The Arrow

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


THE ARROW


Like a heavy drop of water
That decides to be free,
The arrow liberates itself.

 After long years of trial and travail, Odysseus beheld once more the marbled cliffs of his ancestral home. He embraced the fragrant soil of Ithaca and urged his weary feet along the rock-hewn path that curved up the precipice overlooking the tiny harbour below. The aroma of island sage enlivened his memory and joy rose within his throat. Sweet the anticipation of homecoming, a loving sweetness that would sharpen the anger to follow, when his eyes had witnessed the effrontery of predatory suitors who lounged in his courtyard and made free with his wealth. Each plotted the means to make his queen their wife and his kingdom their own, and they mocked the absent king with their liberties. Stunned by this display, Odysseus yet waited and laid a plan that saw him enter the palace in the garb of an insignificant beggar. He watched them fail in their attempts to draw his own mighty bow which lay in the centre of the courtyard where they sat. Indulging their appetites with the fruits of his stores and goading each other to try once more, they roared their derision at his ragged disguise and his move to pick up the mighty weapon. Their eyes, blinded with scorn, did not see his arrow's lightning strike into the heart of the target, nor did they notice him as he "stript off his rags and leapt upon the great doorstone, holding the bow and the quiver full of arrows. He spread the arrows before his feet and called aloud to the suitors: 'So the game is over. And now for another mark, which no man has ever hit. I will see if Apollo will hear my prayer and let me strike it.' " He then shot straight at Antinous, the ringleader of the-defilers of his household, and as long as arrows lasted, he finished their lives, one after another. Having slain many and caused the rest to flee, he put behind him his final trial, he rested his empty quiver against the lintel and did homage to his deity. Thus it was, with a prayer to Apollo, Ithacan Odysseus consummated his homecoming.

 Well did he look to Apollo for protection, for that god is like an arrowed swiftness arching across the heavens. He is called the Far Darter, whose symbol is the arrow, and he was feared as "the most deadly of the gods". In the Iliad Homer described how he came down from Olympus with wrath in his heart, bow and quiver on his shoulders, and arrows clanging suddenly and irresistibly. But he was also a healer and, like Artemis, his sister, he held arrows that were double-edged. His arrows were the sun's rays that nurture and kill whilst hers were the moonbeams that dispel darkness and bring death. Both symbolized rays of piercing light which ensured a flashing quickness in the effects of healing and destruction. Both could be the inspiration for the lethal punishment of Odysseus and his victorious return to his spiritual home. Artemis was the Bright Moon and her favourite haunts on Mount Taygetos were carpeted with the herb Artemisia, which had the power to dispel demons and restore clear sight. Her arrows flew on behalf of the ascetic who triumphs over the profligate, which is mirrored in her subduing of all the wild creatures of the forest. Her praise is hauntingly echoed in the lines of Swinburne, who wrote:

Come with bows bent and with emptying of quivers,
Maiden most perfect, lady of light,
With a noise of winds and many rivers,
With a clamour of waters, and with might.

 The arrow is the symbol of many deities including Indra, who carries one in his right hand. With it he releases the rain from the fastness of the clouds. Immediately after his birth he cried: "Where, Mother, dwell those warriors fierce, whose haughty hearts these bolts must pierce?" Taking a draught of the soma juice, he sallied forth to meet the enemy Drought (Vitra). It is said that "soon the knell of Vitra's doom was sounded by the clang and boom of Indra's iron shower". His arrows were lightning and bore the fecundating power of rain downwards where it penetrated the mother earth. They symbolize the piercing principle of the sun's rays which penetrate the humid womb of chaos and cause it to give birth, but they are also the emblem of control which focusses unwaveringly upon its target. Many people in the world try to combine these elements in magical ways by using flint and its fiery spark as an arrowhead charm. An Apache medicine woman named Tze-go-juni wore one which was taken from the top of a mountain where stood a tree once struck by lightning. The Ituri Forest Pygmies of Africa practise a similar imitative magic which clearly connects the arrow with the sun's rays. When desiring success in hunting a specific animal, they will draw its outline in the earth at dawn. When the first ray of the sun falls upon it they simultaneously shoot it with an arrow, feeling assured that they cannot fail to hit their quarry when they embark upon the hunt.

