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Home > Books > The Archer's Guide > Chapter 1
Chapter I
Sketch of the Ancient History of the Bow.
Part 1 of 2

The bow, which doubtless must first have been formed from the rough boughs of trees, would naturally suggest itself to mankind as an implement by which to obtain food and raiment, by warring against the beasts of the field; and as man, in all nations, whether savage or civilized is found to war against his fellow-man, as well as against the brute creation, it may readily be supposed that a weapon which had proved so efficacious against the latter, would soon be rendered subservient to the destruction of the former. Hence, the bow, which may be pronounced the most ancient and universal of all weapons, has been found to obtain among the most barbarous and remote people who had the least communication with the rest of mankind.

The invention of archery, or the art of shooting with a bow and arrows was ascribed by the ancients to Apollo, by whom, according to it was communicated to the primitive inhabitants of Crete. Hence, even in latter ages, the Cretan bows were famous, and preferred by the Greeks to all others. Numerous, however, are the accounts of the origin of the art; some have chosen to honour Parses, the son of Perches, with the invention; while others have ascribed it to Scythes, the son of Jupiter, and progenitor of the a people who were not only excellent at the bow, but, by many, reputed the first masters of it. There are many other fictitious accounts respecting the early rise of the art, the whole of which serve, at least, to sew that its antiquity may be referred to the remotest periods of history.

The bow is frequently mentioned in holy writ. The earliest instance in the Old Testament in which its use is implied, is in that remarkable passage where Hagar and her son Ishmael, driven from the house of Abraham, wander in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. Of the son, it is said in Genesis, xxi. 20, " And God was with the lad, and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer,"-the eonnexion of which with a former chapter, (xvi. 12,) implies an earlier practice with the bow the profane historians. The bow is mentioned in innumerable other parts of the sacred volume: Isaac, it is written, called his son Esau, and said, "Now, therefore, take, I pray thee, thy weapons, thy quiver and thy bow, and go out to the field, and take me some venison, and make me savory meat, such as I love, and bring it to me that I may eat, that my soul may bless thee before I die." (Gen. xxviii. 3, 4.) Jonathan, the son of Saul, appears to have been so expert in the practice of archery, that he never drew his bow in battle without drenching it in the blood of the mighty; but in that fatal encounter near mount Gilboa, in which he and his father fell, the Philistines manifested a great superiority over the men of Israel in the use of that military weapon; for we read that "the battle went sore against Saul, and the archers hit him, and he was sore wounded of the archers." (I Sam. xxxi. 3.) David, we are told, who succeeded Saul, "bade them teach the children of Judah the use of the bow; behold it is written in the book of Jasher." The practice of the bow, indeed, at this time, appears to have been so general, that it was not unfrequently made use of as a figure of speech. Israel, when blessing his sons, (Gen. xlix. 23, 24,) says of Joseph, "the archers have sorely grieved him and shot at him and hated him. But his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong, by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob." The companies that came to David at Ziklag, (1 Chron. xii. 2,) " were armed with bows, and could use both the right hand and the left." From different other passages in the Old Testament, and from other ancient books, it seems clear that archery was used, not only in war, but as a pastime, and even as one of the means of divination. It would appear, however, that the Jews were less successful in this pursuit than the neighbouring nations.

The Persians appear, from all accounts, to have been astonishingly expert in the long-bow, which among them and the more Eastern nations, was, for a series of years, quite revered. Even to this day the art of archery is highly esteemed by them. Their nobility and kings have practised it as a diversion, and there are said to be many tracts and essays teaching the use of the bow, which are still extant in the Persian language. The Persians may undoubtedly be placed in the first rank of archers. In ancient time they taught their children at a very early age to shoot with the bow, and this exercise formed an essential part of the education of their princes. From a passage in Plutarch it appears that the coin of the Persians was formerly stamped with the figure of an archer, which proves, beyond doubt, that the exercise of archery must have been popular with the nation. The station usually assigned to the Persian bowmen was in the rear of the , (spearmen), who were placed behind, (the foremost line.) As both the javelins and arrows were discharged over the heads of the heavy-armed troops in front, the destruction occasioned by these missiles must have been in a great measure fortuitous, and tending rather to annoy the enemy than to make any very fatal impression. Anciently the Persians were all trained to military exercise, but more particularly to the use of the bow; whence the bow of Elam is mentioned by the prophet Jeremiah, and the quiver of Elam by Isaiah, as weapons peculiar to this nation. Xerxes took a large body of archers with him in his expedition against Greece; and we are told by Herodotus that Cyrus had a vast number of bowmen interspersed among his troops. The bows of the Arabians who attended Xerxes' expedition are described as long, flexible, and crooked.

