Folklore of Bats

Throughout history bats have made their way into the folklore of cultures around the world. Interestingly there is disparity between their role in western folklore to that in the east. Exploring different folktales has given me a new appreciation for this remarkable animal.

The oldest fossils of bats are around 50 million years old. There are over 1000 different species and they are found on every continent except Antarctica. They are particularly prevalent in tropical areas. Bats are rather unique because, as mammals, they carry and feed their babies like humans and other mammals, and yet they don't walk or crawl but rather fly like birds. Often termed liminal, which is to say they are outside the normal order of things, their inability to fit neatly into a particular category of creatures makes them all the more mysterious. It is no surprise then that they have come to be associated with things such as death, hauntings and the dark side of life.

'Bat Before the Moon' - Biho Takashi, 1910

Bats are creatures of the night, and it is at twilight they are most active, thus associating them with portals to the otherworld. In the west, bats seem to represent all things spooky and mysterious and were often seen as being witch's familiars. They have become closely associated with vampires, death, graveyards and ghosts. 

A lot of superstitions about bats are negative. For example that they make your hair grey, that they come out of hell at night and that they drink blood. Some people believe that the vampire bats in Central America are linked to the Eastern European human vampire legend. In fact, the latter dates back to the middle ages, a time when the Central American vampire bats would have been unknown to the people of Europe.

The image above is from an illustrated book titled "Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre" from about 1420. It provides a history of Alexander the Great and in this picture he is seen battling with both bats and rats. There was a common misconception that the animals were related and yet this is not the case, as they actually have almost nothing in common from a biological perspective. It is possible that their dubious connection with rats, along with their nocturnal habits, might be partly why bats have developed negative connotations.

In ancient Egypt bats were more positive in that they were seen as a potential cure for a range of ills such as toothache and fever. Some sources also suggest that they were able to cure or prevent baldness. It seems there were also hung in doorways to prevent the evil spirits that carried disease from entering homes and infecting residents.

'Bats in the Fifth Act' - Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Despite having negative associations in the west, in China bats are considered a symbol of happiness, good fortune and blessings. In Chinese the words for bat and happiness are both pronounced as 'fu', and this may explain the more positive connotations bats have in the east. In ancient China the concept of Yin and Yang underpinned philosophy and beliefs. Bats were seen to represent the masculine, or Yang, principle and peaches were considered feminine, or yin. Peaches have a long history in China and originally relied on bats to disperse their seeds. Often bats and peaches were depicted together in art representing a mystical understanding of the nature and cycles of life and death. Bat's longevity also connected them with the virtue of wisdom which was revered in eastern culture.

Bat and Peach design - Qing Dynasty Collection

As a result of their positive associations bats are frequently depicted in artwork, often painted red which is representative of good fortune. In many cases they are found in sets of five to symbolise the five blessings: health, long life, prosperity, love of virtue, and a tranquil, natural death. There are stories of mothers in China sewing small buttons in the shape of bats onto the caps of their babies in order to offer them protection and ensure a fortunate life.

Ming Dynasty Vase

For more information about these fascinating creatures you might like to visit:

Smithsonian - Art and Science of Bats
Boston University - Bat Facts and Folklore
Bat Conservation International - Folklore and the Origin of Bats and Bats in Chinese Art
Health Wildlife Canad - A Short History of Bats in Art