Armenian mythology

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Very little is known about pre-Christian Armenian mythology, the oldest source being the legends of Xorenatsi's History of Armenia.

Armenian mythology was strongly influenced by Zoroastrianism, with deities such as Aramazd, Mihr or Anahit, as well as Assyrian traditions, such as Barsamin, but there are fragmentary traces of native traditions, such as Hayk or Vahagn and Astghik.

According to De Morgan there are signs which indicate that the Armenians were initially nature worshipers and that this faith in time was transformed to the worship of national gods, of which many were the equivalents of the gods in the Roman, Greek, Persian and Indian cultures.

Georg Brandes described the Armenian gods in his book: “When Armenia accepted Christianity, it was not only the temples which were destroyed, but also the songs and poems about the old gods and heroes that the people sang. We have only rare segments of these songs and poems, segments which bear witness of a great spiritual wealth and the power of creation of this people and these alone are sufficient reason enough for recreating the temples of the old Armenian gods. These gods were neither the Asian heavenly demons nor the precious and the delicate Greek gods, but something that reflected the characteristics of the Armenian people which they have been polishing through the ages, namely ambitious, wise and good-hearted.”[1]

Formation of Armenian mythology[edit]

Side view of the Garni Temple.

The pantheon of Armenian gods (ditsov) formed during the nucleation of the Proto-Armenian tribes that, at the initial stage of their existence, inherited the essential elements of paganism from the Proto-Indo-European tribes that inhabited the Armenian Plateau. Historians distinguish a significant body of Indo-European language used by Armenian pagans as sacred. Original cult worship is a kind of unfathomable higher power or intelligence called Ara, called the physical embodiment of the sun (Arev) worshiped by the ancient Armenians, who called themselves "the children of the sun". Since ancient times, the cult of sun worship occupied a special place in Armenian mythology. Also among the most ancient types of worship of Indo-European roots are the cults of eagles and lions, and the worship of heaven. Over time, the Armenian pantheon was updated, and new deities of Armenian and not Aryan origins appeared. Furthermore, the supreme god of the Armenian pantheon, Vanatur, was later replaced by Aramazd. The latter, though, has appeared under the influence of Zoroastrianism (see Ahura Mazda), but with partially preserved traditional Armenian features. Similarly, the traditional Armenian goddess of fertility, Nar, was replaced by Anahit. In the Hellenistic age (3rd to 1st centuries BC), ancient Armenian deities identified with the ancient Greek deities: Aramazd with Zeus, Anahit with Artemis, Vahagn with Hercules, Astghik with Aphrodite, Nane with Athena, Mihr with Hephaestus, Tir with Apollo. After the formal adoption of Christianity in Armenia, new mythological images and stories were born as ancient myths and beliefs transformed. Biblical characters took over the functions of the archaic gods and spirits. For example, John the Baptist inherited certain features of Vahagn and Tyre, and the archangel Gabriel that of Vahagn. Basic information about Armenian pagan traditions were preserved in the works of ancient Greek authors such as Plato, Herodotus, Xenophon and Strabo, Byzantine scholar Procopius of Caesarea, as well as medieval Armenian writers such as Moses of Chorene, Agathangelos, Yeznik of Kolb, Sebeos and Anania Shirakatsi, not to mention oral folk traditions.

Nature of beliefs[edit]

Beliefs of the ancient Armenians were associated with the worship of many cults, mainly the cult of ancestors, the worship of heavenly bodies (the cult of the Sun, the Moon cult, the cult of Heaven) and the worship of certain creatures (lions, eagles, bulls). The main cult, however, was the worship of gods of the Armenian pantheon. The supreme god was the common Indo-European god Ar (as the starting point) followed by Vanatur. Later, due to the influence of Armenian-Persian relations, God the Creator was identified as Aramazd, and during the era of Hellenistic influence, he was identified with Zeus.