Previously to the Persians taking the field on the occasion of a battle, the forces passed in each man throwing an arrow into the basket. These were sealed up with the royal signet till the end of the campaign, when the soldiers again passed muster, every one taking an arrow out of the same basket. The remaining arrows were then counted, and thus the Persians ascertained the number of their dead.

The Chevalier Cliardin, in his travels, which were performed in the 17th century says, "The young Persians learn to shoot the bow; the art of which consists in holding it firm, drawing and letting go the string smoothly. At first they practice with a weak bow; and afterwards, by degrees, with those which are stronger. The persons who give instructions in this art, direct the young pupils to shoot with ease and agility, in every direction, before them, behind, on either side, elevated in the air, or low on the ground; in short, in every different posture. Some of their bows are exceedingly strong; and the method they make use of to know their power, is by fastening them to a support driven into the wall, and suspending weights to the string at the point where the arrow is placed, when going to shoot. The strongest require 500 pounds weight, to draw them up to the arrow's point.

"When the pupils can manage the common bow, they then have another given them, which they make heavier and heavier, by means of large iron rings which are placed on the string; some of these bows are an hundredweight. The pupils draw, string and unstring their bows, while they leap and move about; sometimes while they stand on one leg, sometimes on their knees, or while running about.

"The instructors judge this exercise to be well performed, when the left hand extended at length supports the bow firmly and strongly, without shaking, and the right draws the string, with the thumb to the ear. In order to obviate the ill effects of the bow-string, they wear a circular ring, which projects an inch within and half an inch on the outside of the thumb. It is on this rest that the string hangs when it is drawn up in shooting; and it is made of horn, ivory, or jadde, which is a kind of green alabaster. The king has some of these rings of a bow, coloured yellow and red, which grows, as it is said, like an hoop, on the head of a large bird in the island of Ceylon.

"When the young archers understand how to manage the bow well, their first exercise is to shoot into the air as high as they can. Afterwards they shoot point-blank. The art of doing this is not only hitting the mark, but it is necessary also, that the arrow go firm and steady. Lastly, they learn to shoot with very heavy shahs, and with great force."[1]

The Persians still amuse themselves in learning and practising the art of archery in the manner above described. The modern exercise of the bow, as a pastime, is performed by them on horseback as well as on foot. The horseman gallops away with the bow and arrow in his hand, and, when he has reached a certain point, he inclines either to the right or left, and discharges his arrow, which, to win the prize, must hit a cup fixed at the top of a pole 120 feet high.

The use of the bow was long popular among all the Eastern nations. By its means the Arabian tribes established the vast power of the Caliphs; and, after them, the Turks overthrew the Eastern Empire by the same weapon. The bow is still highly esteemed among the Turks, and although the practice of archery is not so vigorously pursued as in former times, the weapon is still retained by them as an implement of war. Of their ancient skill, Gibbon relates that, "the first body of the Crusaders was overwhelmed by the Turkish arrows, and the pyramid of bones informed their companions of the place of their defeat;" and Sir John Smith speaks of "valleys which ran with rivers of blood, caused by the slaughter from the Turkish bow." The weapon itself is described by Lord Bacon in the following words: "The Turkish bow giveth a very forcible shoot; insomuch as it hath been known that the arrow hath pierced a steel target, or a piece of brass, two inches thick."

The Arabians are described as having used their bows by the help of the foot; and Xenophon, speaking of the Carducians, says, "they had bows which were three cubits long, and arrows of two cubits. When they made use of these weapons they placed their left foot on the bottom of the bow, and by that method they drove their arrow with great violence, piercing through the shields and corslets of his (Xenophon's) men; and as the arrows were extremely large, they were used by them as javelins."

The Ethiopians, also, instead of holding their bow in the left hand, as is the usual custom, drew it by the assistance of their feet. This fact is recorded by Diodorus Siculus and Strabo; the latter of whom informs us of a curious expedient of this pedestrial archery used by the Ethiopians in hunting elephants. They employed, in shooting their strong bows, three persons; two of whom supported the bow, by pressing their feet against it, while the third was engaged in drawing the string and directing the arrow.[2] The bow used by this people, according to Herodotus, was manufactured of the palm tree, of a length not less than four cubits; and they shot with extremely long arrows.

The Alans, Hans, Dacii, Goths, and Vandals who finally overthrew the empire of the West, acquired much celebrity for their skill in archery.

But the Scythians appear to have been superior to all other nations; 80 much so, that among the various derivations given of the word Scythia, may be named one which has had many advocates, namely, it is supposed to be deduced from the Teutonic word Scheten, or Shuten, to shoot, in which art this nation is said by Herodotus, Lucian, and others, to have been 80 expert that the name was given them on that account; the word Scythia properly signifying a great shooter or archer.[3]

The Scythian bow was distinguished by its remarkable curvature. When unbent it was almost semicircular; when strung, the ends, which before were infected, were drawn on the opposite sides, and it differed little from the ordinary bow of Greece. The bows used by the modern Tartars, in our own days, are of very similar construction. In the use of this weapon the Scythians are stated to be ambidextrous. In proof of its popularity with the nation, the fabulous writers of antiquity boasted, that Teutarus, a Scythian, first gave Hercules a Scythian bow and arrow, and Theocritus mentions it by the name of the Mæotian bow.

