Unique in the animal kingdom, the bat is the only mammal that can fly. Although this singular ability may contribute to its abundance worldwide, there is no doubt that the bat is a successful animal, since it accounts for 20% of all mammal species. It comes as no surprise, then, that the symbolism of the bat covers quite a wide spectrum as well.
Although our modern conception of bats in the west has largely been a negative one, a journey back in time reveals that this was not always the case. According to the ancient Greeks, Diana was the many-breasted virgin goddess of the forest who watched over births and infancy. The Greeks also knew that bats suckle their young, the only flying creature to do so. It thus seemed natural for them to pair the two images together such that bats will sometimes accompany Diana in classical legends, where both came to symbolize motherhood. It was only a small step from the symbolism of motherhood to the symbolism of fertility and sex.
“A bat’s blood, too, they say, received on a flock of wool and placed beneath a woman’s head, will promote sexual desire; the same being the case also with a goose’s tongue, taken with the food or drink.” (Pliny’s Natural History, Book XXX, Chapter 49, circa 77 CE)
Elsewhere on this website, we’ve already discussed the Chinese Wu Fu symbols of bats that are popular in tattoos and which symbolize wealth, long life, peace, good health, and a good death. Indeed, much of the Old World is populated with these sorts of positive impressions. It wasn’t until Europeans came into contact with vampire bats that the negative associations with which we are more familiar began to be widespread.
There are only three vampire, or blood-eating, bats in the world and all are found in the tropics and subtropics of the New World. In fact, some of the Maya of Central America were well acquainted with the behavior of the vampire bat, using an upside down glyph of a bat’s head to signal that a time period had come to rest and another image of a bat performing sacrifice to satisfy the blood need of the gods–not unlike the blood need of the vampire bat itself.
Today’s bat symbolism is dominated with themes of the demonic, such that even Satan, as a fallen angel, has bat’s wings. Frightening creatures of the night who must avoid sunlight and seek to hide their evil activities–á la Bram Stoker’s famous invention of 1897, Dracula–imitate the nocturnal hunting habits of most bats, vampire or not. Scenes of witches and Halloween would hardly be complete without the full moon and bats in the sky. The cave dwelling Celtic dragon is frequently shown with bat-like wings (as in this visitor contributed image here) as are demons of all sorts (as in this visitor example). But the world of tattoo symbolism is not always so serious, such that even the bat might simply mean that you’re really more of a night person.