“This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, This other Eden, demi-paradise, This fortress built by Nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war, This happy breed of men, this little world, This precious stone set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall Or as a moat defensive to a house, Against the envy of less happier lands,–This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”William Shakespeare, Richard II
I have always felt torn between my English and Italian heritage. For much of my life the alluring draw of Italy’s vast and glorious history has pulled me firmly along. Drawn to the conquests of Caesar, the poetry of Virgil and Ovid, and the beauty of the painters, sculptors and architects of the Renaissance. This year I felt it was finally time to discover the other half of my ancestry; to discover England.
I thought about the many possible ways of going about this. I could pursue family history, read about the kings and queens (Willie, Willie, Harry, Stee…), or simply explore the country (something easier said than done in our current climate). But finally, I settled on a more intimate solution: archery.
Archery has a long held tradition in England. It was once written into law that a man should practice archery for an hour every Sunday. The devastation caused by the English longbowman in the Hundred Years War at battles such as Agincourt and Crécy solidified the longbow as the weapon of choice for the common English foot-soldier. But even before the Norman conquest, before even the first Roman settlements, the bow has been a tool used on these shores for thousands of years. In 1961, a dig in Somerset found a neolithic bow thought to have dated to around 2690BC!
The Archery Laws of England
By the middle ages, archers had become so important to the medieval war machine that numerous laws were put into place in England ensuring the male populace was trained sufficiently with the longbow in case they were ever called up as levies in wartime. The first of these was put into force by Henry III in 1252, known as the assize of arms. It decreed that any able-bodied man between the ages of 15 and 60 must arm themselves with a bow and arrow and to become proficient in its use. This was later followed by a law in 1363 by Edward III that decreed:
Whereas the people of our realm, rich and poor alike, were accustomed formerly in their games to practise archery – whence by God’s help, it is well known that high honour and profit came to our realm, and no small advantage to ourselves in our warlike enterprises… that every man in the same country, if he be able-bodied, shall, upon holidays, make use, in his games, of bows and arrows… and so learn and practise archery.Readings in English Social History, edited by R. B. Morgan
This law demanded that on Sundays and national Holidays, men must practice archery for at least 2 hours. Furthermore, villages were required to build Butts (aka archery ranges) for their citizens to use.
The Symbolism of the Bow
In the realms of mythology and cultural tradition, the archer and his bow and arrow have long held symbolic association. Given it’s importance in the development of early hunting, and later warfare, it comes as no surprise that the simplistic shapes of the bow and arrow should make their way into the various cultural traditions of the peoples that relied upon them. One of the most common symbols the bow associates with is that of The Sun. This association could have arisen due to a number of potential factors. One I find most likely is due to the path an arrow takes when shot into the sky mirroring the arcing path of The Sun as it crosses the celestial sphere.
Examples of the Solar association appear in Greek mythology in the form of the god of archery, Apollo. Apollo was considered to be one of the charioteers that drove The Sun across the sky in its daily journey.
Alternatively, the spherical nature of the sun could be seen as symbolic of the usually spherical targets used in archery practice. This combined with the unreachable height of the solar disk, has led to a third association between archery, The Sun, and reaching and achieving impossible goals. That achievement over an insurmountable foe has become synonymous with conquest. This final link can be understood when thinking about the primal use of the bow as a tool of the hunt. Catching the prey after many hours or days of careful preparation and tracking is not only an act of extreme focus and perseverance, but also one of conquest. When the nature of the hunt evolved into warfare, and the bow became a tool of the battlefield, the association of the bow with the primal conqueror remained.
In Chinese mythology you have the tale of Hou Yi and the ten suns. As the myth goes, there was once ten suns when the earth was very young. The Emperor Yao ordered the suns should only rise into the sky one at a time to prevent the destruction of the earth. But, the suns were young and rebellious and wanted to play together. So one day all ten suns appeared in the sky at once. The world soon erupted into chaos. Crops shriveled and burned. Lakes and rivers dried up. If something was not done soon all life on earth would end. The Emperor asked Hou Yi, famous for his skill in archery and his deadly tiger-bone bow, to shoot down the suns. When the suns refused to listen to Hou Yi’s warnings, he loosed nine arrows crafted from dragon tendons into the sky. One by one the suns fell until there was only one left.
This myth neatly links together all the various metaphors listed earlier. We have the archer being represented as one of pure focus and aim, who sets his sights upon a goal no matter the difficulty. We have the suns represented as targets, achievements, the impossible task. And finally, the act of shooting down the suns representing the triumph of man over nature; the archer as conqueror of both himself and his internal strife, and the external challenge.
To me archery is more than just a sport, hobby or form of exercise. The act of repetition and the constant striving for unreachable perfection mirrors the practices of religious and spiritual men the world over. The mirroring of precise movement to bridge a connection to a cultural past is well known in many societies around the world. The Japanese tea ceremony or traditional dances are of a similar sort. To me the drawing and loosing of a bow IS a spiritual exercise. When one looses an arrow upon English soil, the air hums with the remembrance of thousands of years. Holding a bow in ones hand, one feels the connection to a line on ancestors who performed the same simple muscular tasks over and over. The same striving for perfection. Everything done within the time-span of a single breath.
A single breath repeated down eternity.