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Rat Symbolism & Meaning (+Totem, Spirit & Omens)

rat on the ground

Rats have been a part of humanity’s story since the dawn of civilization. Wherever human settlements are built, before long rats have made their homes. It’s no wonder, then, that rats are culturally significant worldwide. Usually connected to negative things like pestilence, plague, and filth, rats have been held responsible for the spread of diseases including the bubonic plague which once decimated Europe. (1)

In many cultures, however, the rat is also appreciated for its unique virtues. Despite appearances, rats are actually very clean animals. (2) They are also sociable, intelligent, and undeniably cute. From the many people who keep beloved pet rats to the many who detest them, rats remain a significant force in the lives of humans. In this article we’ll dive into the many meanings of the rat!

Table of contents

Rat Symbolism and Meaning

The humble rate has a pretty formidable reputation. Often, rats represent filth, poor hygiene, criminality, sickness, malaise, and death. The belief that rats spread diseases is likely contributor to this symbolic association, as is the fact that rats are common household pests who hide in places that are dark or that are not kept clean. (3)

In many cases, rats are used as derogatory symbols of people of low social status.

Freud believed rats to be phallic symbols. He also felt that they represented dirty children: screaming, crying, and biting vermin. Within this context, rats can symbolize unwanted children or unwanted siblings. (4)

white rat on a black background

While rats are sometimes associated with greed or thievery as a result of their hoarding behaviors, many traditions also treat rats as symbols of prosperity, wealth, and success. Studies indicate that rats can be stunningly intelligent. Often used in experiments, rats are highly intelligent and trainable. Thus, rats may also represent science and progress.

Many cultures treat the rat as a clever trickster figure. The Chinese zodiac begins with the rat and, as the story goes, this is due to a cunning trick that the rat pulled in order to win the zodiac race. (5)

Rat Native American Symbolism

Like most human cultures worldwide, Native American cultures have a mixed relationship with the rat. Rats are a frequent part of life and an abundant source of wisdom and inspiration, however their pest behaviors earned them spite and negativity in many Native traditions.

The Native American rat totem represents speed, dexterity, nimbleness, wit, cunning, and shrewdness.

rat portrait

The muskrat, a large semi-aquatic rodent relative to the rats which most are familiar with, is an especially important figure in Native American legends. According to the Sioux people, the muskrat is one of the four creatures which created the world. (6) In several Native traditions, the muskrat created the earth by diving to the muddy depths of the sea and bringing up a clump of earth. (7)

Rat Eastern Symbolism

In China, the rat is associated with money; when you hear a rat scrabbling around for food at night, it is said to be ‘counting money’. ‘Money-rat’ is a disparaging way of referring to a miser. (8)

One popular piece of Chinese folklore describes the wedding of the daughter of the rats. In this story, the rats try to marry their daughter to the most powerful being around. They determine that the cat is the most suitable because all rats fear cats. When they prepare to marry their daughter to the cat, though, the cat gobbles up the wedding procession. (9)

Chinese folklore states that rats have a demonic element to them. As a result, they believe that rats can turn into male demons as opposed to the fox, which turns into a female demon. (10)

two rats on a white background

Of course, the rat is also the first sign of the zodiac in China, owing its position to an episode of trickery. In Japan, the rat is believed to have brought rice to humankind and is an auspicious creature associated with industry and intelligence. 

In India, the rat is associated with Ganesha, the god of wealth and good fortune. There are temples dedicated to Ganesha which cater to large colonies of rats, treating them as holy symbols of this exalted figure. (11)

Rat Christianity symbolism

In the Bible, the Hebrew word ‘ akbar is given to a wide range of rodents, including rats, mice, hamsters, and jerboas. The rat, or the mouse, because of its destructiveness, is symbolic of evil. 

It is rarely seen in Renaissance art, except as an attribute of St. Fina, a saint who underwent terrible illness, destitution, and suffering without complaint or self-pity. (12)

Renaissance paintings depict black and white rats eating one another, symbolizing night and day. 

rat on the table

In Leviticus 11:29, rats are mentioned in the list of unclean animals which man should never stoop to eating. In the narrative of the plague, Isaiah proclaimed those who followed heathen practices lived on pigs and rats. (13)

Rat Celtic Symbolism

Many pieces of folklore surrounding rats stem from old Celtic traditions. In many cases, rats seem to be imbued with a sixth sense for predicting the future, especially when that future involves imminent disaster.

