Armenian Legends and Poems
by Zabelle C. Boyajian
Armenian Legends and Poems
by Zabelle C. Boyajian 
A sampler of Armenian literature, legends and history.
This is a collection of translations of Armenian literature from the middle ages, interspersed with poetry from the 19th century. In addition, there are a number of episodes from the chronicles of Moses of Khorene, a fifth century Armenian historian. These recount legendary incidents of ancient Armenian history. The anthologist and translator of many of these poems, Zabelle Boyajian, also created the luminous illustrations.
The book concludes with a long essay by Aram Raffi which contextualizes the long history of Armenian literature. This essay also details the long religious history of Armenia, starting with an extended discussion of the ancient Pagan deities. Armenia is in a region which is a cross-roads between Asia and Europe, and has more often than not been conquered by the dominant regional power of the day, starting with the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, through the Ottomans and finally the Russians.
Nevertheless, Armenia has managed to hold onto a unique cultural and linguistic identity. Armenians have produced a substantial national literature, particularly in those short windows of time while not under foreign domination. Unfortunately, not much of this has been translated into English. This anthology is one of the few sources we have in the public domain. So please enjoy this little sampler of Armenian literature.
A Trial of Orthodoxy
The Exile’s Song
The Apple Tree
My Heart is Turned Into a Wailing Child
O Night, Be Long
Yesternight I Walked Abroad
Vahagn, King of Armenia
Huntsman, That on the Hills Above
I Beheld My Love This Morning
The Fox, the Wolf, and the Bear
The Little Lake
Ara and Semiramis
Lament Over the Heroes Fallen in the Battle of Avarair
The Song of the Stork
Ye Mountain Bluebells
The Sun Went Down
The Founding of Van
I Have a Word I Fain Would Say
The Song of the Partridge
The Lily of Shavarshan
The Wind is Howling Through the Winter Night
The Armenian Poet’s Prayer
The Chragan Palace
The Sorrows of Armenia
Artashes and Satenik
The Eagle’s Love
Concerning the Rose and the Nightingale
The Arrival of the Crusaders
Like an Ocean is This World
The Hawk and the Dove
The Tears of Araxes
The Eve of Ascension Day
”Thy Voice is Sweet”
Christ and Abgarus
Araxes Came Devouringly
The Parrot’s Song
Earth and Sky
O’er the Mountains High He Went
A Day After
Without Thee What Are Song and Dance to Me?
The Lake of Van
The Tale of Rosiphelee
The Song of the Vulture
No Bird Can Reach the Mountain’s Crest
The Nightingale of Avarair
Thou Art So Sweet
The Wandering Armenian to the Swallow
The Castle of Anoush
Love One Another
ITS EPICS, FOLK-SONGS, AND MEDIAEVAL POETRY
BY ARAM RAFFI
THE country that is called Armenia consists of a large plateau, covered with numerous mountain ranges, which are intersected by many valleys and passes, as well as by rivers and lesser streams of considerable depth. The climate differs in various parts of the country, the meteorological conditions ranging from frost and snow to extreme heat. Over the plains towers Mount Ararat, on which, as we read in the Bible, the Ark rested after the Flood. Here also is the traditional site of the Garden of Eden, and the four rivers mentioned in Genesis as rising in the Garden still flow through the Armenian land.
The origin of the Armenian people is enveloped in mystery, but it is an established fact that Armenia has had a civilisation of its own from a very early date, and that the Armenians are one of the most ancient races in the world. They have had their periods of independence, but, on account of its geographical position, Armenia has seldom figured as one of the great ruling states of the world, although it has repelled by arms invasions of such nations as Assyria. Assyrian records are filled with descriptions of conflicts with Armenian kings; King Assur Nazir Haban (1882-1857 B.C.) gives this account of one of his “victories”:–“They (the people of Ararat, or Urardu) fled to the impregnable mountains so that I might not be able to get at them, for the mighty summits were like drawn swords pointing to the skies. Only the birds of heaven soaring on their wings could reach them. In three days I was there, spreading terror in places where they had taken refuge. Their corpses, like autumn leaves, filled the clefts. The rest escaped to distant inaccessible heights.”
Notwithstanding the boasts of the Assyrian kings, they did not succeed in permanently crushing the independence of Armenia.
Tigranes the Great brought Armenia more in contact with distant foreign lands. In his time his country began to be considered of importance by Greek and Roman historians. The Romans sent Lucullus to engage in war with Tigranes in order to crush his growing power. This is what–according to Plutarch–Lucullus said of Tigranes:–
“In Armenia Tigranes, King of Kings, is seated, surrounded with that power which has wrested Asia from the Parthians, which carries Grecian colonies into Media, subdues Syria and Palestine, cuts off the Seleucidae and carries their wives and daughters into captivity.” Cicero says of Tigranes the Great:–“He made the Republic of Rome tremble before the prowess of his arms.”
To give even a short outline of Armenian folklore and poetry it is essential to point out those agencies and influences which have served to originate that literature. Hence its literature and history, like those of all countries, are interwoven. Notwithstanding its periods of greatness, Armenia was unable, as we said above, to continue to be a powerful and independent state. Thus we see Armenia serving as a bridge between armies engaged in war, and such has been its fate in all periods, even up to the present time.
It fell successively under the dominion of Assyria, Babylonia, and, finally, of Persia when, after the time of Cyrus, the kingdom of Persia was extended by Darius over nearly the whole of Asia. Although Armenia became a tributary of Persia, it still had its own independent king.
The Median Empire had been founded probably in 677-672 B.C. From that time Iranian influence was strongly felt in the politics, language, and social organisation of Armenia, and the Iranian religion, with its terminology, names of divinities, and many folk-beliefs, permeated Armenian paganism.
