The Aim of Agency – Shooting as an Origin of Consciousness

You have become a different person in the course of these years. For this is what the art of archery means: a profound and far−reaching contest of the archer with himself. Perhaps you have hardly noticed it yet, but you will feel it very strongly when you meet your friends and acquaintances again in your own country: things will no longer harmonize as before. You will see with other eyes and measure with other measures. It has happened to me too, and it happens to all who are touched by the spirit of this art.

— Eugene Herrigal, Zen and the Art of Archery, 1953


Homo Sapiens: The Shooting Hominid

We’ve all heard stories about “amazing shots.” Usually these stories star sharpshooters, on screen or on the battlefield, calmly and precisely taking down a target at a seemingly impossible distance. This might be Quigley, hitting a bucket while standing at 782 yards. Or Chris Kyle killing an enemy sniper at 2100 yards. Something about these stories captivates us, and we tell them over and over again, with different men behind the trigger – not just John Russel, Bob Lee Swagger, and the Gunslinger, but back to Robin Hood, splitting an arrow. Or Odysseus, threading the axe-heads with his heavy bow.

Hitting the target at a distance is an act of primordial importance, to the point of species-defining. Our gifts that helped us thrive in the distant past were extraordinary endurance (surpassing even wolves and horses), an immensely complex vocal range which permitted more precise communication, and the ability to hit things from a distance with force and accuracy – initially by throwing, and later by launching with bows and guns.

Combined, these three skills – endurance, communication, and launching projectiles — made humans the deadliest predators on the planet.

Today, nothing stops us from developing our endurance, even if this once universal virtue is no longer as evenly distributed as it once was.

Endurance seems to have simultaneously increased and decreased. The average American will get winded by a couple flights of stairs, and yet a significant minority have taken up running as a habit. Some have taken endurance to unfathomable extremes, like running the infamous 135 mile “Badwater Ultramarathon” through Death Valley. In July.

Meanwhile, linguistic skill might be at historical peaks. More jobs require broader communication skills with more people than ever before. Most of us go to school for longer than even the most educated of the past, where we are taught writing and speaking in a more or less formal system.

But things are different with shooting. The violent nature of shooting has always caused fearful people to seek prohibitions against others possessing ranged weapons. Most Western nations today ban or seriously restrict many types of firearms, and even some bows (like crossbows).

For this reason, if there is something significantly human about shooting, it is in greater need of articulation and defense than speech or running.

And there is something significantly human about shooting. Aside from its primitive role in hunting and combat, there is evidence that the act of shooting was critical in the development of human agency and consciousness. If this is true, then the loss of shooting — an aim often advanced by anxious safety advocates — risks not only a loss of connection with our past, but also with a deeper part of ourselves.

The Phenomenology of Shooting

On paper, shooting is a relatively simple act. We raise our tool — perhaps a bow, perhaps a gun— and sight down our target. We release the string or pull the trigger. We feel the instrument act, and then after some brief time interval, we see the hit or miss on our target.

But more is going on in the act than meets the eye.

Here, we must take a moment to first distinguish between shooting and its far more ancient cousin: throwing.

When walking through the woods, we may decide to throw a rock at a nearby object — perhaps a squirrel, or the hornet-nest next to our friend. The rock that we pick up is of uneven shape and unknown weight. We go by instinct, lobbing it as best we can with the arms nature gave us.

Suppose we missed — “unlucky,” we say to ourselves. It had to be a judgment call; we did not know the weight or shape of the rock in advance, having to judge how it would fly by feel. An easy thing to miscalculate.

But suppose we decide to return to camp and get better. We collect five stones of near-identical shape and weight. We practice, and our skill with one rock transfers to skill with the other rocks. We come to understand them. We figure out roughly where we have to aim to hit at different distances, and make our throw more consistent in power with practice. With this systematization, we have — imperceptibly, but significantly — moved forward from merely throwing. What started as a desire to hit an object at a distance has begun to evolve into a system for hitting harder, from further away, and with greater precision. A sling permits tremendously increased power with a stone. A spear gives us a throwing missile, more damaging than a mere rock, and a tool like an atlatl provides power to the spear in the way a sling gives more power to a stone throw.

