Often seen in movies and even written in books, bats have always been portrayed as mysterious creatures throughout the years. And because of this, many myths, superstitions, and folklore have been created about them.
Bats are interesting animals and have been a part of human culture for a long time. In many cultures, they are seen as symbols of good luck, while in others they are seen as omens of bad news. Bats have also been associated with blood-sucking vampires and other dark creatures in stories and movies.
In this article, we will be taking a deep dive into the world of bats in mythology, folklore, and superstition. We will be exploring how different cultures view these creatures and what stories have been told about them throughout the years.
An Understanding of Bats
Bats, at least the ones that originate from North-western Europe, look a bit like mice with wings. These animals are nocturnal creatures that sleep during the day and come out at night to hunt for food. Bats use a form of echolocation to navigate in the dark and to find their prey.
Bats can be found practically everywhere on the planet, including most parts of the United States. Bats prefer a variety of daytime hideaways, including rock crevices, caves, old buildings, mines, bridges, and trees.
Bats play an important role in the ecosystem by eating large quantities of insects. Some bats also pollinate flowers and help disperse seeds.
Bats are very social animals and often live in colonies of hundreds or even thousands of individuals. There are more than 1000 different species of bats in the world, making them the second-largest order of mammals.
A bat was once known as a ‘flittermouse’ or “fluttermouse,” which translates to “flying mouse.” This phrase is derived from the German word for a bat, ‘Fledermaus.’ The English term “bat” is taken from the Old English word bakke, which means “to flutter.”
While the English term “batty” denotes “mad” in a reasonably innocuous sense. In England, they also say that when someone is a little insane, they have “bats in the belfry”. A long time ago, on the opposite side of the earth, the Aztec term for a bat was apparently ‘quimichpapalotl,’ which means butterfly mouse.
Bats in Mythology
Bats appear in numerous myths throughout the world and are frequently connected with death, darkness, and the supernatural. They are unquestionably weird beings, appearing as half birds and half rodents, as if they came from a nightmare realm.
Many mythological stories from different cultures have been passed down throughout the years about bats. Below, we will be taking a look at some of the most popular bat myths from around the globe.
Bats Really Came From Mouse
While others say bats resemble an unhappy bird who got lost on its way to find the sun, in Greece during the middle ages, there was a myth that bats arose from mice.
The myth states that a mouse came into a church and stole one of the wafers of the eucharist—and then decided to keep it rather than eat it. Because of the mouse’s pious respect for the holy wafer, God gave it wings so that it would be able to find plenty of food in the future
Old Mice Turn into Bats
Peasant farmers in Mexico used to call bats “ratones viejos,” which translates to “old mice.” They thought that when mice grew older, they would develop wings and transform into bats. Many people still believe this to be true in Mexico.
In some versions of the myth, the old mice would climb to the top of a tall tree, and when they reached the highest branches, their tails would detach and grow into wings.
Bats Were a Bridge Between Men and Gods
Another belief about bats comes from the Navajo, a Native American tribe from the southwestern United States. The Navajo people thought that bats were able to fly between different worlds and act as a bridge between the supernatural and the natural.
During the early days of the world, a bat and twelve insects revolved in the darkness. The bat is the night’s mentor and is associated with Talking God, one of the most powerful deities.
More Bat Superstitions
Now that we have looked at some of the most popular bat myths from around the globe, let’s take a look at some of the superstitions that people have about these creatures.
Superstition About Women and Bats
In Western Europe, there existed an unfounded superstition that if a bat fell on a woman (who mostly had long hair back then), the bat would become so entangled in her hair that the hair would have to be cut off just to pull it out.
In 1959, this superstition was still so believed that the Earl of Cranbrook took it upon himself to test the superstition’s veracity. Using four species of bats – and three brave female volunteers – he deliberately attempted to entangle the bats by thrusting them into the woman’s hair.
On all occasions, the bats were able to escape without becoming entangled. As such, the Earl of Cranbrook was able to dispel this silly superstition.
