Volume 9
Issue 1

Bats have fascinated people for thousands of years— especially in the New World tropics where more kinds of bats live than anywhere else in the world…

by Elizabeth P. Benson

South America is a land of contrasts. Across the equator, the Andes raise snow-covered, volcanic peaks that reach heights of 23,000 feet. The eastern slopes descend into the Amazon Basin, the world’s largest–and one of the most lush–tropical forests. To the west, the foothills give way to the driest coastal desert in the world and to the cold, deep waters of the Pacific Ocean.

The diversity of South American bats is as impressive and varied as the landscape. In its lowland forests, there are more bats, and more bat species, than in any other part of the world. The range of some of the more “interesting” species overlies, in rough outline, that of the cultures who attained the highest achievements in the New World before the arrival of Columbus.

Ancient peoples found bats fascinating, and these animals are a significant motif in many styles of Pre-Columbian art and a frequent theme in Indian folklore. A Toba story from the Gran Chaco region of northern Argentina tells of the leader of the very first people–a hero bat or bat-man who taught people all they needed to know as human beings. And from the Ge in Brazil comes a tale of a tribe that moved through the night led by a bat who looked for light toward which to guide them.
The people of ancient cultures venerated creatures who, to them, symbolized anomaly and transformation. The bat is one of these. For many cultures, it was–and is still–a kind of intermediary to the gods, partly because of its uniqueness, partly because it fits into, and contributes to, man’s environment.

Bat imagery is concentrated in some regions and completely lacking in others, but some correlation seems to exist between the importance of bats in art and their plentifulness in nature. The most numerous New World bats belong to the family Phyllostomidae, a group of bats that have a characteristic nose leaf, which can range from a leaf shape to that of a spear or knife. Most Pre-Columbian bat depictions show this feature. Some representations are realistic, others are stylized, and many show bat traits added to a human figure. The non-naturalistic forms can be identified as part bat by large ears, a squarish gaping mouth, prominent teeth, wings, and/or a nose leaf.

The gods of the Sky and the Underworld were the most important Pre-Columbian deities largely because agriculture depended upon them both. As flying creatures, bats signify the sky, but they have many qualifications for Underworld symbolism as well. They hang upside-down, facing the Underworld; they are nocturnal (the Underworld is dark); they roost in caves or dead trees and use streams as flyways (caves, tree roots, and streams were considered openings into the Underworld). In New World myth and art, the Underworld was one of the most important themes. It was where the dead were buried and the place from where plants came. Death imagery in Pre-Columbian art has regeneration significance in the same manner as the green plant coming from the dry seed.

Whether or not ancient peoples understood pollination or seed dispersal, they likely saw bats visiting the flowers of trees and other plants. Some of the plants most important to people in the New World tropics are bat-dependent. For example, bats pollinate the kapok (or silk-cotton) tree (Ceiba pentrandra), which was sacred in many regions. Its fiber is used for making blow gun darts and canoes are made from its wood. Ancient people found ghostly pale stunted plants growing in caves where fruit-eating bats roost and drop seeds. Bats also deposit the seeds of the breadnut tree (Brosimum alicastrum), which produces an important staple food, in caves in eastern Mexico. Today, local people still gather the seeds, seeing them as gifts of the gods, a kind of recognition of the contributions of bats.

In some South American myths, honey, bees, and bats are related or interchangeable. In other folklore, bats are classed with hummingbirds and butterflies, animals that sometimes visit the same flowers by day that bats feed from by night. The Mochica culture of the Central Andes likely was aware of the connection between bats and plants. Some of their ceramic vessels depict a bat with what appears to be sweet sop (Anonna squamosa), a common fruit, the seeds of which are dispersed by bats.

Tobacco continues to be an important ritual plant in many places. Both bats and tobacco are associated with shamans (native priests). The Bororo, a tribe in Brazil, tell a story about men casually smoking one night. A vampire bat flew by and told them that, if they did not smoke reverently, they would be punished, “because this tobacco is mine.” (Plants are often “owned” by animals in South American myths.) According to the story, the men who disobeyed the bat were turned into otters.