  The arrow is the penetrating masculine principle which heralds lightning, virility, power and war. Its pointed shape penetrates the female heart, which represents the conjunction of the dual principles and the awakening of the mystic centre of the universe. The arrow in the heart reminds one of Cupid but points to his more profound and abstract progenitor Eros, who represents the "personified procreative Force in nature in its abstract sense". Eros is part of the Hellenic trinity which also includes Ouranos and Gaea. He is also described as having been hatched from the world-egg as the first of the gods who, as a young and wild boy, fluttered about with golden wings shooting barbed arrows at random. It is evident that progressively stultified levels of interpretation captured the imagination of the ancient Greeks and Romans, leaving the modern world with an effete valentine cherub, though the original concept had to do with cosmic desire and relates to the highest form of love spoken of by Plato. It is also the case that the name beros in the old Attic Greek sprang from the word Eros and is related to erotan, which means 'to put the question'. The connection between desire and putting the question seems to lie in the fact that they both proceed from a sense of necessity and aspiration. The hero seeks and craves to find that which will reunite him with the mystic centre where there is communion with the highest arrow-wielding gods.

 This movement implies an ascent to the celestial, which itself is symbolized by a flight of arrows as well as an arrow chain or bridge. The hero who loosens the arrows follows the Bushido or 'the Way of the Warrior' recognized in Japanese Buddhism. He is a noble warrior whose symbol is the arrow and who pursues his course unswervingly with a sense of direction and power. His shadowy counterpart is the marauding war chief and his mounted hordes who have struck terror with their barbs as did the Mongol armies who caused their victims to pray, "From the arrows of the Huns, O Lord, defend us." In human history the spiritual quest has often been translated into a craving for worldly fulfilment, and the symbol of gods and heroes made the seal of political authority. Similarly, the arrow became the emblem of peoples such as the Mongol Turks who had a standing army of four hundred thousand horse-archers who raided, pillaged and defended tribal grazing grounds. They were divided into ten sub-tribes called the Ten Arrows, the chieftain of each being presented with an Arrow of Authority by the paramount chief. War was signalled by a call being issued for the Ten Arrows to assemble in 'the quiver of the tribe'. Arrows were used as a seal of authority by those people and its potent symbolism continued in China as late as 1875, when it was employed to indicate the death warrant issued by the Manchu Dynasty.

 Each of the Seven Mystical Arrows of the Omaha represented one of seven clans and they were used to foretell their separate futures. This septenary symbol of a people was similar in intent to the Four Sacred Arrows of the Tsistsistas or Cheyenne. At the time of the ancestral grandfathers, their great cultural hero Mutsoyef travelled to the sacred Black Hills where, in a great cave, he sat with a circle of wise men from all of the people of the earth at the feet of Maiyun, the personified Great Spirit. The Four Sacred Arrows were given to him by Maiyun with instructions as to their care and use. He was told that as long as they were kept safe and free of any impurity, the welfare of the Cheyenne would be ensured. So it was that when any evil thing occurred within the tribe they observed the Arrow Renewal Ceremony, which lasted for four days and ended with an exposure of the arrows to the sun. This was done at the time of the summer solstice, when the sun was at its fullest strength. The entire tribe, comprising one thousand tipis, would camp in the form of a crescent moon, whose open side faced the rising sun. In the middle of the semi-circle was the Lodge of the Keeper of the Arrows, where the secret preparation would take place. The Cheyenne practised much conservation and control in their lives and at this time they were completely silent and immobile, waiting for the total rejuvenation and purification to take place. The arrows were their power and strength and they identified with them their sense of divine right and authority to act with moral justification in the world.

 The authority and power associated with the arrow are derived from its magical significance. The arrows first developed in the upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic were illustrated by the Aurignacian and Magdalenian peoples of Southern Europe, whose cave paintings frequently showed them penetrating the flanks of animals. The intention of the hunter is clear and the hope for accuracy is well-founded. These early demonstrations of imitative magic were followed by centuries of similar practices, but the arrowhead also figured in magic connected with speech and divination. Robert Graves thought that the shape of the flint arrowhead had "a magical rather than a utilitarian origin". Pliny called them Glossopetrae, or stones shaped like the human tongue, and they were sometimes used to help facilitate persuasive speech. The Kalmucks licked the head of an arrow when they swore an oath and then plunged the nock end into the earth with the projectile pointing to the sky. Identifying the straightness of their word with the arrow, they penetrated the realm where vows are stored up and await precipitation. Arrows flying up into the air move towards Indra's clouds in varying patterns. Sometimes the intent is to imitate that god and release the rain, but often this was done for the purpose of divination. Their pattern in flight would be studied to foretell the future, just as the bright points were inspected by Babylonian priests and magicians in order to discover "the intentions of fate".