Moreover, the Armenians, being the near neighbours of the Persians, closely resembled them in their manner of life and their religion. After the conquest of Alexander the Great, Armenia, like all other Asiatic nations, fell under Greek dominion. Then the Macedonian rule gave way to the Parthian, and the dynasty of the Arsacidae held sway, a king of that race being set over Armenia and founding an independent Armenian dynasty. The Arsacidae introduced Greek civilisation and culture into Armenia. During this period the character of the Armenians changed. Not only their religion but their manners and customs became different from those of the Persians. The rule of Macedonia over Armenia lasted 180 years (330-150 B.C.). The Graecophile Arsacid dynasty lasted 376 years (150 B.C.-226 A.D.). These long periods brought the Armenians into close contact with the Greeks and separated them from the Persians.
To the periods which we have outlined belongs the literature of Armenia preceding the introduction of Christianity. Of this literature the remains that have come down to us consist of legends, songs, and fragments of epics. Of the epics we have some records and summaries, chiefly found in the History of Moses of Khorene (5th century A.D.), who has also preserved some of the heroic songs in their original form. These epics relate the history of Armenian ancestral and mythical heroes, to whom are ascribed the foundation and development of the Armenian nation. In them we see Armenian ideals of the earliest times. As these ideals are closely interwoven with the religious beliefs of the pre-Christian period, let us now cast a glance at Armenian Paganism.
It is said by ancient Armenian historians that the Armenians were originally worshippers of the One True God, but they, like all other nations, deserted Him and took up with various religions. Sun-worship was one of these; Zoroastrianism also had its turn; in due course, the Greeks introduced their own deities; even India succeeded in making its influence felt. Strabo has it that the Armenians, during the period of the Arsacid dynasty, were of the same religion as the Parthians. It appears that the Armenians fused together Zoroastrianism and the polytheism of Greece and other nations, thus combining eastern and western religion. One result of this fusion was that though the Zoroastrians made no visible representation of their God, the temples of Armenia were full of images, brought from Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Greece.
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, 1 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. 2
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. 1
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” 2; 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,” 3 “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.” On 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. 1
Anahit was sought also in cases of great sickness.
The sister of Anahit was Astghik, 2 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. 3 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, 1 “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, 2 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.
127:1 Navasard fell, according to the later calendar of pagan Armenia, in August.
127:2 See Agathangelos (fourth century A.D.).
128:1 Annual bonfires are kindled by Armenians on the festival of Candlemas, or the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (February 13/2).
128:3 Statues of massive gold were consecrated to her, one of which was captured by the soldiers of Antony (Pliny, H. N., XXX. 24).
129:1 At each festival, the Armenians had to show what progress they had made during the past year, in art and in other occupations, and races and other competitions took place, the victors being crowned with wreaths of roses. When the doves were set flying the High Priest sprinkled the people with the waters of the Aradzani–a tributary of the Euphrates–and the people in their turn sprinkled each other. The customs dated back to traditions of the deluge–that universal baptism with which God cleansed all the sinful earth, and the same expression of love and forgiveness is manifested in the presence of the dove at the baptism of Jordan. See Raffi’s Samuel, chap. ix.
129:2 Astghik means in Armenian “little star.”
129:3 It is a curious coincidence that Venus, the Greek goddess of beauty, was also the wife of a fire-god, Vulcan.
130:1 Some say that Ammanor was an ancient Armenian god and not foreign.
130:2 Kadjk means in Armenian “brave ones.”
In Armenian epics, the immortals stand in the background, the most prominent place being assigned to legendary heroes, to whom poets attribute divine descent, thus tracing the origin of the Armenian race to the gods. Unfortunately, the greater part of these epics is lost, though a few fragments are preserved, in their original shape, by Moses of Khorene.
The following is one of these fragments, which gives the general conception of the gods and the heroes descended from them:–
“Glorious and awful were the former gods. They were the cause of the greatest blessings of the earth; also of the beginning of the world and the generations of men. From them arose a race of giants, with great limbs, fantastical, of stupendous stature, who, in their arrogance, conceived the impious idea of tower-building. But by the wrath of the gods, a mighty wind arose, overthrowing and shattering the structure. The speech of men was confused; there was general bewilderment.”
Among the giants mentioned in this passage was Haik, the brave and illustrious chief–a famous archer, who is the patronymic hero of Armenia, and is described by Moses of Khorene as having curly hair and being beautiful to look upon, with brawny arms, well-set shoulders, and fiery eyes. Recoiling from submission to Belus, he, with his followers, went northwards to the foot of a mountain, where they took up their abode. Belus sent emissaries to him, bearing the following message:–
“Thou hast departed and hast settled in a chill and frosty region. Soften thy hard pride, change thy coldness to geniality; be my subject, and come and live a life of ease in my domain. Thus shalt thou find pleasure.”
Haik’s answer was to prepare for combat. The fights between Haik and Belus are minutely recounted. The dress of the two champions, their looks, their weapons, are all described in detail. At last Belus was vanquished and slain by his adversary.
Before the time of Moses of Khorene, Haik was known as a great hunter like the Greek Orion. In the passages in Job and Isaiah where “Orion” appears in the English Bible as the name of a constellation, “Haik” appears in the Armenian version.
The country that Haik conquered was named Hayastan, after him.
He was succeeded by Armenak, who extended the boundaries of his kingdom. This expansion is thus described by Moses of Khorene:–
“Armenak, taking with him all his host, goes to the north-east. He descends on a plain surrounded by high mountains, through which, from the west, murmuring streams flow. The plain extends towards the east. From the foot of the mountains gush springs no less limpid, mingling together to form little rivers, which, with gentle flow, run round the edge of the plain, parallel to the base of the mountains.
