Folklore and the Origin of Bats
Contributed by Gary F. McCracken*

Throughout the world, folklore is rich with tales speculating on how creatures as mysterious as bats came to be. People often perceive bats as anomalous or ambiguous creatures, different from more "normal" animals. They have fur and teeth and nurse their young like other mammals, but they don't walk on four legs. They have wings and fly like birds (actually, in many ways better than birds). They live in unusual places. Most often, they are seen only at night. What are they?

In the terminology of folklorists, bats are "liminal." They don't fit into the normal order of things and are somehow apart or in- between. This apparent ambiguity in the nature of bats is seen in many folktales about how they came to be in the first place and how they acquired their various features.

Three Fables
The origin of bats is prominent in the folklore of several North American Indian tribes. In a Cherokee fable, two small mouse-like creatures wanted to participate in a ball game in which the "animals" challenged the "birds". Because they were four-footed, the mouse-like creatures first asked if they could play with the animals, which included a bear, a deer, and a terrapin. But the larger animals made fun of how small the creatures were and drove them away. They then appealed to the eagle, the captain of the bird team. The bird team took pity on the creatures and fashioned wings for one of them out of the head of a drum made from a groundhog skin, thus creating the first bat. Because not enough leather remained to fashion another bat, the birds then stretched the skin between the fore and hind limbs of the other creature, making the first flying squirrel. With the help of the bat and the flying squirrel, the birds won the ball game, with the agile bat scoring the winning goal.

In a Creek Indian variation of this tale, the bat first asks to play with the birds but is rejected by them and accepted by the animals' team. The animals then give teeth to the bat to make it more animal-like. Using its new teeth to hold the ball, the bat helps the animals to win the game.

Apaches tell a different tale about bats. In this story, Jonayaiyin, a hero who battled the enemies of mankind, killed several eagles and gave their feathers to a bat who had helped him escape from the eagles' nest. Repeatedly, the bat's feathers were stolen by small birds, and repeatedly the bat returned to Jonayaiyin to ask for more. Frustrated, Jonayaiyin eventually told the bat, "You cannot take care of your feathers, so you shall never have any."

"Very well," said the bat, "'I deserve to lose them, for I could never take care of those feathers."

Try This!
  • Keep track of the many references you find to people's dislike of bats. Hold a classroom debate about values and viewpoints. How do these values affect bat conservation?
  • These stories give fun and vivid (if unscientific) explanations for how bats came to have wings. Think of an interesting feature of an animal, and write your own story to explain how it came to be. You might write a story to explain how hummingbirds started humming, or how robins got their red breast, or how cardinals got their crest. Let your imagination guide you!

*About the Author
Gary McCracken has studied bats for many years. He is author of the entry on bats in The Encyclopedia of American Folklore and Superstition. He is a professor in the Department of Zoology and the Graduate Programs in Ecology and Ethology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville