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Bats Part I: Pop Culture Perspectives

By Syd Pazdalski and Zabrina Le

Bats in popular culture hold multiple meanings. Oftentimes they represent dark moody characters like Dracula or Batman. These characters usually hold menacing connotations that can damage bats’ reputation. In the eyes of western media, bats are seen— in most cases— as vampires or blood-suckers. 

The most notable western media depiction of bats is Dracula. Multiple Hollywood films feature bats and vampires as blood-suckers that transform from bat form to vampire. This information on bats being blood-suckers is only true for a small population of bats. Out of 1,000 species of bats, only 3 of those actually drink blood. Meeting a bat that consumes blood is not common, but this overhyped idea of bats drinking blood, can influence public perception to see bats as dangerous or evil. Dracula’s representation of bats in the media isn’t entirely accurate, and perpetuates the stigma around bats. These depictions can be damaging to conservation efforts in relation to bats.   

Another notable depiction of bats in the media is Batman. Batman has been made and remade multiple times.  This vigilante hero is universally well-known from nostalgic comic book characters to the most recent Batman featuring Robert Pattinson. The character of Batman is intended to portray a dangerous antihero, but also plays on a fear of bats that must be overcome by Bruce (the real identity of Batman). The bat’s incredible abilities is what drew creators, Bob Kane and Bill Finger, to use bats for this character. This mammal can fly at speeds of 60 mph, use echolocation, can hunt in complete darkness, and more! The depiction of bats in this character is less damaging than those of vampire characters. Showing audiences that bats are highly skilled and powerful creatures— without the “evil” stigma that surrounds them— allows the public to engage in a more positive perception of these creatures. 

The purpose of bats in media is to invoke fear and mystery. We see with these characters that bats play a role in creating an air of darkness and almost mischief. Even the positive depiction of bats in a heroic lens still instills the idea of bats being dangerous creatures. Bats provide more than just a gimmick for media, they are crucial to people and creating balance in our natural systems. An example of this would be their consumption of insects and bugs. Bats prevent an infestation of insects that populate at remarkably fast rates. According to the U.S Forest Service, some small bats eat about 1,000 insects in just an hour. This number doesn’t even account for nursing mothers or for larger species of bats. 

Shifting the pop culture lens to view bats as an integral part of ecosystems can help with conservation efforts. Bats are considered a keystone species due to their diet of bugs, and their title of pollinator as well. Many of our everyday products are due to bats spreading seeds and fruits. They also eat crop pests that feed on agriculture and damage human food systems. With bats as a natural pesticide, plants and crops can flourish both in farming and in nature. The historically common portrayal of bats in pop culture is not only damaging, but also not true. Most common myths surrounding bats are that all bats are blood-suckers, they have rabies, bats are blind, and they intentionally fly into people’s hair. Only a few bats consume blood and a very low percentage of bats are rabid, and the rabies encounters humans have are usually from bats that are on the floor— indicating that bats could have underlying health problems. 

Bat houses can play a sizable role in bat conservation. Much of the habitat that bats would historically have to roost and raise their pups has been lost or degraded in recent years. Due to this loss, it is becoming much more difficult for bats to find a safe natural roost site. While a natural roost site would be preferred, bat houses can provide bats a safe place to raise their pups. Bat houses being available also gives a clean alternative, when natural roosting sites are contaminated by white-nose syndrome. The vast majority of bats only have one pup a year, if they have a pup that year at all. This low population growth rate means that a secure site for bats to raise their pups is crucial to bat conservation. 

There’s also positive examples of bats in the media as well. Not only were Dracula and Batman beloved characters, despite their associations, but so was Bartok from Anastasia or the children’s book, Stella Luna that illustrates bats as fun and lovable characters. Even characters like in Gargoyles with their bat transformation signify empowerment and justice. The examples presented give audiences of pop culture a way to see that bats aren’t only spooky creatures of the night, but also lovable creatures with essential roles. 

Reference Links

Bats Part II: Jaaʼabání – A Diné Perspective

by Isiah Cambridge

Learning the creation stories from my peers and teachers I remember hearing tales revolving around countless animals and avians with acute values attached to all of them. Jaaʼabání (Bat in Diné/Navajo) “Leather ears”’ is one of those. Coming from a bi-cultural point of view, I see Jaaʼabání distinctly across both cultural lenses I carry between the Diné (Navajo) and Núuchiu (Ute) peoples.

In Diné stories there is such a plethora of rich teachings that to explain their entire arch in a single blog post would be extensive. Jaa’abání is known as an entity of the first world who eventually came to play mediator between the thunder gods, the thunder god of darkness and the thunder god of winter. He is known to help individuals as a watcher of the eastern sky, and provides goods to the people of the ground, a delivery from those not barred by gravity, the people of the sky. A role he takes within navajo culture is a mentor to the Diné offering their aid without payment.

Colleen Keane shared in the Navajo Times (19 Jan 2017) that Jaa’abání are in need of more protection calling upon their cultural significance stating that, “besides building bridges in the spirit world, Diné cosmology attributes jaaʼabaní with silently passing along answers to difficult questions when humans are put on the spot and quietly helping out the Holy People when they need backup. In everyday life, Jaaʼabaní keeps the earth in balance by pollinating flowers and plants, and guards against … insects that destroy crops and farm lands.”

A theme is reflected in the selflessness of Jaa’abání, helping the Indigenous peoples or other spiritual fauna in times of need. Jaa’abání sets a powerful example for us ground dwellers, playing between both worlds in the sky and the earth communicating their advice through gestures and comments. Jaa’abání is no powerful being with any paranormal abilities but is how is, existing solely task by task, day by day, deed by deed. Where do we sit ourselves in comparison to Jaa’abání?


Bats Part III: Pe‘a – A Moana/Oceania Perspective

By Samoana Matagi

The hoary bat is a native species to Utah. It has a close relative in the Hawaiian Islands 3383 miles over Moana Nui (Oceania, The Great Pacific Ocean). Studies have shown that the Hawaiian hoary bat, migrated to the islands from the Pacific coast of North America in two separate waves more than 9,000 years apart (1). A new study estimates that these migrations from continental North America happened around 800 years ago and 10,000 years ago. The Hawaiian Hoary bat originated from the North American Hoary Bat after making the 3,600 km journey. Around the time the second wave of Hoary bats were arriving from North America, the people of Oceania made their first landfall in South America. They had become masters of navigation! With this mastery they explored at least 10,000,000 square miles and located over 1,000 islands (2).

Bats, on many of the islands in the region known as Oceania, are the only native land mammals. Furthermore, they are central to Native Hawaiian culture and many Indigenous cultures throughout Oceania. Indigenous anthropologist Dr. Tēvita Ka‘ili has explained that in Hawaiian culture, ʻōpeʻapeʻa (bat in Hawaiian language) are kinolau, body forms, of Kanaloa – one of the principal deified ancestors of Kanaka ‘Ōiwi (Native Hawaiians). In fact, scientists have found that the Hawaiian Hoary Bat and the North American Hoary Bat are close relatives. 

Just as the hoary bat migrated to Hawai‘i in waves, the Oceanic people migrated to Utah in many waves as well. The first Native Hawaiians came to Soonkahni (Salt Lake Valley) in 1873 and started a community in Warm Springs/Rose Park. They maintained this farming community for about 15 years despite confronting racism and social barriers until they reestablished west of Piapaa (The Great Salt Lake) in a community called Iosepa in the Newe (Skull Valley Band of Goshute) territory. There are some Māori from Aotearoa who arrived in 1884. Samoans also arrived in 1889. The first Tongans on record arrived in 1920.

Pe‘a (Bat in Sāmoan) are also prominent ancestors for Tongans, Sāmoans, Māori, Tahitians, and many others from Oceania.  Many of the cultures throughout Oceania view bats as one the many body forms of significant ancestors, gods or demigods. They were seen as omens and were even active character heroes in some of the legends. 

According to West Valley City Councilperson Jacob Fitisemanu who holds the Sāmoan chiefly title Papali‘i there is an important legend about bats in Sāmoa. In one of these legends pe‘a (bat) saved a princess named Leutogitupa‘itea or Leutogi. She was sentenced to be burned alive by her husband, but Leutogi sent a signal to her brother that she was in danger. Her brother, Tauolupo’o, sent his white bat to the rescue. He called upon the spirits of the dead to assist his pet pe‘a in their long flight across the moana (ocean). When they arrived, the bats put out the fire and saved Leutogi. She was then banned to another barren and haunted island. However, yet again, bats saved her by bringing her food. Leutogi gained three titles after enduring and overcoming these challenges. Tonumaipe‘a – in memory of what the pe‘a had done for her; Tilomai – in memory of the aitu‘s (spirits) looking on; Tau‘ili‘ili – because she had to use stones to cover her oven, instead of leaves. In fact some of her descendants, surnamed Tonumaipe‘a, live in Soonkahni to this day.

Whether it is the general shape of the bat on tatau (tattoos), body art, paintings on tapa cloth or sculptures, representations of pe‘a are often found in art throughout Moana Nui (Oceania). In many Pacific Island nations, bats have great cultural significance as totems, food, and traditional currency. Due to their significance in these cultures, it can be deduced that bats have a high value in the complex web of the ecosystem of Oceania.