But with a bow-string — which, when drawn to the same spot on the cheek, will release the same arrow at the same speed every time — we achieve an ability to hone our aim with power and precision mechanically unlike previous advancements. It is with the bow, perhaps, that we achieve “shooting.” 

Shooting is not instinctive in the same way as throwing. While “instinctive shooting” is certainly a style and approach that even modern archers still use, there is a difference in the equipment. Whether it is a stick bow or a precision rifle, the technology involved with shooting reduces variation. In other words, the shooter becomes responsible for the success or failure of the shot in a way that is controllable, in proportion to the precision of his tools.

Of course, the stone-thrower is also mechanically responsible for his hits and misses, but it is felt differently with shooting. Responsibility is something the shooter experiences as agency. The archer releases a bit early, and long before the arrow hits its target, he knows it will be short. A shooter anticipates the recoil of his pistol and pushes down before pulling the trigger. If he is experienced, he will recognize the movement and realize his fault. The understanding of failure is possible precisely because of the reliability of the system, which we don’t see with slings and tomahawks.

Indeed, the earliest forms of agency must have taken baby-steps in the smallest possible increments of time in experiencing one’s own actions as causes.

On this ground alone, shooting provides a setting which could explain how the experience of agency once arose in our species. Throwing may have laid the groundwork, but the systematized nature of shooting also provides an incentive for agency, in a way that other activities do not. Those with higher agency and a greater sense of personal action will be more likely to hit over time, because when they miss, they are more likely to blame themselves than a God or some other force. They experience themselves as a cause, and not merely as a conduit.

Explaining the origin of agency would, by necessity, also explain the rise of consciousness. Agency is a subset of consciousness; without consciousness, we would be like wolves or sharks, relying upon instinct and natural intelligence to hunt and survive.

When we speak of consciousness, we are speaking both of subjective sensation generally — why is it “like” anything to exist — and also of our awareness of this sensation — the experience of being “you,” which is sometimes called “self-consciousness.” When philosophers speak of the “hard problem of consciousness”, they are speaking of the former. This question is a metaphysical mystery. This basic sense may not be unique to humans; as philosopher Thomas Nagel famously argued, it is almost certainly “like” something to be a bat, whether we can see any evidence of that subjective experience or not.

What distinguishes humans and interests us here is the latter, self-aware sense of consciousness. This is both our recognition of ourselves in the mirror, and our sense of agency in the world around us — that we can choose to make things happen.

Without this, we could very well go through life on instinct, and even having “thoughts.” Psychologist Julian Jaynes described the hypothetical pre-conscious man as a man living in a world of gods and spirits, where his own thoughts would arrive to him as if through the voice of an external source. With animals, we can recognize that they have a subjective experience, but lack this sense of agency — when owners punish their dogs, the dog does not have the same understanding of why they are being punished that we do. What we perceive as “guilt” is a projection of our own, and nothing more than the animals’ foreboding that they are about to be punished for something (and over time, they will “learn” what not to do by unconscious association).

This experience of self-hood is by no means purely positive. Consciousness brings with it the possibilities of anxiety, despair, and self-pity. By itself, consciousness is taxing, and without a fruitful object of attention, self-awareness can be completely debilitating. Consciousness is justified if it is accompanied by some sense of “agency” — the experience of being a cause in our surroundings. With agency, consciousness is a tool of perception across time that permits us to act, build, create, and strike, in manners we could never have imagined as unconscious creatures. Without agency, consciousness only carries its costly, paralytic downsides.

We might consider for evidence our current generation of adolescents and young adults, who have been made hyper-aware of their own identity and consciousness — perhaps in relation to any number of quickly multiplying causes that activists are persistently trying to “raise awareness” about. This population suffers some of the worst mental health in recorded history, with prescription medications for anxiety and depression that may not be sufficient to deal with the “heightened consciousness” we have managed to achieve of things we can do nothing about.

But with the immense power of shooting, the reward for consciousness might have begun to outweigh the costs.

