Bats have been recognized as some of the most mystical creatures and are so often misunderstood. Bats are the only existing flying mammals and, over the course of their long history, have been depicted with much negativity. Commonly, in various media portrayals, they are said to be evil. However, in Africa, bats have their sacred place in the cycle of life. One can say that the mission of the bat cannot be replaced by any other mammal no matter how close the similarities. These social creatures are nocturnal and possess the uncanny ability to move in darkness and rely on sonar in their nose for perfect navigation. They are also clairaudient: They have a keen sense of hearing that also makes them unique.
Bats contribute to life because their consumption of vegetation assists pollination and seed dispersal. In Ghana, the straw-colored fox (a kind of bat), as it is referred to, relies on the Iroko tree, one of Africa's leading agricultural products. This tree is highly valued because of its strength and color.
Most bats are mainly fruitarians, but will eat insects, birds, and even chicken. Their waste product, “guano,” is one of their most interesting features because it is used as a fertilizer. The African fruit bats are also considered allies to many who rely on the West African locust tree for sustenance. The locust tree is a survival food and offers a source of calories and nutrients, especially during times of drought or famine. The locust tree is often used as firewood, shelter for livestock, and shade and protection. A reliable resource, its falling leaves nurture the soil, its bark and twigs help with dental care, and it remains a source of sustenance for bats.
Bats—particularly the mouse-tailed bat, native to Egypt as long as 4,000 years ago—were commonly found hanging out with mummies. During the winter months, bats would hibernate in the pyramids, eating and drinking every day, but moving about less often than usual. Their acclimation to the desert environment complements their ability to live off their own fat deposits when food is scarce. The hammer-headed fruit bat lived in the forest of Gambia, Ethiopia, and Angola near swamps and rivers, feasting on mangrove and palm trees. In Central Africa, the fruit bat, or epailette bat, also lives in forests or fields consuming ripened fruit and juices.
Another bat common to Africa is the yellow-winged bat, also considered the “false vampire bat” and one of the best looking of all the species. These creatures are blue-gray or blue-brown with yellow wings and ears. The female bat is the hunter, whereas the father protects and feeds the offspring. Yellow-winged bats mate for life and roost in acacia trees, primarily in the flowers where they attract insects for food. Another interesting feature of the fruit bat is how they hide or nestle themselves within pouches in their shoulders. These pouches have glands that give off a strong odor, which is absorbed and used as a female magnet. This is an instrumental part of their mating process because they are able to fill the air with their scent to attract their female counterpart.
In Africa in earlier times, and later cross-culturally, bats were a powerful symbol, representing the souls of the dead, initiation, rebirth, happiness, and longevity. With respect to nature, bats or totems represent time for transition or transformation and letting go of the obstacles that may hinder growth. They also reflect people's need to come face to face or soul to soul with their true and higher selves. Bats are also symbolic of new truth and imply great strength and stamina to handle ordeals that may beset people as they open to new awareness or consciousness. Bat medicine teaches people to trust their instincts, open themselves to new beginnings, and demonstrate the ability to embrace the promise and power that comes from this awakening.
Bats have also been long associated with lore, mysticism, and religion. In the Ivory Coast, bats were seen as the spirits of the dead; in Madagascar, they were known as the souls of criminals or the buried dead. In the Cameroon, bats were capable of blood sucking the life force of a person while sleeping. Furthermore, consistent with Ibibio tribe, bats were connected to witchcraft. For instance, the Ibibio believe that if a bat came into a home and touched someone, that person was considered bewitched. Bats are also often associated with nighttime or darkness, when most rituals were performed.
The blood, heart, and other parts of bats were often used by African healers for specific purposes. In ritualistic ceremonies, a bat's blood was used for spell work directed toward discord, tension, and havoc; its eye is used against harm and evil and works as protection. Despite their negative reputation, bats have played a vital role in the cycle of life and have made a contribution to African religious ceremonies.
- Andrews, T. (2004). Animal Speak: The Spiritual and Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn.
- Mbiti, J. (1975). Introduction to African Religion (2nd ed.). Nigeria: Heinemann Education Books.