Standing at the line at the Washington Park archery range, I take my position, trying to be mindful of every muscle. Holding the bow forward with my left hand, tight but not stiffly. The aiming arm. I have a leather arm guard around the forearm where the string may slap. The bow pretty much perpendicular with the ground. My right hand is in a leather archer’s glove, just the middle three fingers and a strap to go around the wrist. I pull the bow back so my fingers are near my mouth. The kiss. When I release, the arrow has a slight whistle and then a musical thwack as it embeds itself in the thick plastic-wrapped hay target.
There’s something so primal and primitive about shooting. Helen MacDonald writes eloquently in H is for Hawkabout the joy she gets in falconry, knowing that what she is feeling and seeing is connected with the ancient. It is the same for me with archery. The same pleasure I get when I do tai chi chuan, or when I go to Torah study. Feeling the ancient lineage.
The term Torah itself has an archery history. The word Torah is derived from a Hebrew word that means “to shoot an arrow in order to hit a mark.” Torah is the arrow aimed at the mark, the target is the truth about God and how one relates to that which is holy. In ancient Greek there is a similar meaning, with to sin coming from “to miss the mark.”
Archery was clearly important to the Greeks. Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, was known for her archery skills. When the Romans adopted Greek gods, her name was changed to Diana. Which was the name I chose for the female protagonist in The Master Mind. The Stoics had a metaphor, similar to the Serenity Prayer, of balancing acceptance and change. One prepared one’s arrows, bow, posture. But then the arrow was loosed and the wind could pick up or the target move. Change switches to acceptance. Many of the Amazons supposedly cut off breasts so they would not interfere with their archery skills. Eros (aka Cupid) uses arrows to spread the love, as does the equivalent Hindu god Kamadeva.
And remember the climax of The Odyssey, when Odysseus returns home to find his house infested with suitors pursuing his wife Penelope. She has delayed them cunningly, and the test is who can successfully use her missing husband’s bow. Needless to say, the disguised Odysseus can, and uses it to kill the suitors.
Archery turns up in many religions. In Japanese Shinto, many of the gods and goddesses are shown with bow and arrow. Amaterasu, the sun goddess, carries 500 to 1000 arrows. Her equivalent in Greek mythology, Apollo, is also an outstanding archer. Japanese Aizen Myo-o, Tibetan Kurulkulla, Hindu Kama and Cupid are all archers associated with love. Skadi, in Norse mythology the goddess associated with archery, was worshipped by the Vikings for her excellent skills with a bow as well as skiing. A primitive biathlon. And Muhammad also spoke of the importance of the spiritual practice of archery.
It’s not about hitting the bullseye, though of course that is always nice. It’s being both in the moment and immersed in the flow of time. My immediate ancestors were urban, but somewhere along the way there were men, and maybe some women, who pulled the arrow back and let it loose, eyes fixed on a target. Probably something or someone they needed to kill. I can be grateful that my goal is not as life and death. Just being centered and mindful as the arrow cuts through the air.
While the hand-to-eye ability of being a skilled marksman with a gun is equal to being a skilled archer, using a bow requires more strength. And there’s no such thing as an automatic bow that can spew dozens of arrows in seconds. Bows are more like muskets, where each shot is individual and important. A nice cue for mindfulness.