Bats and the Camazotz: Correcting a Century of Mistaken Identity.


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January 2016


At the end of the nineteenth century, Eduard Seler identified the bats depicted on a ceramic vessel excavated by Erwin Dieseldorff at the site of Chama, Guatemala, as the camazotz, or death bat, from the K’iche’ Maya myth, the Popol Vuh. The attribution was never critically reviewed. Nevertheless, it became so deeply entrenched that virtually every image of a Maya bat is identified as a camazotz. We have located no ancient depictions of the Hero Twins in the chamber of the camazotz, which calls into question the salience of this scene for the ancient Maya. In iconography and ethnohistory, multiple figures with bat-like characteristics exist, both bats and anthropomorphic bat-men. Clearly, the situation is complex. We argue that bats appear principally in four roles. The first is as an emblematic symbol representing some group. The bat played a second role as a messenger, often paired on vessels with a bird. A third category relates to pollination, vegetation, and fertility, and here the bat may be paired with the hummingbird. The last and largest category is wahy beings, which most epigraphers now think were bestial forms of personified diseases. Included here are the many vessels depicting the fire-breathing bat, including Dieseldorff's Chama vessel. We argue that the identification with the camazotz should be dropped altogether and that the associations proposed by Seler need to be rethought.

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