Deep within the Maya underworld, in a place of darkness known as Xibalba, the Hero Twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque face their most dangerous ordeal yet: the House of Bats. To protect themselves against its bloodthirsty inhabitants, they hide inside their blowguns. Their ploy seems to work. But then Hunahpu peeks outside, causing a terrifying bat god to swoop down and rip off his head…
The adventures of the mythical Hero Twins are described in the Popol Vuh, a holy book of the K’iche Maya people of Guatemala. Passed down through the generations by oral tradition, the Popol Vuh – whose name means “Book of the People” – first entered the historical record in the 16th century. And a Dominican friar called Francisco Ximénez subsequently translated it into Spanish in the 18th century.
The name of the bat god was Camazotz – a K’iche Maya word meaning “death bat.” Given their nocturnal habits and subterranean habitats, it is perhaps unsurprising that bats in Mesoamerica were generally associated with the night and the underworld. Indeed, as a fearsome guardian of Xibalba, Camazotz was a god of darkness and death, as well as sacrifice.
There are few surviving depictions of Camazotz. But one of them, which can be found in a Maya codex (a pre-Columbian book of hieroglyphs) shows him wielding a sacrificial knife in one hand and a victim in the other. Camazotz also figures as a sculpture, which resides in the Popul Vuh Museum in Guatemala. It portrays the bat god as a monstrous bipedal entity with humanoid features.
Camazotz was an outlandish figure, but he was also hardly unusual among Maya deities. Indeed, the Maya produced some of strangest and most imaginative cultural output that the world has ever seen. Indeed, their civilization was powerful and productive. With roots reaching back as far as 4,000 years, they once dominated an area that includes southeastern Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, as well as parts of Honduras and El Salvador.
Their achievements included the most advanced writing system in pre-Hispanic America, a highly evolved form of mathematics, and a calendar system that envisioned time on an epochal scale of millions of years. Maya cities were vast metropolises that incorporated an array of civic-religious structures such as pyramids, temples, palaces and astronomical observatories. In fact, Maya civilization was as sophisticated as ancient Egypt, Rome or Greece.
And with an extraordinary pantheon of gods overseeing all facets of daily life, religion was a central pillar of Maya civilization. Indeed, the “otherworld” of supernatural forces so entangled with mundane life that everything from trade to politics to making and eating food had a spiritual or ritualistic dimension.
The central component of Maya cosmology was Yaxche – literally “first tree” – a metaphorical representation of the universe that is analogous to the World Tree or Axis Mundi. Its mundane counterpart is the Ceiba, a very large tree common to the rainforests of Mesoamerica. And according to the Maya cosmology, the roots of Yaxche reach into the underworld while its branches support the heavens.
Along with astronomy and calendrics, Maya esoteric lore incorporated a host of deities. Their symbolic functions were apparently complex. For example, each deity had a dual aspect signifying day and night. Each deity also had four different manifestations corresponding to specific colors and cardinal points. Deities represented universally recognized forces such as the Sun and Moon. But there were some very distinctive Mesoamerican gods too, such as the feathered serpent.
Furthermore, Maya spirituality corresponded closely to the land. Sacred places, such as mountains, wells and, indeed, bat caves, formed an important part of their ritual topography. Sacred geography continues to be a part of Maya religion today, with a network of shrines and holy sites revered by some remote communities in the Guatemalan highlands, for example.
Maya religion was populated by an array of animals too. And some them apparently fulfilled human roles. For example, grandmother “Great White Coati” and grandfather “Great White Peccary,” both depicted in the Popul Vuh, served as healers. And in the Dresden Codex, animals are depicted wearing human clothes.
Of course, Maya religion also hosted an array of troublesome creatures from the infernal realms. Demons and ghosts, for example, imparted disease and calamity. Among the Tzotzil Maya, there were such ominous-sounding monsters as “charcoal-cruncher” and “one who drops his own flesh.” While among the Yucatec Maya there remains a pervasive belief in Xtabay – the “Female Ensnarer” – a ghost who lures men to their doom.
Naturally, Maya myths concern a diverse range of themes and characters. Some of them are parables intended to instil moral teachings. Others describe the creation of the world and the formation of celestial bodies such as the Milky Way. Others yet concern the travails of gods and heroes such as Hunahpu and Xbalanque.
