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Bats and the Camazotz: Correcting a Century of Mistaken Identity

  • James E. Brady (a1) and Jeremy D. Coltman (a2)

Abstract

At the end of the nineteenth century, Eduard Seler identified the bats depicted on a ceramic vessel excavated by Erwin Dieseldorff at the site of Chama, Guatemala, as the camazotz, or death bat, from the K’iche’ Maya myth, the Popol Vuh. The attribution was never critically reviewed. Nevertheless, it became so deeply entrenched that virtually every image of a Maya bat is identified as a camazotz. We have located no ancient depictions of the Hero Twins in the chamber of the camazotz, which calls into question the salience of this scene for the ancient Maya. In iconography and ethnohistory, multiple figures with bat-like characteristics exist, both bats and anthropomorphic bat-men. Clearly, the situation is complex. We argue that bats appear principally in four roles. The first is as an emblematic symbol representing some group. The bat played a second role as a messenger, often paired on vessels with a bird. A third category relates to pollination, vegetation, and fertility, and here the bat may be paired with the hummingbird. The last and largest category is wahy beings, which most epigraphers now think were bestial forms of personified diseases. Included here are the many vessels depicting the fire-breathing bat, including Dieseldorff's Chama vessel. We argue that the identification with the camazotz should be dropped altogether and that the associations proposed by Seler need to be rethought.

Resumen

A finales del siglo diecinueve, Eduard Seler identificó a los murciélagos en la vasija de Chama de Dieseldorff como el camazotz del Popol Vuh. Esta atribución nunca fue críticamente revisada, sin embargo, llegó a arraigarse tan profundamente que virtualmente cada imagen de un murciélago Maya es identificada como un camazotz. No hemos encontrado ninguna representación de los héroes gemelos en la cámara del camazotz, lo que pone en duda la relevancia de esta escena de los antiguos Mayas. En la iconografía y la etnohistoria, existen múltiples figuras con características de murciélago, tanto murciélagos como murciélago/hombres antropomórficos. Claramente, la situación es compleja. Argumentamos que los murciélagos aparecen principalmente en cuatro roles. El primero es como símbolo emblemático que representa algún grupo. El murciélago jugó un segundo papel como mensajero, a menudo emparejado en las vasijas con un pájaro. Una tercera categoría se refiere a la polinización, la vegetación y la fertilidad donde el murciélago puede estar emparejado con el colibrí. Por último, la más grande de las categorías es como seres wahy. Esto incluye la gran cantidad de vasijas que representan al murciélago que respira fuego, así como la vasija de Chama de Dieseldorff. Nosotros argumentamos que la identificación con el camazotz debería abandonarse por completo y las asociaciones propuestas por Seler necesitan ser repensadas.

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References

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Bats and the Camazotz: Correcting a Century of Mistaken Identity

  • James E. Brady (a1) and Jeremy D. Coltman (a2)

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