As human beings and nature have interacted across time, it is evident that impressions have been formed in human culture and art of not only nature as a broader construct, but of the many components that make up our ecosystems, and to this, bats are no exception. By now it is known that bats are critical components and contributors to the ecosystems and biomes they call their homes, carrying out critical processes such as pollination, seed dispersal, and in our backyards, often prey on insects such as moths, beetles and mosquitos. Along with this, bats are inherently harmless to humans and, contrary to popular belief, very rarely do they carry rabies (less than 1% of bats carry the rabies virus and transmit it). In light of these facts, of bats being less harmful than their mythos portrays them to be, it does beg the question of why we view them as such in the first place.
A common theme across world cultures surrounding bats, deals with the bat’s nocturnal behavior, dubbing it a ‘creature of the night’. In western culture, bats are often associated with the occult, often linked to myths and tales of witches and black magic. This link was particularly cemented with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where bats would now be implicitly connected to the eponymous villain of Stoker’s novel, due to their association with the night, and the entire order of bats would now be linked to the sanguivorous behavior of the sub-family of vampire bats, which live far away from the setting of Dracula.
These negative perceptions are also found in the mythologies of the indigenous peoples of the Americas as well. Among some North American peoples such as the Apache, the Cherokee and the Creek, bats have been described not necessarily as evil in the way we see in European folklore, but more so as tricksters. Amongst Mesoamerican peoples, bats are often associated with death and the underworld, and amongst the Zapotec and Moche peoples, was associated with funerary rituals and items. In the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, in the Templo Mayor, a statue of a man-bat was known to be an idol of an Aztec god of death.
Still, not all human myths around bats have been in this form. In medieval Spain, bats were used as common heraldic symbols for cities, as well as being the symbol of King James I of Aragon, due to the association of the bat with dragons, as well as a tale of a bat’s intervention that allowed King James to win the territory of Valencia. In the islands of Tonga, bats, particularly flying foxes, are viewed in a divine and sacred context, being seen as a personification of the soul. In China, bats are viewed as lucky symbols, duet to the Chinese word for bat (fu 蝠), which sounds identical to the word for good fortune (fu 福).
From this, what we can learn is that bats do embody multiple things culturally to many people, as well as having historical reputations that do somewhat undermine the critical role they play in the world’s ecosystems, and do perpetuate their unfair and misunderstood reputations. It becomes critical for us now to re-evaluate the relationship between humans and bats, not as Human and Creature, but as intricately connected parts of a broader planetary balance.
Aditya Sriram Tiwari was a former-intern with the Organization for Bat Conservation.