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Armenian mythology

Vahagn – the God of Fires: March 21

The Vishap stones (Vishapakar), also known as Serpent-stones and Dragon stones

Armenian mythology

Ara the Beautiful

Religion in ancient Armenia was historically 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 country used the solar Hayk Armenian calendar, which consisted of 12 months.

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. Beliefs of the ancient Armenians were related to a set of beliefs which in Persia led to the emergence of Zoroastrianism.

Historians distinguish a significant body of Indo-European language used by Armenian pagans as sacred. Among the most ancient types of worship of Indo-European roots are the cults of eagles and lions, and the worship of heaven.

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).

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 and Persian cultures.

Sun worship – Ara the Beautiful 

Since ancient times the cult of sun worship occupied a special place in Armenian mythology. The original cult worship in Armenia was 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”.

Ara the Beautiful (also Ara the Handsome or Ara the Fair) was 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 waged war against Armenia just to get him. He is the god of spring, flora, agriculture, sowing and water. He is associated with Osiris, Vishnu and Dionysus, as the symbol of new life.

Aragil or Stork – Aralez, the spirit-dogs 

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. Aralez, spirit-dogs that were licking the bounds of fallen or such an injured warriors of armenian troops, was an Armenian mythology creature-kinocefal (dog-heads).

A new phantom

Over time, the Armenian pantheon was updated, and new deities of Armenian and not Aryan origins appeared. During the fifth century BC. the Armenians adopted the Iranian forms of the Indo-European divinities and domesticated them. It particularly focused on the worship of Mihr (Avestan Mithra) and also included a pantheon of native Aryan gods, such as Aramazd, Vahagn, Anahit, and Astghik. The Armenian “triad” included Aramazd, Anahit and Vahagn.

The supreme god of the Armenian pantheon, Vanatur, was later replaced by Aramazd. Ahura-Mazda, who assumed the status of the father of the gods, was worshiped as Aramazd.  The latter, though, has appeared under the influence of Zoroastrianism, but with partially preserved traditional Armenian features.

Similarly, Anahita became Anahit. The traditional Armenian goddess of fertility, Nar, or Tsovinar, the goddess of rain, sea and water, though she was actually a fiery being who forced rain to fall, was replaced by Anahit, goddess of fertility and mother of all wisdom and the favorite goddess of the Armenians.

Mithra, god of light and justice, was known as Mihr. Verethrangna, the god of war, was worshiped as Vahagn. Astghik was the goddess of love. Tir, the scribe of Aramazd, was the god of science and the recorder of human deeds of good and evil. Barshamin and Nane, probably of Syrian origin, also took their places in the Armenian pantheon.

Aramazd

Aramazd (Zeus), the Master of all Armenian gods, the father of all gods and goddess, the creator of heaven and earth, was the principal deity in Armenia’s pre-Christian pantheon. He 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). He was called “the great and couragous Aramazd”.

Aramazd was a syncretic deity, a combination of the autochthonous Armenian legendary figure Ara and the Iranian Ahura Mazda, the Avestan name for a higher divinity of the Old Iranian religion who was proclaimed as the uncreated God by Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroastrianism. In the Hellinistic period Aramazd in Armenia was compared with Greek Zeus.

Aramazd displaced Vanatur at the top of the pantheon after interaction with the Persians led to the Armenians’ identifying the Zoroastrians’ Ahura Mazda as their prime deity. Amanor and Vanatur (probably it was the same god with various names) was the god of Armenians new year and lord of the new yield. The celebration in his honor occurred in the end of Junly and was called Navasard (new year). His main worship was located in Bagavan city. If Amanor was the god of new year and new yield, Vanatur was the god of hospitality and bountiful hosts.

The principal temple of Aramazd was in Ani (Kamakh in modern Turkey), a cultural and administrative center of ancient Armenia. The temple had been ruined at the end of the 3rd century AD, after the adoption of Christianity in Armenia as the state religion. The treasures and tribal mausoleums of Armenian Arshaguni (Arshakuni) kings were there, too.

Aramazd, considered the father of all gods and goddesses, the creator of heaven and earth, is the principal deity in Armenia’s pre-Christian pantheon. He displaced Vanatur at the top of the pantheon after interaction with the Persians led to the Armenians’ identifying the Zoroastrians’ Ahura Mazda as their prime deity.