“But the southern mountain, with its white peak, at first rises straight up; afterwards it curves, looking beside the other heights like a hoary stooping elder amid youths.”
Armenak was succeeded by Aramais. This king took up his abode on a hill beside a river, where he built a town which he named Aramavir. The river he called by the name of his grandson, Araxes. He had a son, named Shara, who was a glutton and had an immense number of children. He sent him to a very fertile place which was called, after him, Shirak. Moses of Khorene quotes a proverb relating to Shara:–“If thou hast the gullet of a Shara, our stores are not the stores of a Shirak.”
Shara had a son, Amasa. After him Mount Ararat was named “Masis.”
Moses of Khorene mentions another descendant of Haik, whose name was Tork. He was ugly and of tremendous strength. He was able to break great stones with his hands. Once, when he was on the shore of the Sea of Pontus, he hurled huge rocks at the ships of his enemies and sank them. This incident reminds us of the Cyclops Polyphemus, in the Odyssey. Tork had also artistic proclivities. After dividing large stones with his hands, he smoothed them with his nails, and with his nails covered them with drawings of eagles and other pictures. 1
Then the historian gives a table of royal names down to Aram, whom he describes as industrious and patriotic, and who said that he would rather die for his fatherland than endure the sight of strangers devastating it. He collected an army of 50,000 and drove the foreign invaders out of Armenia. Epic poems, according to Moses of Khorene, praise Aram’s valour in his conflicts with Barsham, King of Assyria, whom he eventually subdued. He was succeeded by Ara the Beautiful.
The romantic love of Semiramis for this king, which was a favourite theme of ancient Armenian song and epic, is elaborately recounted by Moses of Khorene. A translation of his narrative is given on page 23 of this volume. There are several variants of this story, which is still related in Armenia, and the names of many places as well as many superstitions can be traced to it.
Semiramis invited Ara to Nineveh to be her husband, promising him the half of the kingdom, but Ara refused her offer, having a wife already. Semiramis thereupon sent an army against Ara, with orders to capture the king alive and bring him to her; but, instead of the living king, they brought his corpse. Semiramis, who, as is well known, was wont to practise magic, laid the body on a certain high place, in order that the gods might descend and restore it to life by licking the wounds. This height is still called Lezk, and in former times others used it for the same purpose as Semiramis: The idea of this mode of cure probably originated from the fact that wounded men, lying unconscious on the battlefield, have often been revived by the licking of dogs and other animals.
In Moses of Khorene we find this story about the childhood of Sanatruk. One day, he, under the care of his mother and his nurse, was walking among the mountains of Kordua, when suddenly a high wind arose, accompanied by a snowstorm, and separated the mother from her son. For three days and nights the nurse and the child were buried in the snow, but the gods sent a miraculous white animal which rescued them and brought them home alive. 1
But, though such legends as these may have some foundation in fact, there are others that are entirely fabulous, like the following, which is related by Moses of Khorene:–
The heir to the principality of Ardzruni, when a boy, fell asleep in the open air. A storm of rain came on and drenched him; and then the hot sun shone down and scorched him with its rays; whereupon an eagle flew up and hovered over his head with outspread wings, sheltering him from the assaults of nature.
In the fourth century A.D., we find a similar story told of Prince Mushegh Mamikonian. After his death his relatives put his body on a high tower, believing that the spirits would descend and restore him to life. This story is found in Faustus Byzand (A.D. 337-384).
The animals figuring in such stories as these are not represented as merely adjuncts to man, but as independent individuals who act in accordance with their own characters and inclinations. Plato, in his Republic, gives a slightly different version of the legend of Ara. Er was an Armenian (or, as some commentators say, “The son of Armenios”), a native of Pamphylia. He was slain in battle, and ten days afterwards, when the bodies of the dead were taken up, already in a state of corruption, his body was found unaffected by decay and carried away home to be buried. And on the twelfth day, as he was lying on the funeral pile, he returned to life and told them what he had seen in the other world.
The name “Er” is evidently a variant of Ara. The story, as told by Plato, has all the features of a transplanted legend.
Moses of Khorene says that, after the death of Ara the Beautiful, Semiramis passed the rest of her days in Armenia, which place she greatly loved. Here she established the city of Van. A picturesque account of its foundation given by the historian is included in this volume (page 33).
The following account is given of the end of Semiramis:–
Being pursued by her enemies, she ran away on foot, and, becoming thirsty, she stopped to drink water from the Lake of Van. Here she was overtaken by the “swordsmen,” whereupon, after taking off her magic bracelet and throwing it into the lake, she herself was turned into stone. With regard to the bracelet of Semiramis, the following story is even now commonly told in the neighbourhood of Van:–
Once Semiramis saw a bracelet in the hands of some little boys, who had found it in the river, and were examining it with curiosity. Semiramis, knowing that the bracelet had magic powers, took it away from the children. By means of this jewel, she allured youths to their destruction. This licentiousness brought her into general disfavour. An old man, at last, snatched the bracelet from her and ran with it towards the sea. Semiramis rushed after him in a fury, but, not being able to come up with him, she let down her long hair and used it as a sling to hurl a great rock at him. The weight of the rock pulled out her hair. The rock itself fell into a ditch near Artamet. Semiramis, through fear and amazement, was turned into stone. The old man threw the bracelet into the Lake of Van. Even now a rock is shown at Artamet which bears the name of “the Rock of Semiramis.”
