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The Folklore of Bats

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Western culture is not kind to bats; they are associated with malevolent witchcraft and consorting with the devil. Bats rank up there with snakes and spiders as creatures that give folk the willies. As day merges into night, the bats emerge from their underworld caves; little wonder then that generations have come to believe, erroneously, that they mean us harm.

Bat Creation Myths

Bats just don’t fit in. They are mammals that suckle their young, but they don’t walk on four legs or two. They fly like birds, but they don’t have feathers. They live in dark caves and only come out at night.

According to a Cherokee fable, eagles fashioned bats out of the skin of a groundhog to help them win a game they were playing with a deer, a bear, and a terrapin. Other North American Indian tribes have variations of this theme describing how bats came to be.

In Fiji, they tell the story of how a rat stole the wings of a heron. Samoans have a similar fable.

In south-western India, the creation myth has the bat emerging from an unhappy bird that prayed to be made human. Something went wrong so that, while bats got hair, teeth, and other mammalian features, they remained mostly birds.

Ancient Romans created a myth in which there was a battle between birds and mammals; the bats wisely stayed out of the conflict and only picked a side when the god Mars declared the birds were the winners. The opportunistic bats then decided to support the birds.

A variation of this, told in Africa and Australia, has bats switching allegiances according to which side appears to be winning. When the fight is over, both sides remember the actions of the duplicitous bats and reject them.

Aesop Gave Us this Verse

A Beast he would be, or a bird,
As might suit, thought the Bat: but he erred.
When the battle was done,
He found that no one
Would take him for friend at his word.

Bats and Witchcraft

Perhaps, the perfidy of the bats in this fable has carried over into the perception of the critters in folklore as familiars of witches. Shakespeare has the sorceress’s huddled round their cauldron mixing evil potions in Macbeth. Into their vile broth goes:

“Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog . . .”

More recently, Cecil Williamson, who created Britain’s Witchcraft Research Centre, wrote that “Bats, like the cat and the owl, are creatures of the night and so are held in high regard by those who practise witchcraft. Their formulas call for the use of bats’ blood, bats’ wings, eyes, heart etc.”

In an age when superstition guided the lives of most people, the notion that witches used bats, known as “witches’ birds,” to carry messages to and from the Devil was widely believed.

In Bayonne, France, a woman referred to as Lady Jacaume is said to have had “crowds of bats” flying around her house and garden. This was taken as a clear sign she was dealing with dark forces, so she was burned at the stake.

That was in 1332, and clearly we can now claim to have progressed as a species and can say “Nobody believes that sort of bunkum today.” No? Just listen to some of the expressed views of the followers of QAnon.

Bat Mythology

There is a strong association between bats and death. In the past, people have believed that:

  • If a bat got into your house it was a sign someone was about to die;
  • A bat arriving on Halloween meant your house was haunted;
  • A bat tangled in a person’s hair will lead to eternal damnation;
  • A French twist is that a bat in the hair means a disastrous love affair is in the offing.

Pliny the Elder, philosopher of Ancient Rome, knew how to deal with these misfortunes. First catch a bat and carry it alive around your house three times. Then nail it upside down outside a window.

The Mayans were giving bats a bad press also. They had a deity called Camazotz (bat god). He had the body of a man and the wings and head of a bat; his line of work was human sacrifice (Batman from the very dark side?).

Vampires

Most frightening of all among the more than 1,200 species of bats are the vampire bats.

Their reputation for harm vastly outweighs their numbers as only three species actually feed on blood.

These vampire bats live in Central and South America and their favoured menu items are birds and livestock. However, they will snack on porcupines, armadillos and take a taste of human blood if they sleep outside. The thought puts a shudder up the spine and it should because the little rascals can carry rabies. (Note to self: Don’t sleep outdoors in vampire bat country).

Long before news of vampire bats reached Europe, there were loads of myths about blood-sucking vampires draining the blood of people. But, it took Bram Stoker to give the vampire its modern form. In his novel 1897, Dracula, he created the eponymous character of a Transylvanian count that could turn himself into a vampire and drink the blood of his victims.

The Upside of Bats

If you like mosquitoes you won’t like bats. However, it hardly needs pointing out that nobody likes mosquitoes.

  • Here’s the Urban Nature Store of Canada, “A single little brown bat can eat between 600 and 1,200 mosquitoes an hour and a typical colony of big brown bats can protect local farmers from the costly attacks of 18 million root-worms each summer.”
  • In America, the National Park Service says that bats contribute “up to more than $3.7 billion worth of pest control each year in the U.S.”
  • Some of the insects that bats eat carry diseases that you don’t want to get, such as West Nile Virus, malaria, dengue, and Zika virus.
  • Skitters are more than pesky nuisances, they’ve been called the world’s most deadly creatures, responsible for the deaths of about 750,000 people are year.
  • Bats are an integral part of a healthy ecosystem. Apart from their insect-control skills, they pollinate plants, and are themselves a food source for other species.

Bats are completely innocent of all the nasty stuff that’s been ascribed to them and they don’t get credit for all the benefits they deliver to society.

Bonus Factoids

  • Blind as a bat. Nope. Here’s the U.S. Geological Survey, “Bats have small eyes with very sensitive vision, which helps them see in conditions we might consider pitch black. They don’t have the sharp and colorful vision humans have, but they don’t need that.”
  • The Bumblebee Bat is the world’s smallest mammal, weighing just two grams, that’s less than the weight of a one cent coin.
  • British ornithologist, the Earl of Cranbrook, debunked the myth that bats get tangled up in the hair of women. In 1959, he recruited three female volunteers. Using four different species of bat, the earl tried to get them enmeshed women’s coiffure. The bats all declined to get snagged.
  • Bat guano makes a better fertilizer than cow manure.

Sources

  • “Folklore and the Origin of Bats.” Gary F. McCracken, Bats Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 4.
  • “Beware of Bats.” Enora Boivin, Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, July 9, 2018.
  • “Witchcraft – Bats and Broomsticks.” Marcus Katz, New Statesman, August 15, 2007.
  • “Bats, Bats Everywhere.” Siobhan O’Shea, Interesly.com, October 22, 2018.
  • “Mosquito Control through Bat Houses.” Urban Nature Store, undated.
  • “7 Things You Didn’t Know about Vampire Bats.” Julia Griffin, PBS, October 28, 2016.
  • “Benefits of Bats.” National Park Service, undated.
  • “Robert Miller: Our only Flying Mammal Gets a Bad Rap.” Robert Miller, Middletown Press, October 13, 2019.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor