I have long marveled at how ordinary objects, plants, or creatures have so come to personify a holiday that its mere depiction immediately pegs that day. A colored egg, tulip, white lily, or bunny, immediately evokes Easter. A turkey, Thanksgiving. An American flag or bursting firework, 4th. Of July. A decorated tree, candy cane or red poinsettia, Christmas. Perhaps the holiday most identified through symbols is Halloween. Walk through any store with a card section right now, and black spiders, witches on broomsticks, black cats and bats, skeletons, graveyards, and carved pumpkins will be grinning at you.
This being the season of the black and orange, let’s visit one of these symbols and how it came to be associated with Halloween. In past October blogs, I shared the origins of carved pumpkins (originally Celtic carved turnips illuminated by a live coal inside, believed to ward off and protect against evil spirits). We also explored the origin of costumes and trick-or-treat. Here, let’s talk about bats. How and why has this very beneficial, seldom seen little mammal come to personify creepy evil?
As with most symbols, to decipher it we must travel back in time. In this case no less than 2500 years to the Celtic harvest festival called Samhain. The word itself translates “end of summer,”and marked the transition into winter. The Celts believed that during this time, the veil or shield between the two realms of the living and dead, was thinnest. The spirits of ancestors were invited to cross for a visit, but less benign spirits might also cross. To guard against and fool the latter, huge bonfires were lit and cattle bones burned. Participants then smeared themself with the ash, as a disguise (later this morphed into costumes, meant to fool the uninvited spirits).
But how do bats factor in? As it turns out, during Fall bats are extremely active, seeking mates and gorging themselves to fatten up against the meal-less months of winter hibernation. Hordes of insects of every type were drawn to the light of the bonfires, and fast upon them bats swooped to the feast. Bats are night-stalkers, little seen during the day, so mysterious. They also colonize and retreat to dark caves. Early peoples often believed caves were portals to the underworld, the realm of the dead. You began to see how a mysterious flying night creature that appeared in abundance on the night spirits were believed to cross, began to take on a sinister cast.
This was backed by other developments, even depictions in art. In many mythologies, fallen angels such as Ariel, and even Lucifer himself, are depicted either riding a bat, or themselves having leathery bat-like wings. Perhaps that explains the term, “like a bat from hell.” Then in 1897, Bram Stoker borrowed on this plus Samhain elements, and gave us DRACULA. The immortal Count is a shapeshifter, able to cross from human to a dog, a mist, and yes, a bat. In the novel, the character Quincy Morris relates: “I thought it well to know if possible where they Count would go when he left the house. I did not see him, but I saw a bat rise from Renfield’s window to flap westward.”
As soon as film came along, the bat connection took off. To date, there are over two hundred films featuring Count Dracula. Interestingly, in old Rumanian, the word “Dracula” translates as “devil.” DC Comics made a killing by keeping the mystery and a bit of the dark, but morphing all this into a super hero, Batman. Symbols, when all is said and done, are cultural fabrications, and can even mean opposites from one culture to another. For example, in Western societies, black is the customary color associated with mourning, while in many Eastern, white is worn. The same goes for bats as a symbol. Here, Halloween casts them at best as creepy. But in China, a bat is a symbol of good luck, and their word for “bat” almost identical to the word for “happiness.”
And indeed, in all fairness to this little creature, the Chinese symbology is more fitting. True, among the 1400 species of bat, there is one dubbed the “Vampire” who does dine on bird and animal blood, but the vast majority are supremely benign and beneficial. It is estimated that a colony of say 200 bats, devours up to 500,000 harmful insects a night. They save us and our crops catastrophic harm. And, in a world where beneficial insects, such as bees and butterflies are fast disappearing, nectar feeding bats are pollinating. I learned in researching this article that in Mexico and the entire SW, nectar-eating bats are essential pollinators. In fact, they are the PRIMARY pollinators of cactuses and agaves. Good for us old timers to know that the ones
That are not only in my belfry, are out there doing so much good? A treat from a trick, Happy Halloween.
Anthony dela Torre
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