Four things come not back:
The spoken word; the sped arrow;
Time past; the neglected opportunity.

Omar Ibn Al-Halif

 It is said that the arrow loosed from the bow symbolizes the consequences of actions that cannot be revoked. Some have tried to stress the double-edged nature of this by relating such loosened projectiles to virtues and vices. Chaucer wrote of the five arrows called 'Beautee', 'Simplesse', 'Fraunchyse' (nobility), 'Company' and 'Fair Semblaunt'. Five others were 'Pryde', 'Vilanye', 'Shame', 'Wanhope' (despair) and 'New Thought' (inconstancy). While it may be intriguing to think of consequences in terms of virtues and vices, one can get closer to the core of the matter by concentrating on the idea of the release of effects set in motion by a series of causes. Once the point of release is reached, there is no going back. Once the arrow springs into the air, it will find a target determined by every ingredient of the complex set of variables that preceded its flight. Hence there is a grave responsibility attached to the power involved in the projection of the missiles that fly from men's hands, mouths and thoughts.

 Lucian described how Aster of Amphipolis wrote the words 'aimed at Philip's right eye' upon the arrow that he loosed in anger against Philip of Macedonia. While this black magic succeeded in its evil intent, the more subtle barbs that can harm people are believed to be released by angry and envious thoughts associated with the evil eye. Such flashing glances of hatred as well as deliberate sorcery are held by many people all over the world to result in the intrusion of an arrowhead into the body of the victim. Because of this, shamans and medicine men use various techniques for sucking out the disease-causing object and restoring a balance to the afflicted. On occasion they will smear the patient's blood down an arrow toward the point in an effort to reverse the sequence and draw the projectile point out. More frequently individuals exchange barbs of a more diffuse kind which develop fatal penetrative powers when a person becomes obsessed. Any unbalanced focus upon another which is rooted in mutual envy or dislike can provide the aperture that will permit the poisoned point to lodge itself deeply. The individual who covets not, but wishes joy and success to all, wears an impenetrable armour against such barbs and is in a position to concentrate all powers upon the task of hitting the spiritual mark.

 It is helpful to consider the analogous variables involved in the physical properties of the arrow, depicting its construction and behaviour in flight. The desirable characteristics pertain to every detail of the arrow and deviations from known qualities render the arrow less capable of hitting the target. The shaft or body of the arrow must be able to resist the great force exerted upon it at the moment of release, and thus birch or Norwegian pine has been found to be the most suitable material. The wing pens of strong flying birds make the best vanes and they should be attached to the shaftment in such a way as to have a fixed relation to the bow when the arrow is on the string. The surfaces of the vanes are at one hundred twenty degrees to one another around the shaftment, and their size has an effect on accuracy and velocity. The shaft must be stiff enough to withstand the shock of the initial thrust from the bowstring and supple enough to bend as it passes the bow. It must then have the resiliency to return to its straight condition and speed on to the goal. An arrow too weak or supple will 'flirt' and 'gad' to the left. An arrow much too stiff will also shoot left, while one only moderately too stiff will veer slightly to the right. Small variations in flight can be effected by altering the flexibility of the shaftment or aft section of the shaft itself. The vanes or feathers of the arrow guide by steerage, and none of them should be allowed to rotate the shaft in a different direction from the other two.

 The length of an arrow is proportional to the depth of the draw, so a deeper draw requires a longer, thicker, heavier arrow. This has a bearing on the heaviness of the arrowhead and its design, which should enable it to penetrate deeply while not preventing the arrow from flying straight. Target arrows have small conical points which offer the least resistance to crosswinds. Their vanes are small and the centre of gravity is just in front of the middle of the shaft. The perfect symmetry of such arrows reflects the control and authority required of the fletcher who makes them and of the archer who desires to hit the target. It is good if they are one and the same person, for he who works with the material and learns its every characteristic during its manufacture knows well what to expect of its performance, for the arrow is a living thing impressed by the will of its maker.