Then Moses of Khorene speaks of Tigranes I., who, in conjunction with Cyrus, put an end to the kingdom of Media. The epics say of Tigranes that “his face was of lovely hue, his eyes were soft and lustrous, his shoulders stalwart, the calves of his legs were well-shaped, he was altogether fair to look upon; in food and drink he was moderate; he was of lofty mind, eloquent in speech, and masterly in the conduct of affairs. Just and equitable, he weighed each man’s acts in the scale of his mind. He was not jealous of the great nor did he despise men of low estate, but spread the mantle of his care over all men alike. He increased our treasures of gold, silver, and precious stones. Under him, men and women wore fine garments, of divers colours, richly embroidered, which made the ill-favoured to look fair and the beautiful to look like demi-gods.
“Tigranes, the bringer of peace and prosperity, caused all men to grow fat with butter and honey. In his day, the infantry became cavalry, slingers became skilful archers, dagger-bearers were equipped with swords, and naked soldiers were provided with shields and armour.”
The historian adds that the splendour of the arms and equipments was enough of itself to drive back the enemy.
As the head of a band of warriors, he performed many valorous deeds:–“We were under the yoke of others, but he put other nations under our yoke and made them our tributaries.”
His rival, Astyages, King of Media, was always suspicious and distrustful of him.
One night Astyages had a terrible dream. The next morning he summoned his courtiers. They found him sighing, looking on the ground with gloomy mien, and heaving groans from the depths of his heart. ” When the courtiers inquired the reason of his behaviour” (continues the historian) ” the king remained silent for hours, then in a sad voice he related his dream, which was as follows:–
“‘To-day I was in an unknown country, close to a mountain, which rose very high above the ground; its summit was covered with ice. It seemed to me to be in Armenia. After I had gazed for a long time, it appeared to me that there was a woman sitting on the summit. Her garments were purple. Her face was covered by a blue veil. Her eyes were beautiful. She was tall, with rosy cheeks. She was in travail, and for a long time I looked on her with admiration, then I beheld her give birth to three heroes, all of equal stature: the first, sitting on a lion, soared towards the west; the second, seated on a leopard, went towards the north; the third, bridling a huge dragon, defiantly attacked our kingdom. In these confused dreams, I seemed to be standing on the roof of my palace, and the covering of my chambers was adorned with beautiful fountains of variegated colours. The gods that had crowned me were standing there, with wondrous faces, and I, with you, was honouring them with incense and sacrifice. Suddenly looking up, I saw the man who was seated on the dragon wing his course in our direction, desiring to overthrow our gods. I advanced to the attack and engaged in fight with that youthful hero. First of all, with lances we pierced each other’s bodies, calling forth rivers of blood, and past our sunlit palace flowed a crimson sea. For hours we fought also with other arms. But, to be brief, the fight ended in my defeat. I was bathed in sweat, sleep forsook me, and ever since I have felt as if I had no life in me. For all these visions signify that the Armenian king, Tigranes, is about to attack us. And whosoever amongst you, by counsel or deeds, wishes to aid me, and aspires to the honour of being a king, equal to myself, let him speak.'”
Then the story goes on to tell how Astyages, in order to prevent Tigranes from making war on him, proposed that his rival’s sister, Tigranuhi, should be his wife; therefore Astyages sent to Tigranes one of his councillors with a letter accompanied by many precious gifts. Moses of Khorene gives the letter, which runs as follows:–
“Thou knowest, beloved brother, that of all the gifts of the gods to us none is more precious than the multitude of our dear ones, especially when they are wise and valiant. The reason of this is that, in such case, quarrels will not arise from outside, and if they arise, they will be unable to make their way within and will disperse themselves. Having seen the great advantage of such relationships, it has entered my mind to confirm and strengthen the love that is between us, so that, both of us being secured on all sides, we may be able to carry on the affairs of our kingdom in greater safety. All this will be ensured, if thou wilt give me to wife thy sister Tigranuhi, the Great Lady of Armenia. I hope that thou wilt look favourably on this proposal, that she may be the Queen of Queens. Mayest thou have a long life, fellow sovereign and dear brother.”
We have presented this letter as a matter of curiosity, because in none of the early European epics are there texts of letters. This usage is characteristically oriental. In Isaiah we read of the letter of Sennacherib to Hezekiah; there is also a letter in the Persian Firdusi’s Shah-nameh.
After his marriage with Tigranuhi, Astyages tried to set her at enmity with her brother, and once he contrived cunningly to entice Tigranes to become his guest in order that he might slay him. But his wife perceived his treachery and secretly sent a message to her brother. Tigranes accepted the invitation of Astyages, but came accompanied by a great army. He postponed his attack till his sister had made her escape. In the battle which ensued, Astyages was killed.
Of this Tigranes, Xenophon says a great deal in his Cyropaedia, from which we cite the following incident:–
The Armenian king having revolted against Cyrus, the latter invaded Armenia and conquered him. Cyrus intended to deal very severely with the rebel monarch, but Tigranes, the son of the Armenian king, persuaded him to be more lenient. Xenophon gives a long conversation, discussing the terms of peace, in the course of which Cyrus asked Tigranes, who was newly married and greatly loved his wife, what he would give to regain her freedom, she having fallen into the hands of the victor, together with the other women of the royal family. “Cyrus,” was the Prince’s reply, “to save her from servitude, I would lay down my life.”
On which Cyrus replied: “Take, then, thine own, for I cannot reckon that she is properly our captive, for thou didst never flee from us.” Then, turning to the king, he added: “And thou, Armenian, take thy wife and children, without paying anything for them, that they may know they come to thee freely.”
