Rats have been marvelously successful, achieving world-wide distribution, in part, through their capacity to catch a ride with humans. In return, through history, we have burdened them with a disproportionate share of symbolic baggage. In medieval times, they symbolized the more frightening aspects of nature, particularly disease. These natural forces were repulsed mythically, as the Pied Piper hypnotically induced rats to leave town and return to nature.

In modern times, we have punished their unsolicited companionship by augmenting the rat as nature with the rat as culture. We distinguish the latter, white rats, from the black rats of the wild. But we have also transposed nature's black rats from their natural habitat to the frontiers of our own minds. As concern about nature as uncontrollable and mysterious external forces shifted to more directly anthropocentric concerns-- human nature rather than the natural world-- the wild or black rat became a symbol of the powerful, unknown forces within us, the beast within. The popular culture's assimilation of Freud's unconscious ("Take that you dirty, rat) refers to the most repugnant dimensions of our nature.

Culture's rat, white rats, is a construction of science. As counter-point to the beast, "laboratory rats" are controllable, standardized, and sterilized. Far from symbolizing nature's dark powers, the plague, or the inner recesses of our nature, they are induced carriers of human disease. In the culture and politics of the scientific laboratory, rats are not animals. Bereft of their individual and species-specific being, they become processes of physiological function, data points, and extensions of the hi- tech instruments of the lab. Under recent Federal legislation in the United States regulating animal research, they literally are not counted as animals. With this, the transformation from the medieval black rat as uncontrollable nature to the modern white rat as technology controlling nature is complete.

This brief sketch of the symbolic hitch-hiker's voyage of rats is impressionistic at best, and I encourage your comments. I wonder what, if anything, has been the effect on rats of another development in recent times-- rodents as the vehicle of positive ideals of culture, such as family and individual striving. I refer to Aesop's use of the mouse/rat, depictions of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu God of good fortune, often depicted riding on a rat, and, course, Disney's Mickey Mouse and Spielberg's Fieval. I would also like to know more about Classical allusions to rats and their presentation in nonWestern cultures. Finally, it has been suggested to me that ancient languages did not distinguish between rats and mice. For example, does not the Latin term "mus" refer to both? Last year, 1996, was the Year of the Rat in the Chinese calendar. By the way, two groups concerned with rats may be of interest: Rat Allies, PO Box 3453, OR 97208 and The Rat Fan Club, 857 Lindo Ln, Chico CA 95973.

Kenneth Shapiro
PO 1297
Washington Grove MD 20880


Hendrickson, R. (1983). More cunning than man: A social history of rats and men. (New York: Stein and Day.)

Kotzwinkle, W. (1983). Doctor rat. (New York: Avon.)

Wertz, F. (1986). "The rat in psychological science." The Humanistic Psychologist, 14, 3, 143-168.