It may be beyond our ability to prove where consciousness came from — let alone shooting as a specific origin. But the connection between shooting and consciousness in our experience and in our language and stories should make the hypothesis at least plausible. But perhaps more importantly, it establishes the connection: regardless of origin, shooting has always been connected metaphorically to consciousness, and we can see this in our myths and very language.

Morality versus Virtue – Shooting as the Origin of “Sin”

There is a kind of moral judgment inherent in the experience of shooting. The success or failure of a shot rests upon the shooter because systematization accounts for everything else. He is praiseworthy if he hits, and blameworthy if he misses. A man might be attractive for his gifts, like his height, natural strength, or inborn intelligence. These positive qualities are “virtues,” or “excellences,” and are respected as valuable whether he is responsible for them or not. Throwing might be considered among these kinds of virtue. We don’t hold it against men morally for lacking certain gifts, even if we maintain a preference for virtuous company.

Morality is different from virtue. To be moral implies agency and an ability to have done otherwise. To judge someone morally is to judge their actions and their choice, not their nature, and to distinguish their actions from their nature. To judge others morally is to ascribe agency to them. To judge ourselves morally is to ascribe agency to ourselves, and to experience that agency in our own judgment. Virtue can be possessed by unconscious men, and even detected unconsciously, while morality requires consciousness.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if our earliest moral language — as distinct from virtue language — corresponds with shooting?

Indeed, this is exactly what we find, and in disparate cultures too. One of the key words that distinguishes morality from virtue has its etymological origins in shooting.

In the religious history of the West, our use of the word “sin” has etymological roots in Proto-Germanic sundiō, or perhaps Old Norse sannr, or Latin sons; all variously translate as “guilty.” But “sin” came into common use as a translation from Christian texts, which used the Hebrew ḥāṭā’  (חטא) and Greek hamartía (ἁμαρτία) as their foundation. The words mean “to miss” and “to miss the mark,” respectively. We find the same etymology in the root for “sin” in the Sanskrit aparādh (अपराध्). Colloquially understood, it means to offend, wrong, or sin, but literally translates as missing the mark.

To the ancients, the very idea of “sin,” with all of its cosmic and spiritual significance, was best understood and articulated in reference to our ability to hit a target. The sinful man is the man who — due to some moral flaw, and not merely a deficiency in virtue — failed in the act of shooting.

There is reason to suspect Greek and Sanskrit may have shared a common root in the Proto-Indo-European language family. But Hebrew comes from a different linguistic group, meaning there are possibly two independent linguistic origins for the same concept of “sin,” as a moral failing, expressed through the language of archery. To the degree that shooting formed the origins of consciousness and agency, this language would not have been metaphorical but literal, and the experience of moral failing would have been felt first in the activity of shooting, and only then extended outward into other domains of human life.

Beyond the words for sin, we find a connection between consciousness and shooting in ancient myths: namely in the characters of Rama, Arjuna, Odysseus, and Apollo.

Archery also holds an important status in the great epics of the Indian subcontinent. To fight with a bow and arrow is traditionally considered most excellent and is the weapon of choice for two of the most important figures in Hindu mythology. The first is the warrior-prince Rama, the principal figure of the Ramayana, and the second is Arjuna, a main protagonist of the Mahabharata and the primary figure of its well-known portion known as Bhagavad Gita.


The most famous incident involving Rama and a bow takes place in the first chapter of the Ramayana and details the winning of his bride, Sita. Janaka, the king of Videha, was plowing a field in preparation for a fire sacrifice and a girl sprang up from behind his plow.


Now, once as I was ploughing a field, a girl sprang up from behind my plough. I found her as I was clearing the field, and she is thus known by the name Sita ‘Furrow’. Sprung from the earth, she has been raised as my daughter, and, since she was not born from the womb, my daughter has been set apart as one for whom the only bride-price is strength. (Goldman and Goldman page 118)


The test would be the stringing of the god Shiva’s bow, a family heirloom kept in an eight-wheeled iron chest said to require five thousand men to haul. Many kings asked for the hand of Sita but none could even grasp the bow, let alone lift it or string it. Janaka saw them as weak and refused to allow any of them to marry Sita. The kings became angry believing their failures would bring them disrepute and laid siege on the capital for a year, exhausting the resources of the kingdom. King Janaka did penance and was given a large army from the gods to drive away the suitors. They were routed in retreat while being slaughtered.

