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Home > Books > Book of archery > Section III: Female Archery
Section III
Female Archery
Part 1 of 3

As that word was spoken, Clorinda came by,
     The queen of the shepherds was she,
Her kirtle was velvet, as green as the grass
     And her buskin did reach to her knee.
So modest her gait, her person divine,
     And her countenance free from all pride!
In her hand was a bow, and a quiver of arrows
     Hung gracefully by her fair side.
Said Robin Hood, "Lady fair, whither away?
     Oh whiter, fair lady, away?"
She smilingly answered, "To kill a fat buck,
     For to-morrow is Tutbury day."
And as we did wend all towards the green bower,
     Two hundred fair stags we espied;
She chose out the fattest of all that brave herd,
     And shot him through side and side.
"By the faith of my body," said bold Robin then,
     "I never saw woman like thee;
Or com'st thou from east, or com'st thou from west,
     Thou need'st not beg venison from me."
Ballad of Robin Hood's Marriage.

    From her golden quiver Camilla has drawn forth the light and varnished shaft. She bends the fatal yew by thrusting it from her, until the curved extremities approach; and elevating her hands equally, she touches her left hand with the arrow's barb, and with her right, and with the string, her left breast.-- Virgil.

STAR of the Archers[1], fairest Clorinda, and queen, not of strep. herds only, but lady paramount over all the blithe foresters of merry England to boot! That is, provided you were something more than a mere offspring of the poets' imagination,--a being of flesh and blood, possessing form, figure, and local habitation, as well as music-breathing name.

That passion for the martial festivities of tiltyard and banqueting hall, which distinguished our stately dames of the chivalrous age, has often been painted by the romantic pen of Froissart. Whether they appeared in the shooting-ground, prior to the last half century, equipped with bow and quiver, to take an active part in its amusements, is a question certainly interesting to archers, but, perhaps, to them only. Such evidence as I have been able to collect, shall be presently laid before the reader, who will perhaps consider it a satisfactory elucidation of the point in dispute.

Previously, however, to entering upon the inquiry, let us take a hasty glance at those regions where the early existence of female archery cannot be questioned. Magnificent and spirit-stirring as are the details of its progress in many a distant clime, the reader will turn from their perusal with renewed pleasure to the unsullied and not inglorious records

Of home and native land,

Unlike Teucer, Merion, Pandarus, and other illustrious bowmen of antiquity, we seek not inspiration by incense or hecatomb:

No firstling lambs, unheedful, do we vow
To Phoebus, patron of the shaft and bow.

Still will we evince our respect for the archer god, by commencing our inquiries in the land on which he loves to shed the lustre of his earliest beams.

To the East, then, where, within the rose gardens of Teheran, the dark-eyed houris of Persia launched their varnished shafts at the distant butt, equipped in all the magnificent apparatus of their native archery.

Some remarkable changes have recently taken place in the social condition of the women of two distinguished oriental nations. I allude to Persia and Turkey. In the latter, we see the fair tenants of the harem daily promenading the public quarters of Constantinople. At home, a French maître de ballet atttends to initiate them into the mysteries of his art. Unencumbered by the odious yasmak, and guarded by a few female slaves only, they whisk it,

Upon the light fantastic toe,

through all the tortuous mazes of waltz, gallopade, quadrille' mazourka, and contre dance.

And is not any amelioration in the condition of these lovely, helpless beings a subject of general interest? The recent innovations of his majesty the Shah, however, are alone connected with the subject of this chapter.

