Fantastic Bats

Diverse in appearance and amazing in flight, bats are beautiful for many reasons.

| October/November 2005

Batty: When it comes to our notions about bats, we humans always have been, and continue to be, distinctly that. Consider, for instance, the persistent notion — held in one version or another throughout the world — that bats have a tendency, if not outright inclination, to swoop down on humans and become entangled in our hair. Never content to leave a silly idea untrumped (bats may swoop low over the heads of humans at night, but only in pursuit of buggy prey, not a hairy home), our species has come up with all sorts of batty elaborations. Once a bat is in your hair, according to varying folklore, you’re really in trouble: Your hair will turn gray; the bat will pull your hair out; you’ll have bad luck; you’ll go insane.

But it’s hardly just “bat hair days” that we associate with these creatures. For centuries, bats have been considered the “familiars” of witches and evil creatures from the netherworld. So it is that no Halloween scene is complete without bats flitting about a pointy-hatted witch, and no horror movie is horrifying without bats flying from a tomb. Of course, we all know that those bats in particular could be vampires: blood-sucking undead who commute from one victim to the next by taking to the air as bats.

At least folklore also acknowledges that bats can be useful, albeit for questionable purposes. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder advised placing a drop of bat blood under a woman’s pillow as an aphrodisiac. If you have more than a drop to spare, you could give yourself better night vision by smearing bat blood on your face — or, according to another belief, you could drink the bat blood to make yourself invisible.

Bats and bat parts figure in a virtual pharmacopeia of potions and cures. Bat’s blood, dried bat hearts, bat livers, bat wishbones, bat eyes, bat ears — you name it, and it’s likely to have been mixed into some sort of concoction or cure for anything from lovesickness to epilepsy, gout to snakebite. Maybe the most famous batty ingredient of all time is in the less-than-appetizing witches’ brew in Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog.

In short, our odd beliefs and improbable superstitions about bats are legion. Perhaps that’s because bats themselves are no less odd and improbable. We are, after all, talking about a mammal that spends most of its life hanging upside down in dark places and that soars through the night on leathery wings hunting for prey by listening to the echoes of its own screams.

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