How the Bat Came to Be


An Ojibwe Legend

Long ago, as the sun began to rise one morning, he came too close to Earth and got tangled up in the top branches of a very tall tree. The harder Sun tried to escape, the more he became caught. So, the dawn did not come.

At first, all of the birds and animals did not notice. Some of them woke up, then went back to sleep, thinking that they had made a mistake, and it was not time to get up.

Other animals, who loved the night, like the panther and the owl, were really glad that it stayed dark, so they continued to hunt. But, after a while, so much time had passed that the birds and animals knew that something was wrong. They gathered together, in the dark, to hold a council.

"Sun has gotten lost," said the eagle.

"We must look for him," said the bear.

So, all of the birds and animals went out to look for Sun. They looked in caves and in the deep forest and on the mountains and in the swamps. But, Sun was not there.

None of the birds and animals could find him.

Then, one of the animals, a small brown squirrel had an idea.

"Maybe Sun is caught in a tall tree," he said.

Then, the small brown squirrel began to go from tree to tree, going further and further toward the east. At last, in the top of a VERY tall tree, he saw a glow of light. He climbed up and saw that it was Sun. Sun's light was pale and he looked weak.

"Help me, Little Brother," Sun said.

The small brown squirrel came close and began to chew at the branches in which the Sun was caught. The closer he came to Sun, the hotter it got. The more branches that he chewed free, the brighter Sun's light became.

"I must stop now," said the small brown squirrel. "My fur is burning. It's all turning black."

"Help me," said Sun. "Don't stop now."

The small brown squirrel continued to work, but the heat of Sun was very hot now and it was even brighter.

"My tail is burning away," said the small brown squirrel. "I can do no more."

"Help me," said Sun. "Soon I will be free."

So, the small brown squirrel continued to chew. But, the light of Sun was VERY bright now.

"I am growing blind," said the small brown squirrel. "I must stop."

"Just a little more," said Sun. "I am almost free."

Finally, the small brown squirrel chewed the last of the branches free. As soon as he did, Sun broke free and rose up into the sky. Dawn spread across the land and it was day again. All over the world the birds and animals rejoiced.

But, the small brown squirrel was not happy. He was blinded by the brightness of Sun. His long tail had been burned away and what fur he had left was now all black. His skin had stretched from the heat and he clung there to the top branches of that tall tree, unable to move.

Up in the sky, Sun looked down and felt sorry for the small brown squirrel. It had suffered so much to save him.

"Little Brother," Sun said. "You have helped me. Now, I will give you something. Is there anything that you have always wanted?"

"I have always wanted to fly," said the small brown squirrel. "But I am blinded, now and my tail is all burned away."

"Sun smiled. "Little Brother," he said, "from now on you will be an even better flyer than the birds. Because you came to close to me, my light will always be too bright for you, but you will see in the dark and you will hear everything around you as you fly. From this time on, you will sleep when I rise into the sky and when I say goodbye to the world each evening, you will wake."

Then the small animal which had once been a squirrel dropped from the branch, spread its leathery wings and began to fly. He no longer missed his tail and his brown fur and he knew that when night came again, it would be his time. he could not look at Sun, but he held the joy of Sun in his heart.

And so it was, long ago, that Sun showed his thanks to the small brown squirrel who was a squirrel no longer, but the first of the bats.

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.

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