Our habit of sharing their ancestral living quarters would inevitably have brought bats to our attention from before the dawn of history. We may never know how these early humans viewed their small flying co-habiters.
But it should come as no surprise that bats figure in most ancient mythologies.
Bats Being Associated With Evil
Bats were associated with longevity and pleasure in both ancient Chinese and Persian traditions. However, in post-Christian Europe, the bat’s propensity of flying at night led to its association with the devil.
Many paintings from western Europe in the middle ages depict the devil with bat wings. Later bats received even more bad publicity when they became linked to Count Dracula and vampires.
These creatures, or more like monsters, were said to be able to transform themselves into bats at will and would fly around looking for victims to drink their blood.
Nowadays, of course, we know that vampires are not real and neither is the ability to turn into a bat. However, the association of bats with evil still persists in some parts of the world.
These intensely emotional visuals have most likely led to the sinister image of bats that many people still hold, even though we now know they are valuable members of the environment!
Superstition About Bats and Death
In Europe, there are also myths about bats in the house. For example, a bat entering a household was a forewarning of a death in the house. Whereas in China, it was a sign of good fortune.
Strangely perhaps, given its poor press in Europe, carrying the dried and powdered heart of a bat in your front pocket was supposed to protect you from bleeding to death – and later to stop bullets.
While some cultures see bats as a harbinger of death, others believe that the creature holds the key to eternal life. Today, we know that this is not the case, but the association of bats with longevity persists in some parts of the world.
Some Bat Folklore
Other strange beliefs in European folklore include:
- The idea that carrying a bat’s eye around with you will allow you to turn invisible,
- That nailing a dead bat to your door will protect you from demons,
- That putting a drop of bats blood under a woman’s pillow will help her be fruitful
- That burning incense over the site of a bat buried at a crossroads would help you acquire a powerful love potion.
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth (written 800 years ago), the witches brew a potion with:
“Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog.”
Much of the folklore about bats relates to their way of life. They fly at night and so do witches, hence in Western Europe, witches and bats must be associated together.
Bats Could Produce Ready-Made Arrowheads
The Pomo Indians of California had a superstition that bats could devour volcanic rock and then spew out ready-made arrowheads. These arrowheads were used to kill deer and were considered very powerful.
Bats as Specters of the Unseen Realms
Another piece of bat folklore from the Americas includes the Maya belief that the ‘House of the Bat’ was one of the areas that the soul had to pass through on its way to the land of Death.
They believed bats to be able to cross into and out of the unseen realms at will, making them spiritual guides.
Bats Predicting the Weather
The native-American tribes, like the Thuni Indians, believed that a bat predicted rain. As such, they would place a bat on the ground, point its head towards the sky, and wait for raindrops to fall on its back.
On the other hand, the Tupinamba people believed that the planet would be eaten by a bat at the end of time.
More About Bat Folklore
In Africa, bats were credited with high intelligence. An idea that reflected their ability to fly around so quickly in the dark without hitting anything.
In shamanism, the bat – as well as being a symbol of death and rebirth – is able to guide people through the dark times of their lives.
Like all bats, the large fruit-eating bats of the family (Pteropidae) must have been known to humanity since the dawn of time. However, modern science, and hence Western Europe, really only learned about them as we traveled out to the tropical world.
The genus Pteropus was first described by Brisson in 1762 from specimens collected on the Reunion Islands.
Aboriginal peoples, however, were describing them long before this. In the sandstone caves of Northern Australia, the Northern Territory, and Queensland, there are numerous depictions of flying foxes, some dating back tens of thousands of years.
Among the rambling stories and folklore that make up the tales of the Australian Aboriginal Dream-time, there is one of a confrontation between Tjinimin the Bat God, and the Great Rainbow Snake.
Tjinimin wanted to have sex with the Green Parrot Girls (who were the consorts of the Great Rainbow Snake) and, of course, the Great Rainbow Snake objected to this.
At the end of the story, Tjinimin hangs upside-down in a tree to admire the stars and decides never to try having sex with anyone again—whereupon his nose falls off. Which is why bats have such short faces, apparently.
