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Bow and Arrow Symbolism
C. G. Seligman

In an interesting and stimulating paper, entitled "Some Fecundity Symbols in Ancient China", [1] Professor Karlgren suggests that the bow and arrow, if not overt phallic emblems, are at least so closely connected with the idea of male offspring that they signify a "prayer" for this gift "most near to a Chinese heart since time immemorial." In this, my small contribution to the tribute paid by us all to an honoured colleague, who has indicated so many contacts between East and West, I propose to bring forward some comparative evidence which confirms Professor Karlgren's view and indicates that the bow and arrow having this particular significance is found elsewhere than in China. I shall then suggest that from this idea of maleness, and the vigour and authority it connotes, those ceremonies are derived in which supreme authority - that of kingship is assumed by shooting arrows to the four cardinal points.

The most striking example of the identification of the bow and arrow with offspring, I think we may assume originally male offspring, is furnished by the Todas of the Nilgheri hills. These people have a ceremony called pursütpimi (literally, "bow and arrow we touch"), in which a man gives a bow and arrow to a pregnant woman; it is this man who for all social purposes is the father of the child, being regarded as the father even if he has had nothing to do with the woman before. It will be remembered that the Todas are not only polyandrous but are extremely free in sexual matters.

The pursütpimi ceremony takes place about the seventh month of pregnancy, and begins in the evening before the new moon. It is described by Rivers as follows:

"The pregnant woman goes into a wood about a furlong from the village at which she is living. She is accompanied by her husband, or if she has several, by the husband who is to give the bow and arrow. The husband cuts a triangular niche in a tree... The niche is large enough to contain a lamp, and is made a few feet above the ground, so that it is about on a level with the eyes of the woman when she is sitting on the ground. Gbi is then put in an earthenware lamp, which is lighted and placed in the niche. Some sort of arrangement is made on the tree to provide a covering under which the woman is later to sit...... Husband and wife then go to find [special kinds of] wood and grass... A bow (purs) is made from the wood by stripping off a piece of bark and stretching it across the bent stick so as to form the string of the bow. The grass is put in the little artificial bow so as to resemble an arrow."

"The husband and wife return to the tree with the bow and arrow, and the relatives of the pair come to the spot... The wife then sits down beneath the tree in front of the lamp, and the husband gives her the imitation bow and arrow. In doing so he says the kwarzam [prayer] of his village, followed by the words "Teikirzi Tirsk, pursvat!" i.e. "To Teikirzi [the most important of female deities] and Tishti [an important god], hold the bow and arrow!" The wife replies, "Purs iveru?" – "What is the name of the bow and arrow?" - and the husband then gives the name of the bow and arrow, which is different for each clan. The question and answer are each time repeated so that they are said three times... When the husband gives the bow and arrow to his wife, she raises it to her forehead and then, holding it in her right hand, turns to gaze at the lamp in the tree. She looks for an hour or until the lamp goes out." [2]

This ceremony must take place during a woman’s first pregnancy; in succeeding pregnancies only when it is desired to alter the fatherhood of the child. We can scarcely doubt that the child is symbolized by the bow and arrow. Another example is offered by the Coorg of Southern India:

"As soon as a Coorg boy is born, a little bow made of a castor-oil plant stick, with an arrow made of a leaf stalk of the same plant, is put into his little hands." [3]

Returning to Professor Karlgren's paper, the following quotation is given from the Li Ki: --

"When a child is born, if it is a son, one puts up a bow to the left of the door; if it is a girl, one puts up a handkerchief to the right of the door. If it is a son, there is shooting, if it is a girl, there is not."

At the present day an essentially similar ceremony is performed among the Khasi of Assam. Near a newly born child are placed certain implements, which differ according to its sex: a bow and three arrows if the child is a boy; if a girl, a chopper and a cane head-strap for carrying burdens. [4]

Professor Karlgren further cites from the Li Ki the procedure when an heir to the throne is born --

"On the third day one divines to find an officer to carry the child. The auspicious officer keeps vigil over night and fasts and then in court robes he waits outside the chamber, receives and carries the child. The master of the archers then, with a bow of mulberry wood and six arrows of the wild rubus, shoots towards Heaven, Earth, and the Four Quarters."

I cannot discover how long this ceremony persisted among the Chinese, but it was borrowed by the Japanese and practised by them so recently as late mediaeval times, as attested by a passage in the Heike Monogatari. A royal prince is born: -

"Komatsu Dono immediately hurried to the Palace of the Chugu bringing ninety-nine mon in coin to place beside the pillow of the baby prince, saying: ‘Heaven is father and Earth is mother. May your life be as long as that of To-ho-saku and Hoshi: may your mind be as that of Ten-sho-kodaijin.’ And taking a bow of mulberry and six arrows of ‘yomogi’, he shot them towards heaven and earth and the four quarters of the world." [5]

Referring to the Chinese ceremony, Professor Karlgren writes: - "Could we get it more clearly stated that bows and arrows are the symbols of the happy birth of male children?" Here, as I have already stated, I am inclined to suggest that the ceremony stands for something more.

