The Many Meanings of Bats (plus a Halloween Playlist)

The Many Meanings of Bats (plus a Halloween Playlist)

Since Halloween is almost upon us, I wanted to talk about that traditionally "spooky" creature - the bat. Did you know that bats live in six of the seven continents? And they've been around for 50 million years? (vs about 300 thousand for us!) And because of how ubiquitous bats have been for so long on Earth, bats have featured in stories and artwork of almost every culture. Here is just a sampling of world cultures and what bats meant (or still mean) to them. (Psst: there's also a Halloween playlist at the end.)

Medieval Europe

Bat from Medieval text

Much of how bats are currently depicted in Western popular culture are the results of Europe's medieval Christian past. Biblically, there are only a couple mentions of bats, one of which was a prohibition of eating them along with other "unclean" animals. Where bats really got their bad reputation was from medieval artists depictions of scenes from the bible. Medieval artists painted Satan with bat wings to differentiate him from the feathered wings of the angels. Because of bats' nocturnal nature, artists depicted bats as forces of darkness and evil that lurk around the edges of the lives of the saints. Bats were even referred to as "witches' birds" and were thought to be used as sort of carrier pigeons for practicers of the dark arts to communicate with their satanic master.

 Zapotec, Mayans and Aztec People

Mayan Bat Sculpture. Photo by Dr Guillermo Mata

For many of the civilizations in southern North America and South America, such as the Zapotec, Mayan and Aztecs, believed that as non-avian flying creatures, that bats were a bridge between the heavens and the earth. For these people, bats symbolized power, darkness and the unknown. Since bats dwell in caves and fly at night, the Mayans believed bats were a link to the underworld


Bat Illustration

In the state of Bihar, located in northeastern India, bats are associated with wealth and money and believed to be a form of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi. To this day, pilgrims come to the local village of Sarsai to worship the bats. According to local lore, in medieval times, there was a great plague that killed many villagers. It was during this time that the bats first arrived and afterwards, there were no further deaths from the epidemic.  Modern experts say that there is probably truth to the old story because the bats emit an odor that can kill certain bacteria. 


Ivory Coast

For the Yauré tribe in West Africa, where there are large colonies of flying foxes,  bats were seen as the spirits of dead. 


Chinese silk robe with bats
For thousands of years, bats have been considered symbols of good luck. bats were considered a symbol of happiness and good luck. In the Chinese language, the word fú is a homonym that means "bat" or "blessing" when spoken. A bat's arrival indicates good fortune and the bat's habit of sleeping upside-down is associated with virtue and a long life.  Because of all of their positive associations, bats can be found adorning everything from silk robes to vases, alter cloths, and even toys. 


The only land mammal in New Zealand is the bat, which the Maōri call pekapeka. The Maori associate bats with a mythical bird - the hokioi -  that foretells death.
Bat EarringsI learned almost everything I wrote about here when designing the new bat jewelry, which are based on the flying fox bat.
To thank you for reading all these words about bats, I put together a playlist of music for the Halloweekend. The playlist is called The Devil's Music because it's mostly rock n'roll from the 50s and 60s with a spooky bent. Eartha Kitt, The Beatles, The Sonics and lots more make this playlist a real Halloween treat. (And full disclosure, this playlist was heavily influenced by one called Satanic Doo-Wop that a friend sent me, but I like to customize my playlists, hence The Devil's Music.) Enjoy!


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