Flute in the Form of a Bat

Central America, Cost Rica, Greater Nicoya, Marbella Incised. Period IV, 300 BC-AD 500.
Ceramic. 3 5/8 x 3 x 3 in.
Ex coll. William C. and Carol W. Thibadeau

This tiny Costa Rican ceramic flute likely depicts a vampire bat. Its standing position represents how they walk on their back feet to approach their prey. To evoke the animal’s velvety brown fur the artist used brown clay paint (“slip”) and rocked the edge of a shell across the surface.

On the back are four holes used to create different notes. The bat’s tail serves as the mouthpiece. When not being played, the flute could be worn as a pendant (there are holes running through the bat’s neck to suspend it as a necklace on a string or vine). To play it, the musician would turn the bat upside down. Only when actual bats are upside down, roosting, can humans hear the sounds that they make. Thus, the artist infused the essence of the animal into the work of art.

Bats are fairly common subjects in the art of the ancient Americas probably because they reflect shamanic beliefs. Bats display a special ability to hunt successfully at night, accurately locating their prey in complete darkness. The shaman, a visionary intermediary between people and the supernatural, likewise saw more than others during nighttime rituals. An analogy between the bat and the shaman could easily have been made. Today flutes are still commonly used in shamanic rituals to call spirits and communicate with the unseen. So a flute shaped like a bat may have been used to call bat spirits to help the shaman see in the dark.