Another possible aspect of the tobacco relationship is the fact that fire often occurs with bats in folklore (although it may also derive from observing large numbers of bats emerging from a cave at twilight, often appearing like a great cloud of smoke). In folk tales, supernatural bats often burn their victims or they are themselves destroyed by fire. In addition, natural fires in caves sometimes occur from spontaneous combustion of bat guano. Although bat depictions on Pre-Columbian artifacts do not hint at fire or smoke, the cultural association of bats with fire suggests that bats might have had similar connotations in ancient times.

Ritual human sacrifice, often by decapitation, was common in many cultures of the ancient New World, and it was an important theme in their art. Blood sacrifice was believed to appease and nourish the gods of nature so human life could continue and thrive. In essence, blood equaled life. Various human beings, animals, or composite creatures–often supernaturals–were agents of sacrifice in different myths.

Mochica pottery shows a part human, part bat figure as a sacrificer with a knife in one hand and a human head in the other. (Owls were also common Mochica sacrificers.) The size ratio of the large bat and the small human head indicates supernatural status for the bat, and the throne on which it sits symbolizes power. Sometimes a bat-man carries a war club and a small human captive about the size of the club, or smaller. By far the most common Mochica bat effigies, however, are those holding pottery, which seem to have sacrificial or funerary connotations.

The sacrificial association is also indicated by batlike knife-shaped pendants. Usually cast in gold, they come from many places, but those of the Tolima style found in Colombia are the most common and obvious, likely representing the bat-sacrificer in simplified form.

In the lowlands east of the Andes, contemporary folklore recounts tales based on ancient beliefs. For Arawak Indians in northern Guiana, Bat Mountain is the home of “killer bats,” and there also is a killer bat in folklore from Venezuela. Decapitating bat demons appear in various myths in the Amazon region, and, to the south, in the Gran Chaco of northern Argentina. Folklore from the Ge tribe in Brazil tells of “Indians” who had wings and bat noses, lived in a big cave near a river, and went out only at night. Flying like bats, they killed with “anchor axes” or “moon hatchets.” In another tale, mankind acquired ceremonial axes from bats who had used them for decapitation. The shape of the axes is the same as the sacrificial knives most often depicted in ancient Mochica art far away in the Central Andes.

Much of this bat sacrificial symbolism likely derives from the common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus), a very small creature that feeds entirely on the blood of vertebrates [see “Vampires: The Real Story,” page 11]. Although they may bite various parts of the body of their prey, they normally feed from the neck and shoulder regions of large mammals, a behavior that may have fostered tales of decapitating bats. Another bat, whose habits also may have contributed to such legends, is the false vampire (Vampyrum spectrum). With a wingspan of almost a yard, the false vampire is the largest New World bat. It is a carnivore, eating birds and other vertebrates, even occasionally eating other species of bats. When capturing its prey, it grabs the neck, sometimes killing with a single, powerful bite.

While stories of bats in general abound in the myth and lore of many New World peoples, ironically, surprisingly little folklore exists specifically about vampire bats. They do not appear to be mentioned at all in the lore of the Aztecs, one of the largest civilizations of ancient Mesoamerica. The Maya, however, revered a vampire bat god, “Camazotz,” the death bat, who killed dying men on their way to the center of the earth. “Zotz” was the Maya word for bat. Throughout the Maya ruins in southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras, hieroglyphics and graphic depictions of the vampire bat can be found. The glyph for the great Pre-Columbian city of Copan in Honduras was the head of a leaf-nosed bat. Some Maya groups called themselves “people of the bat,” living in “Zotzilha” (bat’s house), a kingdom of mountain caverns. Present day “bat people” still live isolated in the rugged highlands of Chiapas in southern Mexico in the Mayan community of Zinacantan, “place of the bat.”