Totemism[edit]

In addition to the main worship of the eagle and the lion, there were other sacred animals: the bull (Ervand and Ervaz were born to a relationship of a woman and a bull), deer (from the Bronze Age, there are numerous pictures, statues and bas-reliefs associated with the cult of the mother goddess and, later, with the Christian Mother of God), bear, cat and dog (e.g. Aralez).

Sacred mammals
Sacred birds
  • Aragil or Stork - considered as the messenger of Ara the Beautiful, as well as the defender of fields. According to ancient mythological conceptions, two stork symbolize the sun.
  • Eagle - considered as the messenger of the gods in the epic of "David of Sasun".
  • Akahi or Rooster - prophetic bird, the herald of morning light. It was believed that it had a very important function - it was supposed to revive people from the time of death - sleep and heal them from the spirits of disease.
  • Crane
  • Swallow

The sun, the moon and the stars[edit]

Several references are made by Moses of Chorene to the worship of the sun and moon in Armenia. In oaths the name of the sun was almost invariably brought up, and there were also altars and images of the sun and the moon. Agathangelos, in the alleged letter of Diocletian to Tiridates, bears witness to the Armenian veneration for the sun, moon and stars.[2] However the oldest witness to this worship is Xenophon, who notes that the Armenians sacrificed horses to the sun, perhaps with some reference to his need of them in his daily course through the skies. The eighth month of the Armenian year and, what is more significant, the first day of every month, were consecrated to the sun and bore its name, while the twenty-fourth day in the Armenian month was consecrated to the moon. The Armenians, like the Persians and most of the sun-worshipping peoples of the East, prayed toward the rising sun, a tradition which the early Armenian Apostolic Church adopted, so that to this day the Armenian churches are built and the Armenian dead are buried toward the east, the west being the dwelling of evil spirits.[2] As to the moon, Ohannes Mantaguni in the 5th century bears witness to the belief that the moon prospers the plants, and Anania of Shirak says in his Demonstrations "The first fathers called her the nurse of the plants". At certain of its phases the moon caused illnesses, especially epilepsy, which was called the moon-disease, and Yeznik of Kolb tries to combat this superstition with the explanation that it is caused by demons whose activity is connected with the phases of the moon. The modem Armenians are still very much afraid of the threaten influence of the moon upon children and try to ward it off by magical ceremonies in the presence of the moon. Ordinarily in contemporary myths the sun is thought to be a young man and the moon a young girl. But, on the other hand, the Germanic idea of a feminine sun and masculine moon is not foreign to Armenian thought. They are brother and sister, but sometimes also passionate lovers who are engaged in a weary hunt for each other through the trackless fields of the heavens. In such cases it is the youthful moon who is pining away for the sun-maid. The ancient Armenians, like the Latins, possessed two different names for the moon. One of these was Lusin, an obvious equivalent of Luna ( originally Lucna or Lucina ), and the other Ami(n)s, which now like the Latin mens, signifies "month." No doubt Lusin designated the moon as a female goddess, while Amins corresponded to the Phrygian men or Lunus. Stars and planets and especially the signs of the Zodiac were bound up with human destiny upon which they exercised a crucial influence. According to Yeznik, the Armenians believed that these heavenly objects caused births and mortalities. Good and bad luck were dependent upon the entrance of certain stars into certain signs of the Zodiac. Yeznik mentions repeatedly that stars, constellations, and Zodiacal signs which bear names of animals like Sirius (dog), Arcturus (bear), were originally animals of those names that have been lifted up into the heavens.