One legend states that when rats abandon a ship it is going to sink in the immediate future. Another states that when all the rats flee one’s house, one of the occupants will soon die. It is even said that so long as there are rats inside a home, it will not burn down as the rats would sense this long before it would occur and would leave en masse. So, it seems, that rats are thought of as having some kind of special sense for calamity.

rat on the table

In Scotland, the following rhyme is popular:

Ratton and mouse,
Leave the poor woman’s house,
Gang awa’ o’er’ by the mill,
As there, you’ll get all yer’ fill! (14)

Rat African Symbolism

In some African tribes, spirits of the dead are thought to visit their loved ones’ homes in the forms of rats, snakes, and lizards. Amongst those who believe this, these animals may be thought of as sacred and not to be killed.

Amongst the ancient Egyptians, rats symbolized both wise judgment and total destruction. 

rat on the ground

Other African rat symbolism meanings include spirituality, knowledge, infirmity, death, the passage of time, enmity, evil, plague, meanness, slander, and destruction. 

Rat in Dreams

Dreaming of rats often symbolizes the ugly or unwanted emotions that a person harbors beneath the surface. Feelings like jealousy, guilt, and hate may be concealed by the waking mind but revealed to us in dreams.

rat on the table

Dreaming of deceased rats or swarming rats may indicate a fear of contamination or anxiety surrounding control.

Dreaming of rats may also indicate a lack of trust in others. Deceivers and betrayers are often compared to rats.

On the other hand, a rat dream may indicate a treasured goal. Rats are industrious and creative. Dreaming of rats may be a sign to focus on pouring your heart into your work.

Rat Encounters and Omens

Rat encounters are often unhappy incidents; nobody wants to learn that there are pests infesting their home. Note, however, that rats are only trying to survive like any other creature. In some cultures, encountering a rat is, in fact, a very lucky sign. In parts of India, a rat encounter may signify the presence of the god Ganesha.

Rats often multiply the most where food is abundant and hygiene is poor. So a rat encounter can indicate both prosperity and excess, and filth and laziness.

rat sitting on a hand

Rats are very smart and can be taught complex behaviors. Encountering a rat may mean that the only way to overcome your current challenges is through creativity and adaptability. The rat reminds us of the importance of thinking on our feet.

Rats also reproduce very quickly, so a rat encounter may signify an expanding family. A rat encounter can be a lucky sign for those who are looking to conceive children.

Rat Mythology and Folklore

Unsurprisingly, considering their close proximity to humanity, rats appear as major figures in the mythological traditions of many cultures. As previously mentioned, rats are occasionally treated as trickster deities, or as messengers of various gods.

rat on the ground

In ancient Rome, rats were associated with the obscure deity Arimanius. Arimanius is thought to have been adapted from the god of destruction in Zoroastrianism. Plutarch associated Arimanius with Hades, god of the underworld. (15)

In Aesop’s fable, “The Lion and the Rat,” a mighty lion chooses to spare the life of a helpless rat. Later, when the lion is captured, the rat saves the king of beasts by gnawing through a rope and freeing him. (16)

The German tale of Pied Piper of Hamelin is the most famous folktale related to rats. In this tale, the desperate people of the town of Hamelin hire a mysterious piper to lure the rats out of their overrun city. The piper agrees in exchange for a high price. He plays an enchanting tune which leads the rats to dance into a river and drown themselves. When the piper returns for his payment, though, the people of Hamelin scorn him and refuse to pay. The rats are gone, so why should they pay now that they have no problems? The piper then begins to play a haunting melody. The children of Hamelin begin acting strangely. Enlivened by this melody, they dance after the piper who leads them to the mountains. They enter a cave which the piper seals with a stone, and are never seen again. There are historical records that indicate that some of the details of this story are partly true. (17)

Rat Spirit Animal

The rat spirit animal generally presents in people who are clever and dexterous in body, mind, and spirit. People with the rat as their spirit animal have excellent intuition and a keen sense for both danger and opportunity.

People with the rat as their spirit animal are curious and sociable, but they also tend to be a bit shy when thrust outside of their comfort zones. For people with the rat spirit animal, puzzles and problem solving exercises present irresistible challenges for their agile minds.

People who have the rat spirit animal also tend to be thrifty and resourceful. They are comfortable making as much as possible out of meager circumstances. This is due to a mix of industriousness and creativity.

Someone with the rat spirit animal may struggle to notice when they have overstayed their welcome. They are very generous, so they may not immediately realize when their behavior has entered rude territory. For people with this spirit animal, it is important to pay close attention to other people’s cues so that you may respect their boundaries.

