Archery in the Homeric Epics

Caroline Sutherland


The Iliad and the Odyssey are generally known as the Homeric epics, which are conventionally attributed to Homer. Possibly relating to events that took place c. 1250 b.c.e. the earliest they could have been written down is c. 750-700 b.c.e. Literal references include the description and use of archery equipment, the origin of bows used and troops or individuals proficient in archery. Figurative references link or define attitudes and ideas to do with archery, for example, its honourable association with the gods and demi-gods, or its dishonourable association with the heroic code in the Iliad. This investigation can increase our understanding of the Iliad and the Odyssey, the period of history they relate to and the understanding and expectation of the intended audience. That said, as a word of caution, ?archaeological discovery may throw light upon the legends, but the use of legendary statements [Homeric epics] for historical interpretation of material records is a reversal of proper procedure.?[1]

To understand references related to archery it is important to know how bows functioned. ?Simple? or ?self? bows are made from a single piece of wood, often strengthened with bindings.  The recurve bow had the ends of its limbs bent back, often by steaming, to increase the leverage. Dolon?s bow is a ?back-strung bow? (Il. 10.459) and so is Odysseus? (Od. 21.11). A composite bow is constructed of two or more materials. In its simplest form, the limbs have lathes of horn on the front (facing the archer) and sinew covers the back. In Egypt, during the New Kingdom (1570-1070 b.c.e.), the ?technique of gluing strips of horn and sinew to a wooden self bow produced  the more elastic composite bow.?[2]

With this information it is easier to understand Homer?s description of Pandaros? bow. ?His bow of the polished horn? (Il. 4.105) was made by a bowyer who, ?working on the horn then bound them together, smoothing them to a fair surface? (Il. 4.110-11). Apparently, ?in the late Predynastic Period (5000-3300) the ?horn bow? was in common use; this consisted of a pair of antelope horns connected by a central piece of wood.?[3] This is a description of a very ancient type of bow. It does not concur with a ?golden string hook? (Il. 4.111). Nor does the fact that he braced it ?against the ground? (Il. 4.113), since only bows with flexibility need to be braced in this way: horn bows have no flexibility. The unwrapping of the bow (Il. 4.105) may mean that it was being protected from the sea air, indicating glue and therefore a composite bow. What we have here is a muddle of chronological memories, further reinforced by ?iron to the bowstave? (Il. 4.123), an iron-age reference to an arrow-head!

What the bowyer bound together was not the horn and wood of a Predynastic bow but a composite, recurve bow.  The detail given about the goat?s horns is misleading. If taken literally that the horns were ?sixteen palms length? (Il. 4.109), to draw this ?till it made a great circle? (Il. 4.124) would be impossible due to the height of the bow and lack of flexibility. However, bows of Assyrian, Hittite and Egyptian origin (1600-600 b.c.e.), known as the ?angular? type, may easily be drawn to a circle.  A circle also indicates a certain height of bow and this is well demonstrated with Odysseus? bow.

Odysseus never shoots his bow standing up. He is sitting during the trial of the axes and he must be kneeling when he shoots the suitors ?and scattered out the swift shafts before him / on the ground next to his feet? (Od. 22.3-4). It would be ridiculous to think that he would bend down to pick up an arrow from his feet each time. Apollo also ?knelt then / apart and opposite the ships and let go an arrow? (Il. 1.47-8). Bows that are used kneeling down must be short so as to not touch the ground. Consequently we have three examples of short bows.

So, Odysseus? bow was short, backstrung, and composed of wood and horn, as is confirmed by Odysseus checking the bow ?to see if worms had eaten the horn? (Od. 21.395). Its ownership can be traced back through Iphitos to Eurytos to Apollo. This is typically vague; since many bows are credited to have been gifts from Apollo (e.g. Pandaros?) and it may well be that this is simply a term of praise. Eurytos comes from Oechalia, which Homer places in Thessaly (Il. 2.730), but composite bows were relatively rare or unknown on mainland Greece. It is known that ?the composite bow was an Asiatic invention, and was doubtless introduced into Bronze Age Crete as a result of her contacts with Syria and Egypt.?[4] It is quite likely that the bow was of Cretan origin influenced by Egyptian contacts. The Egyptian influence is confirmed by W. McLeod, who writes that Odysseus? bow was ?an angular composite, of a type best known from Imperial Egypt.?[5]

