Second Witch

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Macbeth


Song of Witches by Hörtheatrale LISTEN

Hardly any clichéd witch costume or stereotypical Halloween window dressing can do without them: bats! Today, these animals have long since ceased to be feared for their devilish proximity. However, their shadowy existence still fascinates and provokes prejudices: Some of them are currently flaring up again.

Bats play an important role in the multifaceted history of witches in art and culture. They have been associated with vampirism, called the devil’s beast, or depicted as the witches’ faithful companion. The reception history of the bats would fill volumes. Yet at the same time this history seems to have not yet been written. We have searched (so far almost in vain) for the cultural history of bats and see if we can find examples of how bats are seen today and what they have to do with the reception of images of witchcraft.


In an interview with the magazine Spektrum Wissenschaft, the zoologist Christian Voigt regrets that regular „witch hunts“ for bats are still taking place in 2020. It is being discussed whether they are related to the spread of SARS-CoV-2. According to the researcher at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW), so far there is no known case of bats spreading the virus and further research is underway. Nevertheless, the animals should only be looked at from a distance. A respectful distance is also good for humans and wild animals. Closer observation should only be carried out with specialized personnel, as on guided expeditions of the Lower Nature Conservation Authority.

Voigt uses the term „witch hunt“ for the deliberate killing of bats and means that fear and prejudice lead to unfounded persecution. The choice of words is no coincidence, because the prejudices against bats are closely linked to ideas of witchcraft in Europe. The fact that human concerns and values are also transferred to animals is not a new phenomenon.


They are rarely missing in pictures about witchcraft: companion animals like (mainly black) cats, toads, ravens, owls, and bats. The relationship between witches and sorcerers and their animals is complex: animal parts were considered to be an ingredient of some harmful spells. There are historical cases when witchcraft trials were conducted against animals.  In some stories witches are accompanied by animals, in others they transform themselves into certain animals like pigs or rabbits. According to the historian Wolfgang Behringer, the idea of the animal transformation of witches goes back to the reception of ancient literature, such as the Metamorphoses by Ovid. This is also how the idea that witches could transform children and other people into animals came about. Many records bear witness to such stories, such as those collected in the Handwörterbuch des Deutschen Aberglaubens (Dictionary of German Superstition) (1930/31). Depending on the time and region, the theories of demonology of the 16th and 17th centuries are combined here with popular superstition – i.e., the ideas, knowledge and practices of the population that partly deviate from the dominant Christian faith and its dogmas.


The representation of bats in popular culture – from Dracula to Batman – is well known. If you want to get an idea of the attributions in the early modern times, you can find them impressively illustrated in Dutch painting. The artist David Teniers (1610-1690) portrayed bats alongside witches. In the tradition of Flemish painters like Hieronymus Bosch, he also designed small dragon-like flying animals based on their morphology. As demons, they spread fear and terror in his pictures, for example among the peasant community of the hermit Antonius (St. Anthony). These demons are not harmless in this case, given that they are portraited in the context of the seven deadly sins and the temptation of the Saint (The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1647). Scenes of the so-called witches’ Sabbath are also connected to bats: In the painting Aufbruch zum Sabbat an old woman (presumably a witch) is sitting with human-sized bats at the table. Meanwhile, in the background a young naked woman (presumably a witch as well) is rubbed with Flugsalbe (magic ointments) to prepare for the next nightly Hexenflug or Nachtfahrt (magical flight) with the bats.