Reference Links:

  1. https://www.usgs.gov/news/state-news-release/origins-hawaiian-hoary-bat-revealed
  2. https://www.history.com/news/polynesian-sailors-americas-columbus 


ʻŌpeʻapeʻa – Bat in ‘Olelo Hawai‘i (Native Hawaiian Language)

Peka – Bat in Lea faka-Tonga (Tongan language)

Pekapeka – Bat in Te Reo Māori (Indigenous language of Aotearoa-New Zealand)

Image by Sébastien Galliot/Journal of Material Culture (2015)


Bats Part IV: Sotz’ – A Mayan Perspective

By Arcia Tecun

Sotz’ is the general word for Bat in the K’iche’-Maya language and several other Mayan languages. Ajtz’alam is another word for vampire bat specifically in the K’iche’ language. Sotz’ have strong cultural significance on their own terms as bats but also as representations of supernatural entities or as symbols/faces of particular natural or cosmic phenomena. Sotz’ are also expressions of ancestors/deities/guardians/supernatural lords, and more. Sotz’ can be interpreted as intermediaries or messengers between realms due to being commonly associated with nocturnal behaviour. Sotz’ are part of a Mayan cosmic worldview or cosmovisíon. 

This society has many calendars, some for school years, others for sports seasons, some for fiscal years, and others for nationally recognized public holidays. Winaq/Wīnak or Mayan people also have more than one calendar. The pop culture reference to “the” Mayan calendar is in reference to one specific calendar known as the Choltun or the long count, which Oxlajuj Baktun (December 21, 2012) was the end of a cycle and a “new year” or new era/beginning in that calendrical system. Mayan calendars are based on solar, lunar, planetary and people cycles. The Cholq’ij or Tzolk’in calendar is based on both lunar and gestation cycles and functions as a culturally or spiritually guiding calendrical system. The ‘Ab or Haab calendar is solar and is similar to the Egyptian based Gregorian calendar that is also approximately 365 days. The ‘Ab calendar has a month totem that is named Sotz’ and the hieroglyph has elements of Bat’s face as part of the sign. 

There is another connection in cosmovisíon-Maya to bats and that is of Chamalkan. Chamalkan interpreted means Snake Tooth or Snake Fang, who is a deified chief or guardian of the Kaqchikel-Maya people. This is a poetic expression where Snake Fang is drawing on a similarity to vampire bat fangs in appearance. Chamalkan is linguistically of the Yucatec-Maya language and Chamalkan is described as having looked like a bat. A ‘batman’ of sorts or Bat Lord. Chamlkan’s bat-like appearance provided stealth abilities to pass the smoke in the Bat House and steal fire from there. Chamalkan is the reason why Kaqchikel people were the only highland tribe to obtain fire without having to make a sacrificial offering to gain fire knowledge.

One of the key surviving texts of cosmovisíon Maya is the post-colonial K’iche’ writings known as the Pop Wuj or Popol Vuh. The Pop Vuh tells of the hero twins who are also depicted in stone relief and pottery throughout the Mayan region. They are Hunahpu/Junajpu (One Hunter) and Ixba’lamkej/Ixbalamkeh (Jaguar Deer) who faced many trials and challenges in Xibalba (black road, ‘underworld’, dark rift of the milky way). One such trial was when they found themselves in Sotz’ija/Sotz’iha or the house-of-bats/bat-house where they faced the great Kamasotz. Kamasotz refers to the Bat Lord, ‘Snatch’ Bat(s) or to the Xibalba bat nation. The Hero Twins sought refuge by taking cover, hiding inside their blowguns. When Hunahpu neared the edge to see if they could witness if the dawn had yet to come, it was not clear so they ventured out further. Hunahpu moved their head out into view beyond the protection of the blowgun, and it is at that moment that Kamasotz (‘Mayan batman’, Bat lord/guardian) decapitated Hunahpu. Hunahpu would eventually get their head back after overcoming Xibalba Lords in Chaaj Chaay/Chaah Chaay (Mayan/Mesoamerican ball game).

Kamasotz is a compound word that can be broken down into ‘kama’ and ‘sotz’. Sotz means ‘bat’, while ‘kama’ is ‘surprise attack’. A related word ‘kame’ means death/rebirth and is also a calendar totem in the Mayan calendrical system. Tat Andrés Xiloj (A Mayan Elder/Priest) explained that Kamasotz is not of the earthly realm, but of Xibalba, referring to them as an animal who eats the moon. Interestingly if we look at the prefix Käm it means eclipse when coupled with ‘moon’ or ‘sun’. So, ‘käm ik’ means literally ‘the moon is eaten/killed/reborn’, but interpreted to be ‘lunar eclipse’, while ‘käm q’ij’ means ‘the sun is eaten/killed/reborn’, but interpreted to be ‘solar eclipse’. Hunahpu’s decapitation by Kamasotz is among other things a poetic metaphor for an eclipse.

There are many connections to bats for Winaq/Wīnak/Uinic (‘Mayan people’) that are embedded within cosmogony (creation stories) and cultural practices (calendrical systems and poetry). I have a cosmic and cultural responsibility to bats. I recognize that there is a diverse yet connected bat family locally and globally, so I am excited about the partnership with Sageland Collaborative and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to have a certain kind of ‘bat houses’ for conservation purposes at the Nature Center at Pia Okwai, which will support their migratory paths and roosting in this region.

Sotz’ – Bat Glyphs. Photographs by Justin Kerr.

Kamasotz Sculpture in Museo Popol Vuh, Guatemala. Photograph byTracy Barnett.

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