Symbolism of Arrows

arrows

The arrow is both a weapon and also a sacred symbol. Divination with arrows over the years affects how we think of them and use them today.

The weapon of Apollo and Diana, signifying the light of supreme power. In both Greece and pre-Columbian America, it was used to designate the sun’s rays. But, because of its shape, it has undeniable phallic significance, specially when it is shown in emblems balanced against the symbol of the ‘mystic Centre’, feminine in character, such as the heart. The heart pierced with an arrow is a symbol of Conjunction.

[The arrow is also symbol] of the ‘mystic Centre’, feminine in character, such as the heart. The heart pierced with an arrow is a symbol of ‘Conjunction’.

A Dictionary of Symbols, J.E. Cirlot
Death Dealing Arrows 1903 by John Everett Millais

Arrows As Symbols of Flight

I’ve written before about the Symbolism of Flight. Anything that flies, or finds itself up in the air, can be imbued with all similar associations depending on context.

Arrows As Symbols of Penetration

As a weapon the arrow symbolises the power of the person carrying it (along with the bow). Goddess of the Hunt (Artemis/Diana) carries an arrow, as does Eros, a less violent god who uses it to pierce people’s hearts with love. At first this seems sweet, though it may be a phallic symbol, since love overlaps with (penetrative) sex. Could the Valentine’s Day heart and arrow be a covert symbol of sexual union?

Arrows As Symbols of Direction

In ancient times, Arabians, Chaldeans, Greeks and Tibetans used arrows to try and tell the future. They would shoot arrows into the air and try to read a meaning from the direction of the arrows or from their positions in relation to each other. This was known as belomancy.

If you were lost in the forest and needed to learn your way home, according to belomancy you could throw an arrow onto the ground and just follow its direction home. I wonder how many people met a sorry death in the wilderness over many centuries of belomancy.

William Tell cover
William Tell cover

Crossed Arrows

According to belomancy, guess what crossed arrows meant? It meant ‘no’. (It might be ‘no’ if the arrows were simply touching.)

Later they’d write words or occult symbols onto the arrows to make answers more meaningful. For example,God orders it me on the first arrow, God forbids it me on the second arrow, and the third would be blank. The arrow that flew the furthest indicated the answer. Or, maybe they didn’t bother flying the arrows at all, instead drawing them. (The lazy belomancer’s trick.) Not sure why they bothered with a third arrow left blank. If that one got drawn or flew farthest they’d only have to do it again.

There’s actually mention of belomancy in the Bible, in the Book of Ezekiel.

Game shows like Wheel of Fortune have a much longer history than I thought. Even drinking games like Spin the Bottle have an air of belomancy about them, with a bottle instead of an arrow determining the ‘fate of true love’.

This symbolism works both physically and metaphorically. Arrows shooting high into the sky symbolise the link between Heaven and Earth. Equally this might symbolise inspiration (an idea) or a message being carried directly to the Gods, who are supposed to live above the earth.

Arrows in Buddhism

In Buddhist teachings, the Buddha described two arrows. The first arrow is the natural experience that arises in this human animal that we are, for example: fear, aggression, greed, craving. The second arrow is self-aversion for the fact of the first arrow. We have the experience of being nasty, selfish or greedy, and we don’t like ourselves for that. That’s the second arrow. The Buddha says: “The first arrow hurts, why do we shoot the second arrow into us, ourselves?” And yet we do. He goes on to say: “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow; however, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.” The first arrow arises from causes and conditions beyond our control. But when we learn to release the judgment and self-blame that we experience in response to the first arrow, the second arrow becomes completely avoidable.

Tara Brach

Arrow As Quick-wittedness and Intuition

Arrows travel quickly off the bow and are naturally used to symbolise swiftness, sureness and related attributes. This association can be seen in the Sagittarius astrological sign.

  • The Sagittarius hybrid creature is always shooting an arrow from its bow.
  • Sagittarius comes from Latin sagitta, which means arrow.
  • Sagitta comes from the verb sagire, ‘to perceive keenly or quickly’.
N. C. Wyeth ~ The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson ~ Published by Scribner's 1916
N. C. Wyeth ~ The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson ~ Published by Scribner’s 1916

The Crossbow

When we think of fictional crossbows, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge springs to mind.

The crossbow is generally a symbol of strength, agility, and being a protector, a fighter, or a hunter and the Mariner manages to reverse those associations with the centuries-old weapon by killing a creature that symbolizes guidance, humanity, and hope.

Emily Pagan, Objects of Romanticism

This is a good way of putting it. Symbols can have universal meanings, but those universal meanings are regularly overturned by writers.

Header photo by Vek Labs 

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