Aramazd was the source of earth’s fertility, making it fruitful and bountiful. The first two letters in his name – AR – are the Indo-European root for sun, light, and life. The celebration in his honor was called Amanor, or New Year, which was celebrated on March 21 in the old Armenian calendar (also the Spring equinox).

Aramazd was a syncretic deity, a combination of the autochthonous Armenian legendary figure Ara and the Iranian Ahura Mazda. In the Hellinistic period Aramazd in Armenia was compared with Greek Zeus.

Nane

Nane was an Armenian pagan mother goddess. She was the goddess of war, wisdom, and motherhood, and the daughter of the supreme god Aramazd. In Armenia and other countries, the name Nane continues to be used as a personal name.

She looked like a young beautiful woman in the clothing of a warrior, with spear and shield in hand, like the Greek Athena, with whom she identified in the Hellenic period. Her followers were some of the ex-Paulician Armenians who were mostly Islamicised and later known as Pomaks in Europe. Her cult was closely associated with the cult of the goddess Anahit.

The temple of the goddess Nane was in the town of Thil. Her temple was destroyed during the Christianization of Armenia: “Then they crossed the Lycus River and demolished the temple of Nane, Aramazd’s daughter, in the town of Thil.”

“Gregory then asked the king for permission to overthrow and destroy the pagan shrines and temples. Drtad readily issued an edict entrusting Gregory with this task, and himself set out from the city to destroy shrines along the highways.”

According to some authors, Nane was adopted from the Sumerian-Akkadian goddess Nanaya (also transcribed as Nanâ, Nanãy or Nanãya), the canonical name for a goddess who personified “voluptuousness and sensuality”.

Anahit

Anahit (Artemis), the mother-goddess and the most loved and honored Armenian goddess, was the goddess of fertility and healing, wisdom and water in Armenian mythology. In early periods she was the goddess of war. By the 5th century BC she was the main deity in Armenia along with Aramazd. She was the daughter or wife of Aramazd.

Anahit was sculptured with the child on her hands` with specific hair style of Armenians mothers or women and was called “Great Lady Anahit”. Ancient Armenians believed that Armenian world was existing by Anahit’s will. Anahit was the cult of maternity and fertility.

Anahit-worships were established in Eriza avan (region) and in Armavir, Artashat and Ashtishat cities. A mountain in Sophene district was known as Anahit’s throne (Athor Anahta).

Vahagn

Vahagn or Vahagn Vishapakagh (Vahagn the Dragon Reaper). Vahagn was the god of thunder and lightning, and a herculean hero noted for slaying dragons. Vahagn fought and conquered dragons, hence his title Vishabakagh, “dragon reaper”, where dragons in Armenian lore are identified as “Vishaps”.

Vahagn was also a god of fire and war to whom Armenian kings and warlords would pray before engaging in battle. He was linked to Verethragna, whose name in Avestan means “smiting of resistance”, the hypostasis of victory in the texts of the Avesta; the name turned into Vahagn (the Avestan “th” becoming “h” in Arsacid Middle Persian), later on to take the form of Vahagn.

He was also worshiped as a sun-god, a sun-god, rival of Baal-shamin and Mihr, and a god of courage, later identified with the Greek Herakles. Vahagn’s main sanctuary was located in the Ashtishat city of Taron “world” (a region in ancient Armenia).  The priests of Vahévahian temple, who claimed Vahagn as their own ancestor, placed a statue of the Greek hero in their sanctuary. In the Armenian translation of the Bible, “Heracles, worshipped at Tyr” is renamed “Vahagn”.

All the gods, according to the Euhemerist belief, had been living men; Vahagn likewise, was introduced within the ranks of the Armenian kings, as the son of Yervand (6th century BC.), together with his brothers — Bab and Tiran.

The Armenian princely house of Vahevunis believed to derive from Vahagn. The Vahevunis were ranked high in the Royal Registrar of Armenia, recorded by King Valarshak. In the pre-Christian Armenia, the Vahevunis hereditarily possessed the temple town of Ashtishat on the left bank of the Aratzani river and most likelly also held the post of the Sparapet, i.e.t he Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Armenian Army.

