Bow and Arrow Symbolism & Meaning (Leadership, Fate & more)

Archery a symbol composed of three components: the bow, bow string and arrow.

These three components also represent three stages: tension, relaxation and release (or some circumstances, ejaculation).

In this case, the sexual symbolism of bows and archery is also closely tied with the symbols of war and hunting.

The Archer with a Bow and Arrow has many symbolic meanings
The Archer with a Bow and Arrow has many symbolic meanings

In strongly hierarchical societies, the bow represents both the act of reproduction as well as the seeking of perfection.

A good example of this is the role of the bow in the physical and spiritual life of the Japanese samurai.

In the Indian mythological tradition, Shiva’s bow, like that of the zodiac sign of Sagittarius (Archer), represents the transformation of desire from something concrete, real, to a ethereal form.

Archery is simultaneously the chief activity of kings and hunters, and also a spiritual exercise. Thus, the bow is universally considered as the weapon of royalty and Kshatriya, the warrior caste of India. Thus, mastering the bow was a form of initiation into the warrior caste.

Bows as symbols of cleansing, purification and virtue

The bow is a constantly repeating symbol in ancient Hindu Purānas texts, and it is almost always a sign associated with kings. The bow is the weapon of choice for Arjuna’s weapon, and the battles of the Bhagavad Gītā are fights among bowmen.

Among the Japanese, archery was seen as a core discipline of Bushido, the philosophy of “the way of the warrior”.

For the Chinese, archery was considered a liberal art, the assumption being that it proved the abilities and virtues of the prince who practiced it.

Thus, warriors and princes with a pure heart will immediately hit the bull. The arrow of the noble prince or warrior is destined to strike the enemy and hunt the beast of fables.

The abilility to strike a human enemy symbolized one’s power to bring order to the world, while the ability to hunt a fabled beast signified the prince and warrior’s capacity to destroy the powers of darkness.

This is why bows, especially bows of peach wood and arrows of wormwood or thorn, were seen as weapons of warriors and leaders.

Bows are also an instrument of exorcism, for they remove the forces of evil by shooting arrows at each of the four cardinal points, upwards towards the Heaven or even downwars upon the Earth itself.

Along this tradition, Japanese Shintoism contains several purification rituals that require the shooting of arrows. Likewise, in the Rāmāyana, a great hero offers arrows as a form of sacrifice.

Archery, connection between Heaven and Earth

The Book of Lieh Tzu (a Taoist philosopher) frequently talks of random arrow shots which hit their mark simply because both mark and shot were unintentional. This is the Taoist spiritual attitude of “non-doing”.

According to this philosophy of “non-doing”, the one who understands Taoism can fire arrows in such a way that it forms a continous stream between bow and target.

This method of thinking indicates continuity between subject and object, but also implies the connection made by a king who shoots arrows towards the sky, since this stream of arrows creates a World Axis connecting Heaven and Earth.

According to a Japanese manual on archery, the one who fires an arrow is not the archer, but a kind of heavenly manifestation of the archer, who performs the act of firing guided by the will of Heaven.

Confucius had already said that the archer who misses the mark should seek the cause of failure within himself. Yet he himself is also the mark.

The Chinese ideogram “zhong” (center), shows a target pierced by an arrow. What the arrow hits is the “centre” of a person, the spiritual Self.

The same philosophical idea can be found in Islam, since the bow represents divine power and the arrow is the object that destroys ignorance, darkness and evil.

In all religions, the target represents spiritual perfection and being one with the divine, and any archer who wants to hit the target must first pierce the darkness of their own faults, imperfections and ignorance.

In Buddhist teachings, the Wheel of Life shows a man with an arrow piercing his eye. This symbolizes all the sensations one feels when hit, either by a physical object or an intellectual one.

The symbolism of sensation repeats itself in Indian mythology. As an emblem Vishnu, the bow symbolizes tamas, his destructive, “disintegrating” aspect, which is the foundation of sense-perception.

Similarly, Kama, the god of love, is shown with five arrows, representing each of the five senses. This is similar to how Cupid (or Eros) would use a bow to lovestrike victims.

Arrows are also associated with Shiva, who is often armed with a bow shaped and colored like a rainbow.

Bows as symbols of desire and fertility

The tension of a drawn bow represents our inner subconscious, which is the spring of all our desires.

Love, the Sun, and the most important gods all possess a quiver, bow and arrows. Throughout all cultures, arrows are considered a male emblem, for their action is that of penetration.

When they wield their bows, Love, Sun and God all play a fertilizing role. Because of this, bows and arrows are frequent symbols of love and life-producing tension everywhere from Japan to Ancient Greece and to the shamanist sorcerers of the Altai.

The source of all this symbolism of fertility is the notion of dynamic tension, which, according to Heraclitus, is an echo of the vital force that manifests itself both in the spiritual and material world.

Thus, Apollo’s bow and arrows are solar energy, and the rays Apollo shoots with bow have purifying and generative powers.

Likewise the Bible, in Job 29:19-20, bows and arrows mean strength:

“My root was spread out by the waters, and the dew lay all night upon my branch. My glory was fresh in me, and my bow was renewed in my hand.”

Bows as symbols of rulership and divine authority

To the ancient inhabitants of Delphi, to the Children of Israel and to primitive peoples, the bow symbolized spiritual authority and the ultimate power of decision making. It was the attribute of leaders of people and nations, sovereign high priests and all those who hold their power from the gods.

