The Pre-Christian faith(s) of Armenia
Overview: How did the Armenians and their ancient ancestors interpret the world around them ? and what was their religion before the introduction of Christianity ? The ancient native faith/mythology served as the backbone of the Armenians, as it was a gift that was passed down to them by their neolithic ancestors, who were responcible for creating the worlds oldest known temple (Göbekli Tepe, Portasar). During the Urartu era, the great gods/goddesses Khaldi, Bagbartu, Shivini, & Teshub dominated the temples of the Armenian Highlands, followed by Aramazd, Anahit, Astghik, Mher, Vahagn, & Tir during the Armenian kingdom era. Learn about the various rituals, customs, mythology, and cultural aspects associated with the native faith of the Armenian people.
Orontid (Yervanduni) era deities of the Armenian Highlands:
The principal god of Armenia was Aramazd, whom the Armenians called "the Architect of the Universe, Creator of Heaven and Earth." He was also the father of the other gods. The Armenians annually celebrated the festival of this god on the 1st day of Navasard, when they sacrificed white animals of various kinds--goats, horses, mules, with whose blood they filled goblets of gold and silver. The most prominent sanctuaries of Aramazd were in the ancient city of Ani in Daranali, the burial-place of the Armenian kings, as well as in the village of Bagavan in Bagravand.
Aramazd had an attendant incorporeal spirit, named Tir or Grogh ("writer"), whom he sent to earth to watch men and record in a book their good and evil deeds. After death, human souls were conducted by Tir to Aramazd, who opened the book at each soul's record, in accordance with which he assigned a reward or punishment. In a village near Vargharshapat there was a temple of this god, where the priests interpreted dreams after consulting his oracle. The influence of Tir was great in Armenia, for he was a personification of hope and fear. There are traces of the cult of this god in the Armenian language. It is still usual to hear, used as a curse, the expression, "May Grogh take you!" The son of Aramazd was Mihr, Fire. He guided the heroes in battle and conferred wreaths on the victors. The word mehian ("temple") is derived from Mihr; also some Christian names. One of the months in the ancient Armenian calendar (Mehekan) was named after him. His commemoration-day was celebrated with great splendour at the beginning of spring. Fires were kindled in the open market-place in his honour, and a lantern lighted from one of these fires was kept burning in his temple throughout the year. This custom of kindling fires in the spring is still observed in some parts of Armenia.'
Although the Persians and the Armenians were both worshippers of Mihr, the conceptions and observances of the two nations differed. The Armenian sacred fire was invisible, but the Persian was material and was kept up in all the temples. For this reason the Armenians called the Persians fire-worshippers. But the Armenians had also a visible fire-god, who, although material, was intangible--the sun--to which many temples were dedicated and after which one of the months (Areg) was named.
Long after the introduction of Christianity, there was a sect of sun-worshippers existent in Armenia, who were called "Children of the Sun." A small remnant of them is still supposed to be found, dwelling between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Traces of sun-worship are also evident in the Armenian language and in the Armenian literature of Christian times. Some sayings and phrases are still in use which contain references to sun-worship, such as the expression of endearment, "Let me die for your sun!" and the oath, "Let the sun of my son be witness."
One of the most famous Armenian goddesses was Anahit, who answered to the Greek Artemis and the Roman Diana. She was a " pure and spotless goddess," and, as a daughter of Aramazd, was "mother of chastity, as well as the benefactress of the whole human race; "through her the Armenian land exists, from her it draws its life; she is the glory of our nation and its protectress and for her the ancient Armenians felt intense love and adoration.
Many images and shrines were dedicated to her under the names of the Golden Mother, the Being of Golden Birth, etc. Every summer there was a festival in her honour. On that day, a dove and a rose were offered to her golden image, whence the day was called Vardavar, which means "the flaming of the Rose." During the introduction of Christianity, the temple of Anahit was destroyed and her festival became the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ; it falls in the last days of the year according to the ancient Armenian calendar; but the name "Vardavar" still remains and doves are still set flying on that day. This is also the Armenian "water-day," during which the people amuse themselves throwing water at each other.
Anahit was sought also in cases of great sickness.
The sister of Anahit was Astghik, the goddess of beauty, a personification of the moon, corresponding to the Phoenician and Sidonian Astarte. Strange to say, the Persians had no goddess of beauty, but the bright sky of Armenia, its numerous valleys, the torrents running down from snow-capped mountains, the lakes, the cultivated fields and meadows tended to strengthen the sense of beauty, and, therefore, Armenia had a goddess of beauty, who was not to be found in the pantheon of the neighbouring country.