Archaeological evidence suggests that before the coming of Europeans, flying foxes were not often used as food by the Australian Aborigines.
However, more recently, the habit has become much more common. This undoubtedly reflects the loss of other preferred game animals from the habitat.
Persecution Throughout History
In the old days, people used to think that bats were evil, and they would often try to kill them. This is because people thought that bats were associated with witches and black magic.
Bats were also persecuted because they were believed to be carriers of disease. This was before people knew about germs and how diseases are spread. People would sometimes even burn down whole colonies of bats because they thought that this would stop the spread of disease.
There are several instances where bats were killed in large numbers. Here are some of them:
Flying foxes eat fruit, and this has inevitably brought them into conflict with humans, who grow fruit. Especially when the bat’s preferred natural resources have been logged out of existence and replanted as a monoculture.
Flying foxes—along with all other native bats—are now protected in Australia. However, the path to protection has been a rocky one for the Flying Foxes. Prior to 1985, flying foxes were not protected in New South Wales—in fact, they were regarded as vermin.
Between 1985 and 1994, they were removed from the protected fauna list in Queensland. Hundreds of thousands of bats were needlessly exterminated during the last two decades of the 20th century.
It is estimated that the current population of most Australian species of Pteropidae is less than 20% of what it was 100 years ago.
In other parts of the world, fruit bats are occasionally hunted in small numbers. But now, increased access to habitats supplied by roads created by logging companies and modern equipment such as shotguns and fishing nets, has resulted in far larger numbers being killed.
The complete extinction of Pteropus tokudae and the extinction of Pteropus mariannus on most inhabited islands is a direct result of hunting and habitat destruction.
Besides the above, hunting of fruit bats in the Indo-Pacific area is also supported by a market in Guam—artificially maintained by the higher per capita income on Guam than on the source islands.
Between 1981 and 1989, approximately 13,000 fruit bat bodies were imported into Guam for human consumption every year.
Fruitbats are not the only bats to be eaten in the Indo-Pacific region. Microchiroptera Cheiromeles torquatus is eaten in Borneo and Tadarida sp. is eaten in Laos. Both to such an extent that hunting them has become a major concern to environmentalists.
In South America, the vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) is persecuted because it transmits the rabies virus to the livestock it feeds off. This persecution has been quite intense and has had negative effects on the whole environment.
For instance, 40,000 caves have been dynamited in Venezuela. Obviously, these bats were not the only animals—or even the only bats—to use these now-destroyed habitats.
Bats In The Bible
Bats are mentioned three times in the Old Testament.
- The first two references are Leviticus 11:19 and Deuteronomy 14:18. Both these references are the same; they list the birds that the people of God are not allowed to eat – the list ends with the bat.
- The third reference is in Isaiah 2:20. It is merely a passing reference, along with moles, to represent animals that live with things that have been discarded.
(There were no references to bats in the Koran)
Of course, in languages other than English, a bat is not called a bat. Here are some of the other names that people have given bats.
- Albanian = Lakuriqnate
- Bulgarian = Prillep
- French = Murin
- Danish = Flagermus
- Dutch = Vleermuis
- German = Fledermaus
- Greek = Nicteridda
- Croatian = Sismis
- Hungarian = Denevér
- Italian = Vespertilio
- Lithuanian = Peleausis
- Norwegian = Flaggermus
- Portuguese = Morcego
- Romanian = Liliacul
- Russian = Notchiitsa
- Slovenian = Netopir
- Spanish = Murciélago
- Swedish = Fladdermus
- Turkish = Yarasa
As you can see, bats have been both persecuted and protected through the ages. Hopefully, now that we know more about these amazing creatures, we can protect them better in the future.
This article has covered some of the main points about bat mythology, superstition, folklore, and persecution. These creatures have had a long and varied history with humans, and it is hoped that this article has helped to increase your understanding of these creatures.
Perhaps now you’d like to learn a bit about the bat skeleton.