The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Familiar features of Halloween paraphernalia and old-style horror movies, virtually everywhere that bats are found they are identified with witchcraft, perceived as witches’ familiars, mounts, and alter egos.
Bats are ancient creatures, having inhabited Earth for about 50 million years. There are nearly one thousand kinds of bats, who comprise nearly one quarter of all mammal species. They are unique as they are the only mammal who can truly fly. (Others, like the flying squirrel, merely glide.)
Bats inspired awe because their form was ambiguous: they resemble some kind of cross between an animal and a bird. In ancient Asian belief, bats were understood to be the most perfect bird because they nurse their young.
Most bats are nocturnal; they famously sleep through the day, hanging upside down in huge colonies, emerging at dusk from the caves they inhabit, sometimes in huge swarms. Animals that live in caves, grottoes or underground are metaphysically perceived as being especially close to Earth, and thus privy to her deepest secrets.
Medieval Europeans associated bats with dragons—magical winged creatures that live in caves and grottos. At first glance this may seem very flattering for a little bat, however this association proved unfortunate, as by the Middle Ages, the only role European dragons were left to play was as a target for questing knights. And small bats are much easier to kill than fire-breathing dragons.
Dragons were also associated with Satan; this association rubbed off on bats and they became closely associated with devils, demons and the anti-Christ. Medieval artwork frequently depicts Satan (as well as his demons and devotees) with bat’s wings; angels, on the other hand, were consistently painted with wings of white birds. That bat you see flying around might really be a demon.
Unfortunately for bats and women, in medieval Europe the sight of a flying bat was often interpreted as really being a transformed witch up to no good. Witches were believed to transform into bats, to ride bats like horses, and also to smear their broomsticks with bat’s blood so as to achieve lift-off. In 1322, Lady Jacaume of Bayonne, France was publicly burned at the stake as a witch. The evidence? Swarms of bats had been observed flying about her house and garden.
Today the concept of a person and bat exchanging shapes automatically brings Dracula to mind, and indeed the most common bat in modern Halloween imagery is the vampire. However, the bats that thrilled and chilled medieval Europeans were not vampires but “ordinary” bats; the original major fear regarding bats is that they would become entangled in a woman’s hair, not that they’d suck her blood. (With the exception of a very few blood-consuming species, bats eat either fruit or insects.)
Vampire bats are indigenous only to the Western Hemisphere. (The three surviving blood-consuming bat species range from Argentina to Mexico.) They are not and were never found in Central Europe, where the concept of an undead creature who survives by sapping the vitality of the living has existed since time immemorial. In certain areas of Central Europe and the Balkans, “vampire” and “werewolf” are synonymous; vampire is also used to indicate a “witch,” so vampire bat may also be understood to mean “witch bat.” (See DICTIONARY: Vampire.)
Vampire bats received that name from the mythic vampire, not vice versa. After blood-consuming bats were “discovered” by Europeans, the name was bestowed upon them. Bram Stoker was intrigued by the concept of blood-consuming bats and so incorporated them into his novel Dracula, whose success forever changed perceptions of bats and mythical vampires, who were traditionally not always typecast as blood-suckers; many traditional vampires preferred consuming sexual fluids or more abstract life forces, such as the aura.
The concept of a mythic blood-consuming “vampiric” spirit was, however, well-known in Central and South America prior to European contact. Bats figure prominently in Central American myth. This is the area where blood-consuming bats do exist and so bats also have associations with death and blood sacrifice.
Not all associations with bats are negative, not even vampire bats. The Kogi people of northern Columbia associate the vampire with human fertility. Their euphemistic expression for a girl who begins to menstruate is that she has been “bitten by the bat.” According to the Kogi, the bat was the very first animal to be created, emerging directly from the Creator’s body.
Some tribes in New Guinea also perceive bats as fertility symbols, perhaps because of the prominent penis of some species located there.
In China, bats are regarded as especially auspicious, their very name a pun for luck. Bat images abound in art and ornamentation.
The Chinese five-bat design (Wu Fu) represents the five blessings:
A natural death
Bats figure prominently in African folklore. In East Africa, bats are witches’ mounts. In the Ivory Coast, bats represent souls of the departed, while in Madagascar, bats aren’t just any old souls but those of criminals, sorcerers, and the unburied dead.
Bats have powerful associations with death and ghosts. A hoodoo charm to stop ghostly harassment displays African magical roots: Should you feel that ghost’s unwanted presence, toss one single black cat hair, obtained without harming the cat, over your left shoulder saying, “Skit, scat! Become a bat!”
Rather than inspiring avoidance, associations of bats with witches and magic inspired the use of whole bat corpses and various anatomical parts (hearts, wings, blood) to be featured prominently in magic spells.
References to bat’s wings in magic spells may refer to holly leaves, which may always be substituted
Bat nuts (dried ling nuts), which if held from one angle resemble bats, may be substituted for bats in any spell
Similar to bat’s wings as code for holly leaves, “bat’s blood” may have been a euphemism for another magical ingredient, perhaps a resin. At some point, people did use real bat’s blood as ink. However, since the 1920s commercially marketed Bat’s Blood Ink is scented red ink.
Perhaps because bats were understood to be transformed witches they have also been used to protect from malevolent witchcraft. A particularly unpleasant English custom involved nailing a live bat above the doorway to ward off witches, perhaps akin to the American rancher’s practice of posting dead coyotes or wolves to warn others away.
Negative associations have taken a deadly toll: many species of bats are extremely endangered due to loss of their habitat and because people have perceived them as vermin fit for extermination. This terribly upsets the balance of nature: bats are genuine fertility figures, responsible for the pollination of many plant species, particularly in the desert. Without the bat, these botanical species cannot multiply. Bats are also responsible for insect-control: one bat can gobble up as many as 600 mosquitoes in one hour.
Modern witchcraft practices suggest that maintaining a bat house (similar to a bird house) on your property will bring joy and good luck.