The Surprisingly Not-So-Scary Symbolic Meaning of Laying Eyes on a Bat

Photo: Getty Images/ 945ontwerp
If you were to make a list of creepy creatures, chances are, bats would be on it. Alongside spiders, snakes, and vampires, bats have long been associated with Halloween in the popular discourse. In depictions of spooky haunted houses or abandoned castles, colonies of bats are often seen flying overhead. So, it makes sense that you might assume the meaning of crossing paths with a bat has something to do with darkness, death, or despair.

But these largely Western connotations of bats aren’t fully reflective of their symbolism and meaning, according to bat and spiritual experts. Much like ravens and black cats, these enigmatic creatures are mostly misunderstood, and seeing one could be a sign to investigate what may be hiding in your own depths (rather than anything to fear).

Experts In This Article

“Bats are fascinating, and they’re mysterious,” says Mylea L. Bayless, senior director of networking and partnerships at Bat Conservation International. She points out that plenty of bats are nocturnal, which lends them a natural connection to nighttime and darkness—something that likely helped foment the above bat superstitions, she says.

But from a practical standpoint, bats actually help us out, despite their often-cited vampiric tendencies. In fact, only three of the 1,400 different bat species eat blood; most bats eat insects, nectar, or fruit, which allows them to play a pivotal role in their ecosystems, pollinating plants and serving as helpful pest control.

Relatedly, bats are also the only mammals capable of true flight, or flying uninterrupted for long stretches, and while they do so, they disperse their droppings, scattering seeds and thus supporting forest regeneration. It's for this reason that bats are considered by many in agricultural spheres as "the farmers of the tropics," says Bayless.

The cultural meaning and symbolism of a bat

The origin of our associations between bats and all things dark can be traced to the Bible, where bats appear in the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus as birds that are deemed unclean and therefore unfit for human consumption. Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, part of his 14th century poem The Divine Comedy, depicts a journey through hell where Satan is said to have bat-like wings; this is widely credited with kickstarting the mythology around bats, evil, and hell (consider the common phrase, “like a bat out of hell”).

European art and culture cemented these dark associations in the centuries to follow. Consider English playwright William Shakespeare's 1623 play Macbeth, in which the three hags concoct a potion containing “eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog.” It's thought that this passage may have contributed to a folkloric tradition connecting bats with witchcraft. Gothic literature has also played a large role in tying bats to the creepy and the dark; Bram Stoker’s canonic 1897 novel Dracula famously features a vampire who shape-shifts into a bat.

But in Chinese culture, the bat has just the opposite meaning: It's an auspicious symbol of fortune and luck because the Chinese word for bat, which is pronounced “bianfu” or “fu” for short, has the same pronunciation as a different Chinese word that means happiness and blessings. Thus, bats often appear in Chinese art in the color red, which is associated with vitality, says Jan Stuart, curator of Chinese art at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art.

"In longstanding traditional lore in China, immortal beings are said to live in caves and so do bats, so the two became closely associated."—Jan Stuart, Chinese art curator

“The number five is auspicious in Chinese culture, a representation of fullness, and so five red bats together symbolically represent the five most common good wishes [which are good health, longevity, wealth, virtue, and a peaceful death], as well as full potential for extensive good fortune,” says Stuart.

By a similar token, bats are also associated with longevity and eternal life in China. “In longstanding traditional lore in China, immortal beings are said to live in caves and so do bats, so the two became closely associated, both representing the idea of long or endless life,” says Stuart.

What it means if you spot a bat

As noted above, the fact that bats are most active at night lends them an air of mystery, as do their associations with both darkness and auspicious fortune across different cultures. According to celebrity psychic and mystic Inbaal Honigman, seeing a bat could be a sign that you're on the precipice of an unknown transformation or perspective change. "Bats are unusual and unique, giving them the message of doing things differently," she says.

Honigman also emphasizes that spotting a bat isn't a bad omen. While the creatures are certainly associated with the unknown and with concealment, that doesn't always equate to fear or danger; after all, what you don't know—or what you've brushed under the rug—has the potential to help you just as much as it might hurt you.

"Bats are unusual and unique, giving them the message of doing things differently."—Inbaal Honigman, celebrity psychic and mystic

Seeing a bat during the day—when it's unusual to spot them—could especially mean that there's more than meets the eye surrounding a recent event in your life, says Honigman. But even seeing (or hearing) a bat at night could be an invitation to dig deeper. "The way that bats hide themselves connects them to secrets and lies," she adds.

It's possible that someone in your life is hiding something from you, preventing you from seeing a person or situation in its true form. Or, you could be the source of concealment here, and seeing a bat could mean you're keeping a secret that's weighing heavy on your heart. In either case, it's important to find a way to bring the truth to light.

Because bats are social and live among colonies, you're most likely to see them flying in large groups, says Bayless. Which is why, seeing a single bat could mean you, in particular, have been left in the dark on something. “It’s like everyone else is in on the secret or has found a solution to something, and you need to catch up,” says Honigman.

There’s also additional meaning to glean if your encounter with a bat is more up close and personal—like if you find one roosting in your attic, or one makes its way into your home. “If a bat comes very close to you, there’s every chance that the universe has been trying to communicate a message to you that you’ve ignored for a while,” says Honigman. “When you ignore a message from the universe, it comes around more ardently until you take note.”

What to do if you see a bat

On a practical level, it’s important to never touch or disturb a bat. (If you think you’ve been bitten, call your county health department immediately, as bats are the leading cause of deaths from rabies in the U.S.) If there's a bat in your house, and it won't leave on its own through an open door or window, try to safely trap it when it lands on a surface, and call your local animal control or bat rescue for help removing it.

Spiritually, however, seeing a bat in any scenario is an invitation to think about what truths may be concealed in your life. To help guide this introspection, you might try journaling. “Sit down, and write without a particular purpose,” suggests Honigman. “This is a way to give your intuition a voice.” Whatever shows up on the page can help clarify the spiritual message at hand and steer you toward the perspective change you may need, she says.

If you begin to see bats in your dreams, that may be an additional sign of change on your horizon (much like dreaming of snakes), says Honigman, or perhaps a concealed fear or anxiety that you need to address in order to move forward with greater alignment. In any case, it's a sign to interrogate what lies beneath the surface of your conscious mind and whether the things you're hiding—from others or yourself—aren't better off being revealed.

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