Badinage apart, it is a well known fact that the harem of the Persian are permitted, nay, encouraged, to disport themselves with archery. These oriental bow meetings take place within the recesses of the royal gardens, where, their black-bearded tyrant and a bevy of female attendants excepted, no spectators are allowed to be present. Thus secluded, however assiduously the fair toxophilites may pursue this novel pastime, still, it can hardly be asserted they are occupied in drawing the bow[2], at least in that equivocal sense, in which we often apply the expression to their fair sisters of Britain, whose proceedings in this sort are as embarrassing as they are successful; and the consequent hymeneal arrangements sadly destructive of mine. To preserve any correct list of our fair toxophilites, as far as names are concerned, seems just as hopeless--owing to those inroads of matrimony--as was a certain long-desired consummation to Penelope's suitors, when dependent on the progress of her distaff and shuttle. The catalogue arranged so accurately to-day, shall be nearly all undone within the space of six months. Let them, therefore, be taken with the usual mercantile proviso,--"errors excepted,"--and don't hold me responsible where I cannot control. Not satisfied with triumphing over us in every contest, these remorseless syrens, like the famed Amazonian queen, level at their victims a battery of darts, far more potent than those previously exhausted upon the target.


The bold Penthesilæ durst
     The Danish fleet oppose;
And from her bow sharp arrows sent
     To gall her harnessed foes.
No sooner was the battle done,
     Her golden helm laid by,
But whom by arms she could not take,
     She slaughtered with her eye.

And what's the result ? Let cooler heads determine whether an exercise, in itself all gracefulness, invests our fair enslavers with some mystic fascination, more potent than laughing eyes and blooming cheeks, when sun and summer breeze, echoing bugle, and other romantic accessories, invite them to the target field, making

Their bosom's lord sit lightly on his throne.

This much, however, is certain. Recommence acquaintance with a bevy of fair dames after a few seasons' absence, and mark what change comes o'er the spirit of your dream! Worse than Babel confusion of names; matronly graces; while in addition to Waring's burnished shafts, which, as vivacious spinsters, they handled so adroitly, many a fair arrow besides, thus beautifully alluded to by the Psalmist: "Happy are they who have their quivers full of them; they shall not be ashamed when they speak with their enemies in the gate." I presume the attractions are, and ever have been, reciprocal in both sexes; at least there is evidence that, four centuries ago, your archer was the truest, most loyal, and most chivalrous of lovers. "Thomas Boyd, Earl of Arran," says John Paston, in a letter to his brother, dated about the year 1470, "is one of the lighterest, deliverest[3], best spoken, fairest archer; devoutest, most perfect and truest to his lady, of all the knights that ever I was acquainted with. So, would God my lady liked me as well as I do his person and most knightly condition!"[4]

But in this digression we had nearly lost sight of our fair Persian dames, whose place of exercise, I have said, is within the shady recesses of the pleasure-grounds attached to the royal residence. The butts consist of moistened sand, inclosed in a wooden frame, and beaten into a hard compact mass. These are set up in a slanting direction at the boundary of some verdant alley, where the over-arching branches of vine and orange tree exclude the fierceness of an eastern sun. Consistent with that gorgeous taste so prevalent throughout the East, the whole exterior of the butt is covered with elegant scroll-work and patterns of flowers. Gold and silver, intermingled with various pigments of the most brilliant hues, are lavishly employed to produce this effect.

A female Abyssinian slave stands beside the mark, provided with a large round pebble, to form and preserve an unbroken hollow in the centre, and at this cavity every arrow is directed. She repeats the operation several times whiles her mistresses are shooting; for the triumph of Persian archery consists not merely in a central shot, but also in making the arrow penetrate deeply into the sand at every discharge.

At the termination of their sport, these fair butt shooters scrupulously conform to a remarkable custom, which, from remote antiquity, has prevailed among Persian bowmen of the other sex. Know, ladies, the followers of the Prophet divide themselves into two great sects, who hate each other with a cordiality worthy of the most polished nation of Europe. The Persians are devout followers of the Caliph Ali, and regard the Turks and other disciples of his antagonist, Omar, as a sort of Mahomedan heretic. To assist in perpetuating the memory of this religious feud, the Persian archer, on discharging his arrow at the mark for the last time, fails not to pronounce the charitable aspiration of, "Ter a kir dirdil Omar!"--Would that this arrow might bury itself in the heart of Omar!

