Ancient Armenia

First mentioned in the Bible, the ancient Kingdom of Armenia was among the first nations to convert to Christianity, tracing a national lineage for more the three thousand years.

Armenians via Costumes of All Nations (1882)
The Ancient Armenian Kingdoms

Bronze Head of Anahita, reign of Tigranes; Hellenic 1st Century BCE

One of the world’s oldest civilizations, Armenia once included Mount Ararat, which biblical tradition identifies as the mountain that Noah’s ark rested on after the flood. It was the first country in the world to officially embrace Christianity as its religion (c. 300). In the 6th century B.C., Armenians settled in the kingdom of Urarty (the Assyrian name for Ararat), which was in decline. Under Tigranes the Great (fl. 95-55 C. E.) the Armenian empire reached its height and became one of the most powerful in Asia, stretching from the Caspian to the Mediterranean Seas. Throughout most of its long history, however, Armenia has been invaded by a succession of empires. Under constant threat of domination by foreign forces, Armenians became both cosmopolitan as well as fierce protectors of their culture and tradition. Over the centuries Armenia was conquered by Greeks, Roman and, Persians.

Armenian Myths of Origin

Armenian vassal bringing tribute to Persian King from great staircase at Persepolis

Armenians consider themselves direct descendants of Noah, survivor of the Biblical flood. According to Genesis, …the boat came to rest on a mountain in the Ararat range. Ararat, located in the heart of Armenia, was a Holy Mountain for the peoples of the ancient world. Many ancient scriptures placed the Biblical Garden of Eden in the Land of Armenia also called the Land of Ararat. Tradition states that Noah founded Nakhichevan, the oldest of the Armenian cities. Moses Khorenatsi , historian of the 5th century, presents a detailed genealogy of the Armenian forefather Haik from Japheth, Noah’s son. Thus, the territory of the Armenian Plateau is regarded as the cradle of civilization, the initial point for the further spreading of mankind all around the world.

The oldest myths reflect the wars of ancient Armenians against the neighboring Assyrians. Haik, considered the patriarch of the Armenian people, led his army to defeat the Assyrian giant Baeleus. By approximately 2100 BC, a prototype of the first Armenian state was founded. Even now, Armenians call themselves Hai (pronounced high), and their country – Haik or Haiastan, in honor of Haik. The Hittite scripts also mention a Haiasa country. Meanwhile, the Assyrian cuneiform writings designate Armenia as Urartu (Arartu), which means Ararat.

The Old Testament also associates Armenia with the Mount Ararat (the Kingdom of Ararat). In ancient times, Armenia was equally associated with the rivers Tigris, Euphrates, Araks and Kura. That is why the neighboring Assyrians also called Armenia, Nairi, standing for Riverland, Country of Rivers. Haik, once thought to be just a hero of an epic legend, is presently accepted by some researches as an actual chieftain of Armens in the 3rd millennium BC. Historians proved that later Haik was deified and proclaimed the prime god in the pantheon of gods in the pagan Armenia. One of Haik’s most famous scions, Aram, considerably extended the borders of his country, transforming it into a powerful state. Since then, Greeks and Persian began to call the country Armenia, i.e. the country of Aram.

Aram’s son, Ara the Beautiful succeeded him. A very romantic Armenian legend tells that Ara was so handsome that the Assyrian Queen Semiramis (the same who founded Babylon and planted its marvelous hanging gardens) fell in love with him. Ara repeatedly rejected her love proposals until the desperate queen began war with him. The Assyrians troops won the furious battle, and Ara was killed, in despite of Semiramis’s order to preserve his life. Inconsolable Semiramis reputed to be sorceress took his body and tried in vain to enliven him. When Armenians advanced to avenge their leader, she disguised one of her lovers and spread the rumor that Gods brought Ara back to life. As a result, the war was ceased.

