One of my favourite activities at the moment in Canberra is to watch the flocks of fruit bats fly out around 8.30 pm every evening. When I go down at dusk to Commonwealth Park where they are roosting over summer, it is very smelly and noisy—but fascinating, as they wake up and start crawling along the branches, stretching their wings. These are the ‘grey-headed flying fox’, the largest bat in Australia, and it takes about 15 minutes for them all to head out for the night.
Am I going batty? Do I have bats in the belfry? Certainly I do have moments of battology (stammering), and last weekend when I indulged in a bit of batology (studying blackberries, in my case while picking them for jam), it would not have helped to be as blind as a bat. I may well be an old bat (many pejorative words for women liken us to animals, sigh), but if I had seen a snake I would have been going like a bat out of hell…
Thinking about these words led me to an online map with words for bat in different European languages, and their translations. My favourite is the different versions of ‘flutter mouse’, which also ended up in some regional dialects of English – I wonder if we would have different sayings about bats if they were called ‘flittermice’?
It is an interesting contrast with Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay, the Australian languages I am working with, where the fruit bat is ‘bibaaya’ and the small bat is ‘ngarradhaan’ (possibly meaning ‘good at seeing’). The dictionary says that both were known as ‘man’s friend’. This representation of men in relationship with women is clear in the legend Narahdarn the Bat, from Australian Legendary Tales told to Katie Langloh-Parker in the late 19th century (here the 1953 version). In the story Narahdarn has caused the death of his two wives, who were Bilbers (bilbies, also ‘rabbit-bandicoots’):
That night was the corroboree held. The women sat round in a half-circle and chanted a monotonous chant, keeping time by hitting, some of them, two boomerangs together, and others beating their rolled up opossum rugs.
Big fires were lit on the edge of the scrub, throwing light on the dancers as they came dancing out from their camps, painted in all manner of designs, waywas, or belts, round their waists, tufts of feathers in their hair, and carrying in their hands painted wands. Heading the procession as the men filed out from the scrub into a cleared space in front of the women came Narahdarn. The light of the fires lit up the tree tops, the dark belah-trees showed out in fantastic shapes, and weird indeed was the scene as slowly the men danced round. Louder clicked the boomerangs and louder grew the chanting of the women. Higher were the fires piled, until the flames shot their coloured tongues round the trunks of the trees and high into the air.
One fire was bigger than all, and towards it the dancers edged Narahdarn.
Then the voice of the mother of the Bilbas shrieked in the chanting, high above that of the other women. As Narahdarn turned from the fire to dance back he found a wall of men confronting him. These quickly seized him and hurled him into the madly-leaping fire before him, where he perished in the flames.
And so were the Bilbas avenged.
I can imagine that, after hearing the story, any time a Gamilaraay or Yuwaalaraay man saw the bats flying out he would be reminded to treat his wife well!