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Home > Books > Badminton > Chapter IV: Notes on Ancient Archery
Chapter IV
Notes on Ancient Archery
By C.J. Longman
Part 2 of 2

The bow does not seem to have ever been the leading weapon of the Greeks, though it was always used to some extent, and archers seem to have formed part of most Greek armies. A bronze sword inlaid with gold and silver,[2] from Mycenæ, depicts a lion-hunt in which one of the sportsmen is armed with a bow. A fragment of a silver vessel found by Schliemann at the same place is engraved with a representation of the siege of a city, the defenders of which are making a sally, armed with bows and slings. The artistic execution of the figures leaves much to be desired, but one of the bows is distinctly Cupid-shaped, and probably represents a composite bow. It is uncertain, however, whether the attacking or defending party are the Greeks. In any case, the sculpture is the work of a Greek artist of about the fourteenth or fifteenth century B.C.

In Homer the bow is frequently mentioned, though on the side of the Greeks in the Trojan War the great warriors, such as Achilles, Ajax, Agamemnon, and so forth, do not appear to have been archers. Odysseus the wily was, on the other hand, expert with the bow, and possibly he saw the advantage of being able to strike his foe from a distance more clearly than his more dashing comrades. Teucros, however, is said in the 'Iliad' (xiii. 313) to have been the best archer on the side of the Greeks, though in the 'Odyssey' (viii. 220) Odysseus tells the Phaeacians that he was the best excepting Philoctetes. He appears, however, to have been in a boasting mood, for he adds that he can throw a spear farther than any other man can shoot an arrow. Pandarus, son of Machaon, appears to have been the chief archer on the Trojan side, though no less a person than Alexandros (Paris) is described as being armed with the 'curved bow'; and possibly the popularity which the weapon enjoyed in the great Asiatic empires extended to Troy. Among the gods, Apollo of the silver bow was pre-eminently the archer. The fact that he was also the god of the lyre was probably something more than a coincidence, the most rudimentary form of harp in Africa being to this day practically a wooden bow with a single string, which indeed is actually used for both purposes by the Damarees; whilst the shape of the Greek lyre suggests that it was made of the horns of animals combined with strings, which were also the component parts of the Greek bow. The epithet greek text no doubt referred to the outer decoration of the bow, as silver could not enter into the active part of its structure.

57. Mycenæn siege
57. Mycenæn siege
(From 'New Chapters in Greek History,' by Percy Gardner)

That the Greek bow was commonly a composite, or at any rate a horn one, is evident from the epithet greek text, which is constantly applied to it by Homer. This word signifies the recurving peculiar to the horn bow when un strung, which is due to the horns regaining their natural shape, and it is best translated by the word reflex, which is the tech nical term describing a bow which, when unstrung, bends from the centre in the opposite direction to that in which it is drawn. This epithet is also used by Æschylus of the Scythian bow ('Choephor,' 160)-- greek text by Herodotus (vii. 69) of the bows carried by the Arabians, and by other writers. In the fourth book of the 'Iliad' we have a description of the making of the bow of Pandarus. The following rendering of this well-known passage is by Mr. Walter Leaf:--[3]

Forthwith he unsheathed his polished bow of horn of a wild ibex that he himself had erst smitten beneath the breast as it came forth from a rock, the while he awaited in a lurking-place; and had pierced it in the chest, so that it fell backward on the rock. Now from its head sprang there horns of sixteen palms; these the artificer, even the worker in horn, joined cunningly together, and polished them au well, and set the tip of gold thereon. So he laid it down when he had well strung it, by resting it upon the ground.

According to the above description, and taking the palm at four inches, the bow must have been between five and six feet long, which is large for a bow of this kind. It appears to have been a pure horn bow, without any reinforcement of sinew or stiffening of wood. It is, however, possible that Homer was not well acquainted with the bowyer's craft, and that bows of this date were, in fact, composite, as horn alone does not make a very good weapon. The maker is merely said to have smoothed or polished the horn well greek text no mention being made of its being lacquered or covered with leather or bark.

