Bats: Symbols, Characters and Myths

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.

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  • Eva Leyva
    Reply

    Actually, Camazotz, the bat god in Mesoamerica, went through a few transformations of symbolism and meaning between cultures.

    Though it does start as a being of night, death and sacrifice with the Zapotec, the Quiché later combined it with their own god of fire (which was also a bat) and added it to cemeteries. The Nahua in the end made Camazotz the master of life and death. It could cure any disease but it could also end anyone’s life. It is also well endowed to represent fertility.

    It is also in the Popol Vuh story of the creation of man, it is the one to slay the second attempt at man’s creation, made out of wood, before they’re finally made out of maize, the first attempt being of made out of mud.

    There’s a lot of interesting stories and myths where the bat isn’t a just symbol of death or darkness that I would love to know more about and spread the word. There are a few of which have the bat start out as a bird, but due to jealousy, self-sacrifice or other circumstances depending on the story, looses it’s feathers. There’s one where it even creates the rainbow!

    -a bat enthusiast

  • Julia
    Reply

    I’ bats about bats . used to be scared of them. Not anymore.sorry to we are loosing them to brown nose outbreak.y

  • James
    Reply

    Thanks

  • Diana
    Reply

    The story of Leutogi, which is referenced in the article (I think), is pretty sweet and may be worthy of it’s own story. In short form, the kindness of a Samoan princess (later becomes a goddess) to an infant bat is rewarded by bats saving her life twice.

  • Donna
    Reply

    I wish this article could be printed in our local free magazine called “Mohawk Valley Living”. All I ever hear about is “the rabid bat” and how bad they are… You can submit event to the free online events calendar if there were to be any in my area at: http://www.mohawkvalleyliving.com … I found (after seeking your help) a Hoarey (spelling) bat which is native to our Adirondack park… I had never seen such a beautiful little being before, so I was very intent on saving it’s life! Thanks for the emails! Enjoy them immensely.

  • Laurie
    Reply

    Very Interesting! Although I do enjoy watching the little creatures and appreciate their value as organic pesticides, I would appreciate them more if they weren’t living g (and eliminating!!!) in my attic, which brings me to my question for ANYONE who knows such things. Our “”exclusion” didn’t work out well last year, have missed that will die of opportunity between prior to babies and after babies fly to many years, when we finally tried to exclude this year, too hard for my husband to reach the vents at top of house. There is no way to access the attic from inside (long story) without creating a hole in the deli g, which I anticipated being incredibly gross and messy after all these years. Don’t want to get I to this unless the bats are GONE for the winter, which IS my question. Pretty sure they are little brown bats, colony of approx 40. Will they stay in a warm attic over the winter or do they all relocate? I don’t want to chase them out into the cold if they are there, but have heard that they all relocate for hibernation, just doesn’t make sense to me that if they have a warm p!Ace they would relocate to a face. ANY and ALL suggestions greatly appreciated. Thanks!

    • Organization for Bat Conservation
      Reply

      Thank you for contacting us with your bat question. It’s hard to say for sure if the bats will stay for the winter in your attic during the winter, they need to be just the right temperature cold enough to help them go dormant and hibernate but warm enough not to freeze them. So it depends on the condition of your house, venting and insulation differs in each house and may determine if the bats will stay for the winter or not. If you’ve never had a bat in the living space of your house or hear scratching noises, during the winter then they may leave. It is very hard to say for sure. For more info please see our Bat Relocation page.
      Thank you!

  • Laurie
    Reply

    Sorry for all the auto correct, supposed to be WINDOW of opportunity, and hole in CEILING. Thank you!

  • Maureen
    Reply

    Love at first sight: a fruit bat at Busch Gardens’ night-lighted bat habitat. Thrill at first sight: a bazillion bats emerging beneath the famous bridge in Austin. Surely the wish to hold, to pet a bat belongs with the wish to stroke a leopard or any wild creature. We have to love them as we love the stars, breathtaking but out of reach…for we have no role in their lives.

    • Nadine
      Reply

      Maureen…that is beautiful and so true! They are an in incredible and beautiful creature and I, like you, would love to just cuddle one in my hands. But, as you said, they are a wild animal and belong in the wild without the touch of humans as do all wild animals. I don’t understand why people don’t get that concept. Thanks for putting it so eloquently!

    • Yorel
      Reply

      Maureen, that was warming to read……

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