The Symbolism of a Bat. Bat in the Cultures of the World

Dodano: 12 December 2014

[Total: 4]

There was nothing but bats inside this house,

the house of Camazotz,

a large animal, whose weapons for killing were like a dry point,

and instantly those who came into their presence perished. 

Popol Vuh. Book of the Quiché People

Bat is a very particular animal. Many references to this flying mammal, often symbolising darkness and death, can be found in cultures around the world. It appears in myths, folk tales and legends of both the ancient Greeks and the indigenous people of the Americas. As we have already seen in the previous episode of this series, its presence is highly visible also in the Far East, albeit connected with a different, more positive meaning. Let’s take a look at the cultural references and, on the basis of a few examples, look for the answer to the question about the role bat plays in culture.

A bat has often been portrayed as an animal having a dual nature. It goes beyond the clear-cut classifications, so unsurprisingly, the representatives of ancient cultures treated it as a symbol of duality, indecision or duplicity (if these myths and parables were created today, it would probably be exalted as the perfect embodiment of flexibility – the quality enormously popular in contemporary culture). Myths and tales often included, for instance, its tendency to cross the border between the world of mammals and birds; depending on the situation and needs, it defined itself either as one or the other. This attitude can be interpreted as a sign of intelligence and wisdom, but it can also be an evidence of a treacherous and double-faced nature of the bat. And of course it was associated with darkness and death. Dwelling in dark caves, which in many cultures were considered to be the gateway to the land of death, permanently shaped the way of perceiving the flying mammal. It seems, therefore, that in our journey through the selected cultures, the two aspects of the bat nature can be considered as a kind of guideline: its dual nature and close connection with the world of darkness and death.

Some mentions of bats that can be found in the mythology of ancient Greece don’t diverge from what has already been said in previous sections. The bat didn’t have positive opinion among ancient Greeks. First of all, these animals were considered to be demonic beings that are in contact with the kingdom of Hades – god of the underworld and the dead. Greek goddesses Furies, that guarded one of the three realms of the underworld – Tartarus, were often depicted with bat’s wings[1]. Just like in the art of medieval Europe (analysed in the first part of this series), here the bat is also treated as an animal having a strong relationship with death and hell.

Negative associations with bats may also be influenced by the punishment sent by the gods to humans which could be, for example, turning them into bats. Such fate befell the three daughters of Minyas, the rich ruler of the city Orchomenus. Alkitoe, Leukippe and Arsippe were punished for opposing the cult of Dionysus, and instead of dancing they stayed at home and worked (they were talented and keen embroideresses). Dionysus, who wouldn’t tolerate such contumacy, made them mad at first and later: “The gods have turned unfortunate blasphemers in bats or some other nocturnal creatures”[2]. Thus, going against god’s will was punished both severely and symbolically. Turning into a bat (or “other nocturnal creatures”), symbolises the cruellest punishment. Not only did the Minyas’ daughters lose sense and their previous form, but also they were turned into animals unequivocally associated with the forces of darkness and constituting a denial of the divinity. And to think that such a fate befell them because instead of indulging in orgiastic pleasures at some Dionysian party, they decided to devote themselves to work.

However, describing the presence of bats in the Greek fables, I would like to focus not just on their links with the forces of darkness, but on their another property, which hasn’t been presented here yet. In those tales, bats were also portrayed as cunning, wise, intelligent but timid and not always fair creatures [3]. Moreover, in this context two characteristics were often emphasised: the dual nature of this animal and its ability to move smoothly between the different parties involved in disputes. Aesop’s three fables can be treated as a very typical illustration: in each of them, it is presented as an animal that doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of its dual nature depending on the situation.

The first fable, entitled Bat, birds and mammals, features a situation in which the war between birds and mammals is in the air. Both birds and mammals propose the bat to join their ranks, but it can’t decide and refuses to join either side. The war doesn’t break out but both sides turn down the bat, which now (when the danger passes) wants to join them. The bat is henceforth condemned to hide in the darkness [4]. There’s also another version of this fable, in which the war breaks out and turns out to be bloody. And the bat is engaged in this conflict, always taking the currently winning side. The finale is similar; after reaching the agreement, both sides reject the betrayer [5]. The discrepancies in the two versions of the fable arise from the fact that the original versions of the Aesop’s writings didn’t survive to the modern day. We know them only owing to the authors involved in editing. As far as the Polish version is concerned, we owe it to Biernat of Lublin who translated Aesop’s fables in the 16th century. But it’s necessary to mention that the translation concerns the material transmitted orally over the centuries, so inevitably modified[6]. At any rate, the bat appears here as a selfish character with only its own good in mind.


