Taking Aim

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   March 29, 2022

Archery began with the discovery that a propelled arrow could travel farther than a thrown spear – but has subsequently gone in many strange directions.

In late Victorian England, there were two outstanding schools for women, which each had an eminent headmistress. At the North London Collegiate School for Ladies, there was Frances Mary Buss; and Cheltenham Ladies’ College was headed by Dorothea Beale. Both were highly successful educators, with long careers. Both happened to be unmarried. But their names would hardly be remembered today were it not for an anonymous and, for that era, slightly scurrilous, four-line rhyme – which presumably emanated from one of their students, and has, ever since, found its place among the oddities of English poetry:

“Miss Buss and Miss Beale
Cupid’s darts do not feel
How different from us
Miss Beale and Miss Buss.”

But what was all that about “Cupid’s darts”? – And who was Cupid, anyway? Like so much in our culture, it all goes back to ancient Greece and Rome. The Greeks had Eros (from whom we get “erotic”) and Cupid was simply his Roman name (hence “cupidity” indicating desire). At some point in this tangled story, he becomes armed with a bow and arrow, symbolizing his power to reach the human heart, which itself was supposedly the seat of our emotions.

One of the best-known modern representations of this powerful deity is surprisingly, not among twittering trees or babbling brooks, but in a highly urbanized setting – in fact, at the center of one of the world’s most famous confluences of traffic, a large roundabout in central London, known as Piccadilly Circus. At its “heart,” stands an elevated statue popularly referred to as Eros. He is indeed armed with a bow, although no arrows are evident. (And in fact, despite its supposed symbolization of romantic love, the statue was instead intended as a tribute to philanthropy, in the form of another, more generally benevolent, Greek god, named Anteros; particularly as considered to be embodied in the person of a very public-spirited British nobleman, the Earl of Shaftesbury.)

But the idea of thus penetrating all protective layers around our deepest feelings derives from the fact that anything with a hard sharp point, driven with enough force, can pierce human (and other animal) tissue. That is only one of the cruel things about archery. Another is the term “bull’s eye.” One hates to think how that expression originated.

Another rather repugnant legend concerns the Amazon. That term today, if it does not immediately convey thoughts of a gigantic online marketing organization, may geographically evoke the image of a river in South America, the longest and/or largest in the world – depending on whether you measure by length or capacity. 

The river was given its name by a Spanish explorer, Francisco de Orellana, after his expedition encountered native women warriors, whose ferocity, although they were double-breasted, reminded him of the Scythian Amazons of Greek legend, about whom one memorable detail was that they were said to cut off their left breasts in order not to impede their drawing of a bowstring.

But, before the coming of gunpowder, the bow and arrow, in various forms, was the most powerful weapon which could be operated by a single person (since the catapult, like more modern artillery, required a whole crew). In broad level country, like the steppes of Asia, mobility, in the form of horsemanship, was as important a factor as superior archery. But in Western Europe, the bow itself reigned supreme. And the country with the best bow-men was the leading power. This was forcefully demonstrated on the field of Agincourt in 1415 (immortalized in Shakespeare’s Henry V) in which British arrows could even pierce French armor. It was for this reason that training of young men in archery was once a legal requirement throughout England.

There has, of course, also been the romanticization of this skill, as enacted in the exploits of such folk-heroes as William Tell and Robin Hood. And it has, since 1900, been a recognized Olympic sport – although, with no moving target, it must be very boring to watch. As for metaphorical significance, one of my own epigrams (illustrated with an archer) puts it this way:

“To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first – 
And, whatever you hit, call it the target.” 

But, regardless of the aim of Cupid’s darts, I’m afraid such skewed thinking might have earned no plus in the minds of Miss Beale and Miss Buss.  


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