Above: A dapper Frog and Rat, of unknown provenance (from Gerald Quinn, The Clip Art Book, 1990).
The Lunar Year of the Rat
It is the time of the Chinese New Year, and in the Lunar Calendar, the year 2020 is a Year of the Rat. The Rat, and persons born in a Year of the Rat, are said to be intelligent, diligent, creative, and adaptable. They have a keen sense of intuition (observe that rats are said to leave a sinking ship, or a mineshaft that is about to collapse). Different Years of the Rat are associated with different ones of the five elements — Metal (gold), Earth, Water, Wood, or Fire. The year 2020 is a year of the Metal Rat.
Rats and mice in ancient Greece and Rome
Rats and mice are thought to have originated in Asia. It is not known when these rodents were first introduced to Greece and Rome. It is quite likely that their introduction owes something to the vast trade routes that crisscrossed the Asiatic and Mediterranean lands. They would have enjoyed in particular the contents of the great grain fleets of the Romans. In both Latin and Greek, the words mus and mys could refer either to a mouse or rat, or one of several other rodent-like types of animal. (In Chinese, also, the word shu can mean "rat," "mouse," or other such animal). Like the rat, the mouse is also diligent, adaptable, and cozy with the human environment.
Our Quotation of the Month is from mock epic in Greek of unknown authorship and date called the Batrachomyomachia, or Battle of the Frogs and Mice, in which an unlucky mouse (or is it a rat?), although belonging to a species known for its ability to survive, drowns when it falls off the back of a frog that promised him a ride across the pond, but suddenly dives into the water.
The Batrachomyomachia, or Battle of the Frogs and Mice
The Batrachomyomachia has been variously credited to Homer (as the Romans believed), or to Pigres of Halicarnassus, brother of Artemisia, Queen of Caria and an ally of Xerxes (according to Plutarch). Others ascribe the poem to an anonymous poet of the time of Alexander the Great.
In the poem, a mouse, named Crumb-snatcher (Psicharpax) is drinking water from a lake when he encounters a frog named Puff-jaw (Physignathos) swimming across the lake. They fall to comparing genealogies, as well as diets. The mouse prefers such things as bread, honey cakes, cheese, or slices of ham and liver. He is not interested in cabbages and other vegetarian food, such as the frog might like. The frog is not interested in the mouse's food talk, but offers him a ride across the lake to visit the frog's own house. The mouse accepts, riding on the swimming frog's back. All goes well at first, but the mouse begins to regret his decision as waves arise and the land recedes. Suddenly a water snake appears, and the frog, without thinking of the consequences for the mouse, dives. The poor mouse, flailing about, screams and squeaks, but eventually drowns, not before calling for revenge from the Mouse Army (Myôn stratô).
Another mouse observes all this, and the mice declare war on all the frogs. Puff-jaw lies, saying that he had nothing to do with the problem. A tiny Homeric battle ensues, with both sides arming themselves with armor from the natural world, such as greaves made of bean pods, spears made from rushes, and cabbage-leaf shields. Zeus decides to intervene, asking Athena to help the mice. She refuses, complaining that mice are eating the garlands and lamp oil from her temple, and have even chewed holes in her sacred robe. She won't help the frogs, either, because they keep her awake at night with their croaking. The battle rages, going back and forth, and finally the mice are winning. Zeus takes pity on the frogs, and sends an army of crabs, who nip at the tails and paws of the mice. The mice at last retreat, and the war is over.
Below, in Greek and English, is the section where the unhappy mouse, thoughtlessly dumped in the lake by the diving frog, drowns, and, as he flails about, calls for vengeance upon the frogs from his fellow mice. The pancration ("all strengths"), at which the mouse claims to excel, was a combination of boxing and wrestling.
A U.S. postage stamp celebrating the Lunar Year of the Rat.
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