During the Middle Ages, bats (called “witches’ birds”) were associated with witches, devils, and other evil-doers.
In 1332, Lady Jacaume of Bayonne in France was publicly burned because “crowds of bats” were seen about her house and garden.
In Europe a bat entering a house forewarned of a death, whereas in China it was a sign of good fortune.
If a bat flew into your house on Halloween, it was a superstitious sign that your house was haunted because ghosts had let the bat in.
(If you have ghosts sneaking bats into your house, I don’t think a bat is your worst problem.)
Once they’re in, one medieval legend has these “blind” bats, envious of human beings’ superior sight, blinding people during their sleep.
Even if a bat simply flew around your house three times, someone in that house would soon die.
You don’t always have to die from bat mythology, though. Sometimes, you could get away with mere bad luck, insanity, blindness, disappearing, bad news or the hideous horror of a – house move.
While Europeans were busy lumping bats in with witches and dark magic, the Mayans worshiped a god named Camazotz (“death bat”). A macabre creature with the head and wings of a bat, and the body of a man – he was associated with human sacrifice.
A common superstition about bats, repeated throughout Europe and North America, is that bats are extremely fond of fat.
In one of the earliest encyclopedias from 1491, Hortus Sanitatis (“The Garden of Health”) bats are shown flying around a leg of lamb!
The lore goes that bats will gnaw on hams and slabs of bacon, which in olden times were hung to cure in chimneys –places where bats were often discovered roosting.
There’s a wonderfully weird old English nursery rhyme that goes:
“Bat, bat, come under my hat,
And I’ll give you a slice of bacon
And when I bake
I’ll give you a cake,
If I am not mistaken.”
Bats and bacon are entwined in parts of Germany, where the word for bat is Speckmaus, literally “bacon mouse” or “ham mouse”.
Even hibernating, they were compared to hanging like pieces of bacon (speck) in the smoke.
Bats were clearly getting framed for bacon thievery; in his 1939 book, “Bats”, G.M. Allen speculates that rats and birds were the true culprits.
In experiments conducted in Germany in the early nineteenth century, captive bats were offered a diet of bacon. They refused it and starved to death in a week.
Bats in your hair
Myself, I rather like the bat
It’s not a mouse, it’s not a rat.
It zigzags through the evening air
And never lands on ladies’ hair,
A fact of which men spend their lives
Attempting to convince their wives
– Ogden Nash, “The Bat” 1952
In the lore, getting a bat entangled in your hair can be annoying, lethal or even lead to eternal damnation. Your hair will snarl or turn gray; the bat will pull your hair out. An idea from the south of France to Canada is that if bat droppings fall in your hair, you will become mangy or even bald.
According to French folklore, a bat in a woman’s hair portends a disastrous love affair. The very worst that can happen is if the bat escapes carrying a strand of her hair. In Ireland, it was believed that this will result in eternal damnation.
In 1959 the Earl of Cranbrook took it upon himself to test the myth that a bat would become so entangled in a woman’s hair that the hair would have to be chopped off.
Using four species of bats, and three brave female volunteers he deliberately attempted to entangle the bats by thrusting them into the woman’s locks. On all occasions, the bats were able to escape without becoming ensnared.
Bats and Medicine
Folk healers believed that bats could be good for humans. It usually wasn’t good news for the bat, though.
A large variety of bat preparations dealt for problems with vision, ranging from dimness to cataracts.
Other bat folk medicines are said to be remedies for snakebite, asthma, tumors, sciatica, fevers, a painless childbirth, or to promote lactation.
Sir Theodore Mayerne prescribed “balsam of bat” as an ointment for hypochondriacs in the 15th century. His recipe consisted of “adders, bats, suckling whelps, earthworms, hogs’ grease, stag marrow, and the thigh bone of an ox.”
One physician in the 1700’s recommended that, properly prepared, the flesh of bat was good for gout.
Pliny the Elder, an Ancient Roman Naturalist and Philosopher, wrote about the bat in his “Natural History”:
If one of these animals is carried alive, three times round a house, they say, and then nailed outside of the window with the head downwards, it will have all the effects of a countercharm: they assert, also, that the bat is a most excellent preservative for sheepfolds, being first carried three times round them, and then hung up by the foot over the lintel of the door.
As late as 1922, nailing live bats head down above doorways to protect livestock and prevent misfortune was reported in Sussex, England.
Why is the poor bat so maligned?
Bats were seen as ambiguous creatures, symbols of duality, indecision or duplicity who could take on another form. They looked like mice, but weren’t. They seemed blind, but could fly about silently in the dark.
In all sorts of fables, the bat shows itself as a bird, another time as a normal animal. Often as a trickster.
Their characteristics have fed popular fantasies (long before Dracula and Batman) and evoke an ancient fear of the dark, of the night and of death.
For this reason, you’ll see images of the devil with wings of a bat, while angels have the innocent wings of a bird.
Some great sources on bat lore: