The bow and arrow were so useful that the Norse had two different deities associated with them: Ullr and Skadi. Ullr skiied, travelled across the ice, and shot game with his bow. The giantess Skadi also skiied and lived in the mountains, like the indigeneous Sami, whose lifestyle was so different from that of the sea-faring and farming Norse.
Hunting with a bow was a Sami trait, along with the use of magic. Norse sagas don’t come right out and condemn archery, but in Norse myth Tyr and Thor use close-combat weapons, although Odin uses the arrow’s near relative, the spear.
Arrows v. Spears: Ullr and Odin
Before there were arrows, there were spears. The first spears were no doubt essentially sticks with a sharpened point. These were later combined with a throwing device, which dates to at least the Upper Paleolithic. This device, known by its Aztec name of atatl, or “spear thrower”, and the Australian Aborigine woomera, were the predecessors of the bow. (Soar: Loc. 106)
The first arrows, as opposed to spears or darts, came about when people started adding a small stone, called a bannerstone, to the middle of the atatl. This made the device more stable, and so more accurate.
The bow and arrow favoured the lone hunter, whereas spears, even with the added thrower, were best employed by a group acting together.
We see this in Norse myth. While we think of Odin as a loner god, whenever he casts his spear over the enemy he is at the head of an army1, all of whom are armed as well, whereas Ullr and Skadi travel alone through the mountains in pursuit of their prey.
Nowhere does it say what kind of bows they had, and no doubt court poets and writers like Snorri Sturluson would have had little or no personal knowledge of bows and arrows. The only clue we do have is that Ullr lived at Udalir, Yew-dale, and:
Yew, a narrow-grained hardwood, consists of two visibly distinct layers of wood: the white sapwood and orange-red heartwood. The sapwood layer of yew is strong, fibrous, and elastic. These characteristics make it ideally suited for the back of a bow which must endure tensile stress. Yew heartwood, on the other hand, is more brittle and better suited to handle compression of the belly. The combination of these two layers of wood, each with different properties, made yew one of the better bow woods available to prehistoric Europeans. (Bergman 1993: 101)
In the post-Ice Age period, these yew bows would have been bringing down aurochs, red deer and moose, as well as wild boar, often from a shot to the heart. The ideal is to get the arrow behind the scapula, which means it can go straight into the heart or lungs. The other desirable shot is into or near the femoral artery. (Bergman 1993: 102) This requires accuracy, and thus hunters wanted the best bows possible.
Early Bows in Art
Apart from archaeological finds of arrows (usually broken) and arrow-heads, there is other evidence for the use of archery. Migration period bractates and the Galleus horns (5th century) have archers among the other figures on them. (Gelling and Davidson 1969: 150) There are three scenes with archers on the horns, two on one and one on the other.
The Franks Casket has an image of an archer, although whether the man named in the runes is Egill, the archer brother of Weland the smith, is not certain. (Gelling and Davidson 1969: 150)
Another archer appears on the Böksta rune stone (11th century), who seems to be on skis, and is often identified as Ullr, while his companion, on horseback with two dogs and two birds, may be Odin.
Another stone from Asby shows a man holding a bow, with trendrils coming out around his head. (Scroll down for the picture, on the left side.)
The archer’s round eyes and long nose are comparable to ritualistic masks or godly faces on the so-called mask-stones and faint traces of a similar interlace pattern can be discerned in the archer’s face on the stone… The figure holds the bow and arrow in its stretched-out left arm and had a small axe in the other. (Stern 2009: 3)
The same tendrils surround the head of the animal-man on a rune-stone from Vastergotland, so the two might have a ritualistic character. It’s very tempting to connect the animistic archer with Ullr, the archer-hunter god.
The bow and the ritualism make one think of the Sami, who were specialists in both magic and archery. They were well-known for the quality of their bows and there are many references to Sami archers in Icelandic sagas, usually referred to as Finnur. There is also a personal name, Finnbogi (Finn + bow). (Kusemko 2009: 69)
Sami and Greek Parallels
Skadi and Ullr may have Sami parallels. Leib-olmai or Alder Man is a hunting god (also known as Liejpålmaj or Leaibolmmái), while Juxakka or Juoksáhkká was the bow-goddess, one of a group of Akkas who looked after pregnant women and especially childbirth.
If the new child was a boy, he was turned over to Juxakka to look after, and some texts suggest that she could change the sex of an unborn child to male.
Leib-olmai was especially associated with bear hunting, which was apparently taboo to women. He appears to humans in the form of a bear, and there is a particularly neat image which shows him appearing to a little boy. The word “Leib” can mean blood as well as alder, and after a successful hunt ground alder bark was sprinkled on the hunters’ faces. (Alders bleed red sap if cut.)
Skadi and Ullr are often compared with Artemis and Apollo as well, although in the Greek case it was Artemis who had the bear-cult, while Apollo took on the more Odin-like wolf. Both of them were well-known for their archery, although it was often put to punitive use, as when they struck down Niobe’s children after she boasted too freely of them.
Artemis and Skadi are hunters, although Skadi lacks the nurturing aspect. Apollo is more of a warrior, who descends from Olympus to deal out death in the Iliad. Norse poets often used Ullr’s name as a kenning for “warrior”, and Snorri’s Edda tells us that “he has all the characteristics of a warrior. It is good to call on him for duels.” (Young’s translation) Apollo took a keen interest in young men training for sport or war, and it seems likely that Ullr did the same.
Despite this, there is little in the way of myth about archers. Perhaps it was too old-fashioned a weapon compared to the shiny new ones of the Bronze Age. The fact that it continue to be used for so long afterwards suggests that despite lacking glamour, it was too useful to abandon.
1. Odin does use a bow once, in the saga of Hadingus. He appears as an old man during a battle, and looses off ten arrows with each shot. He also defeats the enemy’s magic, and leaves with a prophecy, uniting the magical and sagittal powers of the Sami.↩
The History of the Danes, Saxo Grammaticus/ Peter Fischer, ed. Hilda Ellis Davidson, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge, 1996.
Bergman, Christopher A. 1993: “The Development of the Bow in Western Europe: a Technological and Funcitonal Perspective,” Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Society 4/1: 95-105. (pdf available here)
Gelling, Peter and Hilda Ellis Davidson 1969: The Chariot of the Sun and Other Rites and Symbols of the Northern Bronze Age, Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, New York.
Kusemko, Jurij 2009: “Sámi and Scandinavians in the Viking Age”, in Approaching the Viking Age, Proceedings of the international conference on Old Norse literature, mythology, culture, social life and language 11–13 October 2007, Vilnius, Lithuania, eds. Ērika Sausverde and Ieva Steponavičiūtė, Vilnius University Publishing House: 65-94. (pdf here)
Soar, Hugh D.H. 2004: The Crooked Stick: A History of the Longbow, Westholme Publishing.
Stern, Marjolein 2009: “Images of weapons on runestones,” Preprints to The 7th International Symposium on Runes and Runic Inscriptions, Oslo 2010. (pdf here)
Todd, Malcom 2004: The Early Germans, Wiley-Blackwell.
West, M. L. 2007: Indo-European Poetry and Myth, OUP.