Bats, birds and mammals, illustration by Francis Barlow

In the second fable, entitled A bat and a weasel, a bat which falls to the ground is caught by a weasel. Thanks to its cleverness it manages to escape because it convinces the bird-hating weasel that it is a mouse, not a bird. But luck still holds, and again it is caught by another weasel. And it manages to escape again, because it convinces the weasel, who was the enemy of mice, that it is a bird; “changing its name twice, it found salvation” [7]. Therefore, we can see the animal’s cunning and ability to adapt to the most difficult situation, but it is far from behavior that ancient Greeks would describe as virtuous.


Bat and weasel, illustration by Milo Winter

There’s one more Aesop’s fable in which a flying mammal appears. However, unlike in the two discussed above, in the last the bat doesn’t change sides depending on the circumstances, but has to hide in the darkness because of its questionable honesty. In the fable entitled Bat, Blackberry and Diver, the three title characters make a deal in order to travel for commerce [8]. They all contribute to their partnership; the blackberry brings clothing, the diver brings copper and the bat money earned on usury. Everything is loaded on the ship and the three of them set on their first journey. Unfortunately, they have no luck. A storm breaks and the ship sinks. Since then, the diver looks for its copper down in the depths, the blackberry attaches to the clothes of passers-by in the hope that one day it will recognise the lost clothes. The bat is forced to hide in the shadows for fear of its creditors. As we can see, the bat again plays the least honest role. The moral of this fable is that people attach great importance to what they’ve lost and they can put a great deal of energy in trying to regain the lost goods. This is symbolised by the blackberry and the diver who persistently look for what they lost. The bat, however, experiences first-hand how much people engage in such activities. For him, the creditor, who lost their money and try to get them back, pose a risk.

It can be said that a bat in myths and fables of ancient Greece is portrayed as a cunning animal. Aesop presented it as the embodiment of opportunism. The bat always chooses the more beneficial option for itself. Such an attitude pays off sometimes, as it could avoid death caused by the weasel, but sometimes it doesn’t – as it turns out, the others aren’t fond of those who are so fickle and can’t consistently keep certain values. Modern times, at least in this respect, could be more favourable for Aesopian’s bat.

Native Americans and underestimated bat

Myths and traditions, which show the dual nature of bats can also be found in legends of the North American tribes. These animals appear, for example, in the legend describing bat’s coming to existence, and explaining the source of stickball – a traditional Native American game in which a small leather ball is hit with special bats[9]. In this case, however, in contrast to Aesop’s fables, the bat doesn’t occur as an opportunist and a betrayer.

The legend refers to the story of stickball game played between mammals and birds[10]. Two mice wanted to play the game, but the captain of the mammals’ team, a huge and powerful bear Yona, claimed that he didn’t need such small players. The desperate mice offered their services to the birds. An eagle Wohali, who led the birds, agreed to take two small rodents to the team, but decided that the new players needed some wings. And then an idea to make wings for one of the mice was worked out; two pieces of leather covering the ritualistic drum were cut off and attached to its front paws thus Tlameha, that is a bat, was created. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough skin to make wings for the second mouse. Since necessity is the mother of invention, the mouse’s skin was stretched slightly between the front and hind legs thereby forming a kind of substitute for wings. Stretching turned out to be successful and that’s how Tewa, or a flying squirrel, was created. With the help of two new players the birds won with overconfident mammals[11].


Illustration of a myth about the creation of stickball

It is worth noting that the previously mentioned game is known today as lacrosse. It is believed to be derived from the Native American competitions which, for example, in Cherokee were referred to as “the little war” [12]. Of course, details of the modern version are different from the prototype, but the idea of the game remained unchanged. In the mythical game, the bat, inconspicuous and neglected by mammals, turned out to be the key to the success of the birds’ team. The legend, describing how this amazing animal combining the features of mammals and birds was created, shows that the bat remains difficult to classify. Although it had wings and played in the birds’ team, it can’t be denied that it was born as a mammal. We can venture a statement that we are dealing here with a story accurately providing various contemporary issues related to the processes of constructing identity.