On the return of the king and prince, after this interview, there was much talk at the Armenian court about Cyrus; one spoke of his wisdom, another of his patience and resolution, another of his mildness; one also spoke of his beauty, his fine figure and lofty stature, whereupon Tigranes turned to his wife, saying: “Dost thou think Cyrus handsome?”
“Indeed,” she answered, “I never looked at him.” “At whom, then, didst thou look?” asked Tigranes. “At him,” was the reply, “who said that, to save me from servitude, he would give his own life.”
Of all the epics from which Moses of Khorene has derived incidents or of which he gives fragments, the only one that has survived among the people in complete form, with numerous variants, is Sasmadzrer. There is a reference in the Bible to the story which is related in this poem.
In 2 Kings xix. 37, and Isaiah xxxvii. 38, we read:–
“And it came to pass, as he (Sennacherib) was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god, that Adramelech and Sharezer, his sons, smote him with the sword; and they escaped into the land of Armenia.”
Moses of Khorene tells the same story, adding that the Armenian king assigned an abode to Sharezer in the south of Armenia and to Adramelech in the south-east.
The epic, referred to above, relates the doings of the two brothers and their descendants in Armenia, among the rest the founding by them of the city of Sassoon.
The poem is divided into four parts. It is still transmitted orally, word for word, in Armenia; in many places in poetical form. During the last forty years, several versions of it have been taken down in writing and published, and these have received much attention from scholars. We cannot do more than mention this most interesting production; the space at our disposal forbids our giving even an outline of its contents.
So far we have derived our information from the prose versions of passages in the epics found in Moses of Khorene either as quotations or as paraphrased in his own words. But that historian has also given a few extracts from the poems in their original form, being the first historian to do so. To these extracts we now turn.
Although they are very few, they convey some idea of ancient Armenian poetry. The historian says he has himself heard these poems sung to the accompaniment of various musical instruments, of which he gives long and minute descriptions. According to him, these poems were sung chiefly in the province of Goghtan (the present Agulis, in Russian Armenia). This place abounded in gardens and vineyards, and produced a variety of good wines. The people were gay and fond of merry-making. Their love of the old pagan religion and manners still continued long after their conversion to Christianity. In this respect they resembled the Saxons of Germany, and, even in the early part of the fifth century, they observed pagan rites, sometimes openly, sometimes secretly. One of the old Armenian songs, describing the birth of the Armenian king Vahagn, is given in this volume, page 10. This is supposed to be a myth describing the rise of the sun over the sea.
At sunrise the sky gradually becomes light; between the light and the darkness there is a kind of struggle; all nature is waiting in expectancy of a life-giving power, of the rising of the sun. It seems to be this expectancy of nature and man that the poet likens to the travail of heaven, earth, and sea. The “crimson reed” is perhaps the long red gleam sent forth from the East over the sea at dawn.
We have already referred to Vahagn when dealing with Armenian mythology. In, the Armenian translation of the Bible, in 2 Maccabees iv. 19, the name “Vahagn” is substituted for “Hercules.” This name is derived from the Sanscrit words vah, “to bring,” and agn, “fire,” and therefore means “fire-bringer.” In connection with this, it is interesting to compare the Armenian legend with a similar legend in the Rig-Veda. The word “Agni” is the same as “Agn.” The god Agni was born of the rising sun, to the accompaniment of thunder and lightning; of Vahagn the song says: “Out of the flame sprang the child.” “His hair was of fire and a beard had he of flame”; Agni had “flaming hair and a golden beard.” A comparison of the two poems shows that the similarity between them arises, not from the imitation of one poet by the other, but from identity of theme, for the belief in a fire-god or fire-hero, is common to all mythologies. According to Agathangelos, Vahagn was a favourite deity, and his temple at Taron was famous. King Tiridates, when greeting the Armenian people in a manifesto, says: “May Vahagn, of all Armenia, send you courage!” He puts the name of Vahagn after the names of Aramazd and Anahit. But, in Moses of Khorene, Vahagn is little more than an ordinary king, the son of Tigranes I., though the historian gives the story of his birth and his fights with dragons, as related by the poets. He also calls Vahagn the first of the Vahuni or priestly caste; but this caste was far more ancient than the historian thinks, as sun worship is one of the oldest forms of religion. 1
Moses of Khorene says, moreover, that there was an image of Vahagn in Georgia, where he was worshipped as a god. As to the form of this poem–we note the parallelism, similar to that of the old Hebrew songs: “To Sisera a prey of diverse colours, a prey of diverse colours of needlework, of diverse colours of needlework, on both sides ” (Judges v. 30). 1
The Song of Deborah, from which we have just quoted, is supposed to be the oldest passage in the Bible, and is a good specimen of ancient oriental poetry.
The songs quoted in Moses of Khorene are also examples of this poetry, and will therefore be welcome to scholars, as throwing light on this class of ancient literature.
The ancient Armenian form of verse has, doubtless, its own national peculiarities. One of its characteristics is that it consists of one main idea expressed in two or more sentences, regularly connected with one another. There are no complex sentences, only short simple ones, and the manner of expression is direct and definite, but, in order that they may not tire the ear by monotony, they are, by means of parallelism, systematically interwoven so as to form one consistent whole. Thus the different sentences become related to one leading thought. The words are carefully chosen and harmonious to the ear. Metaphor and allegory abound. In colour and splendour these songs might vie with any classical poem, and their existence is a proof that long before the Christian era the Armenians had a perfected poetical language, which, in its construction, imaginative force, brilliancy, and grammatical development, bears the impress of literary culture.