Pandarus's method of drawing the bow is thus rendered in Mr. Leaf's translation of 'Iliad,' iv. 122-6:

Then he took the notch and string of oxes' sinew together, and drew, bringing to his breast the string, and to the bow the Iron head. so when he had now bent the great bow into a round, the horn twanged, and the string sang aloud, and the keen arrow leapt eager to wing his way amid the throng.

From this it appears that the Greeks drew low, to the breast. The arrow-head was of iron, though bronze piles are also, mentioned by Homer. The arrow Hew with mighty force, for though it struck Menelaus 'where the golden buckles of the belt were clasped and the double breastplate met them,' yet it pierced them both, and passing through the taslet, ' fashioned by the coppersmiths,' beneath, wounded his flesh. The arrow did not, however, pierce far into his body; for Menelaus was cheered when he saw that the threads by which the iron head was attached to the shaft, and the barbs, were outside the wound. Nevertheless, a leech was summoned, who drew out the arrow and sucked the blood from the wound. This latter operation suggests a fear that the arrow was poisoned; though we are not told that this was the case, and poisoned arrows are only mentioned once in Homer. In fact, the Greeks regarded the use of poisoned arrows as discreditable.

There are few more thrilling episodes, even in the 'Odyssey,' than that which follows the return of Odysseus to Ithaca. Penelope his wife, worn out by the importunity of the suitors, takes down the great bow which had been given to Odysseus by Iphitus, the son of Eurytus, and announces that she will forsake her home and marry the man who shall most easily string the mighty bow and shoot through the rings of twelve axes which should be set up for the purpose. Anyone who has tried to string an Eastern bow knows that, even if the bow is weak, owing to its reflexed shape, it is no easy matter, and the bow of Eurytus was not a weak one. Telemachus, Odysseus's son, failed three times, and might have succeeded the fourth, but at a nod from Odysseus he laid it down, and the suitors tried their luck. one after another they attempted the feat, but none could master the weapon. At last Odysseus himself took it, and in a moment, without an effort, he bent it and twanged the bow-string, which rang sweetly like the note of a swallow. Taking up an arrow, he drew the bow from the settle on which he sat, and shot clean through the rings of all the axes. Then follows a fight of one against a crowd, the like of which no living man has seen, but which though it is written in Greek, every schoolboy delights to read of. The exact nature of the feat with the axes has somewhat puzzled scholars, but Mr. Lang and Mr. Butcher[4] figure a Greek axe which might well have served for the purpose. To shoot through a series of twelve small rings set up in a line would be a test not only of accurate shooting, but of strength. Indeed, the interest of the feat lies mainly in this latter point. The arrow must have been drawn from a point exactly opposite, and on a level with, the line of rings; and if the axes were some three feet long, this would be secured by shooting, as Odysseus did, sitting down. But if the axes were three feet long, the ring would be only some four inches in diameter. Nothing is said as to the distance at which the axes stood from each other. Taking it, however, at one yard only, this would mean that in twelve yards the arrow would only fall four inches by gravitation This would indicate marvellously strong shooting; but the point of interest seems to be that a test of this somewhat complicated kind, involving a knowledge of the theory of trajectory, should have been thought of in the time of Homer.