Having taken as a bow the great weapon of the Secret Teaching,
One should fix in it the arrow sharpened by constant Meditation.
Drawing it with a mind filled with That (Brahman)
Penetrate, O bright youth, that Immutable Mark.
The pranava (Aum) is the bow; the arrow is the self;
Brahman is said to be the mark.
With needfulness It is to be penetrated;
Become one with It as the arrow in the mark.

Mundaka Upanishad

 Just as Artemis to whom sacrifices were made was herself the slayer, so the self must be sacrificed to the Self in order to release the arrow that will penetrate Brahman. The aim burgeoning in the novice's mind involves the manufacture of the arrow of self. The life of one who bends his desires in one direction only, produces an arrow capable of hitting a mark. But it is only when constant meditation upon the highest spiritual goal imaginable takes place that one can enliven the arrow of the higher Self. The sharpening of the arrow through meditation can be likened to the moulding of a perfectly proportioned projectile whose shaft must be both strong and supple. Like the spine of the human body, it must be able to hold the back straight while relaxed in reflection of a steady and effortless concentration of mind. The feeling nature should also reflect this strength and resilience in order to withstand the tendencies towards anxiety that accompany the preparation for release. Fear or attachment would cause the will to flirt and gad off target. The vanes are like the three gunas that must be brought in line with one another. The one hundred twenty degrees between their surfaces could be interpreted as the twelve zodiacal points multiplied by the ten nodes of the Pythagorean decade. All three sections of this should rotate in perfect correspondence with one another like the three points of the higher Triad of Atma, Buddhi, Manas. The length and weight of the arrow is proportional to the depth of the draw, just as the power of the inner projectile should reflect the desire and strength of the spiritual archer. A deeper penetration requires a heavier arrow but the bow and the archer must be equal to the task.

A cloud of arrows, sharpened with spells, fly forth discharged: go, hit the adversaries, leave no single enemy alive.

Rig Veda

 Sharpening the arrow of self is mirrored in the simple saying of the Kalahari Bushman who sings to his child, "You are the sharpest point of my arrow." The sharp points of generation in act and thought speed forth to their karmic consequences. Bushido, the Way of the Warrior, involves daring to do even though the full consequences are not known to the personal self. There must be a greater trust in the universe and an ability to rest upon an invisible inner knowledge which is, at first, barely sensed. In Zen archery, concentration is achieved in order to create a style that expresses perfect mental serenity, but not in order to hit the target. Zen masters teach that one cannot learn to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal. It is also taught that "the bow should never know when the arrow is to go", which draws attention to the hanare or release of the arrow, which is the true consummation of the shooting.

  There are seven preparatory steps leading to this release which must be perfected to the point of artlessness. They each begin with a breathing in, are sustained with a pressing down of the breath and end with a breathing out. The first is yugamae or preparedness and deals with the proper stance. This fluidically leads into monomi or the viewing of the mark, where the eyes look straight over the left shoulder. When about to draw the bow the archer allows his glance to rest on the middle of the arrow shaft and then lets it travel down to the arrowhead, from which point it leaps directly to the mark. This superb example of imitative magic both symbolizes and enhances the control of the mind. The third step that follows out of this is mikomi, which word comes from the roots miru, 'to see', and komu, 'sinking or penetrating something'. It is referred to as 'the true aim' and is followed by dozukuri, which has to do with balance. One experiences oneself standing at the centre of the universe with one's nervous energy concentrated in the abdomen, which is like the gravity centre of the arrow itself. It is then that the raising of the bow (uchiokoshi) takes place, bringing the gaze and the bow hand around to face the target. Correct aim involves the right eye, with the left eye serving only as an accessory. The left edge of the bow should cut the target in two so that the visible part appears as a half moon. The drawing of the bow is called hikotori and requires a perfect grip with the first three fingers placed over the arrow, the thumb wrapped around below it. The two hands must be in perfect balance, for they represent the sun and the moon which, like Apollo and Artemis, follow each other as day and night in faithful equilibrium. Jiman is the seventh step wherein the whole mind is concentrated on the target. At this point the breath takes on a mystic power and the strength of the archer enters into the bow itself. The posture is perfect, the body feels refreshed and the mind suddenly cleared. The arrow has been drawn back as far as it will come to the belly of the bow itself. Then it moves as quietly as a breath and seems to be a living thing. One releases with an exhalation of breath, softly yet powerfully. The thumb stretches out and the hand flies open but does not cause the least vibration in the body. The actual release is always invisible and one can only judge its merit by the archer's attitude after the arrow has sped.