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Rise of an Armenian Kingdom

Depiction of Armenian warrior in Chariot, from Persepolis

In 612 BC the Medes destroyed Nineveh and brought the Assyrian power to an end. Armenia’s eternal antagonist abandoned the political arena. Some 50 years later, the king Tigranes the First in alliance with Cyrus the Great, founder of Achaemenid dynasty conquered the lands controlled by the Medes and reinforced the Armenian kingdom. Tigranes the First had 3 sons; the third son’s name was Vahagn the Dragonfighter. The Armenian pagan tradition covered this Vahagn with glory and legends: he was even deified and worshipped like Hercules. However, the era of peace ended as a number of weak and insignificant kings ruled Armenia over the following years, and finally the country became tributary to Persia. An inscription on a rock (around 520 BC) called the Behestun Stone, found in Iran, mentions Armenia in the list of countries Darius I controlled. The dynasty of Hayk stopped: the kings of Armenia were henceforward anointed by the Persian kings. During the following centuries the Armenian troops fought for Persia in all major battles. The Armenian cavalry was well known for its valor. Vahe, the last offspring of Hayk dynasty, was killed in 331 BC, fighting for Darius in a battle against Alexander the Great.

Armenia regained independence after the death of Alexander the Macedonian, when the monarchy of the latter was split into many parts. By 190 BC, Prince Artashes, the governor of Greater Armenia, united the shattered Armenian lands, establishing the Atashesian dynasty. He built the city of Artashat. According to some Roman historians, the construction of this new Armenian capital was supervised by famous commander Hannibal the Carthaginian, who took refuge in Armenia fleeing from the Romans. The country enjoyed peace and prosperity under the rule of Vagharshak, who came to throne in 149 BC. He set up the institute of nobility in his kingdom and established the new senior official ranking system. Vagharshak made the city of Armavir his royal residence. Several Greek inscriptions from around that period found in Armavir witness about the influence of the Greek culture in Armenia.

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Tigranes the Great of Armenia

Silver Coin of Tigranes, 1st Century BCE

Silver Coin of Tigranes, 1st Century BCE

Vagharshak’s son Arshak and his grandson Artashes were very successful rulers as well, but it was perhaps the son of the latter, Tigranes II, who distinguished himself as the most glorious among all Armenian kings.

He succeeded his father in 95 BC. Brother-in-law and true ally of Mithridates the Great, the glorious King of Pontus, he struggled together with his formidable relative against the Roman dominance. Tigranes the Second also known as Tigranes the Great, extended the Armenian borders from Caspian Sea to Egypt, gaining full control over the vast territories. After having subdued the provinces in Syria, Cappadocia and Mesopotamia, Tigranes also conquered Palestine, taking many thousands of prisoners. He united all the Armenian lands and built 4 large cities in different parts of his empire all 4 called Tigranakert. Just like his father Artashes, Tigranes transported from Greece many statues of the Greek Gods. A gigantic statue of Zeus was erected in Ani fortress, and sanctuary for Anahit (Aphrodite) was raised in the city of Ashtishat.

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Armenia between Rome and Persia

The Temple of Garni, built by the Romans during their occupation of Armenia

In the second quarter of the third century, the Parthian Empire was replaced by the Persian Empire of the Sasanian dynasty, a more aggressive power than its predecessor. Several times, the Sasanians attempted to add Armenia to their possessions, but they were repulsed by Armenian kings and Roman generals, although often with great difficulty. The situation was restored to Rome’s advantage again by the emperor Carus.

Meanwhile, a religious shift was taking place: Christianity was spreading throughout the East. Although the Armenian Church has claimed that it was founded by the apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew, the first missionaries appear to have visited the country along the Araxes much later. The breakthrough was in the year 303, when Gregory the Illuminator (257-325) converted Tiridates III. For the first time in history, an entire state became Christian. (The Roman emperors Diocletian and Galerius, who were persecuting the new faith, will not have appreciated this.) The Armenian Church has remained independent and does not accept several decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. In the second half of the fourth century, the Sasanian king Shapur II was able push back Rome, and gained influence in Armenia, which was recognized by the Roman emperor Theodosius in 384, when he signed a treaty with Shapur’s son Shapur III. In 428, the Romans and Persians divided the ancient kingdom. Its traditions survived in the Armenian Church.

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Ancient Mythology and Beliefs

The first god in Armenia was one of the language’s first sounds, ‘AR’, which means sun or light. As the source of life, the sun became equated with power and the supreme god.