From Herodotus's description of the army which Xerxes led against the Greeks we learn that a very large proportion of his troops were armed with bows. So numerous, indeed, were the archers that before Thermopylae Dieneces - said to have been the bravest of the Spartans - was told that when the Medes began to shoot they would obscure the sun by the multitude of their shafts. To which Dieneces gave his famous answer, 'so much the better for the Greeks, for they would then have to fight in the shade.' Various kinds of bows were to be found in the host of Xerxes. The Persians themselves, the Medes, the Hyrcanians, and many others, had long bows, and arrows made of cane. These were probably composite bows, but bigger than the short horn bow carried by the Scythians, which, when unstrung, was said to be similar in shape to the Black Sea. The Bactrians had bows made of cane peculiar to their country, and the Indians had bows of cane, and arrows of cane tipped with iron. At no time, probably, was the horn bow universally used throughout Asia, although it was the typical Asiatic weapon. Indeed, a highly finished composite bow would always be an expensive weapon, whereas bamboo bows, though less effective, would be easily come by. The Arians were furnished with Medie, that is, composite, bows, though in other respects they were accoutred like the Bactrians. The Arabians carried long bows which bent backwards greek text while the Ethiopians carried ' long bows,'[5] not less than four cubits in length, made from branches of the palm-tree, and on them they placed short arrows made of cane, instead of iron-tipped with a stone; which was made sharp, and of that sort on which they engrave seals -- some form of agate probably. The Lycians had bows made of cornel-wood greek text and cane arrows without feathers Neither the bows nor the arrows of these gentlemen could, therefore, have been very formidable weapons. It was usual, however, for both Greeks and Asiatics to feather their arrows, the eagle's feather being probably thought most highly of, as Hesiod ('Shield of Hercules,' 134) describes the arrows of Hercules as being 'at the butt covered with the feathers of a dusky eagle.'

58. Greek axe.
58. Greek axe.
(From Lang and Butcher's 'Odyssey')

Guhl and Koner say that archery was received amongst the gymnastic exercises in only a few Greek States; but Plato, in his treatise on the Laws, recommends that boys after six years of age should ' learn horsemanship and archery, and the hurling of darts and the using of slings, and the females, too, if they consent.[6] He also calls attention to the fact that the Scythians taught their youth to shoot both right and left handed. He accounts (Book I. c. ii.) for the superiority of the Cretan archers to those of Thessaly by the fact that Crete is mountainous, and that in such a country light weapons are an advantage, and that bows and arrows on this account were the most suitable weapons.

Crete was undoubtedly the part of Greece in which archery was esteemed most highly, and numerous representations of archers are to be found on the Cretan coins throughout a very long period. In many cases the bow is evidently a simple wooden arcus, apparently not more than four feet in length, though occasionally the composite form is shown. The natural resources of the island would provide ample material for weapons of either character; but the fact that the simple bow of a distinctly African form is the one most commonly represented would suggest that this was the indigenous type, the true Cydonian bow, and the neighbourhood of Crete to the African continent renders this surmise not improbable. Further, Mr. A. J. Evans has pointed out to me that when the Asiatic bow- occurs on Cretan coins it is generally associated with Heracles, while Apollo is always provided with the African form. As Apollo was a native Cretan deity, and Heracles was, so to speak, a foreigner, this fact confirms the theory.


Fig. 59 is a Cydonian coin representing Apollo stringing his bow. He has grasped it by the centre with his left hand, and is fixing the string with the right. The bow being a short one, the lower end is not resting on the ground, but is pressed against the left thigh. It is of the simple or African type.

Fig. 60, from a Greek vase now in Paris, gives a capital representation of an archer stringing the composite bow in the manner practised in the East to this day.

The simple form of bow is not confined among the ancient Greeks to the island of Crete, but it may be seen still associated with Apollo on Graeco-Syrian coins of the time of Antiochus II. and the Seleucid kings. Bows of this shape, but wrapped about the centre with strips of FIG 61. Auxiliary archers in the Roman army some material, are figured on Ephesian coins about 300 to 280 B.C.

61. Auxiliary archers in the Roman Army.
61. Auxiliary archers in the Roman Army.

Among the Romans the bow seems never to have been held in much favour, though after the time of Marius it was introduced by mercenary troops. In the monuments representations of archers occur, but from their costume they can always be distinguished as auxiliary troops- Cretans, Balearic islanders, and so forth. In later times the Emperor Commodus devoted much attention to archery, and marvellous tales are told of the skill which he attained.

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