One day the great sage Vishvamitra, along with Rama, and his brother Lakshman, came to visit King Janaka. There was an offer to show the bow to Rama.

Rama opened the chest in which the bow lay and regarding it closely, he then spoke: “Now brahman, I shall touch this great bow with my hand. I shall attempt to lift and even to string it.” “Very well,” replied both the king and the sage. So, following the sage’s instructions, he easily grasped the bow in the middle. Then, as though it were mere play to him, the righteous prince, the delight of the Raghus, strung the bow as thousands watched. The mighty man affixed the bowstring and, nocking an arrow to it, drew it back. But in doing so, the best of men broke the bow in the middle. (Goldman and Goldman page 119)

The text describes a thundering noise and trembling of the earth at the breaking of the bow that causes everyone in attendance to fall except the king, the sage, Rama, and his brother. With the bride-price fulfilled, Janaka joyfully offers Sita in marriage.

The bow is not only a symbol of Rama’s great strength; it is a symbol of his morality, virtue, and divine origin. A divine origin as the seventh incarnation (avatār) of Lord Vishnu — the source of absolute consciousness and therefore agency. The inability of the suitor kings to string the bow and their subsequent behavior shows their lack of morality — a wickedness (paap karna).

It is noteworthy that in this story, moral goodness — and the agency that distinguishes morality from mere excellence — is a requirement to even lift the bow, which has become magnified into enormous proportions. This symbolic transfer unites morality with the act of shooting, and perhaps transforms shooting into a metaphor for action itself, just as “missing the mark” became an expression describing moral failure in general.


Arjuna was known as the greatest of all warriors and archers yet a pivotal moment involving the bow for him is in stark contrast to the previously detailed story from the Ramayana.

The Kurukshetra war is the central battle that takes place within the epic poem the Mahabharata. The war is the result of a struggle for succession between two groups of cousins of the Kuru Dynasty, the Pandavas and the Kauravas. As the two armies gather, the Pandava prince Arjuna asks his charioteer, Krishna, to take him to the center of the battlefield to observe the assembled armies. He sees among them his own relatives, respected teachers, and friends. He becomes filled with doubt at the prospect of killing them and contemplates leaving the battlefield.

He turns to Krishna and pleads with him to tell him what is the right thing to do. The discourse that takes place between Krishna and Arjuna is known as the Bhagavad Gita (or “Song of God”).

Chapter 1 of the Gita is often referred to as Arjuna Vishada Yoga (the yoga of Arjuna’s sorrow). The language in Verse 46 describes Arjuna’s anguish as śoka-saṃvigna-mānasaḥ — his mind “distracted and agitated by sorrow.” Arjuna rationalizes that his desire not to cause harm is a moral-duty that shows discretion and compassion. He goes so far as to say it would be better if he himself were to be killed unarmed on the battlefield. He throws aside his bow and arrows and sits down on the chariot, engulfed in grief.

Krishna admonishes Arjuna not to give in to impotence. He tells him that his state of mind is not true compassion or discretion, but kṣudraṃ hṛdaya-daurbalyaṃ — “petty lamentation and delusion.” Weakness at such a crucial time does not befit his status as a kshatriya, a member of the warrior class. It will neither enhance his reputation nor lead to the heavenly planets. It will lead to infamy. Krishna urges him to arise and do battle. He has a choice, and putting down the bow and choosing not to fight would be immoral — the epitome of sin.

The battlefield of Kurukshetra is also known as Dharmakshetra (the field of duty), which means the mythic landscape of the Bhagavad Gita paints taking up the bow as the central representation of moral duty. The fulfillment of Arjuna’s duty (dharma) rests in his ability to shoot with one-pointed consciousness (ekāgratā), in full absorption and undisturbed attention. 