Ararat is mentioned as early as ca. 6000 BC in the Sumerian epoch poem Gilgamesh, as the land of the mountains where the gods live. The word Ararat can be divided into three words: AR-AR-AT. AR-AR being a plural form or all encompassing god; ‘AT’ being an archaic version of the Armenian word ‘hat’, which means ‘a piece of’. Thus Ararat meant ‘a piece of gods, or a piece of creation.

Early symbols for gods are closely connected with astral symbols. The first use of the sacred swastika and cross are found in ca. 20,000-15,000 BC inscriptions in the Geghama Mountain Range. Carvings dating back to ca. 8500 BCE show symbols associated with astronomy, giving them a god like prominence: the sun, moon, and constellations were thought to be deities in themselves, and astral occurrences such as an eclipse or a comet were considered communication from the gods.

By the 5th millennium BC, Ancestral Armenians combined sun worship with sophisticated astronomy. They are now credited with assigning the constellations of the zodiac their design and names, and creating one of the first solar calendars based on 365 days in the year.

Višap stelae dated from the 18th-16th centuries BCE

Višap stelae dated from the 18th-16th centuries BCE

Also around the 5th millennium BC a series of “višap” vishaps (Arm. višap ‘serpent, dragon’ an Iranian borrowing) or “dragon stones” began to be erected on mountainsides throughout Armenia, near water sources. At first resembling fish (dragons in Armenian were thought to be huge fish like creatures, something like a cross between a whale and a gigantic squid), the monolithic stones were later carved with snakes, the heads of beasts, swastikas and crosses. The unique monuments of prehistoric Armenia are spread in many provinces of historical Armenia – Gegharkunik, Aragatsotn, Javakhk, Tayk, etc. They are cigar-shaped huge stones, 10-20 feet tall, usually situated in the mountains, near the sources of rivers and lakes. Many of them are in the shape of fish; they have a bull’s skin (complete with head and feet) carved into them; there is also a stream of water flowing from the mouth of the bull’s skin and some vishaps have images of water birds carved below the bull’s head. The earliest višap “višap” stelae would be dated, probably, from the 18th-16th centuries BC; an Urartian inscription in a višap from Garni testifies that they were created in pre-Urartian times (before the 8th century BC).

A number of theories try to interpret the meaning of these stones. One theory holds that these monuments represented mythological dragons guarding the sources of the waters (B. Piotrovski). Another two trace back, respectively, to Astghik, the goddess of fertility and love (M. Abeghian) and Ara Geghecik ‘Ara the Handsome,’ the “dying and rising god” of Armenian tradition (G. Ghapantsyan). The present author has his own interpretation of these stalae, which may be represented as follows.

The Indo-European “basic myth,” reconstructed by V.V. Ivanov and V.N. Toporov, tells the story of the battle of the thunder god and his adversary the serpent. The victory of the god results in origination of cosmic waters (rain, rivers). Certain aspects of the dragon stones reveal their links with the “basic myth.” In this context, it is evident that the huge fish would represent the water serpent (the dragon-serpents were sometimes conceived in the shape of fish; e.g. in Oppian’s Halieutika the dragon Typhon is represented as a fish), while the bull is the symbol of the thunder god in many ancient Near Eastern and Indo-European traditions (Hurrian, Hittite, Indian, Greek, and Armenian). The wavy lines below the bull’s head may be interpreted as rainy waters triggered by the battle between the god and the serpent.

The name of the serpent in the “basic myth” is derived from the Indo-European stem *wel-. According to the rules of the Armenian language, the Indo-European *wel- would have developed into gel- (New Eastern Armenian pronunciation: gegh-). In this context it is characteristic that the višap stones are concentrated mainly in the Gelam province, Gelakuni district, on the Gelamay Mountains to the east of Sevan Lake (modern Gegharkunik province of Armenia). The two largest groups of them are located, respectively, on Mt. Gel, at the source of the river Azat, and near the Geli fortress. Characteristically, the mountain beside Gel, the highest of the Gelamay range, is called Azhdahak from the name of the dragon of ancient Iranian tradition “Aždahak”.

