The Camazotz

San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

CamazotzAround 100 B.C., a peculiar religious cult grew up among the Zapotec Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico. The cult venerated an anthropomorphic monster with the head of a bat, an animal associated with night, death, and sacrifice (1). This monster soon found its way into the pantheon of the Quiché, a tribe of Maya who made their home in the jungles of what is now Guatemala. The Quiché identified the bat-deity with their god Zotzilaha Chamalcan, the god of fire.

Popol Vuh, a Mayan sacred book, identifies Zotzilaha as not a god, but a cavern, "The House of Bats" (2). Zotzilaha was home to a type of bat called camazotz; one of these monsters decapitated the hero Hunahpú. Camazotz has been translated as "death bat" (3) and "snatch bat" (4). It is recorded in chapter 10 of this book that the Camazotz's call was similar to eek, eek (5). A vastly different story appears in Chapter 3. Here a demon called Camalotz, or "Sudden Bloodletter", clearly a single entity, is identified as one of four animal demons which slew the impious first race of men (6).

In the Latin American region, it seems that the ancient belief in the "death bat" survives even to the present day. Several cultures have traditions of bat-demons or winged monsters; for example, legends of the h?ik'al, or Black-man, still circulate among the Zotzil people of Chiapas, Mexico. Perhaps revealingly, the H?ik'al is sometimes referred to as a "neckcutter" (7). Other bat-demons include the soucouyant of Trinidad and the tin tin of Ecuador (8).

Yet another similar creature appears in the folklore of rural Peru and Chile. The chonchon is a vampire-type monster; and it is truly bizarre, even for a legendary creature. It is said that after a person's death, the head will sometimes sprout enormous ears and lift off from the shoulders. This flying head is the Chonchon; its sound, as recorded by Jorge Luis Borges, was like tui-tui-tui (9). Could the legends of the Chonchon have sprung from the same source as the Camazotz legends?

But what exactly was the basis for the Camazotz legend? Most archaeologists believe that the monster was based on the common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus), a bat traditionally associated with bloodletting and sacrifice (10). Another suspect is the false vampire bat (Vampyrum spectrum), due to its large size and habit of attacking prey around the head or neck (11).

One of the most prominent and commonly mentioned features of the Camazotz is "a nose the shape of a flint knife" (12), which could be an exaggerated interpretation of the nose-leaf possessed by members of the Phyllostomidae, or leaf-nosed bats. The vampire bat is a relative or member of this group; thus we are once more forced to look at D. rotundus, or its relatives, as suspects (13).

In 1988, a species of fossil bat related to Desmodus rotundus, but 25 percent larger, was described as D. draculae. It was described on the basis of two specimens from Monagas State, Venezuela. A third specimen from São Paulo State, Brazil, was described in a 1991 article by E. Trajano and M. de Vivo. The Brazilian specimen had not yet been dated when the article was written, but the two biologists suggest a "relatively recent age" for the skeleton. They refer to reports circulating among local natives of large bats which attack cattle and horses; these reports may suggest that the bat still lives (14). Its recent age and large range suggest that the bat could have co-existed with the Quiché, giving rise to the legends of the Camazotz. Trajano and de Vivo also speculate that D. draculae may have fed on larger prey than did normal-sized vampire bats (15); possibly even humans?

Several other stories supporting the idea of a large bat-like creature have come out of Latin America in the last century. A 1947 report of a creature presumed to have been a living pterosaur may in fact have been of a large bat. J. Harrison saw five "birds" with a wingspan of about 12 feet. Harrison's birds were brown, featherless, and beaked (16).

The next report of a bat-like monster from the area is a story told by a Brazilian couple, the Reals. One night in the early 1950s, they were walking through a forest outside of Pelotas, Brazil, when they saw two large "birds" in a tree, both of which alighted on the ground (17). Although reported as winged humanoids, the proximity of the sighting area to the Ribeira Valley, where the Brazilian specimen of D. draculae was found, forces one to wonder whether the Reals' "birds" were actually bats.

In March, 1975, a series of animal mutilations swept the countryside near the Puerto Rican town of Moca, and during the incident a man named Juan Muñiz Feliciano claimed that he was attacked by a large, gray-feathered creature. These bird-like creatures were seen numerous times during the outbreak (18).

These reports didn't gain real notoriety until the mid-1970s, when a number of sightings of large birds or bats surfaced in Rio Grande Valley, Texas. The first report came from the town of San Benito, where three people reputedly encounters with a bald-headed creature (19). But rumors had long circulated among the Mexican inhabitants of the town about a large bird-like creature, believed to make tch-tch-tch sounds (20).

On New Year's Day, 1976, two girls near Harlingen watched a large, birdlike creature with a "gorilla-like" face, a bald head, and a short beak. The next day, a number of three-toed tracks were found in the field where the creature had stood (21). On January 14, Armando Grimaldo said he was attacked by the creature at Raymondville. He said it was black, with a monkey's face and large eyes (22). Further reports surfaced from Laredo and Olmito, with a final sighting reported from Eagle Pass on January 21 (23).

The reports cited above, as well as countless others which await careful researchers, support a conclusion that a mysterious winged creature exists in the deserts and jungles of Mesoamerica. The prominence of the bat in Latin American mythology and the discovery of the recently-extinct Desmodus draculae in South America point to the possible identity of the creature as a large, as-of-yet unknown bat, rather than a living pterosaur, as is generally supposed.