The association of bats with witchcraft has a long tradition. Shakespeare makes use of them. In the above quote he writes about the bat hair used in the potions of the three witches. They prophesy Macbeth’s nearing reign as King of Scotland. Gary F. McCracken, professor of zoology at Knoxville, Tennessee, writes in Bats Magazine about the bats’ multifaceted roles in North American and European superstition, folk medicine, and literature. He collects stories about bats from around the globe: They aren’t always little demons or ingredients in potions like we saw in Dutch painting. McCracken also tells of luck charms or love potions made from dried, powdered bats in beer, which were primarily intended to enchant women. In Tyrol he heard stories of people becoming invisible if they carried the left eye of a bat. This is also reported in the Dictionary of German Superstition. Another superstition has said that pistol balls soaked in bat blood would always be accurate. Attached to doorframes, bats were supposed to bring good luck and in some stories even ward off negative spells. Bats are also associated with hair loss: In Austria the dwarf bat is therefore also called Haarrafferl. The southern French word pissorato (pissing demon) is a reference to the idea of hair loss and baldness when a bat urinates on ones head.

According to McCracken, the use of bat parts as part of magic practices is because of the transfer of the skills of the animals to their effect in humans – for example, enhanced vision or near invisibility at night as well as staying awake during the night. The effects of bat parts – whether on health, libido, marksmanship, or visibility – McCracken attributes to the realm of fantasy. The mystery around the flight safety of bats goes back to the fact that until the 1930s it was believed that bats had excellent vision in the dark. But shortly after bats’ echolocation abilities were discovered and their abilities to navigate and spatial perception became better understood. All those stories and tales about the skills and abilities of bats has led to the death of many of them. Furthermore, it shows that there is still a lot to learn about the cultural history of bats.


Bats hide in the cellars under Marburg Castle. Thousands find their winter quarters here every year. The casemates and cellars are the largest known winter quarters of bats in Germany. Starting in October the bats go into hibernation until spring. Different species find their home in the Marburg casemates, close to the Waggonhalle, under the so-called witch tower or the area of the former brewery. The common Pipistrelle is widespread. Its body only measures 3 to 5 centimeters with a wingspan of about 20 centimeters and weighs around 4,5 to 7 grams. The various bat species weigh around 3 to 40 grams and can live for up to 30 years. None of the bats living in Germany drink blood, but they do eat a lot of insects and mosquitos. Those small, flying mammals do not have much in common with the human-sized demos of the witches’ Sabbath or the firebreathing dragons in the Dutch paintings.


Marburg is the city of students*, the university, the half-timbered house, in 2020 also of reflection on the persecution of witchcraft, the Landgrave’s castle and the bats! Since they rest under the castle in winter, they are welcome neighbors. Especially the Pipistrelle bats like to live in the settlement area and in the city, where they retreat in small gaps on buildings. They can also be watched and listened to at the castle. The echo calls of the bats are actually not perceptible to human ears. With the bat detector at Marburg Castle, however, the ultrasonic waves can be converted and listened to. Calls recorded in the vicinity can also be heard live. The bats are allowed to hibernate in the castle cellars. In 2008, NABU (Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union) awarded the Landgrafenschloss as a bat-friendly house.


In the nights of August 29th and 30th marked this year’s European BAT NIGHT! Since the end of August, the little bats start to search for suitable winter quarters. Especially on these nights you can watch them flying at dusk. Marburg’s bats like to hunt among on the banks of the Lahn. They should not be disturbed, because they are busy eating up to 2,000 insects per night. They perform, according to the zoologist Voigt, important work in the ecosystem.

During an evening walk around the Marburg Castle we saw many bats fluttering around the exact historical places where witch hunts took place, such as the so-called ‘Witch Tower.’ The bats know nothing about their guest appearances in art and literature about witchcraft, potions and witches’ sabbath. They also know nothing about the history of the places of their hibernation in Marburg. Nevertheless, the myths and prejudices have an influence on them: Many of the more than 20 native species are threatened with extinction. To a large extent, this is because of human activity, including persecution. In over 30 European countries, many events have been organized to promote and inform about the protection of the animals in the Bat Night.