Fire[edit]

The worship of fire was possessed by Armenians as a venerable heirloom long before they were influenced by Zoroastrianism. It was so deeply rooted that the Christian authors do not hesitate to call the pagan Armenians ash-worshippers. Fire was, for them, the substance of the sun and of the lightning. Fire gave heat and also light. Even today to put out a candle or a fire is not a simple matter, but requires some care and respect. Fire must not be desecrated by the presence of a dead body, by human breath, by spitting into it, or burning in it such unclean things as hair and parings of the finger nail. An impure fire must be rejected and a purer one kindled in its place, usually from a flint. The people would swear by the hearth-fire just as they would swear by the sun. Fire was and still is the most potent means of driving the evil spirits away. Eastern Armenians who had to bathe in the night would scare away the evil occupants of the lake or pool by casting a fire-brand into it, and the man who was harassed by an obstinate evil spirit had no more strong method of getting rid of him than to strike fire out of a flint. Through the sparks that the latter apparently contains, it has become, along with iron, an important weapon against the powers of darkness. Not only evil spirits but also diseases, often ascribed to demoniac influences, could not endure the sight of fire. In Armenian there are two words for fire. One is hur, a cognate of the Greek pur, and the other krak, probably derived, like the other Armenian word jrag, "candle," "light," from the Persian cirag. Hur was more common in ancient Armenian, but we find also krak as far back as the Armenian literature reaches. While Vahagn is unmistakably a male deity, we find that the fire as a deity was female, like Hestia or Vesta.

Pantheon[edit]

The Pantheon of pagan Armenia
  • Aramazd - The father of all the gods and goddesses, Aramazd created the heavens and the earth. The first two letters in his name, "AR", are the Armenian root for sun, light, and life. Worshiped as a sun-god, Aramazd was considered to be the source of earth’s fertility. His feast Am'nor, or New Year, was celebrated on March 21 in the old Armenian calendar. Aramazd's main sanctuary was one of the principal cult centers of Ancient Armenia.
  • Anahit - The goddess of fertility and birth, and daughter or wife of Aramazd, Anahit is identified with Artemis and Aphrodite. "Great Lady Anahit", one of the most loved and honored Armenian goddesses, was often sculptured with a child in her hands, and with a particular hair style of Armenian women. Temples dedicated to Anahit were established in Armavir, Artashat, Ashtishat. A mountain in the Roman district of Sophene was thought to be Anahit's throne (Ator Anahta).
  • Vahagn - The third god of the Armenian Pantheon, Vahagn is the god of thunder and lightning, and a herculean hero noted for slaying dragons. He was also worshiped as a sun-god and a god of courage. Vahagn's main sanctuary was located in the Ashtishat (a region in ancient Armenia). Vahagn was also a god of war to whom Armenian kings and warlords would pray before engaging in battle.
  • Astghik - Goddess of love, beauty and water, wife or lover of Vahagn and often sculptured without clothes. Her temple in Ashtishat was called "the room of Vahagn", where she met her lover. Astghik is still honored nowadays by Armenians worldwide by the Vartavar feast where people celebrate by Water fights.
  • Nane - The daughter of Aramazd, Nane was considered the goddess of war, motherhood and wisdom. Her cult was closely connected with that of Anahit, and her temple was located in Gavar, near Anahit's temple.
  • Mihr - The god of light, heaven and sun. He was the son of Aramazd, the brother of Anahit and Nane. His center of worship was located in Bagaharich. The pagan temple of Garni was dedicated to him.
  • Tir or Tiur - God of wisdom, culture, science and studies, he also was an interpreter of dreams. He was the messenger of the gods and was associated with Apollo. Tir's temple was located near Artashat.
  • Amanor or Vanatur (same god with different names) - Amanor was the deity of Armenian new year. His feast, Navasard (New year), was held at the end of July. His temple was located in Bhagavan.
  • Tsovinar - Also called Nar, she was the goddess of rain, sea and water, though she was actually a fiery being who forced rain to fall.
  • Spandaramet - The goddess of the dungeon and the kingdom of the dead called Santaramet, she was identified with the Greek god Hades. The inhabitants of her realm were evil spirits called Santarametakans
  • Aray - A little-known war god.

