|This Guatemalan vessel, dated around 650 AD to 850 AD, has bat heads|
painted on it. From LACMA.
All kinds of bats (or zotz (also spelled sotz') in a lot of Mayan languages) live in the Maya area. It makes sense then, that bats became part of the Maya civilization, including religious beliefs, their writing system, and their calendar.
What the Maya Thought of Bats
Two things the ancient Maya connected bats to were caves and the underworld -- they also thought that bats were messengers from the underworld. The Maya also connected bats with sacrifice -- they drew bats with symbols of sacrifice, like “death eyes” around their neck (or on their wings) and a sort of split scroll coming out of its mouth that might be a symbol for blood.
Three other possible views the ancient Maya may have had – according to a paper called Bats and the Camazotz: Correcting a Century of Mistaken Identity are: as a wahy, a choice for a city name, and as a pollinator.
The Bat God
Starting with Eduard Seler’s conclusion about images on a pot, it’s now thought that the ancient Maya believed in a bat god – archaeologists call this god Cama Zotz’. This name comes from a bat god in the Popol Vuh, a Quiche (also K’iche’) “bible”. This god was connected with death. (It must be said though, that Maya experts don’t have a lot of info about this god outside of vessels taken from burials found in the Maya highlands.)
However, the paper Bats and Camazotz not only has the view people interpret bat images as this deity too often – but also doubts that Seler’s conclusion was right. (This doubt comes from the fact that they haven’t found any pre-contact images of the Hero Twins in the House of Bats.)
Speaking of pollination, a lot of plants that the ancient Maya used were pollinated by creatures (as opposed to wind pollination, like corn.) This includes certain kinds of bats, like Underwood's long-tongued bat (Hylonycteris underwoodi).
|A detail from an image of Haab months|
from An Introduction to the Study of the
Maya Hieroglyphs. From Project Gutenberg.
In Mayan Writing
The Maya had different glyphs (or perhaps versions of one glyph) that were bat heads – and they used these bat glyphs (or perhaps versions of one bat glyph) in different ways. For one thing, it looks like they may have used it (or them) for several syllables, including “xu” and “tz’i”. (As to whether or not there is more than one distinct bat glyph, that seems to be under debate.)
They also used a bat head glyph as a logogram, and when they did you will see descriptions that say you pronounce it zotz/sotz’. (There is a theory that in Classic Period inscriptions, though, it ought perhaps to be pronounced sutz’.) They used this logogram for the fourth month of the solar calendar (the Haab.)
A bat glyph was also used to represent "mother of" or “mother of child” in inscriptions -- specifically, for when the mother of that person was alive. For this, the bat glyph also has two syllable signs with it, one for “ya” and one for “na.”
Bat glyphs have also been used as part of “emblem glyphs” or city names. Both Calakmul and Copan had a glyph that was a bat head as part of their emblem glyphs. (Calakmul also had an emblem glyph that used a snake’s head instead of a bat’s head.)
Consideration: Which Bat is the Bat Glyph?
According to a 2009 paper by Erik Boot, people tend to accept that that the model for the glyph was a species of leaf-nosed vampire bat. This paper also wonders if the model might have been the American false vampire bat because ancient Maya art liked to show powerful carnivores, like alligators and jaguars. (The American false vampire bat is the biggest you can find in North America – at the largest, its wingspan can be as wide as three feet!)
Cambridge Core: "Latin American Antiquity" Volume 27, Issue 2: "Bats and the Camazotz: Correcting a Century of Mistaken Identity"; James E. Brady, Jeremy D. Coltman; June 2016
Mesoweb: "Temple of the Night Sun: A Royal Tomb at El Diablo, Guatemala"; "Chapter 1: "A Tomb and Its Context"; Stephen Houston, Sarah Newman, Thomas Garrison, and Edwin Román; 2015
Google Books: "The Maya Forest Garden: Eight Millenia of sustainable Cultivation of the Tropical Woodlands"; Anabel Ford, Ronald Nigh; 2015
Academia.edu: “Mexicon” Volume 36, Number 2; “A Drum Altar from the Vicinity ofYaxchilan”; Nikolai Grube and Camilo Alejandro Luín; April 2014
Caracol Archaeological Project: "Reevaluating the Late Classic Lu-Bat Glyphic Phrase: The Artist and the Underworld"; Patrick B. Carroll; 2010
Maya Vase Database: “The Bat Sign in Maya Hieroglyphic Writing: Some Notes and Suggestions, Based on Examples on Late Classic Ceramics; Erik Boot; 20 February 2009
Brigham Young University BYU ScholarsArchive: "Parentage Statements and Paired Stelae: Signs of Dynastic Succession for the Classic Maya"; Daniel Moroni Stewart; 2008
Google Books: "Mesoamerican Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs of Mexico and Central America"; Kay Almere Read, Jason J. Gonzalez; 2000
Project Gutenberg: "An Introduction to the Study of the Maya Hieroglyphs"; Sylvanus Griswold Morley; 1915