Thus, kings or gods that defeat their foes proceed to destroy their bows, thus symbolically destroying their authority. Without their bows, the vanquished enemies no longer have the power to impose their will.

A king or a god who is more powerful than his rivals breaks the bows of his enemies. The enemy cannot impose his rule upon him.

Joseph is a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches runover the wall: 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 mighty God of Jacob; (from thence is the shepherd, the stone of lsrael:) Even by the God of thy father, who shall help thee.

Genesis 49: 22-5

Odysseus’ bow symbolized the sole authority exercised by a king. None of the challengers who wanted to take Odysseus’s place was able to bend the bow, only Odysseus could and to exercise his rightful authority, he killed all of his challengers.

In the Hindu Veda texts, the bow is a symbol of warlike power, and of superiority over one’s enemies. Finally, the bow was also the weapon which conquers the Heavens. The Vedic poems contain a wealth of symbols and evoke the shock of battle, albeit in spiritual warfare:

With the bow let us win cows, with the bow let us win the contest and violent battles with the bow. The bow ruins the enemy’s pleasure; with the bow let us conquer all the corners of the world. She comes all the way up to your ear like a woman who wishes to say something, embracing her dear friend; humming like a woman, the bowstring stretched tight on the bow carries you safely across the battle.

In the Vedas, what makes bows powerful is their bowstring, and so the bowstring itself becomes a symbol of power in its own right.

What makes the bowstring unique however, is that it’s power isn’t produced by weight, hardness or sharpness. Instead, the strength of a bowstring comes from it’s tension.

Since an arrow once fired cannot be changed from it’s course, the bow eventually began to symbolize fate, since nothing can change the course of fate.

As mentiond previously, the god Shiva carried a bow in the shape and colors of a rainbow. So anytime a rainbow materialized itself, it was considered to be a mystical manifestation of Shiva himself.

In the Greek Pantheon, Apollo was one of the mightiest gods and would enforce his authority upon Olympus whenever he desired.

The Homeric Hymn in Apollo’s honor describes his power thus:

I will remember and not be unmindful of Apollo who shoots afar. As he goes through the house of Zeus, the gods tremble before him and all spring up from their seats when he draws near, as he bends his bright bow.

Hymn to the Delian Apollo 1-5

Humans were justified to bow to Apollo’s wishes, for he was the archer that could lead their fates.

In the Iliad, Homer calls him “death-shooting God” or “Apollo with the fateful arrow”. Anyone who becomes the target of Apollo’s bow and arrow has a doomed fate.

Symbolism of arrows

Arrows as representation of lightning

Like the lader, the arrow symbolizes the connection between Heaven and Earth. If the arrow points downwards to the Earth it symbolizes the manifested power of a god, such as a thunderbolt striking the Earth, Apollo’s sunray arrows or rain fertilizing the fields.

Arrows were frequently considered to represent bolts of lightning.

In Greek mythology, the god Apollo used arrows shaped as sun rays, which worked the same way as the Hindu god Indra’s vajra (thunderbolt).

The legendary Chinese solar emperor, Yao, shot arrows at the Sun, but if an unworthy ruler tried launching arrows into the sky, these arrows would return in the form of lightning bolts.

Also in Ancient China, arrows would sometimes be fashioned to look like serpents or be set on fire, clear symbols of lightning.

In the same way, North American Indians carved a red zig-zag, representing lightning, on their arrows.

Thus, like lightning or sun-rays, arrows are viewed as being flashes of light that illuminate the night or darnkess, thus being symbols of knowledge or discovery.

Arrows as representation of fate and destiny

Because arrows do not change their course once fired, they were also seen as physical embodiments of fate or destiny. And since arrows were frequently an instrument of war, their representation of fate would often mean death as well.

A bow firing an arrow towards the sky can also symbolize the act of transforming desire from a simple mental concept to a real, physical action.

This explains the zodiac sign of the Sagittarius, since the archer is almost always shown pointing the arrow upwards.

Among the ancient Samoyed (natives of Northern Siberia), their word for drum meant “musical bow”, so the drum was viewed as a bow of harmony, and a symbol of the connection between the two worlds.

Arrows as symbols of knowledge

Generally, the arrow is considered a symbol of unshackling from present conventions or ways of thought, it becomes a kind of release from current limitations such as gravity or space, and represents the mental anticipation of acquiring benefits that are as of yet, out of reach.

The Latin name for arrow, “sagitta”, was derived from the root of the verb “sagire”, which meant “to perceive quickly”, and thus it was a symbol of mental alertness.

Along this idea, the Hindu Upanishad philosophical texts transform the meditation syllable “om” and visualize it as an arrow fired by bow, flying through ignorance and then striking at the source of supreme illumination. In a slightly different variation, “om” can be the very bow that launches the arrow.

This symbolism of arrows as knowledge was widespread in Eastern Asia and is still frequently seen in Japan.


Resources:

  • A dictionary of symbols by Cirlot, Juan Eduardo
  • A dictionary of symbols by Chevalier, Jean
  • Dictionary of symbols by Chetwynd, Tom
  • A dictionary of dream symbols : with an introduction to dream psychology by Ackroyd, Eric
  • Illustrated dictionary of symbols in eastern and western art by Hall, James
  • Dictionary of symbols and imagery by Vries, Ad de
  • Symbolism : a comprehensive dictionary by Olderr, Steven
  • Dictionary of mythology, folklore and symbols by Jobes, Gertrude
  • The complete dictionary of symbols by Tresidder, Jack
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