Archery is one of the oldest forms of combat; historians and archeologists have dated its practice as far back as 43,000 B.C. Indeed, it is one of the most primitive projectile weapons, its forever-uncredited discovery likely propelling humankind forward with new understanding of physics, trajectory, and ballistics. And like any age-old activity that requires strength and skill to master, archery has spawned countless tales of adventure, from real sharpshooters who thrived at war to deities that pierce the sky with arrows. To inspire your own heroic feats, we’ve put together a list of 9 of the most legendary male archers from ancient tales to modern day. And if you are interested in legendary female archers – read about Artemis, Skadi, Atalanta, Durga and others in this article.
1. Hou Yi
Hou Yi, also called Lord Archer, is an archer from Chinese folklore who is often depicted as a partially or fully mortal man aiming a bow astride a horse. He is known for slaying the most powerful mythical beasts, as well as god-like feats of archery, like shooting down multiple other suns so we are left with the one. In both ancient and modern adaptations of his myth, Hou Yi and his wife, the moon goddess Chang’e, fit the mold of many such tragic love stories between powerful deities. His wife’s betrayal and their subsequent reconciliation with Hou Yi’s gift offerings remain a part of the Mid-Autumn Festival in Chinese culture even today.
Heracles is a Greek hero (roman counterpart is Hercules), who is often presented as Hercules by Roman myths. While he is among the legendary Argonauts who followed Jason in search of the golden fleece, Hercules’s own adventures are found everywhere in Greek Mythology. His bow itself has been the subject of adventures of its own. Legend says it passed to Philoctates after Heracles ascended to Olympus, who held it inside the fabled Trojan Horse and was part of the ruse which ended the Trojan War in victory for the Greeks.
Ullr is a deity of Old Norse religion, with evidence indicating he was seen as a god of archers, the hunt, or possibly both. He is identified as a skilled archer in the Prose Edda of Old Norse literature dating back 700 years. He is identified in this work as the son of the Lady Sif, a Norse deity and fierce warrior in her own right, leading many to speculate about the identity of Ullr’s unspoken father.
4. Minamoto no Tometomo
Minamoto no Tometomo was a samurai archer known for his exploits during the Hogen rebellion in Japan of the 1100s. Unlike many of the archers on this list, Tometomo was a real person, though his stories are embellished to the point of myth. Some say his left and right arms were different lengths to allow for a perfect draw of a bow, others claim he once sunk a ship by piercing its hull with a single arrow. He is usually depicted with a Japanese longbow, referenced historically as a yumi, in works of art.
Apollo is a god of many attributes in both Greek and Roman mythology – healing, prophecy, music, and poetry, to name a few – but he is always depicted with a golden bow and arrows made of silver. In fact, many Greek stories claim Apollo and his sister Artemis as the inventors of archery. Indeed, the mythical arrows of Apollo are capable of spreading wellness or plague, depending on the god’s whim.
The Greek deity Cupid is the embodiment of passionate love, and has been associated with romance since ancient times. Considering his parentage is part war (Mars) and part love (Venus), it makes sense that these attributes combined to make Cupid’s bow and arrow symbols of both. It is known that being struck by a shot from Cupid’s gold arrow causes uncontrollable desire, but there are several variations of Cupid with lead arrows that cause the opposite sensation, as well as quivers for physical pain and permanent wounds. Some consider the Hindu god of love and desire Kamadeva to be an analog of Cupid, both for their roles in their respective pantheons, and because Kamadeva also used a bow and arrow.
Legolas is a fictional archer from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, first appearing in 1954. Like many Greek and Roman heroes, his prowess in combat is a result of immortal lineage. Tolkien’s stories portray Legolas’s people, the elves, as descendants from demi-gods and angels, granting him supernatural sight and instincts . In the Oscar-winning films based on the trilogy, Legolas can be seen performing many superhuman acts of accuracy and dexterity with his Mirkwood bow.
8. Robin Hood
Robin Hood, the Prince of Thieves, is an English hero known to western and eastern audiences alike. In fact, Robin Hood is to many the archetypical dashing rogue, living outside the law while acting as a hero to the downtrodden. Verifiable records of an actual person fitting his identity have eluded historians, so here are countless versions of his basis and origins throughout British folklore. In most every known version, though, he is the most skilled archer in Nottingham, whether impressing townsfolk in disguise at archery competitions or leading his Merry Men to one victory another in Sherwood Forest.
9. Hawkeye and Green Arrow
Hawkeye and Green Arrow are grouped because they both represent the most popular modern versions of the archer hero archetypes, created by competing comic book companies Marvel and DC. In this case, DC’s comic archer Green Arrow (1941) made his first appearance 23 years before Marvel’s Hawkeye (1964). Their exploits have spawned many sidekicks and offspring like a younger, female version of Hawkeye and the Green Arrow’s red counterpart. Today, the often-overlooked archers have been translated to voice-acted audio books, animation, TV, and big-budget films.