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February 2008

February 2008 -- Rats



  • Behind the Art:
    Sketching in the Field
  • Myths and Symbols:
    The Crafty One
  • Wombat Droppings:
    Rules of Art
  • Artist Spotlight:
    The Art and Life of Sulamith Wulfing
  • Healthy Green Artists:
    Making It Last!
  • EMG News:
    EMG news for February 2008


  • The Gimp for Beginners: Two Basic Tasks
  • I Knew It Would Come To This: Painting Walkthrough


  • Poem: Smithkin's Rats
  • Fiction: Oh, Rats


  • Falheria: Rats!
  • Tomb of the King: The Map, Pt 1

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  • The Crafty One
    Myths 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:

    The Buddha, knowing his time on earth was coming to an end, asked the animals to go to him for a parting world. Those who received the message and heeded it decided to set on their journey all at the same time the following morning.

    The rat, though, was worried, afraid that he, with his small size and short legs would either be left far behind, ground into the dust by some of the bigger animals or even end as a snack for the road for some of the others (after all the snake was going too…).

    So that night he could not sleep, as snug as his nest in the ox-shed was. While he was contemplating all sort of dreadful possibilities, the rat happened to glance up at the ox, that was sleeping peacefully, and an idea struck him.

    “Here he is, big and strong. I weigh next to nothing and he has horns. If I hid between his horns he’ll carry me without even realizing it.” In the time it took to think his plan, the rat was securely perched between the horns of the ox and immediately fell asleep.

    The next morning, the animals set off at dawn and very soon lost sight of one another. Some flew, others slithered, others walked, trotted or galloped. The ox plodded on relentlessly, oblivious to obstacles or hunger. At long last he spotted the meeting place; beyond a river, under a tall tree, the Buddha was waiting.

    With a last effort the ox plunged in the river, half wading, half swimming he crossed it and, finally, knelt in front of the Buddha panting: ‘I have come, first among…’

    And just at that time the rat came down from his perch, sliding down the ox’s muzzle to land in front of him. “You are wrong,” he said, “I am the first.”

    And this is why the little rat is the first animal in the twelve-year cycle, before way more glamorous ones.

    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.

    Marina Bonomi

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