The bat, a nocturnal animal in Mesoamerica was linked to darkness and death, but also to fertility

24/06/2021

The image of the bat in Mesoamerica has been captured in sculptures, ceramics, and codices, among other media, at least since 300 B.C. For the central valleys of Oaxaca, there are several bibliographical references regarding the appearance of the representation of the bat. The beginning of the bat cult is attributed to the Mayan culture.

The connection of bats with sacrifice could be directly related to the eating habits of blood consumption by vampire bats of the Desmodontinae subfamily, associating this characteristic with the concept of spilling blood as an offering. The Maya related the way in which bats pluck fruit from trees with decapitation. For example, the story of the Popol Vuh, where it is narrated how one of the mythical twins during his stay in the underworld is decapitated by the bat of death known as Camazotz, as one of the initiatory tests to which he is subjected in order to later become the Sun.

Likewise, the decapitation of the corn god, also alluded to in the Popol Vuh, with the harvest season, in which the ears of corn are cut as if they were the head of the corn god, which after remaining for a time in the underworld is reborn at the beginning of a new growing season, but for this cycle of seasons and rebirth to continue, the blood and sacrifice executed by the bat is required.

During the Classic Period in the Maya area, bat representations were used both as an important socio-political symbol and as emblems of a social group or ruling family. Thus the bat appears as an emblem of the city of Copan, Honduras. The head of the bat is in the emblem glyph that serves to define the governing authority of Calakmul, being used as an additional title to the name of the leaders of this city.

The bats were also related to the Maya scribes, as shown in several images of these characters in the codex style vases, where they appear carrying bat wings with which they were transported to the underworld and there they knew the designs of the gods, knowledge that they later captured in the codices.

On the other hand, in the center of Veracruz, by the end of the Classic period, it is shown characters dressed in costumes and realistic masks of bats in sculptures known as palms that are related to the ball game. It is possible that these humanized images of the bat are priests or shamans who were transformed into this animal to perform the rituals of sacrifice by decapitation; also shown are the large amounts of spilled blood that attracts a series of bats, as we can see in one of these Tajin-style palms currently found in New Orleans.

This idea of the bat as a decapitating being was also manifested in the Postclassic societies and was mainly captured in the codices, as it was represented in plate 41 of the Fejérvary-Mayer codex, where we can observe a bat with anthropomorphic features that takes with one hand a heart and with the other, a head detached from a human being, in addition to a series of fangs that border the wings, giving to understand the bat's severing activity. In plate 24 of the Codex Vatican B, a bat with human features appears carrying two decapitated heads in its hands, besides showing a series of claws under the wings as part of its tearing action.

The role of the bat-bat with respect to fertility can be seen in the cultural area of Oaxaca, where Alfonso Caso, in his work on funerary urns of 1952, mentions that the bat had importance in the cult of corn, relating to Pitao Cozobi, the Zapo-Tetec god of corn and maintenance, as a messenger or a splitting of the same. This relationship is visible in an urn, which is in the Natural History Museum of Vienna, in which the effigy of the Bat god was represented with earrings formed by two ears of corn.

Caso, in his aforementioned work, considers that there is a great connection between this urn and other representations of the bat with Cocijo, the god of rain since the latter is often represented with ears of corn in his headdress for being the fertilizer of the milpas and potentiator of abundance in the harvests. Furthermore, as a nocturnal animal that comes out of the caves at sunset, the bat was also associated with the jaguar, which the Zapotec people deified and related to Cocijo, so the bat having the ability to be a terrestrial and aerial creature would be an intermediary between Pitao Cozobi, that is, the soil where the corn is planted, and Cocijo, the celestial water that fertilizes the earth and allows the growth of the cornfield.

Bat breastplate found in Monte Albán. Image: Wikimedia
Bat breastplate found in Monte Albán. Image: Wikimedia

Another object in which we can see manifested the relationship between the bat and the corn is the outstanding pectoral elaborated with green stone that was found on the chest of an individual buried in front of the stairway of mound H of Monte Alban, in which a human face is represented, that of an old man, wearing a bat mask, identifiable among many other things by the ears and the nasal appendix, or, a face in which the human and animal elements were fused. Under the chin hang three slates, considered to represent three kernels of corn or three ears of corn. This burial, as well as the accompanying pectoral, were deposited on a slab floor found under a shrine during the Early II period (300 B.C.).

For contemporary indigenous groups, the bat is still related to fertility, as can be read in a Cora myth compiled by Lumholtz, in volume II of Unknown Mexico, according to which in the beginning the earth was covered with water and it was impossible to work it until the bat came and plowed the earth with its claws so that the water could flow and the land could be sown. In turn, for the Yaquis, a toad transformed into a bat and flew into the clouds to ask Yuku, the personification of rain, to end the drought affecting the region.

Author: Jesús Severo Molina López, Source: INAH Morelos. This is a translation and a brief excerpt from the long-form article El Murciélago heraldo de la muerte y potenciador de la vida published in the magazine El Tlacuache in Spanish. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Mexico License.