Most of the nouns and adjectives in this poem are in the diminutive form, which expresses endearment
|karmrik = reddish||egheknik = little reed||patanekik = little boy|
|achkunk = little eyes||aregakunk = little suns|
The adjectives used here do not qualify the nouns, but simply serve as epithets, or attributes, like the adjectives in the Homeric poems. The Armenian word dzirani, 2 used in this poem, does not always mean “red”; applied to a robe it means “red,” applied to a belt it means “variegated”; it may originally have had the sense of “pleasing” (cf. Russian krasni, which originally meant “beautiful,” but now denotes only “red-coloured”). Another of these extant songs, belonging to the time before the Christian era, has, as its theme, the love story of King Artashes II., one of the greatest kings of the Arsacid dynasty. The former, as well as all the other stories we have mentioned, belong to the Haikazian dynasty, but the story of Artashes II. belongs to the Arsacid dynasty and is contained in the second book of Moses of Khorene, the contents of which are less legendary than those of the first book. When narrating the story of Artashes, the historian addresses himself to Sahak Bagratuni, by whose command his history was written, in these terms:–
“The doings of Artashes are known to thee, through the epical songs which are sung in the province of Goghtan; that is to say, his founding of Artaxata (Artashat), 1 his alliance by marriage with the royal house of the Alans, his sons and their descendants, the loves of Satenik with the Vishapazuns (progeny of dragons) who were of the race of Astyages; his wars with them, the overthrow of their dynasty, their slaughter, the burning of their palaces, the rivalries of the sons of Artashes, the intrigues of their wives, which further fomented the discord amongst them. Although these things are well known to thee through the epical songs, I will, nevertheless, narrate them again and will explain their allegorical meaning.”
Then Moses of Khorene gives, in detail, a prose account of the deeds of Artashes and his son Artavazd, as they are related in the epic of Artashes, quoting, in the course of his narrative, the songs given in this volume on pages 48 and 49.
Besides these songs, there are included in the history two or three metrical lines, which must be extracts from the epic. One of these lines contains the reply of the Alan king when he is asked to give his daughter in marriage to Artashes: “From whence shall brave . . .” (see for the rest page 48, the last lines, in this volume). The same poem contains a description of the wedding (see page 49 of this volume).
We learn from ancient Armenian historians that weddings were times of great festivity, especially royal weddings. All the people of the country, old and young, were astir. In the great square they danced and sang, hand in hand. There was a special kind of song sung on these occasions, called “Tzutzk.”
The marriage of Satenik was unhappy, because, besides the Vishapazuns, she loved Argavan, the chief of the Median prisoners, who was greatly honoured by Artashes. Another of the verses quoted by Moses of Khorene refers to this amour of Satenik. These lines throw some light on the nature of ancient Armenian metre. We quote the text here:–
“Tencha Satenik tenchans
Ev ztitz khavardzi
I bardzitzn Argavana.”
The sense of the passage is not very clear, as it contains two words the signification of which is disputed. M. Emin holds that the meaning of these two words is the same, both signifying “crown,” and he interprets the line as saying that Satenik loves Argavan so dearly that she would gladly exchange her royal crown for his princely diadem. After much controversy among scholars, Professor Khalatian discovered that, in one Armenian dialect, these words are the names of certain plants, about which there was a superstition that, if they were put under the pillow of the beloved being, and afterwards under the pillow of the lover, mutual affection would be ensured; therefore, according to Professor Khalatian, the passage means that Satenik was desirous of getting these plants from under Argavan’s pillow.
In the time of Artashes science and poetry flourished.
One of the sons of this king, Vroir, was a poet; another was Artavazd, who was disliked by the people. The poem says that, when the prince was born, the Vishapazuns stole him, and substituted a devil in his place, and it was this evil spirit that went by the name of Prince Artavazd.
In this poem, also, there is an account of the obsequies of Artashes, which were celebrated with great splendour, for he was dearly beloved by his subjects, many of whom committed suicide at his grave, not caring to survive him. His son Artavazd, who was present, became very jealous and uttered a complaint which Moses of Khorene gives in the words of the epic (see page 65 of this volume).
We have omitted many other incidents of the story of Artashes, as given by Moses of Khorene, but it may be gathered, from what we have of the Artashes epic, that the whole poem was very lengthy.
From other sources we know that the poem was sung by minstrels as late as the eleventh century, for the well-known scholar of that time, Grigor Magistros, says in one of his writings that he has heard it, and he quotes some of its lines in their original form.
Artashes died in a foreign country while engaged in a campaign. In his last moments he is seized with home-sickness, as he remembers his fatherland. He recalls the spring of life and of the year, when the light of dewy morn, like a thin mist, is spreading over the towns and villages. The poem gives his dying words:–
“Who will give me the smoke of the chimneys and the morn of Navasard, 1
The running of the stag and the coursing of the deer?
We sounded the horn and beat the drum
As is the manner of kings.”
We have already said that Artashes was a popular king, much beloved by his people, whose death was greatly lamented; this being so, no doubt the Artashes epic must have contained some striking dirges, composed in honour of this monarch, but unfortunately neither Moses of Khorene nor Grigor Magistros records any such songs in connection with him. The despair and melancholy which cast their shadow over pagans is conspicuous in ancient Armenian funeral songs. There were companies of professional mourners, called egheramark (“mothers of lamentation”), also there were groups of singing maidens. All these followed the corpse, dressed in black, with dishevelled hair, solemnly clapping their hands and moving in a slow dance. Moses of Khorene gives details of such obsequies as we have mentioned. Even now in some parts of Armenia such companies of mourners exist. Faustus Byzand describes minutely the funeral of a prince and gives also an account of the funeral of Queen Tigranuhi, of whom we have already spoken, adding that the songs sung in her praise, on this occasion, were such that Tigranes felt that they uttered all that was passing in his own mind.
