Did people in history really use flaming arrows, or is that just a Hollywood thing? And how does one make an arrow continuously burn?
The answer is yes, ancient people really did use flaming arrows. The first known use was in 480 BC, when the Persians, invading Greece, used fiery projectiles to burn down the wooden barricades that surrounded the Temple of Athena. And the Greeks themselves were using fire arrows 50 years later.
To keep them burning, the Greeks first added pitch (resin from pine trees) or a distillation of pitch into turpentine. This made the fire burn hotter and resist water. Later, sulphur (brimstone) was also added.
Hollow bolts specifically designed for a fiery payload were designed, and the incendiary mixture (sulphur, resin, tar, and hemp soaked in oil) was packed inside the shaft.
Fire weapons weren’t intended for human targets so much as they were intended for the destruction of wooden structures: wooden walls and especially wooden ships. But interestingly, the ancient Romans also learned to use fire to destroy stone–heat it red-hot and then pour vinegar on it. Modern scholars were skeptical that this could work, though the Roman historians Livy and Pliny both described the method, but in 1992, scientific experiments proved it works on limestone and marble, common building materials in the ancient world.
For more on this subject, read Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs, by Adrienne Mayor.