The relationship between belief in witches, witch trials, and animals is the subject of ongoing research. Last year the working group Arbeitskreis interdisziplinäre Hexenforschung discussed the topic at the conference ‘Animals and Witches.’  They referred to an animal turn in research. The few examples highlighted here is just a small part of what can still be discovered. It is obvious that we can also learn a lot about ideas of witchcraft through animals, since periods of accusations were often linked to famines, crop failures or storms. Farm animals were an important part of everyday life, their illness was a real danger. Nocturnal animals, on the other hand, were and are burdened by prejudice. Especially black animals, suspected because of their color, were associated with the nocturnal witches’ sabbath.

These examples by no means exhaustively illustrate the relationship between witchcraft and bats. Do you know any stories about bats? Feel free to write us a message so that we can collect more about the cultural history of bats!

Literature and Information about Bats:

Heimische Fledermausarten im Porträt. Die 25 Schönen der Nacht auf einen Blick. NABU.

Fledermäuse in Marburg – Naturschutztafeln und Fledermausdetektor, Beitrag der Stadt Marburg/ Untere Naturschutzbehörde.

Fledermäuse vor der Haustür. 24. Internationale Fledermausnacht am 29. und 30. August. NABU.

Fledermausdetektor am Landgrafenschloss eingeweiht. Beitrag der Stadt Marburg. / Untere Naturschutzbehörde.

Zwergfledermäuse in Marburg – Größtes bekanntes Winterquartier in Deutschland, Beitrag der Stadt Marburg/ Untere Naturschutzbehörde.

Kerstin Viering (2020), »Das ist eine regelrechte Hexenjagd«, Interview mit Christian Voigt, Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr. 22/2020 vom 25.05.2020.

Information about Witchcraft and Animals:

Wolfgang Behringer (2019), Tierverwandlung, in: Enzyklopädie der Neuzeit Online, Im Auftrag des Kulturwissenschaftlichen Instituts (Essen) und in Verbindung mit den Fachherausgebern herausgegeben von Friedrich Jaeger. J.B. Metzlersche Verlagsbuchhandlung und Carl Ernst Poeschel Verlag GmbH 2005–2012. (Zugriff: 22.08.2020).

Eva Bender (2020), Zauberei ist des Teufels selbs eigen Werk – Hexenglaube und Hexenverfolgung in Hessen. Text zur Ausstellung im Hessischen Staatsarchiv Marburg [18. Feburar bis 14. August 2020]. insb. S. 14-15.

Gary F. McCracken, Bats in Magic, Potions, and Medicinal Preparations. Bats Magazine 10/3. (Zugriff: 21.08.2020).

Rosmarie Beier-de Haan, Rita Voltmer, Franz Irsigler (2002), Hexenwahn. Ängste der Neuzeit. Ausst. Kat. Hexenwahn. Ängste der Neuzeit [3. Mai bis 06. August 2002, Kronprinzenpalais Berlin], im Auftrag des Deutschen Historischen Museums und des Musée d´Histoire de la Ville de Luxembourg. insb. S. 248-256, 276-277.

Fledermaus, in: E. Hoffmann-Krayer (1929/30), Handwörterbuch des Deutschen Aberglaubens. Band III, S. 1579-1598.

Hexe, in: E. Hoffmann-Krayer (1929/30), Handwörterbuch des Deutschen Aberglaubens. Band III, S. 1867-1898.

Wiliam Shakespeare (vor 1623), The Tragedy of Macbeth, hier: Die drei Hexen, um den Kessel tanzend.

(Online-)Exhibtions about Witchcraft:

In der Ausstellung Hexenwahn. Ängste der Neuzeit, waren David Teniers Sabbatszenen – und seine Vorliebe für Fledermäuse zu sehen.

Die Online-Ausstellung des Staatsarchivs Marburg zeigt in Zauberei ist des Teufels selbs eigen Werk die Hintergründe der Hexenverfolgung in Hessen.

Nahe des sog. Hexenturms am Marburger Landgrafenschloss steht in diesem Sommer die Traumoase: Für diesen Ort ist der Podcast der Hörtheatrale Song of Witches, über die drei Hexen aus Macbeth entstanden.

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