The subjects of funeral songs were the life of the deceased, his stature, the manner of his death, and his domestic relations, so that a collection of these songs would furnish a biography.
We have also details of these dirges from other sources. The song opens with a prologue, addressing the deceased and calling on him to arise from his slumbers and carry on his usual occupations. It then goes on to rebuke him for being deaf to the prayers of the survivors and vouchsafing neither word nor smile. Next comes a description of the new dwelling that the departed has chosen for himself; the grave–an abode without doors or windows. Then comes a repetition of the words spoken by the dead man during his last illness, followed by a series of laudatory epithets, and finally there is the recognition that all prayers for his recovery have been unanswered, followed by an epilogue, taking farewell of the deceased and sending messages by him to dead relatives and friends.
We learn from Moses of Khorene that, in his time, besides the epics, there was other pre-Christian Armenian literature, written and unwritten, of various kinds. We have had examples of songs and epical stories in their gradual development from the stage when man was weak and ignorant, when the people sought after the supernatural and the marvellous, and the subject of epic songs was the mystic relation between nature and man, to the stage when the heroes are no longer gods, but men endowed with valour and every other virtue, without spot or flaw. The stories we have described are sufficient to prove that Armenia had a large store of epic and heroic poems, of which unhappily only fragments have come down to us.
Some specimens of other branches of pre-Christian literature figuring in the list of Moses of Khorene are Temple Books and Histories of Temples. Throughout ancient times members of the priestly class were the chroniclers of the nation’s history and its instructors in wisdom; and there is no doubt that this was the case in Armenia. We know that the famous Gnosticos Bardazan, in the second century A.D., came to Armenia to collect material for his history, and in the fortress of Ani he made extracts from the Temple History, which was a chronicle of the doings of the Armenian kings.
Armenia had its own written histories which were, for the most part, destroyed on the introduction of Christianity in the fourth century A.D. Moses of Khorene mentions an Armenian historian named Ughup, who was a priest presiding over the temple of Ani in 150 B.C.
To continue the list–we find Books of the Kings, containing chronicles of kings and their works, and Collections of Historical Songs, which were kept in the temples. These collections were in existence in the fifth century A.D. Moses of Khorene gives extracts from them and they were also sung by minstrels.
Tueliatz Songs recounted the doings of kings and princes in chronological order, hence their name, Tueliatz, or chronicles.
There were also other species of literature, such as Historical Legends, not included in the list, from which Moses of Khorene makes quotations elsewhere, such as the History of the Origin of the Bagratuni Race, the History of Haik, and four other books, without titles, of which he speaks with great admiration.
There is mention of a poet, by name David, who wrote The Wars between Armenia and Media, founding his narrative on Armenian minstrel songs. Unfortunately, none of his works have come down to us.
There is also mention of an Armenian translation, from the Greek, of an epic called Legends of Aramasdes and Hermia. Some scholars think that this must be one of the lost books of Homer, as there are still extant some fragments of an Armenian translation of the Homeric poems.
The Hindoos believed that originally dramas were invented by the gods and were performed in heaven. They were brought to earth by Brahma and introduced to men. Whether the ancient Armenians held a similar belief we cannot tell, but it appears that they had, in early times, a drama of their own. The themes of their plays were the doings of the gods of the earth, but there is no record that in Armenia drama ever reached such a high level as it attained in Greece. It may be noticed that, though Persia, the neighbour of Armenia, was rich in lyric and epic poetry, it produced no dramatic literature. It is true that, in Mohammedan times, the Persians had a religious drama; but this merely formed part of their worship and has never had an independent development.
But the Armenians must have done better, as mention is made of Armenian drama by Greek and Roman writers, from whom we learn that King Artavazd I. 1 wrote tragedies, some of which were known to Plutarch. We also learn from Plutarch and others that, in the time of Tigranes II., there were theatres in Armenia, and Plutarch records that, when Lucullus entered Tigranocerta, he found a body of actors busily engaged in preparing to produce a drama in the theatre newly built by Tigranes, and made use of them in the games and other public diversions in honour of his victory. Armenian historians also make mention of the theatres in Armenia. As late as the fifth century A.D., Hovhannes Mandakuni, a religious author, wrote an essay against theatres and actors, which shows that, even after the introduction of Christianity, drama survived in Armenia.
At later periods, in Law Books, restrictions on theatres are mentioned.
In order to determine the date of the Heroic Poems, we must define the different periods of Armenian history. It is now generally accepted by scholars that, towards the end of the seventh century B.C., the Vannic or Chaldean kingdom fell before the invading hordes of Cimmerians or Scythians, and, during the period of anarchy, Armenians also entered the country, which was henceforth to bear the name of “Armenia.” The only uncertainty with regard to this migration is about the date. It is universally agreed that it cannot have been later than the seventh century B.C., though it may have been earlier. In the fifth century B.C. Xenophon found Armenia an established kingdom under Tigranes I. Vahe was the last of the Haikazian dynasty. He fell in the war with Alexander the Great in 330 B.C.
The next Armenian dynasty was that of the Arsacidae, of which the first king was Wagharshag I., whose reign began in 149 B.C.
All the epical songs that we have mentioned belong to the Haikazian period, except the Artashes Cycle, which belongs to the Arsacid period. During the 185 years between these two periods, there was no national independence to supply themes for new epics and therefore there is no heroic poetry belonging to this interval.
The second period of Armenian literature (before the establishment of Christianity) extends from the accession of the Arsacid dynasty to the fourth century A.D.