That bats are depicted with great frequency in some Pre-Columbian cultures, but not others, suggests that some groups had a special relationship with bats. In various South American myths of the origin of life, a human ancestor mated with an animal. Bats do not play this role in recent folklore and, apparently, Pre-Columbian erotic scenes do not involve bats, but there are other indications that some cultures may have had a mythical bat in their ancestor list.

Some folklore portrays female bats as alluring to men. One tale tells of a man summoned by bats in a tree when he was returning from an evening hunt. He went to have a drink with them and became attracted to a female bat. Night after night, the man stopped off to drink and flirt with her, slowly developing a bat’s head, claws, and “little nose patches.” Finally, his wife, aware of what was happening, set fire to the tree and killed both her husband and the bats. In other stories, bats are husbands in folktales, although often the wife does not realize at first that she is married to a bat.

In the period just before the Spanish conquest, the Tairona culture of the northern coastal lowlands of Colombia depicted bats in various kinds of artifacts–pottery, stone, and gold. Some of the finest Tairona objects are cast-gold pendants representing elaborately dressed figures, probably rulers or their ancestors. They usually have a little extension on the nose, suggesting a nose leaf. Sometimes their handsome, semicircular headdresses have a roosting bat on either side, suggesting a supernatural bat in the ancestry of Tairona rulers.

Nose ornaments in the form of abstract bats with outspread wings are among the hammered gold artifacts of the earlier Calima culture in Colombia. These large ornaments form a mouth-mask, a prominent bat image, behind which the wearer faces the world. Objects from coastal Ecuador showing bat motifs appear to be important statements of royal power and may also be ancestral references. They include hammered gold pectoral ornaments, monumental U-shaped thrones and pillar-like sculptures.

The royal association with bats continued into the time of the Inca in Peru. Incas sometimes added bat fur to vicuna for royal garments. One of the early Spanish chroniclers wrote that the famed Inca ruler, Atahualpa, wore a bat-skin shirt and cape, which were softer than silk. Asked what his clothes were made of, the Inca responded that they came from the “birds” that fly at night.

The natural characteristics of bats provide a rich foundation for symbolism, making them creatures of life and death, fecundity and destruction. For the ancients, human sacrifice, in which the bat participated symbolically, nourished the sun and the gods of nature. The bat is part of a vital chain–both in nature and in myth–and some peoples, whose environment the bat shares, identify with its symbolic power. All Pre-Columbian peoples undoubtedly felt a strong fascination for the bat, and it certainly was thoroughly interwoven into their lives and their art.

Elizabeth P. Benson set up the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, and was its first curator and director of its study center. She has taught Pre-Columbian art at universities throughout the United States. The author of several books and many articles, she is now composing a “bestiary” of animals that were important in Pre-Columbian art; she has found the bat the most fascinating of them.

NOTE: This article is based on a paper published in Andean Past, vol. 1:165-190, Cornell University, 1987, in which sources are cited.

Photo, page 7: Bat imagery abounds in the ancient New World. Among the many artifacts in the form of a bat is this moldmade clay whistle from the coast of Ecuador, A.D. 500-1500.

Art mimics life in a Mochica vessel, A.D. 200-600, depicting a bat with a common New World fruit, the sweet sop. Ancient peoples likely observed bats at these and sour sop, a similar fruit, the seeds of which are dispersed by bats. The photograph shows a Jamaican fruit-eating bat (Artibeus jamicensis) eating a sour sop in much the same position as the bat on the vessel.

Ritual human sacrifice was common among many cultures of the ancient New World, and various animals, humans, and composite creatures were agents of sacrifice in different myths. A Mochica clay vessel (right), A.D. 200-600, depicts an enthroned anthropomorphic bat holding a knife and a decapitated head. A more simplified form of a sacrificer is represented in Tolima bat-shaped pendants (below).

A Tairona culture cast-gold pendent, A.D. 600-1500, shows a man with a bat’s nose leaf, possibly indicating a supernatural bat ancester among Tairona rulers. Note the bats hanging from the headdress.