From the Scythians the exercise of the bow appears to have been derived by the Grecians, some of whose ancient nobility were instructed by the Scythians in its use. The bow and arrow were certainly employed by the Greeks as weapons of war from the earliest period of antiquity. If the description of battles given by Homer are to be admitted as genuine representations of the mode of fighting in the heroic ages, we have his authority for stating that archers were interspersed among the other troops, and that, sheltering themselves behind the shields of their companions, they took their aim deliberately and securely. In this manner, Teucer, on the one side, protected by the shield of Ajax, and Pandarus, the leader of the Lycians, on the other side, thinned the adverse ranks.

The bow is frequently mentioned by Homer. In speaking of Pandarus aiming an arrow at Menelaus, the Poet describes the action as follows:

"Now with full force the yielding horn he bends,
Drawn to an arch, and joins the doubling ends;
Close to the breast he strains the nerve below,
Till the barb'd point approach the circling bow;
The impatient weapon whizzes on the wing,
Sounds the tough horn, and twangs the quivering string."
Pope's Homer's Iliad, book iv. l.152.

The Locrians, who composed part of the Grecian army, are described as being dexterous with the bow as well as the sling:

"The Locrian squadrons nor the javelin wield,
Nor bear the helm, nor lift the moony shield;
But, skilled from far the flying shaft to wing,
Or whirl the sounding pebble from the sling;
Dexterous with these they aim a certain wound,
Or fell the distant warrior to the ground."
Ibid., book xiii. l. 891.

Ulysses is mentioned as being eminently skilled in the art of archery; and it appears to have been exercised as a sport for the celebration, by Æneas, of the anniversary of his father's funeral.

"Forthwith Æneas to the sports invites
All who with feathered shafts would try their skill;
And names the prizes. With his ample hand
He from Seresetus' Ship a mast erects,
And on it, by a rope suspended, ties
A swift-winged dove, at which they all should aim
Their arrows. They assemble; and the lots,
Shuffled, into a brazen casque are thrown."

       *       *     *     *
"Then all with manly strength
Bend their tough yew; each with his utmost force;
All from their quivers draw their shaft: and first
Shot from the twanging nerve, Hippocoon's flies
Along the sky, beats the thin liquid air,
And on the body of the mast adverse
Stands fixed: the mast and frighted bird at one
Tremble, and all the cirque with shouts resounds
Next eager Mnestheus, with his bended bow,
Stands ready, and his eyes and arrow aimed
Direct to heaven; yet could not reach the dove
Herself, unfortunate, but cut the knots
And hempen ligaments in which she hung
Tied by the feet upon the lofty mast,
Eurytion then, impatient, and long since
Holding his ready bow and fitted shaft,
Invokes his brother, and in open air,
Seeing the dove now shake her sounding wings,
Transfixes her amid the clouds: the bird
Falls dead, and leaves her life among the stars."

It would be an endless task to relate all the exploits of the bow which have been celebrated by the poets; we shall nevertheless mention one, which is the story told of Ulysses in the twenty-first book of the Odyssey. The poet feigns that Penelope, wearied by the solicitations of her suitors, during the absence of Ulysses at the Trojan war, at length forms a resolution to determine which of the lovers shall receive her hand. she produces a bow, which had been left with her by her husband, and thus declares her proposal:

"Who first Ulysses' wondrous bow shall bend,
And through twelve ringlets the fleet arrow send,
Him will I follow, and forsake my home,
For him forsake this lov'd, this wealthy dome.
Graceful she said, and bade Eumæus show
The rival peers, the ringlets and the bow!'
Pope.

Just as they had agreed to decide by this expedient, Ulysses disguised in the dress of a shepherd, returns from Troy. After several of the lovers had tried unsuccessfully, and after some altercation concerning the propriety of allowing a man of so mean an appearance to have any chance of gaining the prize, Ulysses takes the bow,

"And sitting, as he was, the cord he drew,
Through every ringlet levelling his view;
Then notch'd the shaft, released, and gave it wing:
The whizzing arrow vanish'd from the string,
Sung on direct, and threaded every ring.
The solid gate its fury scarcely bounds;
Pierc'd through and through, the solid gate resounds"
Pope

Ulysses, having gained the prize, discovers himself, and immediately puts to death those suitors to Penelope who had taken advantage of his absence.

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