It must be highly amusing to witness the affected change which comes o'er the spirit of these orthodox beauties, whilst thus denouncing the heretical caliph. Gay, innocent, and thoughtless, it were absurd to suppose they have the least real feeling on such a subject. Still, like prattling parrots, their lesson is repeated, with many a pretty indication of displeasure, akin to that of the "wrathful dove, and most magnanimous mouse." Eyes which, a moment before, beamed with the softest expression, now dart forth flashes of anger, like the opening storm-cloud. Pretty mouths, 60 lately wreathed in smiles, are tortured into an expression of the most inveterate contempt. But, no sooner does the glancing shaft quiver within its destined mark, than Ali as well as Omar are consigned to oblivion; and songs, and laughter, merry and musical as the chime of silver bells, again re-echo through the perfumed walks of their magnificent pleasure-garden. Bows, arrows, and the costly sefin[5], are speedily abandoned to the attendant slaves; and with a zest which their recent occupation is so well calculated to supply, the fair revellers hurry off to

Taste the good the gods provide them,

in the splendid luxuries of an Oriental banquet.

Leaving our beauties in quiet enjoyment of its festivities, we will endeavour, like true archers, to get a peep at their accoutrements, since we dare not peep at them. These form so complete a contrast to what has been, at any time, common to Europe that they merit a particular description.

Persia still boasts within most of her large towns a race of hereditary bowyers.[6] To judge from some specimens of their handicraft now before me, the art can have degenerated but little, if at all, since the period, when truth, good shooting, and a firm seat on horseback, were considered the all-in-all accomplishments of a Persian satrap.[7] The royal armoury of Teheran exhibits, a number of bows of the richest description, many upwards of a century old, still retaining an elasticity worthy of their external elegance. But their power is enormous' and, although the Shah and his nobles, manage them with ease and adroitness, the same could not be expected from the delicate strength of a female arm.[8] When, therefore, the monarch signified his wish that the harem be exercised in archery, the most celebrated bowyers of Teheran were employed to equip them suitably. But, as the material of which these Oriental bows have been made for ages could not be improved, the workmen merely aimed at fabricating a lighter instrument, still more ornamented.

Buffalo wild goat's horn, jet black, and of a fine polish, forms the belly of a Persian bow. Glued to this is a thin slip of some hard wood, little inferior in toughness, which serves for the back.[9] The extreme points are fashioned to resemble a snake's head, the loops of the cord having the appearance of being held within its extended jaws. As the horn, with its dark rich lustre, needs not the aid of ornament, it is left entirely plain, the richness of Oriental taste being lavished on the splendid arabesque which decorates the wooden back. Birds, flowers, fruit, and all the graceful devices one sees in the most elaborate scroll-work of the ancients, are represented on its surface in vivid colours, intermingled with gilding: not that pale, thin, lack-lustrous article with which the English artist is compelled to be satisfied; but the real "red, red gold," unalloyed and brilliant as when drawn from its native mine; and the centre of the bow, serving for the grip of the archer's hand, is marked by several broad bands of the same metal, separated from each other by figures of flowers and fruit.

These beautiful weapons were formerly considered as the most acceptable offerings which one Oriental monarch could make to another. Thus, when the ambassador sent by the Shah to compliment Sultan Amurath the Second, had deposited before the Ottoman divan the munificent presents of his master, among them appeared nine splendid Persian bows, and a proportionate number of arrows of the same fine workmanship.[10] The Shah likewise presented our countryman, Sir John Shirley, with a similar one.[11] Again, in 1656, the Dutch East India Company sent to the Emperor of Ceylon, among other presents, "two Persian bows, with their arrows and quivers, richly adorned." [12]

The Oriental bowstring, from its peculiar construction and twofold use, is not less interesting than the weapon of which it forms a part. Many strong silken threads are laid together, until the whole equals the thickness of an ordinary goose quill. Whipping, composed of the same material, is then bound firmly, for about three or four inches at the centre, and also for a less width, equidistant from either end. Large loops of scarlet, or other colours producing an equally brilliant contrast, are at tached to this middle piece by a very curious knot. Complicated and elegant as that by which King Gordianus perplexed his royal brother of Macedon, it is to be solved only by similar decisive means, for never yet saw I the fingers that could unfasten, much less imitate, it. The vivid contrast between the pure white silk, of which they usually make the centre of this bowstring, and its gaudy loops, produces quite a splendid effect.