  When the arrow is aimed and loosed it must be higher than the goal to allow for the descending trajectory which symbolizes the limitation of our natures and the forces of gravity operating in the world. In spiritual archery one does not gauge this by technical knowledge. One has to transcend technique and enter into the realm of an artless art which grows out of the unconscious. In the words of a Zen Master, "As soon as we reflect, deliberate and conceptualize, the original unconsciousness is lost and a thought interferes. We no longer eat while eating, we no longer sleep while sleeping. The arrow is off the string but does not fly straight to the target, nor does the target stand where it is. Calculation which is miscalculation sets in." One must cultivate the mental and physical grip of a child holding a preferred finger. It holds firmly with surprising strength but there is no jerk when it lets go because the child does not think about it. It is said that the right shot at the right moment comes only when you let go of yourself. To do this, the soul needs an inner hold based upon actionless activity which can open selflessly to fulfilment like the bursting skin of a ripe fruit. A state of mind in which whatever comes along is accepted with calm and composure is required, and one must find the means of fostering the considerable courage which is needed.

  The release or letting go is like loving without an object, placing the self in that Self which will speed to the heart of Brahman. Only he who is empty of self is ready to become one with the transcendent Deity. Just as Arjuna unleashed five arrows to win the beautiful Draupadi, so man must let go his four lower principles and that aspect of the fifth which participates in the illusion of the separative self. If these are let go, one can experience the homecoming symbolized by Odysseus who returned to Ithaca, a name whose etymological roots indicate that the mythical island represented the ancient point of man's origin. It is to this heart that he, like an arrow, returned. But before he could enter it fully he had to slay the false pretenders threatening his queen and throne. In the killing of the suitors, Odysseus took on the fury of an angry Apollo, but he would never have been able to empty his quiver with such effortless speed and accuracy if he had merely relied upon personal ambition or technique. Had he done so he would have been overwhelmed within minutes. It was the righteous integrity of his kingly higher Self which effortlessly vanquished them. He also exemplified the control of the ascetic which conquers over the wasteful profligate nature. Like the Cheyenne father who observes years of celibacy to strengthen his growing newborn son, Odysseus had practised years of disciplined control in order to develop the sharpened point within him that could hit all his adversaries and pierce, like the sun's lightning ray, to the heart of his spiritual home.

  The seven steps leading to effortless release require, at each point, the balance of the right and the left, the sun and the moon. It is, however, the right eye of inner intuition which must lead the left in correct aim. The eye of the mind that views the world will never be able to see the real target. Thus the Warrior Way involves coming home to the Buddhic heart, the key that releases the sharpened arrow that alone can penetrate the Imperishable. The leaping arrow of the sun's ray is scattered into the world by Apollo, but the warrior picks it up and attempts to shoot it (as himself) back into that same sun. The desire of Eros to penetrate and procreate becomes, for the spiritual warrior, the will to conquer and unify the world (his lower nature) and bring it back m line with the solar ray of Self. To do this, he must, like Artemis, subdue all the wild things of the earthly nature within him and place his full attention upon the hitting of the mark. Thus he becomes the hero who 'puts the question' with sufficient intensity to compensate for the gravity effect that will alter the trajectory of his speeding arrow of self. To establish this intensity, he imitates the Kalmucks who licked their sharpened arrowheads when taking an oath. If the point directed to the sun is to be sharp enough to penetrate, the vow must be made with great and sustained concentration. The whole of the lower nature must become like a pumice stone that acts to sharpen and keep bright that arrow point. Thus swearing an oath of irreversibility, the brave warrior is ready to begin the odyssey homeward. He has taken, like the arrow he is, the irrevocable step forward along the trajectory leading to the Imperishable heart of Brahman.

The loosened arrow
Never alters in its course;
But speeds to a target
We cannot see.
What surprise, then,
For him who loosened it,
To find it his own Self
That is pierced!