Deciphering Halloween icons can be a little complicated. Most often, they represent a mix of the traditional images you’d associate with October 31st and local symbols associated with legends and folklore that stretch back generations. Complicating things further, even ubiquitous symbols like skeletons and witches and block-headed Frankensteins are a mix of ancient and modern, a little Samhain here and a little English Romanticism there. Falling under the latter category are the beautiful and wind-beating bats.
If you haven’t inferred it yet from its modernity, by all counts, bats managed to wiggle their way into the Halloween pantheon most likely by way of Bram Stoker and his magnum opus, Dracula. It’s worth noting that the work that broke the ice for Stoker’s popular success was John Polidori’s The Vampyre: A Tale (1819). Polidori belonged to the circle of artists that included Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron. For some time, it was believed that Byron had penned The Vampyre, adding to its popularity at the time of publication. Many of Dracula’s classical tropes originated with Polidori – the proud, handsome aristocrat who victimizes women. Polidori, for his part, is said to have fashioned his villain on Byron, with a splash of European folklore which had a long tradition of vampire tales.
Contrary to some reports, representation of bats do not figure prominently in ancient Celtic iconography, though that isn’t to say that it is completely absent either. The Púca, whom some assert assumed the shape of a bat when in animal form, usually appeared as a horse, cat, rabbit, raven, fox, wolf, goat, goblin, or dog. Its most common form, in fact, was that of a sleek black horse with a flowing mane and luminescent golden eyes.
Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dracula was social commentary masked in Gothic horror. At its most basic level, the novel (also epistolary in form) reflected English male society’s fear of the other, the foreigner from outside British borders. They were particularly obsessed with the outsider’s sexual prowess and its effects on women. Much of this was communicated symbolically in Dracula’s the sucking of his victim’s neck or the ingestion of his own blood by Mina Harker. The interaction is always described in ecstatic and erotic terms.
When Dracula first made real contact with Harker,
His right hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom. Her white nightdress was smeared with blood, and a thin stream trickled down the man's bare breast which was shown by his torn-open dress. The attitude of the two had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten's nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink.
In Mina’s own words,
With a mocking smile, he placed one hand upon my shoulder and, holding me tight, bared my throat with the other, saying as he did so: 'First, a little refreshment to reward my exertions...' And oh, my God, my God, pity me! He placed his reeking lips upon my throat!
Dracula called her, “Flesh of my flesh… my beautiful wine press.”
Mina recalls that in order to hasten her transformation into a vampire, to complete his seduction and make her his conquest,
he pulled open his shirt, and with his long sharp nails opened a vein in his breast. When the blood began to spurt out, he ... seized my neck and pressed my mouth to the wound, so that I must either suffocate or swallow some of the — Oh, my God!
She takes his blood into her mouth then into her body, completing the metamorphosis.
Stoker made his vampire a shapeshifter, drawing on a very ancient trope. While, there isn’t definitive proof that he knew about vampire bats, the animals were known to European at that time. In fact, the first reports of blood-hungry flying rodents reached the continent during the 16th Century.
According to Gary F. McCracken,
The existence of blood-eating bats in the New World tropics was first made known to Europeans by the explorer F. De Oviedo y Valdes with the publication of his Sumario de la natural historio de las Indias in 1526. Shortly afterward, in 1565, M.G. Benzoni (La historio del mundo nuevo) provided a graphic description of his toes being bitten by bats while he was asleep in what is present-day Costa Rica (vampire bats were not formally described in the scientific literature until 1810).
Vampire bats are a species of the subfamily Desmodontinae and diverged from its lineage roughly 26 million years ago. They are leaf-nosed bats and found in Central and South America. Unlike other bats, leaf-nosed bats use their noses for echolocation. One of vampire bats’ main source of food is blood, called hematophagy.
Three extant bat species feed solely on blood: the common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus), the hairy-legged vampire bat (Diphylla ecaudata), and the white-winged vampire bat (Diaemus youngi).
They are the only mammals that have evolved to feed exclusively on blood as micropredators, a strategy within parasitism. Relying on blood for nutrients is rare. There are too many things can go wrong while digesting it. A large volume of liquid can potentially overwhelm the kidneys and bladder, the risk of iron poisoning is significant, and coping with the excess protein can be a metabolic challenge. Interestingly, vampire bats also have a high level of resistance to a group of bloodborne viruses known as endogenous retroviruses, which insert copies of their genetic material into their host’s genome.
All three vampire bat species are native to the Americas, ranging from Mexico to Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Argentina.
Unsurprisingly, vampire bat iconography is noticeably present in many Central and South American cultures’ iconography, dating back at least hundreds of years. According to Elizabeth P. Benson, they are particularly prominent in South America,
The north coast of Peru is one of the regions where bat iconography is particularly prominent. On Mochica pottery (as well as on contemporaneous Maya vases and in later Central Mexican codices, an anthropomorphic bat is an agent of human sacrifice, with a knife in one hand and a human head in the other. The proportionate sizes of the large bat and the small human head indicate supernatural status for the bat, and the throne on which he sits symbolizes his power. Sometimes a Mochica anthropomorphic bat carries a warclub and a small human captive, who is about the size of the club or smaller.
In her paper, “Bats in South American Iconography,” Benson speculates on why bats are so easy to associate with death and the supernatural.
Bats, in general, have many qualifications for sacrificial, death-associated, chthonic symbolism. They are nocturnal creatures who hang upside-down, facing the Underworld; they often live in caves, which are usually considered entrances to the earth or Underworld. Naturalists describe bats emerging from a cave in the evening like a cloud of smoke coming out of the cave… Sometimes there really is smoke; bat guano can ignite…
She notes that folklore in the Amazon often associates killer bats with fire and coincidently, when Dracula transforms into a bat, popular movie accounts often accompany it with a puff of smoke.
While Benson wasn’t addressing bat symbolism in Halloween iconography, her succinct explanation captures why it is such an enduring image every year.
WORDS: Marc Landas.