I have hinted at the twofold purpose to which it was occasionally applied. To the Turkish Basha, sleeping or waking whom " His Highness', suspected of growing rich in his pachalick, it was an object of continual dread. Under these circumstances, rarely did he escape a summons to Constantinople, where, within the seraglio walls, the bowstring freed him from l'embarras des richesses, and the life he esteemed worthless without them. Like our wolf in the fable, the sanguinary despot quickly found or invented causes of accusation. Brief, therefore, was the colloquy, ere, at a sign imperceptible to the predestined wretch, the mutes advanced. Placing him upon his knees, they passed their bowstring once round his neck, and, with their right hands in the loops, drew tightly, until appearances indicated their victim had ceased to breathe. At one period this practice prevailed very extensively throughout the East. It was used as a means of executing revenge as well as punishment; and we may attribute its adoption to the readiness with which the instrument of death might be procured, when every man carried at his back the weapon to which it belongs.

In nothing is the contrast between English and Oriental archery more manifest than in the manner of bracing the bow. The trowsered beauties of the East do this with equal grace and facility as the men, because the lower part of their dress is nearly similar in both sexes.

When an Oriental wishes to string his bow, he places himself firmly on his centre, and grasping the upper ear[13] in his left hand, passes the weapon behind the left leg and over the shin bone of the right. Then, bending it, by forcing the upper ear round towards the opposite side, he slips the string, which has been already secured on the lower horn, into its place, with the right hand. This operation requires considerable muscular power, and is by no means an easy one, until repeated attempts have rendered it familiar. I believe Sir Walter Scott makes Saladin string his bow in this manner whilst on horseback.

The Persian arrow is altogether worthy of its bow, being a small jointed reed, called, in Latin, Arundo Bambos, which is used almost universally throughout the East. Of this there are two species, one being much stronger, and of a texture very superior to the other. War arrows, and those designed for occasions where the chances of recovering them are small, are mace of the latter kind: the former, which, besides its hardness, has a fine nutbrown, glossy surface, is reserved to replenish the quivers of princes and grandees. The heads take many forms, according to the purposes for which they design them. In butt shooting, a solid pyramid of steel seems to be preferred, and for about three inches below this point, the natural colour of the reed is entirely concealed by rich japan painting, intermixed with gold and silver flowers. Ornaments in a similar style of richness are repeated at the butt end' above and beneath the feathering. Indeed, the Persian arrow is altogether so delicate and costly that we consider them as objects of curiosity rather than use. When shot into damp ground, the friction gradually impairs their beauty, and for that reason I seldom use any out of the numbers I possess: substitute a light English pile[14], however, for the solid Persian steel head, and you have a really superior flight and target arrow, which, from the extraordinary lightness of its hollow reed, may occasionally be observed to far outstrip the wind.

The sefin, or thumb-rings[15]. before alluded to, are one of the distinctions of an Oriental archer. Englishmen, it is well known, draw the bowstring with their three first fingers; the Flemings, with the first and second only; but neither use the thumb at all. The Asiatic method is the reverse of this. There the bowman draws altogether with his thumb, the forefinger bent in its first and second joint, being merely pressed on one side of the arrow nock to secure it from falling. In order to prevent the flesh from being torn by the bowstring, he wears a broad ring of agate, cornelian, green marble, ivory, horn, or iron, according to his rank and means. Upon the inside of this, which projects half an inch, the string rests when the bow is drawn; on the outside it is only half that breadth; and, in loosing the arrow, he straightens his thumb, which sets the string free. These rings, with a spare string, are usually carried in a small box, suspended at the bowman's side, but, from habit, many retain them constantly upon the hand, for ornament as well as for use.