Mayan people – death bringing bat

Other features of this animal were emphasised in the myths and legends of Central and South America. In the Mayan culture, for instance, a bat played very crucial and usually sinister role. This animal was associated with the land of death or hell. Undoubtedly, it was caused by the lifestyle of these animals inhabiting dark and inaccessible caves, which were thought to be the gates to hell. In the pantheon of the gods worshiped by the Mayan people, an important place was occupied by Zotz (bat). “That god was pictured as a man with bat wings on the shoulders, rows of teeth hidden in his mouth and a big, pointed outgrowth on his face(…). The outgrowth sometimes was a stone knife, which the god used to kill his victims “[13]. Killing the victims by Zotz is a constant theme of many stories about him. It’s necessary to remember that making sacrifices including human) was an important element of the Mayan culture.


Pre-Columbian sculpture of the Bat God Zotz (Popol Vuh Museum, Guatemala)

Camazotz, in turn, is the Bat of Death, which symbolises the darkness, violence, sacrifice and death. His name consists of two words of the Quiche language: the word came meaning death, and zotz standing for bat. His job was to kill those who wanted to break into the kingdom of darkness known as Xibalbá. It was the underworld inhabited by sworn enemies who constantly harassed human communities. In the myths, Camazotz is portrayed as a god or a demon serving the rulers of Xibalbá. The Bat of Death was imagined as an extremely dangerous anthropomorphic form with the human body and the head of the bat: “The Bat of Death, The Vampire God. In the Mayan codice he was pictured with the sacrificial knife in one hand, and the victim’s head in the other “[14].


Camazotz – the Bat of Death

Popol Vuh, the holy book of the Maya, includes a parable about the struggle between the twins, Hunahpu and Ixbalanqué and the rulers of Xibalbá, in which Camazotz played an important role[15]. It is worth noting that because of the unprecedented barbarism of the European conquistadors, Popol Vuh is one of the very few written materials that provides knowledge about the Mayan mythology. “This book was written between 1554 and 1558 by one or more anonymous authors of Quiche Indians, and is a record of their ancestors’ traditions. The author (or authors), probably very talented compiler, was able to collect and literary develop oral traditions of his people, including legends stored in writing or in paintings which described the heroic deeds of ancestors”[16].

The story about the mythical twins takes place in the times before the creation of the sun and moon. Hunahpú and his brother Ixbalanqué were important figures for the Mayan mythology, depicted as excellent pelota players (ritual, pre-Columbian game played with a rubber ball) [17]. Their father Hun Hunahpu and uncle Vucub-Hunahpu, died in the land of death; they were defeated by two rulers of Xibalbá, Hun-Came and Vucub-Came, and then sacrificed. The sons of Hun Hunahpu were also summoned by the rulers of the land of death. The reason was the same – just like their father and uncle, they also disturbed the peace of the Xibalbá rulers with the pelota game. But the struggles of Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué went in quite a different way.

Two mythical twins turned out to be much more cunning than their father and uncle. They managed to escape numerous traps set by the rulers of Xibalbá – they successfully got across the river of decay and the river of blood. They survived succeeding nights in the Dark House, the House of Razors, the Cold House, the House of Jaguars and the House of Fire. However, it turned out that the most difficult challenge they had to face was the House of Bats, which was ruled by Camazotz – the Bat of Death. “There was nothing but bats inside the house, the house of Camazotza, the great animal whose deadly weapon was like a thin blade, so that those who stood in front of it died right away” [18].

Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué stayed in the house full of dangerous creatures, but they managed to avoid a deadly bite. The bats tried to get to them, but the brothers hid inside their blowpipe. In the morning, however, Hunahpu looked outside and at this moment Camazotz cut off his head. The servants of Xibalbá’s rulers took Hunahpú’s head and hung it over the pelota game place. Thanks to this clever trick Ixbalanqué regained his brother’s head and returned it to him. Eventually, the brothers managed to defeat the rulers of the land of death; Hun-Came and Vucub-Came were dismembered and sacrificed by the twins. Thus Xibalbá no longer was the land that threatened people, and the brothers changed into the sun (Hunahpú) and the moon (Ixbalanqué).


