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How Does Odysseus’ Bow Fare Against Modern Weapons?

Odysseus Bow
Odysseus slaying his wife’s suitors. By the Penelope Painter; Classical era, ca. 440 BC. Found in the excavations at Tarquinia. Berlin, Altes Museum. Credit: ArchaiOptix

Odysseus’ bow has been famous around the world ever since Homer’s “Odyssey” told the tale of how the returning hero strung it after no suitor who had pursued his wife, Penelope, for twenty years had been able to do so.

Diplomatically fending off the string of rivals who hoped to win her hand in marriage after the apparent death of Odysseus, she was somehow able to stay true to her husband, who was off fighting in Troy and journeying back, meeting with every type of obstacle and difficulty along the way.

After twenty years of being worn down by the repeated entreaties of marriage, Penelope sets up the bow stringing and archery contest, which will involve not just stringing her absent husband’s bow but shooting through a target, as well.

Of course, our hero was terrifically strong, and no other man could match his strength, which Penelope well knew.

Penelope tells the suitors, along with a mysterious beggar who appeared on the scene: “I offer you the mighty bow of Prince Odysseus; and whoever with his hands shall lightliest bend the bow and shoot through all twelve axes, him I will follow.”

She then gives the bow to Eumaeus, the shepherd, to take to the suitors. One by one, they fail until Odysseus, who is dressed as the beggar, steps up to the plate. Penelope, sure that the man really is her husband, is overjoyed when he not only strings the bow but places the arrow between two axes.

But exactly what did Odysseus’ bow look like, and how would it fare against a modern bow, with all the bells and whistles, including a scope with a lens, built-in shocks to protect against reverberation, and modern materials?

Smithsonian Magazine recently set out to find out how that would play out as part of their series “Greek Island Odyssey” with British historian Bettany Hughes.

Oldest bow in the world is the Holmegaard bow from Denmark

The oldest known complete bow in the world measuring 64 inches long and found after World War II in Denmark is known as the “Holmegaard bow,” found in a peat bog. As a piece of technology, visitors say that it is striking how modern it looks in its elegance and symmetry.

It dates back to around 7,000 years BC, from the Mesolithic period in Europe. Was this simple, C-shaped type of bow used right up until the time of the mythical Odysseus, who went off to fight in Troy?

The oldest extant Greek bow in the world that is still in one piece dates back to 800 BC—the same era during which scholars believe Homer’s Odyssey was written.

As seen above in a depiction of Odysseus’ actions upon returning home after his wife, Penelope, had patiently awaited his return for 20 years during and after the Trojan War, his bow was of a type called “palintonos,” which is translated as “bent or stretched backwards.”

It appears from the Odyssey that indeed his bow was of this more complex type than the Danish bow. It contains an extra backward bend that made it infinitely stronger than the original bow used by many cultures across the ancient world.

Contest between palintonos vs. modern bows

Recently, Smithsonian set up a contest between two of Greece’s finest archers who use both the palintonos and modern types of bows. They demonstrated for Hughes just what would happen in a match between a weapon that is exactly like those made two thousand years ago versus a brand-new, state-of-the-art bow.

Theodore, the archer who works with the ancient weapons, wields a carved ivory bow which is a masterpiece of elegance similar to Odysseus’ palintonos bow, which was made of horn and sinews.

Christos’ weapon has scopes with zoom attachments, force stabilizers, and all the other bells and whistles that a modern archer could possibly want. His “hypermodern” bow is made of carbon fiber. He estimates as he chats with Hughes that the arrow propelled by a weapon such as his travels “about as fast as a bullet.”

The target now is a terra cotta pot. Will the ancient bow of Odysseus meet its mark? Will it even outdo the modern one? Or will the modern version triumph over the ancient weapon, putting our romantic ideas about Odysseus’ great power to rest?

Much more force needed to string, use palintonos bow

As seen on author Kendall Schmidt’s website, Form Finding Lab, which is devoted to civil engineering, the more complex bow of Odysseus’ time indeed takes a great deal of force to string and to shoot an arrow with.

Unlike the simpler, C-shaped ancient bow, which has no potential energy at all when initially strung and straight, the more complex bow of Odysseus’ time (and through 2,000 years ago, which we can see from extant remains) requires significant energy to be strained from a backward to a forward curve.

From there, even more stored energy is added as the archer draws back the string.

While Odysseus was, of course, one of the most well-known Greek he-men, there is indeed a limit to human strength when stringing a bow, as Penelope knew. The human body allows one to draw one’s arm back about 60 cm (6.29 inches) and the maximum force a strong man can withstand while holding a bowstring is about 350 Newton, according to Schmidt.

Therefore, he states, the available muscular energy is 0.6m*350 N, which is equal to 210 joules of energy. For comparison, an ordinary punch (not from a professional boxer) is equal to 37.5 joules.

The energy stored in the C-shaped, primitive bow is equal to 105 Joules, according to Schmidt; the energy in Odysseus’ bow was an astounding 170 joules.

As we see in the video below and on Hughes’ Greek Island Odyssey series, we can witness exactly how the drama plays out and whether or not our romantic notions from the past hold up in the cold light of day in modern times.

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