The Iliad is a book of fate, framed at its very outset with the idea that “the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.” By contrast, the Odyssey is a book of agency, and Homer describes even the Gods (including fate-sealing Zeus) ascribing agency to mortals below:

“Ah how shameless–the way these mortals blame the gods.
From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes,
But they themselves, with their own reckless ways,
Compound their pains beyond their proper share…”

In the Odyssey, consciousness is Odysseus’ superpower. He is the man of mind, or consciousness, of nous. In the opening, theme-setting lines of the book, it is said that he saw “many cities of men […] and learned to know their minds (nous).” In juxtaposition with the glory (kleos) of Achilles, Odysseus stands as a kind of narrative embodiment and symbol of consciousness in the world of Homer.

This consciousness is ultimately manifested in the famous scene in the dining hall of Ithaca. Penelope has laid out a challenge for the suitors, with the promise that she will marry the winner — the challenge being to string her husband’s bow and shoot through a series of axe-heads. After all the suitors failed to even string the Odysseus’ great bow, Odysseus — disguised as an old man — strings the bow with ease and shoots through the axe-heads, before turning and dispatching the suitors with the same weapon. The suitors’ failure to recognize the true king is thematically indicative of their unconsciousness. Like Odysseus’ comrades who could not be saved because of their recklessness, they are nepioi — literally “children,” sometimes translated as “disconnected” or “fools.” Their failure to utilize the bow represents “sin” and moral failure of character.

Again, it is the bow which is associated with moral excellence or sin.


Elsewhere in the Hellenic world, we can see this connection between morality, consciousness, and shooting in the gods themselves — in one god in particular.

Apollo, he who “shoots from afar,” is also the god of morality. It is the moral failings of Agamemnon in relation to Apollo that begins the drama of the story of the Iliad, and it is Apollo who punishes the hubris of Agamemnon, “arrows for tears.” While other deities like Zeus dictate certain customs of hospitality, and Athena of civic relations, it is Apollo who enjoins his followers to a decidedly internal ethic — “morality” as distinct from “virtue.” It is only through this conscious self-perception that virtues such as “moderation” and “self-knowledge” become possible as moral virtues:

This apotheosis of individuation, if it be at all conceived as imperative and laying down precepts, knows but one law—the individual, i.e., the observance of the boundaries of the individual, measure in the Hellenic sense. Apollo, as ethical deity, demands due proportion of his disciples, and, that this may be observed, he demands self-knowledge. And thus, parallel to the æsthetic necessity for beauty, there run the demands “know thyself” and “not too much”…

Apollo is many things, but he is not all things. His joining of archery and the morality of consciousness is a unique connection among that wide-ranging pantheon of complex deities, not merely chance. His very character evokes — in golden, solar imagery — the origins of consciousness and morality itself in the Striker, in the one who shoots from afar.

Shooting and Consciousness

On the etymological, mythical, and phenomenological evidence, there is reason to believe that shooting gave birth to agency and its twin, consciousness; that consciousness in turn gave birth to morality, as distinct from virtue, and together, these changes reshaped and enshrined themselves in the language and myth of humanity, wrapping themselves in the characters and even the very words of the technical means that created them.

This hypothesis seems more plausible than consciousness emerging from mere complexity, or arising out of the collapse of bicameralism.

But regardless of where consciousness arose from, these stories and words – as well as our own experience – show a profound connection between shooting and consciousness, one that can tell us much about ourselves, both in the past and the present. Our abilities as endurance animals and speakers are important and species-defining, and a connection with these is usually understood to be important both for our physical and psychological health. Perhaps there is a spiritual dimension too, in terms of connecting with our primordial ancestors and the highest skills we have inherited from nature. But these stories show that shooting is important as well, to a similar degree as speech or running. Shooting is fundamental to our humanity, more so even than consciousness itself.


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C.B. Robertson is the author of Letter to Anwei, Holy Nihilism, and The Hero and the Man. He lives with his wife and children in the Inland Northwest.

Ed Hamann
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Ed Hamann is interested in mythologies and ritual practices from all over the globe. His area of focus is India, a region whose food culture and languages he has studied for decades.