This bow was obviously unusual: Odysseus was prepared to exchange ?a sharp sword and a strong spear? (Od. 21.34) for it. The unusual nature of the bow may have been the reason for Penelope?s choice of test. Like the bed only Odysseus would have been aware of its peculiarity. The young suitors had not been to war or travelled widely. The test was of two distinct parts and it is the first that is most revealing as to the composition, for the bow must be strung ?with the greatest ease? (Il. 19.20-21). Only someone who understood a composite bow could do that, for it was not a matter of strength, but of skill and intelligence (metis), something Penelope and Odysseus valued highly.

It is not the intention to try and solve the competition of the bow in the Odyssey here. That it has not yet been solved, though many have tried, is revealing enough. The story of Odysseus? homecoming, his fight for his lands, his wife and the recognition of his status (kleos), is possibly part of an even older tradition of folktale, the one commonly called ?The Homecoming Husband?. As with the story of Polyphemos, whose tale is of a one-eyed, evil, man-eating giant who is defeated by an intelligent boy/man, these folktales predate Homer. Therefore, they probably made up part of the bardic tradition of story telling.

Archer kings did exist, but in Egypt: Tuthmosis III (reigned 1504-1450 b.c.e.), Amenophis II (1450-1425), Tuthmosis IV (1425-1417), Ay (1352-1348) and Ramesses II (1304-1237). The Great Sphinx Stela of Amenophis II at Giza proudly pronounces that ?not one among them could draw his bow?.[6] A hero who has a weapon so special that it only responds to him is a common theme in folktales.

It seems that ?the importance of the bow may really have declined by the time of the Trojan War.?[7] However, Homer allows archery terms to permeate Odysseus? language (measuring distance, Od. 12.83-84, 102; and comparing Polyphemus? door-stone to the lid of an arrow case, Od. 9.314) and, in the tradition of other archer kings, tells others of his archery prowess (Phaeacians: Od. 8.215-18). He even names his son ?he who fights from afar? (Telemachus). It is quite possible that Odysseus, like Herakles, belongs to an older tradition of archer heroes. In other words, he predates the Homeric epics and the eclipse of the bow in Greece and is originally a hero that has been transplanted along with his bow to Homeric times. The archery competition is part of a well-known folktale where the hero wins despite adversity: the details are not important.

Other equipment provides information about Homeric archery practices. Arrows that are described as being ?feathered? (Il. 5.115, 171, 16.773), having ?sharp barbs? (Il. 4.214), ?hooked barbs? (Il. 4.151) or ?three-barbed? (Il. 11.507), being ?bronze-shod? (Il. 12.650-1, 262) and having a ?reed shaft? (Il. 11.583) are similar to Egyptian arrows. There is no evidence that poison was regularly used although bitter arrow may suggest poison. Only when Menelaos is shot, then ?when he [Machaon] saw where the bitter arrow was driven, / he sucked the blood and in skill laid healing medicines on it? (Il. 4.217-18). Odysseus went ?in search of a poison to kill men, so that he might have it / to smear on his bronze-headed arrows? (Od. 1.261-2). So it was known about, but possibly considered impious as ?Ilos would not / give him any, since he feared the gods? (Od. 1.262-3). Arrows were carried in a quiver, usually with a lid: ?he stripped away the lid of the quiver? (Il. 4.114), ?hooded quiver? (Il. 145-6), ?like a man closing the lid on a quiver? (Od. 9.314).

Homer does not refer to the use of massed, organised bowmen in the Iliad. Yet archery inflicted its fair share of injuries: ?others / were lying away inside the city with arrow or spear wound? (Il. 13.763-4), or ?will still nurse / his wound, the place where he has been hit with an arrow or sharp spear / springing up to his ship? (Il. 8.513-15). This omission is peculiar as archers obviously contributed significantly to the battles. It may well be that the audience either did not expect to or did not want to hear of archers in prominent situations. Whatever Homer?s reason for playing down the importance of archery it seems possible that here we have a good case of audience expectation dictating minor details of the poems.

