“Without feathers he flies and sleeps upside down“
Shrouded in a halo of superstition and legend, bats have stimulated human fantasy since immemorial times.
The bat, with its appearance of a tiny vagabond devil, is always a bit of a fleeting representation of fear. Its figure of a Renaissance flying machine, its black and imprecise colour, its penetrating and bitter shriek and even its strange way of sleeping, are enough elements for the legend of fear and the artifice of horror to arise in its surroundings.
For most people these animals, like some enigmatic-looking nocturnal raptors such as little owlets and owls, conjure up stories of haunted houses, graveyards and bloodthirsty vampires who transform into bats to escape the places where they practice their misdeeds and quickly get lost in the dead of night. But the truth of these stories are as fascinating as the myths that surround them. Bats, far from being the monsters of popular legends, are truly of crucial importance to life on our planet.
The general aversion that accompanies these animals must be attributed to their nocturnal habits, their resemblance to mice, their chilling facial structure, the strange conformation of their limbs or the sinister environment of their refuges. Their extravagant appearance has made the popular imagination turn them into animals of ill omen, inseparable companions of witches and goblins.
We cannot know the idea that primitive man had of this caveman neighbor, since although he lived in the same caves, there is little evidence of encounters between both species, only one cave painting is known where bats are represented. The first news about bats comes to us through the Bible, where they are shown to us as an impure animal and are considered the incarnation of the devil, who is often represented with bat wings. Moses considered them unclean and forbade the Israelites to touch them. This bat is included among the <<abominable birds>> of Leviticus (11, 18) (11, 19) where believers are warned of the following: <<…Among the birds you will have the following as detestable; they will not eat: the eagle, the bearded vulture and the sea eagle, … the hoopoe and the bat>>. Despite its mammalian nature, the bat was considered a bird for thousands of years. We also find him in Isaiah (2,20): << That day the man will throw his idols among moles and bats >>.
Divus Basilius wrote to ancient Rome: “The nature of the bat is linked by blood to that of the devil.”
The bats! Ovid recounts in Book IV of The Metamorphosis that… the daughters of Minias, disobeying the order of Bacchus, continued weaving in their house and missed the profane feast of the god… the latter enraged, wishing to punish them… when the time of the dubious night arrived … the Minicides began to hide in the rooms and from the fires and lamps they avoided the light looking for the darkness, while a membrane extended through their small joints including their arms in a tenuous wing… and when trying to speak, minimal and according to their body a voice emit, making slight lamentations with a stridor; frequenting the roofs not the thickets, hating the light at night they fly and so from late afternoon they have the name.
Although for the Greeks the bat was a hybrid animal, with a sinister and ghostly appearance, it was considered a symbol of intelligence, probably because of its ability to fly at night without bumping into obstacles.
Other ancient superstitions rooted in some rural regions tell us about the custom of nailing bats to doors for protection against nocturnal and evil demons. Drops of bat blood under a woman’s cushion assured her the blessing of having children. However, he had great sympathy for the remedy against plagues of ants, locusts and the bite of snakes.
It was considered as a sinister creature that presumably got entangled in the hair of human beings, and that when a bat entered a house, a member of the family would die. Elsewhere it was said that they were creatures of devils that waited for witches in the twilight, or that they were a transmutation of the witches themselves.
The doctor Arnau de Vilanova wrote a treatise on spells that offers numerous remedies for impotence caused by magic and points out that witchcraft is caused by an inscription with characters written in bat blood.
The books of ancient Arab doctors contain numerous prescriptions about them, and the medieval charlatans of Europe frequently included them in their cures.
The most famous work of astral magic was an Arabic text, written by Maslama Ibn Ahmad al-Majriti in Muslim Spain in the 10th century, known to the West as Picatrix and translated into Spanish in 1256 at the request of Alfonso X the Wise, and which was considered for many centuries the Bible of witches. A list of magical substances with wonderful properties is offered, including hoopoe brain and bat blood (Chap.11 ): «Four incense compounds to spread the spirituality of discord and enmity, among them the third that says: «…bat brains, and hawk blood, four meticals of each; rennet and medium metical rabbit tallow of each. Another piece of straw is added to this mixture, and it is incensed with it».
Given that until about 50 years ago nobody knew anything about the orientation of bats through ultrasound, it was believed that these beings could see in the dark, so, in the book The Prodigies of the World by Albertus Magnus (13th century), says about it: “If you want to see something in the dark and perceive it as in broad daylight, smear your face with the blood of a bat and everything will happen as I have explained.”
