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A simple yet powerful symbol, arrows have been a part of human culture for thousands of years, whether used as physical tools or a metaphorical symbol.
Because they are seen so often, people pay little attention to their meaning and significance. But surprisingly, even the simplest arrow designs are heavily loaded with a symbolic meaning carried and transferred from ancient cultures. Let’s explore the origins of the arrow, its significance to ancient civilizations and world religions, as well as little-known contemporary uses.
Historical Origins of the Arrow
Historians speculate that the earliest arrows come from Sibudu Cave in South Africa, dating back almost 70,000. As this Cambridge study highlights, “The bow and arrow is thought to signal higher-level cognitive functioning and is considered a hallmark of complex modern human behavior”.
These early bone points were likely used as projectile weapons with a bow. Evidence of arrows also appear in Eurasia 48,000 years ago. In these ancient cultures, arrows were primarily used as weapons, either to hunt animals or for people to defend themselves from warring tribes. Early cave paintings and manuscripts are etched with drawings of warriors armed with bows and arrows.
The arrow is mentioned in early mythology, and was the symbol of important deities like Artemis (Greek goddess of the hunt), Apollo (Greek god of archery), Cupid/Eros (god of love), Shiva (Hindu god of archery), and Ullr (Norse god of archery). After all, archery was an important weapon and continued to be used prominently until the dawn of more sophisticated weapons.
With the advent of the industrial revolution, the arrow lost its meaning as a weapon. From here, it became prominent as a ‘pointer’, showing the direction of something. Today, the symbol of the arrow is used around the world to point out directions.
Symbolic Meaning of Arrows in Ancient Cultures
Because arrows were widely used since ancient times by most cultures, the symbol acquired different meanings based on the culture it was in.
- The Native Americans
Many historians claim that arrows were originally given a symbolic significance by the Native Americans, who were the original inhabitants of the United States. For the Native Americans, the arrow was not merely a tool for hunting, but was also venerated as a symbol of life because it protected the people from wild animals and the harsh natural world. Arrows have also played a significant role in the aesthetic sensibilities and cultural life of Native Americans.
- Greeks and Romans
Arrows can also be traced back to Greek and Roman mythology. In ancient Greece and Rome, arrows were used for warfare and conquest, but they carried an even greater meaning in the hands of Cupid, also known as the god of love and desire. The arrows of Cupid have been considered very powerful because those who were struck by them fell deeply in love. Even today, from cartoons to Valentine’s day posters, the image of a heart struck with an arrow is very popular.
Bows and arrows in the ancient Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharatha are symbolic of strength and perseverance. The wielder of the bow and arrow stands as not only a symbol of physical strength but also an emblem of psychological prowess, courage, concentration, and a sharp mind.
In the Ramayana, Rama uses his bows and arrows to defeat the king of Lanka, who had captured the beautiful queen Sita. Additionally, in the Mahabharatha, Arjuna, who was known as the worlds most skilled archer, won the hand of Princess Draupadi in an archery tournament. He also helped his family win the Kurukshetra War by wielding his bow and arrows. Even today, Hindus considers the arrow as an important icon of bravery and strength.
The Buddha narrates a story to one of his disciples, using the symbol of arrows. In the Buddhas story, arrows represent problems and obstacles. The Buddha asks his disciple if he would be hurt if he were to be struck by an arrow. The disciple answers yes. The Buddha then asks if it would hurt again if he was struck a second time. The disciple answers that it would be more painful. The Buddha disagrees and says that the second time we have a choice to react differently. By using the symbol of arrows Buddha preaches that our reactions are more important than the obstacles itself.
Different Types of Arrows and What They Mean
Arrows can be found in necklaces, bracelets, earrings, inked tattoos, t-shirts, dresses, and other attire and accessories. However, the symbolism of arrows can differ depending on how it’s depicted. Here are some common ways that arrows are portrayed, and the meanings attached to them.
- A Bow and Arrow: An image of an arrow about to shoot from the bow. This is a symbol of moving forward. It means the person is ready to go into the future and is willing to take on new adventures and dreams. As the arrow is still attached to the bow, there is also anticipation and curiosity for what the future path might hold.
- An Arrow in Motion: An image of an arrow that looks like a circle. This arrow looks like it is in motion. It symbolizes dynamism and vibrancy. There is movement and effort to achieve one’s goals and purposes.
