calendar the rat is one of the twelve symbolic animals, and (according to C.A.S. Williams) it is regarded as a symbol of timidity and meanness, but also of industry and prosperity, due to its ability in locating, acquiring and hoarding abundant reserves of food (1).
It is interesting to note that, although the Chinese for rat is 鼠 (shu) the animal is almost invariably referred to as 老鼠 (laoshu) with the addition of an honorific (literally meaning ‘old’) that is traditionally attributed only to another animal, much feared in ancient times, the tiger . Probably this show of added respect was meant to appease these two possible threats to one’s life and properties, not attracting the attention of the animals by off-hand treatment.
It is said that the rat is very smart, but uses its craftiness mostly to pursue its own ends. The legend of the twelve animals illustrates the point. There are quite a few versions of the story telling how the twelve year-animals came to be chosen, as I was told it, it goes like this:
With this folk-tale I wish you all a safe, healthy and prosperous Year of the Rat, which begins Thursday, February 7th.
1) C.A.S. Williams, Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives, third revised illustration, p.339.
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