The meaning of the dream symbol: Rat

Rats probably symbolize those contents of your unconscious that may terrify you on first glimpsing them. They are emotions or instinctive impulses that at some time in your past gave rise to guilt-feelings (or fears of punishment that were later transformed into guilt-feelings) and were therefore repressed. You now need to rehabilitate those rejected parts of yourself; accepting them into your conscious life. Stop trying to get rid of the ‘rats’. As in the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, getting rid of your 'rats' means losing your 'children' - that is, the parts of your personality that are weak and undeveloped and need all the nurture and care you can give them.

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The symbolism of the Rat pertains to shrewd faculties and their corresponding capacity for survival in horrid and utterly reprehensible conditions. Unfortunately, in human beings this instinct may sometimes involve relying on the selfish, backhanded or back stabbing temperament of oneself. In other words, a betrayal of allies in order to personally survive, may be indicative of the ‘stool pigeon’, or rat, (or the entire rat race) itself.

In the dream sense, our unconscious may be warning us that our personal interest in survival may be suspending, or outrightly obliterating, our basic human compassion for others. In a rather interesting variation of this imagery, the Chinese zodiac finds the rat personality as charming, honest and ambitious, yet, sometimes unable to maintain long friendships and/or relationships!

Were the rat not regarded as a frightening and even an infernal creature it might have shared the metamorphosis into a love symbol of its fellow-rodent, the rabbit, which shares its hungry nocturnal habits and its prolixity. It is, therefore, a chthonian animal, which played an important part in pre-Hellenic Mediterranean civilizations and was often associated with serpents and moles.

As Freud demonstrates in his classic analysis of the ‘Rat Man’, the creature is regarded as unclean, rummages in the bowels of the Earth, has distinctly phallic and anal connotations and is associated with notions of wealth and money. For this last reason it is often regarded as the image of avarice and greed and of sinister and shady activities. (The l Ching is at one with European tradition on this point.) Positive analysis would emphasize the creature’s fecundity and in Japan, for example, it is the companion of Daikoku, the god of wealth. The same interpretation is current in China and Siberia. This would explain why, in Freudian analysis, rats become the avatars of children, both being signs of wealth and plenty. Rats are, however, insatiable pilferers and are thus regarded as thieves.

In India, Ganesha’s steed is the mouse, mUshaka. As such, it is associated with ideas of theft and the misappropriation of riches. The ‘thief is the atman within the heart. Under the veil of illusion it alone benefits from the specious pleasures of the individual and even from the good which self-denial brings.

In the Iliad, Apollo is invoked under his name of Smintheos, derived from a word meaning ‘mouse’. The ambivalence of the title given him corresponds with the two aspects of the symbol. The mouse which spreads pestilence is the symbol of Apollo who destroys by plague - and in a passage in the Iliad the old man Chryses calls on the god to avenge an insult - while, as a harvest-god, Apollo protects the grain from the ravages of mice. In this symbolism it may be seen that the destructive role played by rats and mice is grounds for applying that role in two different ways -actively employing it as vengeance and suppressing it as benefaction. Hence arises the twofold aspect of the god called Smintheos.

This primitive, agrarian tradition of Apollo as a mouse-god who sends disease and cures it, should be compared with the Indian tradition of a rat-god, supposedly the son of Rudra, with the power to inflict and cure disease. Apollo Smintheos and Ganesha embody ‘the beneficent and healing powers of the soil’.