During much of medieval times, it was the mysterious animal par excellence, associated with shadows and evil, so much so that the demons of medieval art were represented with bat wings.
In the Renaissance, educated characters such as the great painter and scientist Leonardo Da Vinci, saw bats in another way, and used their wing physiognomy to make a model of an aerial machine, but nevertheless, in 1570 the “Bestiary of Don Juan de Austria”, Martín Villaverde says: The bat is a bird and an animal that flies in an uncertain way of nature, with leather wings that cut the air with some skins and sustains itself on it. He walks among the birds and animals with four feet and bears no eggs if not offspring of his shape and raises them with milk. Nearby, he surrounds and looks for his pasture in the afternoon, after the light of the sun, which with the sun does not see what it needs. Its feather is hair and its color is brown like a mouse. He screeches defiantly.
A century later, in the Baroque era, it was considered the symbol of the antichrist. The Spanish painter Francisco de Goya, forerunner of Contemporary painting, used them as a symbol of everything threatening and irrational.
In 1598 the Mallorcan Inquisition prosecuted Miquel Fiol, a Catalan merchant, for making use of a witch’s potions, specifically a swallow and bat drink that he had given to a woman and thus “she would go after the man who had given it to her.”
In our Valencian lands we have a legend that says that while the troops of King Jaime I were encamped in the Rabal de Ruzafa, outside the walls of the city of Valencia, and besieging the Muslims, a bat made its nest on the tall side of the royal tent and the king ordered that they were not to scare him away, since it seemed to him a sign of good luck. One night, as the Christian army slept unsuspectingly, the beating of a drum alerted the king and the soldiers to him; he ordered his officers to be extremely vigilant, and discovered an advanced Moorish group attacking the Christian camp by surprise; This led to a tough battle that led to the withdrawal of the Saracen army and the subsequent conquest of the city of Valencia. Great was the surprise of King Jaime I, who wanted to reward whoever he had warned with the beats of the drum, when he verified that the flapping of the bat had been on the skin of the drum. Since then, the bat has been considered a symbol of alertness and protection, and has been incorporated into the flags and coats of arms of cities such as Valencia, Palma de Mallorca, Barcelona and Albacete.
As we have seen, the bat is one of the animals that has the worst image in the world, and nothing is further from the truth, since they are huge consumers of insects that avoid the use of pesticides and chemical pesticides that have negative effects on the natural environment. They are also generators of an excellent fertilizer for agricultural purposes. For all this and many other physical, physiological and biological capabilities and characteristics, bats are essential animals for humans.
About 1,100 species live in the world (in Spain 29 species and in the Valencian Community 23 species, of which 12 are cave dwellers, 4 forest and 7 urban), and more than half of them are seriously threatened by the destruction of their habitat. To name a few examples, the use of pesticides, fires, uncontrolled urbanization, the inconvenience caused in their shelters…
For all this, they have been protected since 1980 throughout the national territory and all species are included in the NATIONAL CATALOG OF ENDANGERED SPECIES. Some of them, like the bigeye bat (1) and the medium horseshoe bat (2) are in serious danger of extinction.
The bat has always been the animal species that has fascinated me the most, and to which I have dedicated the most hours of observation and monitoring. Photographing them in their habitat and entering their intimacy has been a challenge for me, mainly because they fly at night, they are black, small, you can hardly see them, let alone focus on them. They are very fast and change trajectory suddenly and unexpectedly. Most of the time when taking the photo they were no longer there, but the experience of the years refining the technique and the way of approaching the photo sessions have made me satisfied with the results achieved. Finally, it must be said that we are all responsible for its conservation. We all have to understand that they are a key piece in ecosystems and that the ecological benefits they offer us are unquantifiable.
If you ever find a bat, don’t hurt it. He just wants to live according to his nature and the places where he has always lived.
Let’s get closer, love them or at least respect them. They are indispensable and have been and are unfairly mistreated and persecuted.
It is in our hands to change it.
(1) The Valencian Community is home to more than half of the numbers of the bigeye bat in Western Europe, and specifically in the Ribera Alta region, where the most important refuges of this species are found throughout the national territory. One of the particularities discovered about this chiropteran just a few years ago is that it includes fish in its diet, that is, we have a fishing bat.
(2) The medium horseshoe bat is in an advanced process of regression. The meager Valencian populations require urgent measures for their recovery, since in the last censuses less than 100 specimens were estimated for the entire Valencian Community.
CHARRO GORGOJO, Manuel Ángel: “Murciélagos: Príncipes de las tinieblas” dins Revista de Folklore, n°220, Fundación Joaquín Díaz, any 1999.