I regard the arrow, with which the bow is identified, as signifying authority and power, themselves attributes of the male. Thus an arrow not only represents the male child, but also the husband, as among the Oriya, where in all castes except the Brahman a girl is married to an arrow if a suitable husband has not been found for her before she reaches puberty [6], while among the cultivators of Ganjam if a girl cannot find a husband before puberty a "nominal marriage ... is performed with a bow in the place of a husband." [7] But the arrow is also the symbol of authority other than marital, as in China in recent Manchu times, when a golden arrow was carried by an Imperial messenger as a token of his high office.

A much older example of the use of the arrow to signify the highest authority is recorded by Ssu-ma Ch'ien. The occasion is the defeat of Chou Hsin, the last king of the Shang-Yin dynasty, by Wu, afterwards first king of the Chou dynasty. After being conquered in battle, Chou Hsin committed suicide by throwing himself into the flames of his burning palace. Wu now comes upon the scene:

"…il pénétra dans le lieu où Tcheou était mort. Le roi Ou tira en personne de l'arc sur lui (le cadavre de Tcheou); il lanca trois flèches; ensuite il descendit de son char; avec son poignard, il le frappa; avec la grande hache jaune il coupa la tête de Tcheou; il la suspendit au grand étendard blanc. Puis il alla auprès des deux femmes favorites de Teheou; toutes deux s'étaient tuées en s'étranglant; le roi Ou tira encore trois flêches, les frappa de son épée et les décapita avec son grande hache noire; il suspendit leurs têtes an petit étandard blanc. Quand le roi Ou eut fini, il sortit et regagna 1'armée." [8]

The shooting of arrows into the dead body of a rival can only have been ceremonial, part of the ritual assertion of sovereignty on the part of the victor; no doubt this also applies to the shooting of the bodies of the favourites, presumably because they were identified with the King of Wu.

All this agrees well with a series of ceremonies in other parts of the world where the shooting of arrows towards the four cardinal points by a royal archer, signifies not birth, but the taking possession of the kingdom. I will quote two examples, the second no doubt derived from the first though separated from it by a period of at least 2000 years. The shooting of arrows towards the cardinal points by the king-elect was part of the enthronement ceremony of the Pharaoh, as it was of the sed ceremony which -- in theory at least -- was celebrated for the first time 30 years later, when the king, with his youth renewed, was again supposed to take possession of the land. The only certain representation of the rite that has survived is of Dynasty XXV (712-633 B.C.) and shows Taharka and his queen. It is the latter who lets fly the arrows. [9] There are, however, several representations of the king shooting the arrows. These may apply to the sed festival, or more probably to the coronation ceremony, e.g. the scene from Karnak. [10]

My second example of an arrow-shooting ceremony is from the heart of Africa and belongs to our own time. Nevertheless, knowing how deeply Egyptian influence penetrated dark Africa, we cannot doubt that it is derived from the Egyptian sed.

Roscoe records that the King of Kitara (Unyoro) at his "coronation" performed a rite described as "shooting the nations". This was done with the royal bow, Nyapogo, restrung with human sinews at each succession: --

"When it had been restrung it was handed to the king with four arrows, and he shot these, one towards each of the four quarters of the globe, saying ‘Ndasere amahanga kugasinga’ (I shoot the nations to overcome them), and mentioning as he shot each arrow the names of the nations in that direction. The arrows were sought for, brought back, and placed in the quiver for the next occasion, for this... was an annual ceremony, taking place about the beginning of the year." [11]

In these ceremonies there can be no doubt that the arrow-shooting dramatizes the taking of the land and all that is therein, the supreme assertion of power.

With regard to the association of ancestral spirits with the bow and arrow. In the Li Ki it is recorded how in the seventh century B.C., after the battle of Shing-king between the armies of Chu and Lu, the former being victors used ar,rows for recalling the dead. [12]

"Notwithstanding their army then remained in possession of the field", says Ching Khang-ch'ing, "the number of their slain and wounded was very great, and they had no clothes wherewith to call back their souls". "The men of Chu", adds Khung Ying-tah, "having set their minds upon carrying the day, they had taken their arrows closely to heart. Hence the victors, in calling back the souls, availed themselves of these arrows on which the slain had been so bent, in hopes the souls might be brought back by the same."  [13]

A recently published work affirms -- though I am unable to judge how much weight should be attached to the statement -- that the arrow is still used in China in connection with the cult of the dead. [14]

In Manchuria the connection is close. I am indebted to my friend Dr. Otto Samson (lately of the Hamburg Museum für Völkerkunde) for drawing my attention to the following extremely interesting practice, though since his information was acquired with difficulty the account must be taken as incomplete.

At least some of the Manchu have in their tents certain "ancestor bags" (Ahnentasche in the Guide to the Hamburg Museum, where the specimen that Dr. Samson obtained is preserved). These are about two feet square, made of rough cloth, and contain a number of figures representing the ancestors of the family. The specimen collected contained male figures, to which offerings were made at stated times, and normally the bag was only opened on these occasions. There is also a "bag" containing effigies of female ancestors; when a son is born a miniature arrow and a knife is dropped into this, when a daughter, a red or green silken ribbon . [15]

I am unaware to what extent the arrow is equated with ancestors among the Negroes and Negroids of Africa, though among some of these peoples the association is very close in the case of the spear. [16] Perhaps this is to be accounted for, at least in part, by the fact that the spear is a simpler device than the bow, and (perhaps because of this) greatly preponderates in Africa. Among ourselves, as I am informed, the bow and arrow occurs scarcely if at all in the symbolization (dreams and fantasies) of neurotics, in spite of the fact that most children have them as toys.