Although Philoktetes was left behind on the island of Lemnos, his followers of seven ships each with fifty men, ?each well skilled in the bow?s work? (Il. 2.720), went on to Troy. Aias, son of Oileus, lead forty ships. These followers put ?their confidence / in their bows and slings? (Il. 13.716-7) and ?with these / they shot their close volleys and broke the Trojan battalions? (Il. 13.718-9). Their method was typical, they ?unseen volleyed from behind? (Il. 13.721). Odysseus also refers to the potential situation of ?many companions were standing close beside me, and all shooting with bows at the enemies? (Od. 8.217-8). Crete, who sent eighty ships, was well known for its archers as were the Paeonians, on the Trojan side, who came from Macedonia.

Individuals well known to us for their ability with a bow were Odysseus and Paris. While the Odyssey does not tell us much about Odysseus, what he does not do in the Iliad is most revealing. Odysseus did not use a bow during the Trojan War. This was probably because he was a first rank warrior and hero capable of fighting with a spear and sword, and of gaining booty. There was little point in placing himself in an inferior position. Those that used the bow were considered inferior to those that did not: i.e. Meriones to Idomeneus, Teukros to his brother Aias, and Paris to brother Hektor. Odysseus did not even compete in the funeral games even though he must have fancied his chances: ?There was Philoktetes alone who surpassed me in the archery? (Od. 8.219) and he was not there. Instead he chose to compete in the far more dangerous sport of wrestling against Telemonian Aias. The heroic code of honour, and status dependent upon wealth, were of prime concern to Odysseus.

Like Odysseus, wealth was important to Paris. In securing Helen he acquired many of Menelaos? possessions. In this way he compensated for his lack of ability on the battlefield in acquiring booty. For although he fought with the best, and survived, he was obviously not the hero Hektor or Odysseus was. When Hektor visited Paris ?he found the man in his chamber busy with his splendid armour, the corslet and shield, and turning in his hands the curved bow? (Il. 6.321-2). Ironically it is the bow he must leave behind if he is to fight man to man according to the heroic code on the battlefield. Yet it is with his bow he is most competent.

The heroic code derided archery, and those that participated in it. It is continuously and traditionally associated with foreigners, i.e. Cretans or with heroes older than the Trojan War, e.g. Herakles. Possibly Paris felt he was outside the heroic code. His birth was prophesied to be the doom of Troy, he was despised by his brother [Hektor] ?Evil Paris, beautiful, woman-crazy? (Il. 13.769), and not popular ?since he was hated among them [Trojans] all as dark death is hated? (Il. 3.454). Not concerning himself with such prejudices Paris uses his bow to great effect, shooting Diomedes, Machaon and Eurypylos. His ?stealing? of Helen and all her possessions and his shooting of Achilleus from behind are both outside the heroic code of hospitality (xenia) and justice (dike). Unlike Odysseus, Paris seems to have little concern for the heroic code and Homer associates traits attributed to archery, such as deception, with Paris.

Certainly many terms of abuse are connected with archery: ?Argives, you arrow-fighters, have you no shame, you abuses?? (Il. 4.242) or ?You archer, foul fighter? (Il. 11.386) and ?this is the blank weapon of a useless man, no fighter? (Il. 11.390). Even such subtleties as Teukros being illegitimate or it being Pandaros, the archer, who broke the truce (Il. 4.86-140), or that Teukros and Meriones, the two second-rank heroes who took part in Patroklos? funeral games, condemn archery. Yet Athene helped Odysseus and Aphrodite helped Paris. The gods? association with archery is complex in that they hold it in high esteem themselves while humans associate it with death, cowardice and treachery. Could it be that, since gods are understood to influence events from afar, those who as individuals partake in archery (and therefore strike from afar) are seen by their companions to imitate the gods and to be immoral?

Among other epithets, Apollo was known as ?lord of the shining bow? (Il. 1.37) and his sister was known as ?Artemis of the showering arrows? (Il. 5.447); and interestingly they both sided with the Trojans. In the epics Apollo and Artemis were considered respectively responsible for the deaths of men and women. Apollo?s visitation of arrows causes the plague in the Achaian camp (Il. 1.45-48) and again ?killed the steersman of Menelaos? (Od. 3.280). Penelope calls out to ?sweet-haired Artemis strike me, so that / I could meet the Odysseus I long for? (Od. 20.80-1). Yet the only time we hear of Apollo?s and Artemis? actual causing of death was with the children of Niobe (Il. 24.602-617).