The Armenians assigned Astghik a husband worthy of her. He was Vahagn, deified on account of his valour. In ancient songs, he is credited with a miraculous birth. The fires of heaven and earth, and the sea crimson in the light of dawn, travailed to bring him into being. As we shall see later, Moses of Khorene has preserved portions of these songs. Vahagn was called Vishapakagh (Uprooter of dragons), as he cleared the Armenian land of monsters and saved it from evil influences. His exploits were known not only in Armenia, but in the abode of the gods. Having stolen corn from the barns of King Barsham of Assyria, he ran away and tried to hide himself in heaven. From the ears he dropped arose the Milky Way, which is called in Armenia the Track of the Corn-stealer.
The third daughter of Aramazd was Nané or Nooné. She was the goddess of contrivance. It was believed by the Armenians that contrivance was a necessary power for a woman, because, in the management of the household, she had to make big things out of small ones, and circumstances were already against her on account of the vicissitudes which Armenia was constantly undergoing.
Sandaramet, the wife of Aramazd, was an invisible goddess and a personification of the earth. Aramazd sent rain upon her, which brought forth the vegetation on the earth. She came to be a synonym of Hades and was very frequently referred to as such in theological books and in the hymnary of the Christian Church.
Besides these gods of their own, the Armenians also adopted alien divinities. When Tigranes brought a number of Phoenicians to Armenia as prisoners, they brought with them their god Ammon, from whose name comes the word Ammonor, "the day of Ammon"--the New Year. Assyrian, Arab, and other emigrations also led to the introduction of foreign deities. An Armenian king, when he brought home captives, also introduced the gods of those captives, whose images were placed in the temples beside those of the native gods that they most closely resembled. Even Indian fugitives brought the brother-gods, Demetr and Gisanes, whose images were not like those of the other gods of Armenia, for the images of the gods of Armenia are, as a rule, small, whereas these were very tall, with long black hair and black faces. There was also a great immigration of Jews into Armenia, and this influenced the Armenians in the direction of monotheism. Besides the principal gods, there were also secondary ones. These were spirits, corresponding to angels, who acted as guardians to different classes of natural objects:--Kadjk, who occupied the mountains; Parik, who presided over flocks; and many others.
Water was honoured in Armenia as a masculine principle. According to Tacitus (Annals, vi. 37) the Armenians offered horses as sacrifices to the Euphrates, and divined by its waves and foam. Sacred cities were built around the river Araxes and its tributaries. Even now there are many sacred springs with healing powers, and the people always feel a certain veneration towards waters in motion.
There were gods who lived in the waters and destroyed harmful monsters of the deep. There was also a god who breathed out a mysterious atmosphere which destroyed malignant creatures. One wonders whether this is a foreshadowing of the fear of microbes. All the gods of this class were friendly to agriculturists.
There were also "Haurot-Maurot," the name of a flower (hyacinthus racemosus Dodonei) first mentioned by Agathangelos. The Arabs incorporated them in the Quran (ii. 96) as two angels sent down to live in Babel in human circumstances.
Alk, who dwelt in the waters, was a very harmful devil. He used to live in the corners of houses and stables, and in damp places. He had eyes of fire, nails of copper, teeth of iron, and the jaws of a wild boar. He carried a sword of iron in his hand and was a bitter enemy to pregnant women, near whom he sat at the time their child was born.
There were nymphs, who were guardians of women. They wandered through gardens and amid streams, but were invisible. They attended weddings and frequented bathrooms and the women's quarters in general. These nymphs and spirits were innumerable.
Every woman was supposed to have a guardian nymph. The nymphs were supposed by some to be immortal and endowed with perpetual youth; others described them as mortal though they never grew old. There was also a group of male spirits who were regarded by some as mortal, by others as immortal. They wandered with the nymphs through forests, gardens, and other open places. They were imagined as very tall, with features like those of men; some were half-man and half-animal. Some were called Parik, "dancers"; others Hushka parik, "dancers to a melody in a minor key."
In some places, even now, a belief in these nymphs (or fairies) survives. Many stories are told of their beauty, their marvellous dancing, and their wondrous music. They are never called by the name of "nymphs," but are spoken of by the people of the country as "our betters." Still in some parts of Armenia, in May and October, a festival is held annually in honour of them, generally by the women in the Public Baths. They assemble early in the morning and remain till late at night, dancing, eating, and bathing.
Before the people thought of building temples, they worshipped their gods in forests and on mountains. One of these forests was the Forest of Sos. According to tradition the son of Ara the Beautiful, Anushavan, who devoted himself to the worship of this sacred place, was called, after the forest, Sos. The priests derived oracles from the rustling of the leaves in this holy wood.
Besides temples, which were numerous in Armenia, there were, all over the country, altars and shrines, as well as images and pictures.
To sum up, the pre-Christian religion of Armenia was at first a kind of nature-worship, which developed into polytheism. There were two elements in Armenian religion, the native and the foreign.
Besides nature-worship, there was a recognition, among the Armenians, of the Good and Evil Spirit, but predominance was given to the former. It is curious that, in the Armenian pantheon, there is no god of evil, and Armenian epic heroes are always described as fighting against evil spirits.