Historian Khorenatsi’s report of an ancient song gives a clue to his nature and origin: Ancient Armenian origin of Vahagn’s birth song. The stalk or reed, key to the situation, is an important word in Indo-European mythology, in connection with fire in its three forms.

In travail were heaven and earth,

In travail, too, the purple sea!

The travail held in the sea the small red reed.

Through the hollow of the stalk came forth smoke,

Through the hollow of the stalk came forth flame,

And out of the flame a youth ran!

Fiery hair had he,

Ay, too, he had flaming beard,

And his eyes, they were as suns!

Vāhana

Vāhana (skt. that which carries, that which pulls) denotes the being, typically an animal or mythical entity, a particular deva (approximately translatable from Sanskrit as ‘deity’) is said to use as a vehicle. In this capacity, the vāhana is often called the deity’s mount. Upon the partnership between the deva and his vāhana is woven much iconography and mythology.

Often, the deva is iconographically depicted riding (or simply mounted upon) the vāhana. Other times, the vāhana is depicted at the deity’s side or symbolically represented as a divine attribute.

The vāhana may be considered an accoutrement of the deity: though the vāhana may act independently, they are still functionally emblematic or even syntagmatic of their “rider”. The deva (or devī, who will have her own, unique vāhana) may be seen sitting or on, or standing on, the vāhana. They may be sitting on a small platform called a howdah, or riding on a saddle or bareback. Vah in Sanskrit means to carry or to transport.

Astghik

Astghik (Greek – Aphrodite, Mesopotamian – Inanna/Ishtar), commonly referred to as Asya, Astghik, or Astlik, was the wife or lover of Vahagn, the god of fire and war, thunder and lightning.

In the earliest prehistoric period Astghig had been worshipped as the Armenian pagan deity of fertility and love, later the skylight had been considered her personification. In the later heathen period she became the goddess of love, maidenly beauty, and water sources and springs.

The Vartavar festival devoted to Astghik that had once been celebrated in mid July was transformed into the Christian holiday of the Transfiguration of Christ, and is still celebrated by the Armenians. As in pre-Christian times, on the day of this fest the people release doves and sprinkle water on each other with wishes of health and good luck.

With Aramazd, the father of all deities, the creator of heaven and earth, (the sun being worshiped as his personification) and Anahit that had been worshiped as Great Lady and Mother Deity (the moon being worshiped as her personification), she forms an astral trinity.

Her name is the diminutive of Armenian աստղ astġ, meaning “star”, which through Proto-Indo-European *h₂stḗr is cognate to Sanskrit stṛ, Avestan star, Pahlavi star, Persian sitara´, Pashto storai, Latin and Italian stella and astro, French astre, Spanish astro, German stern, English star, etc.

Her principal seat was in Ashtishat (Taron), located to the North from Mush, where her chamber was dedicated to the name of Vahagn, the personification of a sun-god, her lover or husband according to popular tales, and had been named “Vahagn’s bedroom”.

Other temples and places of worship of Astghik had been located in various towns and villages, such as the mountain of Palaty (to the South-West from Lake Van), in Artamet (12 km from Van), etc.

The unique monuments of prehistoric Armenia, “višap” vishaps (Arm. višap ‘serpent, dragon’) or “dragon stones”, spread in many provinces of historical Armenia – Gegharkunik, Aragatsotn, Javakhk, Tayk, etc., and are another manifastation of her worship.

Mihr

Mihr was the god of sun and heaven light. He was the son of Aramazd, the brother of Anahit and Nane, while Tir (Apollo) was the god of wisdom, science and studies, also an interpreter of dreams. Tir was secretary of Aramazd. Tir’s temple was located near Artashat and  was called “Aramazds grchi divan” or “Mehyan for studying sciences”.

Both Vedic Mitra and Avestan Mithra derive from an Indo-Iranian common noun *mitra-, generally reconstructed to have meant “covenant, treaty, agreement, promise.” This meaning is preserved in Avestan mithra “covenant.” In Sanskrit and modern Indo-Aryan languages, mitra means “friend,” one of the aspects of binding and alliance.

The Hellenistic age

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.

Christianity

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.

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