Archery is also significantly part of the prophecy and myth within the Epic Cycle and Homeric epics. Agamemnon?s fleet was unable to sail from Aulis because Agamemnon had insulted Artemis by boasting of his archery prowess when shooting a stag. Calchas, the seer, then prophesied that Iphigeneia, his daughter, would have to be sacrificed to pacify the wrath of Artemis (The Cypria frag. 1). Philoctetes, the famous Greek archer left behind at Lemnos ?from the sore bite of the wicked water snake? (Il. 2.723), had to be reunited with the Athenian army when it was prophesied that Troy would not fall without the use of Herakles? arrows (Little Iliad). Hektor?s dying prophecy to Achilleus that ?Paris and Phoibos Apollo [will] destroy you in the Skaian gates? (Il. 22.359-60) duly came about when Paris shot Achilleus in the heel and killed him (Little Iliad). The reference to the help Phoibos Apollo would render Paris is possibly a reflection of Paris? talent with a bow.

There are three references to the Amazons in the Iliad. Priam remembers ?the Amazon women came, men?s equals? (Il. 3.189) from his past and Bellerophontes, Glaukos? grandfather, also ?slaughtered the Amazons, who fight men in battle? (Il. 6.186). Most interestingly is the passing reference to where the Trojans marshalled their troops, on a hill that ?men call the Hill of the Thicket, but the immortal gods have named it the burial mound of dancing Myrina? (Il. 2.813-14). Myrina was an Amazon queen. That Homer allows the gods to use their ?poetic vocabulary from the past?[8] to differentiate from men?s common definition (and this is done only four times in the Iliad) shows the perceived close relationship between the Gods and the Amazons. Intriguingly burials in Russia have shown that, in Serovo (the second period) ?women have been found with the recurve bow in the grave.?[9]

This dual concept of archery, of good and bad, may reveal something about Homer or indeed his audience. As W. McLeod writes: ?he [Homer] says what his audience were prepared to accept about the heroic age.?[10] This seems an eminently sensible idea. Artemis and Apollo, both children of Zeus, were established gods. Their happy association with the bow, along with established heroes, such as Herakles (and possibly Odysseus), may be from older stories than Homer; whereas Homer?s authority to associate death with Artemis? and Apollo?s bows, and deception with archery, may be what the audience of the Archaic Period (700 b.c.e.), with expectations of the Heroic Age found plausible. As E. S. Sherratt explains, incidental description, which archery is, was ?prone to regular alteration.?[11]

            In conclusion, the examination of the literal and figurative references to archery in the Homeric epics do widen and increase our knowledge of the poems, not only in terms of understanding the significance of archery in warfare but also the more difficult area of its possible influence on folklore, myth, prophecy, gods and demi-gods.  Together, an attempt at understanding those who used archery and were affected by archery may be had.  Not only that but it is possible to venture at the attitude of Homer and/or his audience towards archery.  Yet, it must be remembered that without the support of archaeology this information must be confined to its proper boundaries in that its relevance is to the Homeric epics, and to them alone.

[1] *Forsdyke, 1956, p.166; O. Dickinson, The Aegean Bronze Age, 1996, p. 1.

[2] *I. Shaw, Egyptian Warfare and Weapons, p. 42.

[3] *I. Shaw, Egyptian Warfare and Weapons, p. 36.

[4] *J.V. Luce, Homer and the Heroic Age, p. 109.

[5] *W. McLeod, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Monographs, p. 206.

[6] *Ancient Egyptian Literature: A book of Readings, vol. 2. The New Kingdom.

[7] *J. V. Luce, Homer and the Homeric Age, p. 110.

[8] *M. M. Willcock, A Companion to the Iliad, 1976, p.12.

[9] *Burke, The History of Archery, 1971, pp. 20-21.

[10] *The Bow and the Axes, 1984, p. 204.

[11] *?Reading the Texts?, p.153, in C. Emlyn-Jones, L. Hardwick and J. Purkis (edd.), Homer: Reading and Images, London 1992, pp. 49-62.

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