There is a tendency to present the development of Armenian mythology under the influence of Semitic, Iranian and other cultures. The opposite tendency and uniqueness of Armenian pagan gods are taken in the publications of the authors Ghevont Alishan, Hovik Nersisyan, and others”.[3]

A depiction of Vahagn as a dragon slayer. Arutunyan, 2010.

Monsters and spirits[edit]

Aralez on the battlefield.
  • Al - The Al is a dwarfish evil spirit that attacks pregnant women and steals newborn babies. Described as half-animal and half-man, its teeth are of iron and nails of brass or copper. It usually wears a pointed hat covered in bells, and can become invisible.[4][5]
  • Aralez - Aralezner - The oldest gods in the Armenian pantheon, Aralez are dog-like creatures with powers to resuscitate fallen warriors and resurrect the dead by licking wounds clean.
  • Devs - The Dev are air-composed spirit creatures originating from Zoroastrian mythology (the Daevas), and share many similarities to angels. They reside in stony places and ruins, and usually kept to themselves.[5]
  • Shahapet - The Shahapet were usually friendly guardian spirits who typically appeared in the form of serpents. They inhabited houses, orchards, fields, forests and graveyards, among other places. The Shvaz type was more agriculturally oriented, while the Shvod was a guardian of the home. A Shvod who is well-treated may reward the home's inhabitants with gold, but if mistreated might cause strife and leave.[5]
  • Nhang - The Nhang (from the Persian word for "crocodile") was a river-dwelling serpent-monster with shape shifting powers, often connected to the more conventional Armenian dragons. The creature could change into a seal or lure a man by transforming into a woman, then drag in and drown the victim to drink its blood. The word "Nhang" is sometimes used as a generic term for a sea-monster in ancient Armenian literature.[5]
  • Piatek - The Piatek is a large mammalian creature similar to a wingless griffin.

Heroes and legendary monarchs[edit]

  • Hayk - The legendary patriarch and founder of the Armenian nation. In Moses of Chorene's account, Hayk, son of Torgoma (Armaneak). After the arrogant Titanid Bel asserts himself as king, Hayk left Babylon to emigrate with his extended household of at least 300 to settle in the Ararat region, founding a village he names Haykashen.
  • Ara the Beautiful - (also Ara the Handsome or Ara the Fair; Armenian: Արա Գեղեցիկ Ara Geghetsik) is a legendary Armenian hero. He is notable in Armenian literature for the popular legend in which he was so handsome that the Assyrian queen Semiramis, who coveted him, waged war against Armenia to capture and possess him. He is sometimes associated with the historical king of Ararat known as Arame who ruled in the 9th century BC.
  • Yervant and Ervaz - or Eruand and Eruaz Armenian: Երվանդ եւ Երվազ - Mythical twins born from a woman of the Arsacid Dynasty of Armenia, distinguished by enormous features and over-sensitivity.
  • Karapet - a pre-Christian Armenian mythological character identified with John the Baptist after the adoption of Christianity by the Armenians. Karapet is usually represented as a glittering long-haired thunder-god with a purple crown and a cross.
  • Nimrod - Great-grandson of Noah and the king of Shinar, Nimrod is depicted in the Bible as both a man of power in the earth and a mighty hunter.
  • Pahapan Hreshtak - Guardian Angels.
  • Sanasar and Baghdasar - Two brothers founded the town of Sassoon, ushering in the eponymous state. Sanasar was considered the ancestor of several generations of heroes of Sassoon.
  • Sarkis - A hero, associated with pre-Christian myths, later identified with Christian saints who bore the same name. He is represented as a tall, slender, handsome knight mounted upon a white horse. Sarkis is able to raise the wind, storms and blizzards, and turn them against enemies.
Saint Sarkis (icon of the 18th century)
Semiramis stares at the corpse of Ara the Beautiful, in the painting by Vardkes Sureniants.

Fairy tales[edit]

Sources[edit]

References[edit]