On the other hand, the name of the district of the “dragon stones” Ueliku “Ueliku”, in the context of mythological traditions of the ancient peoples of the Armenian Highland is comparable to that of the stone giant Ullikummi, the famous adversary of the thunder and storm god Teshub “Ullikummi” . In the Hurrian myth, attested in the 2th millennium BC, Kumarbi “Kumarbi” , the father and adversary of Teshub, plots to overthrow him. Kumarbi impregnates a great rock in the “Cold Spring” and it bears Ullikummi. The gods battle the monster, but it has grown so big that they are unable to harm it. The end of the myth is not preserved but probably contained the final victory of the weather god.

This theory poses some intriguing questions. The bull’s skin is frequently carved on the “dragon stones” as if the skin were thrown on the mouth of the fish (on the top of the stela). This cannot be interpreted otherwise than as an imitation of the bull sacrifice ritual. That is, the bull, symbol of the thunder god, appears to have been sacrificed to the giant fish, symbol of the serpent. Why imitate the ritual instead of performing a real sacrifice?

The Hurrian and Urartian languages represent two branches of the Hurro-Urartaian language family, while Armenian is an Indo-European language. The name Ulikummi, as we have seen, may well be borrowed from Indo-European, yet scholars regard the Ullikummi myth as entirely Hurrian, not Indo-European. The question, then, is who were the creators of the “dragon stones”—the Hurro-Urartian or Indo-European tribes?

Around 3000 BC, Ancestral Armenians had created a specific iconography and pantheon of the gods. The Armenian gods were still centered on the worship of the sun, but by the Urartian period, they resembled Mesopotamian and Egyptian deities based on animal-human combination’s.

Human deities emerged during the Armenian Hellenistic period. Though bearing remarkable likeness to Greek gods and goddesses, which first gave speculation as to their Greek origins, it is now thought that many of the Greek gods are actually inherited from Ancestral Armenian sources, with some coming from as far away as India. The heroic legends of Hercules, for example, were first attributed to the legend of the Armenian king-god Haik in the 3rd millennium BC.

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Pantheon of Armenian gods

Colossal Statue of Aramazd in Anatolia

Aramazd – The father of all gods and goddesses, the creator of heaven and earth. The first two letters in his name, “AR” is the Indo-European root for sun, light, and life. Aramazd was the source of earth’s fertility, making it fruitful and bountiful. The celebration in his honor was called Am’nor, or New Year, which was celebrated on March 21 in the old Armenian calendar (also the Spring equinox).

Anahit – The goddess of fertility and birth, in early period she was the goddess of war. By the 1st c. BCE she was the main deity in Armenia.

Nuneh – The goddess of wisdom, common sense, motherhood and protector of the home, keeper of the family.

Vahagan – The god of thunder, clouds and fire. Comes from “Vah” -god, “Agne” – fire. Vahagan is the constellation Orion.

Astghik – The goddess of love and beauty, symbolized by skylight. She was the wife or lover of Vahagan, the god of fire and metal. She was also the goddess of water. The celebration in her honor occurred in mid June and was called Vardevar. It is still celebrated in Armenia by pouring water on unsuspecting passersby.

Ara Geghetsik- “Ara the Beautiful’- the god of spring, flora, agriculture, sowing and water. He is associated with Isis, Vishnu and Dionysus, as the symbol of new life.

Haik – a king, but in legend the father of Armenia. He slew the Babylonian god Bel, which in history was Nemruth, the Babylonian king described in the bible as attempting to build the tower of Babel. Haik’s armies invaded Babylon, and establish the kingdom from which Armenians claim their heritage. The legend of Haik is the forerunner of the legend of Hercules.

Tsovinar, Nar – The goddess of water, sea, rain. She was a fire creature, who forced the rain and hail to fall from the heavens with her fury.

Vanatur – the god of hospitality and bountiful hosts.

Tir – the god of literature, science and art, also an interpreter of dreams.

Tork Angegh – the god of power, bravery, war, the military.

Aralez – One of the oldest gods in the Armenian pantheon, Aralez was a god in the form of a dog, whose powers included the ability to resurrect the dead by licking wounds clean.

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