Rat Totem Animal

The rat is adaptable; it is a survivor. This is a success-oriented, shrewd, and restless animal. City rats are pests, but it takes an incredibly talented animal to make the most out of human habitation and thrive right under the noses of mankind. The rat totem animal is a formidable force.

People with the rat totem can adapt to almost anything. Quick on their feet and easy-going, people with the rat totem have a talent for finding the best way to turn a situation toward their favor.

rat on the table

Like rats who willingly consume poison or enter traps, though, people with the rat as their totem animal may be trusting to a fault. An open mind and an open heart are great virtues, however it is important to guard oneself from negativity and deceit.

Rat Power Animal

The rat power animal is associated with wealth and opportunity. People with the power of the rat in their corner are experts at sniffing out chances to succeed and prosper. People with the rat power animal are go-getters who are never afraid to chase down many different ideas at once in the hopes that their hard work will eventually reward them.

rat on the table

People with the rat power animal are very enterprising, but may grow bored with repetetive or mundane labor. Be sure to apply yourself in all endeavors and see things through to their conclusion. No good can come from being spread too thin.

Rat Tattoo Meaning

Rat tattoos may be chosen in a number of styles and for a number of reasons. Someone may choose the rat tattoo if they were born under the rat sign of the Chinese zodiac. A rat tattoo may also be chosen as a sign of cleverness, industriousness, or creativity.

illustration of two rat heads

A rat tattoo may also be chosen to indicate survival. It is often said that no matter what happens to mankind, certain animals will persist. The rat is often counted amongst these.

A rat tattoo may also be chosen to indicate good fortune and prosperity. One might choose this tattoo as a means of manifesting a desired future.

Conclusion

While the vermin-hood of rats seems to be recognized universally as an essential aspect of these rodents, there is obviously so much more to the rat than mere pest. Many people feel immediate fear or disgust upon encountering rats, however each time a rat infestation occurs, it should be noted that these animals are only taking advantage of human behaviors. Rats are as much a part of this earth as we are and we have much to gain by respecting them and learning from their survival skills. Many scientific advancements would have been impossible without the contributions which rats have made to scientific progress.

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6 thoughts on “Rat Symbolism & Meaning (+Totem, Spirit & Omens)”

  1. May 17, 2022 Australia

    Good Morning,

    Yesterday morning I encountered a white rat in my garden. It was less than 5 feet away from me, happily sniffing around a garden bed. I was feeding my very large dog some biscuits, she didn’t see it so I put her inside the house.
    I went straight back outside and spoke to the mouse, offering a biscuit, it sat their looking at me, I tossed over a biscuit, telling it that this was not a good place to be because of my dog. It looked at me, ignored the biscuit and slowly walked away still foraging under my plants. Sooooo cute.
    I was fearful for the rat and assumed it may be someone’s pet that escaped so I set about creating a local Facebook post for my area group.
    Had gardening plans for the day but decided to stay indoors, much to the displeasure of my dog who had to go pee in another area.
    Rang my local veterinarian who agreed that it could be a pet and sold me on the white rats intelligence, and told me to try and catch it 😂 fat chance it wasn’t scared of me but I doubt it would have been pleased if I tried.
    I was watching out my sliding door, the rat was having a great time walking on my garden bed walls sniffing everything and jumping down to the ground again.
    I was talking to a friend on FaceTime about the rat and taking pics of it when it walked straight up to my door sniffing and standing on it’s back legs. Oh my goodness this is not a good idea ratty. Then it was joined by another white rat 😱
    No no no no no !!!!!
    My friend thought it was hilarious and proclaimed that they could be male and female and I could soon be overrun with grand fur babies and she would never help me in the garden again 🥺
    So I didn’t venture outside all day. This morning they are nowhere to be seen must confess I am disappointed, but richer for the encounter and your insights into their symbolism, it has changed my mind on their historical western, unflattering reputation. 🥰 🐁

    1. Hailey Brophy

      A dead rat may refer to a period of famine and can be a warning to prepare oneself for a period of scarcity. Invest in securing your needs for the future. Thank you for reading, hopefully this helps answer your question!

      — Hailey Brophy
      Writer @ World Birds

  2. This is incredibly useful for my current research on rats – thank you. Could you please share your references for all this information though? Kind regards.

  3. This was wonderfully informative! Loved all the examples and interpretations you shared! Of course in western culture rats are demonized. Typical. Haha!
    Thanks again for a great article! Thoroughly enjoyed it!

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