Bat God “Camazotz” Statue / Wikipedia / CC BY 3.0
What if we told you that a far darker and more ancient version of Batman first existed thousands of years ago? His name was Camazot and he was the Mayan bat god of night, sacrifice, and death.
Camazotz was said to have the head of a bat, a partial face mask, pointy ears, and the body of a man. All such similarities to the dark knight end there, however, as Camazotz was not the type to waste his time crusading for Gotham’s return to justice. While he may not have been a billionaire with a secret stash of all the latest technological crime-fighting gadgets, he was definitely both honored and feared.
Origins of Camazotz
The ancient bat god seems to have first made an appearance in Mexico around 100 A.D. where he gained a literal cult following among the Zapotec tribe. The Zapotecs associated bats with death and the night for reasons that would have made a great deal of sense at the time. After all, bats were always inhabiting the caves around what was known as the Sacred Cenotes, which ancient Mesoamericans believed was a path to the underworld.
Seeing them flying out of what you believed to be hell would probably be enough to spook anyone into adopting a pretty shakey view of the mysterious winged creatures. From such late-night bat encounters, legends of a bat god were eventually born and began to make their rounds among various tribes of native Mesoamerican peoples. Commonly depicted holding a sacrificial knife in one hand and a human heart in the other, Camazotz was not really destined to be a god of the warmhearted variety.
Camazotz’s name literally means “death bat” in the Kʼicheʼ language. The Kʼiche’, a Mayan people, are the original inhabitants of the Guatemalan Highlands, where their lush culture flourished long before the age of Spanish conquest. Scholars believe that they fused the tale of the bat diety with that of their fire god in order to create the truly terrifying Camazotz. Much of the surviving history and traditions of the K’iche’ can be found in a text they produced which is called the Popol Vuh.
The Popol Vuh, which translates literally as the “Book of the People,” contains a collection of Mayan stories and legends that were originally passed down through oral tradition. They were finally committed to paper in 1550 and were preserved when an 18th-century Dominican friar named Francisco Ximénez translated them into Spanish.
Camazotz and the Hero Twins
The Popol Vuh contains one of the most notorious of Camazotz’s surviving tales, in which he encounters the Mayan Hero Twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué. Twin characters were common motifs in the old Native American tales and the Mayans especially seemed to love utilizing them. The use of twins in such legends generally seemed to represent the idea of duality, sort of like the ying-yang. The idea being that light and dark, the sun and moon, day and night, etc. balance each other out to create harmony. Hero Twins, like Hunahpú and Xbalanqué, were what we might call demi-gods today.
Hunahpú and Xbalanqué have a whole saga that plays out in the Popol Vuh, but the one in which Camazotz is featured does not depict their finest hour. As the story goes, the twins had been invited down to the underworld, a shadowy place known as Xibalba. Like the heroes of countless other epic tales, the twins spent most of their journey being forced to contend with a huge number of trails and obstacles. Well, things were going pretty well until the lords of Xibalba challenged them to spend a night in Zotzilaha, the underworld’s resident house of bats.
The twins were pretty cunning and decided that they would outsmart their challengers by shoving themselves into their blowguns for the night. As they lay there, using their blowguns like protective burritos, the bats in the creepy cave eventually began to calm down, until ultimately, all was silent. It was then that Xbalanqué got a not so bright idea. “Hey dude,” Xbalanqué said to Hunahpú “maybe it’s dawn. Check it out and see if all the bats have left.”
For whatever reason, Hunahpú agreed to the plan and stuck his head out of his blowgun to check for the all-clear. Unfortunately for Hunahpú, this was just the opportunity Camazotz had been waiting for. The bat god wasted no time in swooping down, decapitating Hunahpú, and hanging up his head to be used as a ball in the gods’ next ballgame. Fail.
Camazotz’s further terrifying tales
In another part of the Popol Vuh, Camazotz makes another appearance in the form of a man with bat wings. This time, he acts as a messenger from Xibalba who arrives to broker a deal between humanity and Lord Tohil, the patron god of the K’iche’. Humanity has decided that it wants access to fire and it wants it bad. In the end, mankind promised their armpits and waists to the god in exchange for their wish. Humanity’s trade-off is actually a reference to human sacrifice, during which the chest was opened from armpits to the waist.
Camazotz’s grizzly reputation even extended to a legend in which he was one of four animal demons who together wiped out all of humanity during the age of the first sun.
When compared to the average, everyday bat, a creature as horrifying as Camazotz could be seen as a bit of a stretch. After all, bats aren’t really so bad when they’re not accidentally getting tangled up in your hair in the middle of a hike. Some of them are even kind of cute. So why the lack of love for sky puppies? Researchers have several theories.
The first is that Camazotz was inspired by Desmodus rotundus, aka the common vampire bat. While these little guys are fairly small, they do have a nasty habit of sucking the blood of other animals. Beholding such a sight in the middle of the night, or worse yet finding random bite marks on your livestock, could admittedly come across as a little scary. The second theory, however, makes a lot more sense.
Some scholars now believe that Camazotz was based on a species of bat called the Desmodus draculae, which is now extinct.
The creatures were once native to Central and South America and were not exactly your typical, harmless fruit bat. These things were anywhere from 25-30% larger than common vampire bats of today and apparently loved the taste of blood.
While some researchers believe they sucked the blood of smaller animals, others believe that they went for larger prey such as deer or cattle. All that we really know about them is what little that scientists have been able to glean from their fossils, but they were doubtless as terrifying as they sound.
So what happened to the vampire bat’s larger, scarier cousins? The truly unsettling part is that scientists don’t really know. Researchers have been unable to pinpoint exactly when or even if they went extinct or why. For all we know, they’re still lingering in some cave out there, waiting to descend on the unluckiest hikers ever.
What we do know is that their fossils and teeth have been found in the Yucatan, Belize, northern Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela. This points to the idea that they were likely a very real reality for the Mesoamerican people and are great candidates for Camazotz’s inspiration.
While Camazotz enjoyed his heyday in Mayan culture thousands of years ago, his legacy still lives on to this day. Stephen King named a character in his “Dark Tower” series after the ancient bat god, re-imagining him like a beam guardian who takes the form of a bat.
A character by the same name even appears in the Silverwing children’s book series, which chronicle the adventures of a young bat.
A few years ago, Camazotz also inspired a common internet rumor. It claimed that a Batman-style bust had been found amongst ancient Mayan ruins and was even accompanied by a really cool photo. Unfortunately, the piece in question was actually created in 2014 as part of a Warner Brothers promotion.
The studio decided out to mark the 75th anniversary of Batman in style, so they cooked up a really cool exhibit with the Mexican Museum of Design. A number of artists were invited to contribute their redesigns of the hero’s famous bust and an artist named Christian Pacheco came up with the one in question.
Inspired by a love of both Batman and history, Pacheco created a sort of Camazotz-style Batman bust that was so realistic, many people on social media mistook it for an actual artifact.
A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:
- What happened to the ancient Mayans? | History 101
Explore the fascinating mystery of how and why the Mayan civilization vanished off the face of the Earth.
- Aztec names you should know | History 101
Get an overview of more ancient Mesoamerican culture with a look into the history of the Aztecs.