Although the myth of Hunahpu and Xbalanque was not recorded until the colonial era, the Maya depicted the Hero Twins on pottery as early as the Classic Period (A.D. 200-900) – an era regarded by many archaeologists as a Maya Golden Age. Symbolically, the twins are believed represent the complementary forces inherent in a dualistic universe. And the Popol Vuh describes the bizarre story of their conception.
It starts with their father, Hun-Hunahpu, playing a ceremonial ball game with his brother Vucub Hunahpu. The lords of Xibalba become so annoyed by the noise of their game that they trick the brothers into traveling to the underworld. They then decapitate Hun-Hunahpu and hang his head in a tree. His head then spits into the hand of a woman called Xquic, causing her to become pregnant with Hunahpu and Xbalanque.
Hunahpu and Xbalanque’s own journey to Xibalba begins in adulthood. After discovering their father’s equipment, they commence playing their own ball game. Perturbed by the noise once again, the lords of Xibalba invite them into their realm. And to the heartbreak of their grandmother, they accept. So begins a series of trials that pit the twins against the monsters of the underworld.
Of course, the twins are canny enough to know that the Lords of Xibalba have laid traps for them. So they dispatch a mosquito to bite the lords and discover their names. Then when they themselves arrive in Xibalba, they are able to identify each lord and speak to him directly. Irritated by their cleverness, the Lords of Xibalba send the twins to the first of their trials: the Dark House.
As one might expect, the Dark House is entirely cloaked in darkness. And, of course, the twins survive it. But before long they head to their second trial: the Razor House. As inhospitable as it sounds, the Razor House contains self-animated knives. However, the twins foil the test by talking to the knives and convincing them to be still.
However, harsher trials await the twins. Perturbed by their success, the Lords of Xibalba dispatch them by turns to the Cold House, the Jaguar House and the Fire House. But the twins survive them all. In the Bat House, however, the twins meet their match: the bat god Camazotz, who swiftly decapitates Hunahpu.
Victorious, the Xibalbans rejoice and prepare for a new ball game using Hunahpu’s head for a ball. However, Xbalanque has a devious plan. Using materials scavenged by wild animals, he fashions an artificial head for his brother’s body. He then manages to steal back Hunahpu’s original head by craftily replacing it with a squash. Hunahpu becomes whole once more.
Furious, the Lords of Xibalba then cook the twins in a giant oven and grind them to dust. However, when the dust is thrown into the river, the twins are reborn as catfish. They then transform into young boys. In their new human forms, they infiltrate Xibalba and impress the inhabitants by performing a miraculous ritual of sacrifice and rebirth.
The Lords of Xibalba summon the boys to their court and demand that they perform the ritual for them. And after witnessing it, they are so impressed that they demand to take part. So the twins then sacrifice them. But they do not bring them back from the dead. The Lords of Xibalba are finally defeated. And at the very end of the story, the twins transform into the Sun and Moon.
Meanwhile, Camazotz represents just one of many mythical creatures inspired by bats. Among the Zotzil Maya of Chiapas, Mexico, a winged demon known as “neckcutter” appears to somewhat resemble a bat. Further afield in Chile and Peru, a bloodsucking monster known as chonchon – which they say resembles a disembodied head with wings – could well have been inspired by bats.
In fact, many researchers think that Camazotz and similar mythical creatures may have been inspired by the vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) or its close relative, the false vampire bat (Vampyrum spectrum). Indeed, the propensity of both animals to feed off the blood of other animals may be one reason why the Maya associated Camazotz with ritual sacrifice.
However, there is a third species of bat, generally thought to be extinct, that may also have been the inspiration for Camazotz – Desmodus draculae, a close relative of the common vampire bat. In 1988, two fossils of the species were discovered in Venezuela, followed by a third in Brazil in 1991. Approximately 25 percent bigger than a common vampire bat, D. draculae was a true monster of the sky.
According to Brazilian authors E. Trajano and M. de Vivo, who described the third D. draculae fossil in 1991, there is reason to think that the bat may not be extinct after all. As evidence, they cite local reports of sizeable bats attacking local livestock. And even if D. draculae is extinct, it is not implausible that it coexisted with early Maya civilization.