To sum up: I have shown that there is a close, connection, amounting in my opinion to "identification" in the psychological sense, between the bow and arrow and child (or ancestor), in Southern India, Assam, and China. I have also indicated that there are two areas, (1) the Nile valley, and (2) the Far East, where the ceremonial shooting of arrows is the sign of the assumption of the highest authority, and in each instance it has been easy to see in which direction the ceremony has spread. I do not, however, suggest any direct historical or genetic relationship between the arrow beliefs and ceremonies recorded in Africa and the Far East, though I do not deny that such relationship may exist. In the present state of our knowledge I should prefer to regard the arrow (and with it the bow) as one of those widespread symbols which, as in the case of many other weapons, are especially significant of the male sex on account of their penetrating power. If we regard this as the primary symbolism, then it is a simple step for the bow and arrow to represent the birth of a male child, while the idea of vigour and authority, inherent in maleness and the begetting of children, is transferred to the act of authority by which a royal infant potentially inherits, or, as sovereign, actually takes possession of his kingdom.


[1] The Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities (Stockholm, 1930), Bulletin No. 2.

[2] W. H. R.  Rivers, The Todas (1906), pp. 319-22.

[3] E.Thurston, Ethnographic Notes in Southern India (1906), p. 35.

[4] P. R.T. Gurdon, TheKhasis, p. 124.

[5] Heike Monogatari, Vol. 1 (published in the Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, Vol.  XLVI, Part 2, 1918), p. 120.

[6] E. Thurston, op. cit., p. 35.

[7] Op, cit., p. 34.

[8] Chavannes, Les Mémoires Historiques de Sse-ma Ts'ien vol, 1, pp. 234-235.

[9] E. Prisse d'Avennes, Monuments Egyptiens (Paris, 1847), pl.  XXXIII.

[10] Lepsius, Denkmäler, vol. 111, pl.36b, also reproduced by Moret, Du Charactère Religieux de la Royauté Pharaonique (Paris, 1902), fig. 21.

[11] Roscoe, The Bakitara (1923), p. 134

[12] Li Ki, (Oxford 1885) Bk.  II p. 129.

[13] M. de Groot, The Religious System of China, Vol.  I, Book 1 (Leyden, 1892), p. 252.

[14] In an autobiography entitled The House of Exile, the author, Nora Waln, describes her experience in the Chinese household into which she was adopted: “The instant the soul of the Elder of Wong became unconscious of earthly details, the next heir in line became the Elder of Wong, and took control of proceedings.
“He climbed to the roof of the late Elder’s dwelling and begged the departing soul to tarry yet a little longer with the homestead family.  The Family, gathered in mass in the courtyard below, echoed his pleas.  When all efforts failed to bring the Soul back, the new Elder ordered the males of the homestead to unravel their queues, the females to twist white cotton in their hair, and candles to be lit before the God of the Hearth.
“He brought a birchwood bow and a silver arrow, which he had ready, and sent his grandson down to the canal to purchase the last bath water from the Dragon.  The body was then washed and dressed for the journey, and placed comfortably on the coffin-bed with the changes of clothes, the pipe and tobacco-pouch, a book to read, and the necessary passports and money conveniently near to the hands.”
This sounds convincing so far as it goes.  Unfortunately the author could give me no further information about the bow and arrow, and a Chinese friend, a good sociologist, has been unable to hear of any such custom.  The book was admittedly written from memory and not from notes made at the time, so that details and context may be misplaced.  On the other hand I do not feel inclined to ignore the reference to the bow and arrow in the funeral rites described.  Ceremonial may perhaps vary, and provisionally I am inclined to attach some weight to the passage cited, indeed to consider it a matter for further inquiry.  The bestowal of grave goods in the coffin will be noted, certainly unusual in modern, times.

[15] Verbal communication.  See also, Führer durch die Sonderausstellung Chinesische Volkskunde, (Museum fair Völkerkunde, Hamburg, 1933), pp. 18-19.

[16] See for instance H. A. Junod, The Life of a South-African Tribe (1927) vol.  I, p. 211 & pp. 452 -454 (Thonga); C. G. & B. Z. Seligman, Pagan Tribes of the Nilotic Sudan (1932) p. 214 (Nuer).

Charles Gabriel SELIGMAN (1873-1940). British anthropologist who conducted field work in Melanesia, New Guinea, Sri Lanka and Nilotic Sudan. Published on the Melanesians of New Guinea (1910), the Veddas of Ceylon (1910) and Pagan Tribes of Nilotic Sudan (1932). Lecturer in ethnology at LSE, London (1910 - 1934) and visiting professor at Yale (1938).

Last up-dated August 19, 2000