The cover image at the top of this article is a gift for the eyes of any Batman fan. At the top left is an imposing sculpture of the Gotham’s heroe beautifully adorned with Mayan motifs. It almost looks like the image of some god that would have been worshipped by pre-Columbian cultures. In fact, this is how it has been interpreted by many Internet users.
It is common to see publications in the media or social networks that associate this figure with an intriguing Mayan god: Camazotz. It is often claimed that the sculpture is an ancient archaeological evidence of this god and that it would have served as inspiration for the creation of Batman.
The resemblance between Batman and this allegedly Mayan sculpture is so great that it is suspicious. In fact, the antiquity of the alleged “Mayan Batman” can only be traced back to 2014, just when the 75th anniversary of the Dark Knight was celebrated. To commemorate this event, the exhibition “Batman through the Mexican creativity” was held at the Mexican Museum of Design, where dozens of artists presented Batman sculptures made of fiberglass. Christian Pacheco was the author of the amazing bust of the Mayan Batman, so there is no doubt that it is a contemporary creation. What is certain is that the artist was inspired by supposed representations of the enigmatic god Camazotz to decorate his work.
Unveiling Camazotz’s identity
Who was this mythological creature? Let’s start with his name, which would mean “bat of death” (from the Kʼicheʼ terms kame, meaning “death”, and sotz or zotz, meaning “bat”).
He is usually included in the Mayan pantheon, but it seems that the Zapotecs already worshipped Camazotz before the Mayas around 100 B.C., a veneration that would be inherited by the Mayas and also by the Aztecs.
We must imagine him as a creepy creature with the head of a bat and the body of a man, sometimes dressed in a cape that resembles the wings of these animals. This is at least how various images associated with Camazotz appear on stelae, codices or vessels.
The nasal appendix and the prominent fangs are very reminiscent of the facial characteristics of the bats of the Phyllostomatidae family, so one might wonder if the Maya, seasoned observers of nature, would have taken as a model some members of this family to shape Camazotz. In this group we find mainly species that feed on nectar, fruits and insects, but also Desmodus rotundus, the common vampire bat that feeds on the blood of large mammals at night and, rarely, on humans.
However, Camazotz is mainly known for his brief appearance in the Popol Vuh, the Maya “sacred book” that collects the myths and historical accounts of the Guatemalan indigenous people. Part of the book focuses on the feats of the twin heroes Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who must overcome a series of deadly trials imposed by the Lords of Xibalbá (the Maya underworld). The brothers must spend six nights in six houses where different dangers lie in wait for them. However, with their cunning and magical powers they will be able to overcome all of them, until they reach the sixth and last one: the Bat House. It is so named because it is full of dangerous bats that flutter and screech frantically.
To avoid their bites, the heroes decide to spend the night sheltered inside their inseparable blowguns. Meanwhile, Camazotz, who here plays the role of servant of the Lords of the Underworld, arrives and convinces the other bats to roost silently on the entrances of the blowguns and kill the brothers at the slightest carelessness. Near dawn, Hunahpu decides to look out to see the light of dawn, at which time Camazotz decapitates him and takes his head to place it in the ball game court following the orders of his masters.
Is Camazotz all that glitters?
For having committed the peculiar murder of Hunahpu and for his resemblance to vampire bats, Camazotz has been associated with death, blood, sacrifices, darkness, and the underworld. Moreover, it is common for any image of a bat-man to be identified with Camazotz and to be attributed the same symbolic meanings. The problem is that many of these associations are unjustified for two reasons: on the one hand, the descriptions of Camazotz in the Popul Vuh are very brief and, on the other, the ethnohistory and iconography of the different Maya peoples are full of anthropomorphic creatures in the form of bats in addition to Camazotz.
For example, according to anthropologists James E. Brady and Jeremy D. Coltman, there would not be any image from the Classic Maya Period (250 – 900 A.D.) that can be unequivocally associated with the Camazotz of the Popol Vuh, since they do not present any irrefutable feature that links them to the myth. At the very least, these presumed Camazotz should be accompanied by some element related to the heroes Hunahpu and Xbalanque and the decapitation of the former, but they do not appear.
On the other hand, images of bat-men accompanied by decapitated heads and organs do appear in several Central American codices of the Postclassic Period (950 – 1540 A.D.). In this case, at least, the relationship between these beings and the symbols attributed to Camazotz (sacrifices, blood, death) is more explicit, although this does not mean that these creatures are Camazotz.
The rich symbolism of the bat
The symbolism of bats in Maya ethnohistoric sources goes far beyond sacrifice and death. For example, bats were symbolically important for Maya socio-political and religious organization, to the point that several clans adopted the bat as an emblem or protective deity. There were even populations that called themselves “bat men” or localities that include the term bat (sotz or zotz) in their toponymy.
They were also associated with the earth and were considered emissaries or messengers between the world of the gods and the world of humans. The Maya knew that one of the shelters most frequented by these animals during the day were caves, considered as entrances to the depths of the earth and the underworld. Caves were considered a source of revelations and hidden knowledge. In fact, they may have served as oracles. Hence, bats were in charge of revealing esoteric knowledge to certain people.
Some of the images of bat men usually appear with hypertrophied penises, a classic symbol related to the fertility of the fields and of women. An argument in favor of this interpretation is that bat glyphs are often accompanied by hummingbird glyphs. By feeding on the nectar of flowers, these birds play a very important role in pollination and, consequently, in the fertilization of the fields. In the same way, the Maya surely realized that some species of bats do the same at night, as if they were the nocturnal counterpart of hummingbirds.
Finally, it is worth mentioning those images of bat-men that could be identified with Huay, spiritual entities with dark attributes, as they were linked to witchcraft, sorcery, bad omens, death, darkness, sacrifices….
Identifying all Maya images of bat-men with Camazotz is a simplification of the great symbolic richness attributed to bats. Putting a face to this mythological creature is complicated, so the Maya Batman will continue to be hidden in the shadows of Xibalba until some archaeological discovery brings him to light.
Brady, J.E., Coltman, J.D. (2016). Bats and the Camazotz: Correcting a century of mistaken identity. Lat. Am. Antiq. 27, 227-237. http://dx.doi.org/10.7183/1045-66126.96.36.199
Popol Vuh: Las antiguas historias del Quiché (2003). Guatemala: Editorial Piedra Santa.
Retana-Guiascón, O.G., Navarijo-Ornelas, M.L. (2012). Los valores culturales de los murciélagos. Revista Mexicana de Mastozoología 1, 18-26. https://doi.org/10.22201/ie.20074484e.2012.2.1.19
Thompson, E.S. (1966). Maya hyeroglyphs of the bats as metaphorgrams. Man 2, 176-184. https://doi.org/10.2307/2796344