- An Arrow with A Loop: An image of an arrow that has a loop in the middle. This type of arrow is symbolic of overcoming struggles, problems, and conflicts. It is up to us to have the will and courage to surpass hurdles and achieve what we set out to. The arrow straightens out at the other end to imply that anything can be overcome.
- The Infinity Arrow: This image has both the arrow and the infinity symbol. An infinity arrow means that there is no end, and that there are numerous possibilities waiting for you. It is a symbol of opportunities and chances, waiting at your doorstep.
- Two Crossed Arrows: This image has two arrows crossing each other. The symbol of the crossed arrows is used to denote a deep affection or friendship.
- A Heart with An Arrow: This image has a heart struck by an arrow. The symbol of a heart-struck arrow is used to denote strong love, passions, and deep emotions for a loved one.
Symbolic Meaning of Arrows in Religious Texts
Arrows are mentioned in various contexts in several sacred texts, including the Torah, Bible, and the Quran. Here are some of the most prominent examples:
1. Arrows in the Torah
The Torah, being the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, is also part of the Old Testament in Christianity. In the Torah, arrows are used in different contexts. They’re often associated with conflict and warfare, because at the time arrows were a main weapon of warfare (much like bullets today). They can also be symbolic of divine judgment or intervention.
- Numbers 24:8 (NIV): “God brought them out of Egypt; they have the strength of a wild ox. They devour hostile nations and break their bones in pieces; with their arrows, they pierce them.”
- Deuteronomy 32:23 (NIV): “I will heap calamities on them and spend my arrows against them.”
2. Arrows in the Bible
Arrows are mentioned in various contexts in the Bible, often symbolizing aspects of conflict, judgement, or communication from the divine. They’re used both literally, as a weapon, and symbolically. Here are a few instances:
- Psalms 127:3-5 (ESV): “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.”
- Psalms 91:5 (ESV): “You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day.”
- Jeremiah 51:11 (ESV): “Sharpen the arrows! Take up the shields! The Lord has stirred up the spirit of the kings of the Medes, because his purpose concerning Babylon is to destroy it, for that is the vengeance of the Lord, the vengeance for his temple.”
- Ephesians 6:16 (ESV): “In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one.”
3. Arrows in the Quran
In the Quran, arrows are mentioned as well, but in a different way to the Bible and Torah. They’re usually mentioned in the context of gambling and divination.
In pre-Islamic Arabian society, belomancy, or divination by using arrows, was a common practice. Mystical symbols or potential answers to questions would be written on arrows. These would then be launched as far as they would go. The arrow that traveled the furthest would determine the answer.
Sometimes, the arrows with the answers would simply be placed in the quiver, and randomly drawn. Naturally, this sort of divination was seen as superstitious and people would be urged to place their faith in Allah instead.
- Verse 5:90: “O you who have believed, indeed, intoxicants, gambling, [sacrificing on] stone alters [to other than Allah], and divining arrows are but defilement from the work of Satan, so avoid it that you may be successful.”
- Verse 5:30: “”and [prohibited is] that you seek decision through divining arrows.”
Thoughtfully Gifting Arrow Jewelry
There is nothing better than giving a loved one something beautiful to wear – a gift that they can always carry with them and proudly show off to others. Gifting arrow jewelry carries more significance than plain, ordinary pieces because of the symbolism attached to them. The examples below will illustrate why arrow jewelry can be the perfect gift.
- For a friend: Arrow jewelry for your friend, ideally with two crossed arrows, would not only look beautiful but will also symbolize long lasting trust and friendship.
- For a lover: An arrow with a heart for your partner or lover will convey deep messages of love and passion.
- For a young loved one: The arrow in motion and the infinity arrow suit a young person about to start college, a new job, or move to a new place. It’s a reminder that they have new paths awaiting them, and an endless number of possibilities at each turn.
- For a struggling friend, parent, colleague: The arrow with a loop is perfect for someone going through a hard time. This will serve as a constant reminder that they will overcome the problems that they are facing now, and that no sadness or sorrow is permanent.
Arrow jewelry is sure to be a precious gift to your loved ones because it transcends the material and reaches out in a symbolic and spiritual way with its heavy, hidden meanings. An arrow gift will not only be valuable but also have a deeper message that can be remembered by them for the rest of their lives.
The arrow symbol is very much a part of our daily lives. Its historical meaning and significance have changed in recent times, but are by no means lost. By using arrows in new and innovative ways, we continue to carry forth the cultures of ancient civilizations and religions.