Meanwhile, bats have played starring roles in many stories from around the world. Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic classic Dracula, for example, features an archetypal vampire with the power transform himself into a bat. And, since the mid-20th century, the superhero Batman has been depicted in numerous comics, TV shows, cartoons and Hollywood movies.
Indeed, Batman represents one of the most successful and long-running superhero franchises of all time. So much so that that in 2014, on the 75th anniversary of his creation, Warner Bros Entertainment invited more than two dozen artists to take part in an exhibition called “Batman Through Mexican Creativity.”
One of the artists was Christian Pacheco, who owns a design company called Kimbal. Based in Yucatán in southern Mexico – the old heartland of Maya civilization – Pacheco knew that DC comics were not the first to envision an otherworldly creature with human and bat characteristics. In fact, he knew that Camazotz predated Batman by thousands of years.
So Pacheco’s team set to work creating a Batman-style bust with Mesoamerican motifs. The finished piece was made of fiberglass and incorporated the distinctive patterns and shapes of Classic-era Maya art. Specifically, Pacheco drew inspiration from the decorations on ceramic incense burners discovered in the temple of the foliated cross in the archaeological site of Palenque, Chiapas.
Meanwhile, the piece became the subject of an article on the fact-checking website Snopes after it was incorrectly captioned and circulated on social media. Apparently, some readers mistook the artwork for a genuine archaeological artifact. But given the fidelity of its decorations, it’s not hard to see why. Of course, Camazotz was a bona fide Maya god, but he did not resemble Bruce Wayne in costume.
The Mexican Museum of Design exhibited the finished bust in February 2015, when it was subsequently snapped up by a buyer. The identity of the buyer is a mystery, however, and according to Pacheco, the exhibition provided his last glimpse of his sculpture. As it is now part of a private collection, it may or may not be on public display in the future.
Meanwhile, the idea of Batman relates somewhat to the ancient Maya concept of “co-essences.” Within each person, believed the Maya, were a variety of souls or co-essences which frequently took the form of protective animal spirits. The Maya they called them wayob, which is the plural of the word way, meaning “sleep” in Yucatec Maya.
In fact, the etymology of way may refer to the belief that skilled sorcerers had the ability to physically transform into their spirit protector while sleeping, just like werewolves. In the Yucatán peninsula, a belief in wayob persists to this day, although most modern wayob are thought to be domestic animals such as dogs or horses.
That said, the pre-Christian wayob appear to have been far more diverse than their contemporary counterparts. They included not only wild animals such as eagles and jaguars, but a menagerie of weird and impossible creatures, such as deer-monkey hybrids. Furthermore, wayob included an array of entirely supernatural entities such as Xibalban Death Gods.
Meanwhile, references to such co-essences have been identified on an array of Classic-era Maya artwork and hieroglyphics. On such artefacts, wayob are frequently depicted alongside fire symbols and upturned “jars of darkness.” Furthermore, in another remarkable precursor to DC comics, wayob often appear to wear capes, just like superheroes.
Of course, a belief in animal doubles or co-essences is by no means unique to Mesoamerica. Indeed, medieval lore in Europe is filled with tales of shapeshifters. And even older references to such entities can be found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Bronze Age poem. Today, Native American tribes continue to identify with animal totems. And the New Age scene has appropriated the idea with the concept of shamanic “power animals.”
Indeed, the tendency for humans to anthropomorphize the animal kingdom, to render animals in human form, or to imbue humans with animal characteristics is a very old and pervasive cultural practice. As such, contemporary superheroes such as Batman, Spider-man, Ant-Man, Wolverine, Black Panther and countless others are the product of an archaic storytelling device that is unlikely to ever go out of style.
Furthermore, mythic creations such as hybrid superheroes express a primordial psychological urge to extend oneself beyond the limitations of human form. In some sense, they offer the chance to reconnect with the mysteries of the dreamworld, where all things are possible. After all, what child has not daydreamed about flying in the sky like a bird?
Of course, Camazotz is less superhero and more supervillain, less Batman and more Penguin. Nonetheless, he represents a pantheon of deities far weirder than anything dreamed up by a comic book artist. And, just like Batman, he draws imaginative minds into a shadowy underworld populated by ever darker entities, inspiring writers and artists alike.