Hunahpu and Ixbalanqué play pelota with the rulers of Xibalbá

Hence, in Mayan mythology the accent is placed not that much on the dual nature of the bat, but on its relationship with the forces of darkness. As in medieval Europe, the bat is identified with darkness, death and hell. However, contrary to the European tendency to juxtapose bat to God, Maya treated this animal as one of the gods or as one of the guardians of the land of death. It was an angry, sinister and very dangerous deity. Camazotz caused great fear just with his appearance.


It’s necessary to add a few more sentences about bat’s presence in the culture of the Far East just to mention and show the specific counterpoint. As it was pointed out in the second part of the article, bats in China and Japan, unlike almost anywhere else in the world, aren’t associated with evil, darkness, hell or death. On the contrary, the bat is one of the most characteristic symbols of happiness: “(…) a bat whose name contains the same sound as the word for happiness (fu), is the sign of a good life” [19]. In the Chinese culture a bat isn’t associated with demonic forces but it can even frighten them away. This function was fulfiled by a red bat; this colour was thought to effectively scare demonic powers away [20].

We are, therefore, faced with a significant reversal of the interpretation scheme which is present in many cultures. According to the prevailing manner of interpretation, the bat is an animal of the darkness and the underworld, and as such it has a relationship with demonic forces. If it wasn’t contrary to the rules of logic, one could say that the case of China is the exception to the rule – the rule according to which the bat is an animal doomed to live in the twilight zone. Even in the myths the bat usually appears as a creature living in the dark areas of the world where death and cruelty reign. On the basis of the above review of selected myths, legends and fables from around the world, it can be said that quite an unambiguous pattern is being established. Namely, the bat symbolises duality and death. On the one hand, it’s an animal symbolising the problems with constructing a coherent identity; on the other hand, due to the fear it causes, it can be presented as the embodiment of the forces of evil and darkness. It can become a symbol of impending death. Hence, it’s not surprising that the bat has become extremely appealing to the contemporary popular culture that is as well supersaturated with mythical and magical thinking.

In the next episode: bat and popular culture

The author of the review is PhD Paweł Ciołkiewicz – a sociologist involved in the discourse analysis and sociology of media. He is currently conducting research on popular culture.

Translation: Monika Cach and Klementyna Dec


[1] W. Kopaliński, Słownik symboli, Wiedza Powszechna, Warszawa, 1990, p 255.

[2] Z. Kubiak, Mitologia Greków i Rzymian, Świat Książki, Warszawa, 1999, p 348.

[3] H. Biedermann, Leksykon symboli, Muza SA, Warszawa, p 237.

[4] [access: 3rd Dec 2014].

[5] [access: 3rd Dec 2014].

[6] M. Golias, Wstęp, [w:] Bajki Ezopowe, Zakład Narodowy Imienia Ossolińskich, przekład i opracowanie Marian Golias, Wrocław-Kraków, 1961

[7] Bajki Ezopowe, Zakład Narodowy Imienia Ossolińskich, przekład i opracowanie Marian Golias, Wrocław-Kraków, 1961, p 72.

[8] ibid, p 71. It is worth mentioning that in English translations there is a ‘gull’ instead of a ‘dipper’.

[9] Here is how the match looks like: [access: 9th Dec 2014].

[10] [access: 4th Dec 2014].

[11] [access: 4th Dec 2014].

[12] A lot of intormation concerning the game can be found here: [access: 9th Dec 2014].

[13] A. Krzanowski, dz.cyt., p 212.

[14] Popol Vuh. Księga Rady Narodu Quiché, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warszawa, 1980, p 158.

[15] Popol Vuh. Księga Rady Narodu Quiché, p 61-100.

[16] E. Siarkiewicz, Słowo wstępne, [w:] Popol Vuh. Księga Rady Narodu Quiché, p 9.

[17] A spectacular reconstruction of pelota game can be found here: [access: 9th Dec 2014].

[18] Popol Vuh. Księga Rady Narodu Quiché, p 90.

[19] P. Kowalski, Leksykon znaki świata. Omen, przesąd, znaczenie, PWN, Warszawa-Wrocław, 1998, p 348.

[20] H. Biederman, Leksykon symboli, Wydawnictwo Muza SA, Warszawa, 2001, p 238

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