Consistent with the splendour of their other appointments, the sefin worn by those dark-eyed houris, whose feats we have so recently been contemplating, are adorned with all the cunning of the jeweller's art. A stone called jadde[16], chrystal, jasper, and even gold, inlaid with stones of varied hue, glitter in the sunbeams as each snowy hand strains up the silken bowstring. A quilted half sleeve of crimson velvet, or fine cloth, thickly embroidered with gold flowers, protects the arm from being bruised by the chord in its return. Did not a very curious relic, recently come to light, prove Chaucer's i' gai bracer [17] " to be a purely English fashion, we might imagine he was describing one of these. The weight of the gold in one which I wore upon my arm for a short time Noms remarkable; it probably amounted to three or four ounces.

One other curious contrivance connected with the Oriental bow remains to be described. When flight-shooting, to which they are particularly attached, a grooved horn, about six inches long, is fastened upon the back of the bow hand by straps of crimson morocco buckled round the wrist. The bow is then, and then only, held across the body, and, by drawing several inches within this horn, they can use very short arrows. By thus diminishing their length, superior lightness, the chief quality of a flight shaft, is proportionately attained. On the 9th July, 1792, Mahmood Effendi, the secretary to the Turkish embassy, exhibited his great strength by shooting an arrow in this way 415 yards partly against the wind, and 482 yards with the wind, in a field behind Bedford House, London. He used a Turkish bow, drawing 160 pounds, and this exploit was performed in the presence of three gentlemen, members of the Toxophilite Society. The arrow measured 25 inches, which he pulled 3 inches within the bow, so as to make the draught 28 inches. He said, upon the ground, that Selim, the then Grand Segnior, often shot 500 yards, the greatest performance of the modern Turks. However, the Sultan afterwards, in 1798, drove an arrow in the ground 972 yards from the spot where he stood, the distance being measured in the presence of Sir Robert Anslie, ambassador to the Porte. All these singular contrivances are, of course, common, in the East to archers of both sexes; and their dimidissimilarity to every thing we apply to the same use in England, has induced me to detain the reader by a minuteness of description otherwise unnecessary.

The French traveller, Gentil, who visited India at the commencement of the seventeenth century, dwells with enthusiasm on the appearance of a body-guard consisting of 100 ladies, whom he saw in attendance on one of its native princes. Their weapon was a crossbow, in the use of which they exhibited remarkable dexterity. He asserts that he saw each of them plant an arrow, at a considerable distance, into a circle no larger than a French dol.[18] On other occasions, they would discharge three arrows at once, with such prodigious rapidity and violence, , that, on piercing a tree, the steel points entered so deeply as no force of pulling could draw them out.

When the monarch quitted his capital, whether for war or the chase this band of Amazons invariably accompanied him. They were styled Menaytas, were lodged within the palace, and annually drew a magnificent stipend from the royal treasury. Masters attended to instruct them in every kind of warlike accomplishment, which they studied with the utmost enthusiasm. One of them, whose age Gentil guessed to be about twenty-four, was, unquestionably, the most beautiful woman in India Her complexion displayed a beautiful fairness and her hair, black as jet, flowed in a profusion of natural ringlets upon a neck of ivory. In a mock combat performed by a detachment of these ladies, she acquitted herself so valiantly, that the enraptured monarch, unable to control his emotion, caused her to raise her casque, while he saluted her in the presence of his whole court. Then, with his own hands, he placed a chain of massive gold around her neck. She was called Langir. Her mother, Acosira, also a woman of extraordinary charms, had been so valorous, that in wrestling she never met her equal. On one occasion, being challenged by certain strangers, she quickly laid them prostrate on their mother earth; and, on their attempting to rise and resent this indignity, forthwith strangled them outright. Her own fate was as extraordinary: she was torn in pieces by a lion, which, during one of the royal hunting matches, she had the rashness to attack dismounted and single-handed. The king, her lover, being excessively grieved, gave her a royal funeral, abstaining for many days from the consumption of aneca, betel, and shaving his beard, with many other symptoms of mourning and regret.

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