During this period, learning flourished and the libraries in the temples and palaces were the centre of culture. The libraries in palaces were open to any one who wished to consult the archives with a view to writing histories of the countries, and in the temples the priests were engaged in compiling records of the past. In these libraries the histories of the Haikazian dynasty were kept. To this period belongs the epic of Artashes.
Under the rule of the Arsacidae, the number of the nobles greatly increased and the chief amusement of the king and the nobility was sport. Nearly every noble had his own park, which was full of all kinds of deer and in which special sporting parties were given. One of the chief attractions of these parties was the minstrels who sang songs specially composed for the occasion. As upwards of seventy families were ennobled under the Arsacidae, and entertainments were given both by them and by those of lower rank, it will be understood that the number of minstrels must have been large.
As we have mentioned, to this period belongs the Artashes Cycle (A.D. 85-126).
We have also some evidence as to the date of the epics from foreign sources. Armenian epics must have been known, not only in Armenia itself, but in other countries. In migration, their form must sometimes have changed, as, in Plato, we have found the legend of Ara transformed into the story of Er. As the story of Ara was known to Plato, we may take for granted that it existed in the fourth century B.C.
Strabo gives an erroneous etymology of the name “Armenia,” which he derives from “Armenios.” 1 Perhaps he had heard of Aram, whose story is told in the epics. This story is known to us through Moses of Khorene, who derives the word “Armenia” from Aram, and says that the country was called by this name only by foreigners. As to the etymology of the word “Armenia,” there are many different opinions which we cannot discuss here; we will only say that the name “Armenia” is found in an inscription of Darius Hystaspes (510 B.C.).
We confine ourselves to one more foreign reference to Armenian epics, viz., that of the philosopher Olympiodorus, who, in an assembly of wise men at Athens, gave an account of an old book which had existed in former times and which contained the history of Noah and his descendants. He added that the incidents related in this book were still sung by Armenian minstrels to the accompaniment of various musical instruments.
133:1 Zarmaïr, another king of this dynasty, took part in the defence of Troy. The historian emphasises the fact that he was killed by Achilles himself.
134:1 It is interesting to recall, in this connection, some passages of Strabo. Speaking of Armenia he says:–“It is said that people passing by the foot of the mountains are often buried in the snow which falls from the summits. In order to be prepared for such a mishap, travellers carry with them two long sticks for the purpose of making breathing places for themselves, should they be covered by the snow. The sticks, at the same time, serve as signals to any other travellers who may happen to be passing.”
139:1 Cf. the original text of the Armenian poem which is as follows:–
|Erkner erkin ev erkir
Erkner ev dzirani dzov
Erkn i dzovun uner
Ŭnd eghegan pogh, dzukh elaner
Ŭnd eghegan pogh, botz elaner,
Ev i botzuin patanekik vazer,
Na hur her uner,
Apa to botz uner morus
Ev achkunkn ein aregakunk.
140:1 The following lines from a Chaldean description of Ut-napisti, the Chaldean Noah’s sacrifice after the Flood, furnish an example from Assyrian poetry:–
“The gods smelled a savour,
The gods smelled a sweet savour,
The gods gathered like flies over the sacrifice.”
140:2 Dziran in Armenian means “apricot,” therefore dzirani =”of apricot colour.”
141:1 Strabo says about Artaxata that it was built upon a design which Hannibal gave to King Artaxes (Artashes), who made it the capital of Armenia, and Tournefort, the famous French botanist, who travelled in Armenia in the seventeenth century, exclaims, in reference to this fact: “Who could have imagined that Hannibal would come from Africa to Armenia to be engineer to an Armenian king? But so it is.”
143:1 April, when the New Year commenced.
145:1 The son of Tigranes the Great.
146:1 “Armenios, one of the Argonauts, who was believed to have been a native of Rhodes or of Armenion in Thessaly, and to have settled in the country which was called after him, Armenia” (Strabo, xi. 530, etc.; Justin, xlii. 2; Steph. Byz. S. V. Αρμενια).
The most momentous event in the national life of Armenia–an event which was the chief determining factor in the early history of the country–was the change of religion made by the adoption of Christianity, the foundation of which had been already laid by King Abgarus (A.D. 3-34) and the preaching of the Apostles St. Thaddeus (A.D. 33-48) and St. Bartholomew (A.D. 49), and finally established by Tiridates (A.D. 286-342). By this the Armenians were entirely severed from the pagan Persians and brought into close contact with the Greeks, whose representative was then the Emperor of Byzantium. As a result of this religious agreement, a treaty was concluded in 319 between Tiridates and Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, by which the two Christian monarchs bound themselves to defend each other against all pagans.
The adoption of Christianity meant, to the Armenians, a revolution in their whole view of life, a severance from their ancestral beliefs, though these beliefs have left traces in Armenian folklore which are visible even to this day. These beliefs and the folklore arising out of them were regarded by the Christian clergy as a poisonous flower grown up in the fields of paganism. The historians of the period have chronicled the efforts of the clergy to exterminate every relic of the old faith. Temples were pulled down and churches built in their stead; images and other monuments were broken in pieces; heathen books and records were destroyed; pagan festivals were turned into Christian ones. We learn from Faustus of Byzantium that laws were even made against the use and the singing of pagan songs, but, notwithstanding this persecution, according to Faustus and other historians, the Armenians “languished for these songs.” Even as late as the fifth century, when there was an attempt to restore paganism in Armenia, Vasak Suni had books of these songs copied and distributed among the people in order to win them back to heathenism. This had the effect of rekindling hostility against the songs, and the books were destroyed when Christianity finally triumphed, although, as we have shown above, echoes of the songs are to be heard as late as the eleventh century.
Gregory the Illuminator (A.D. 239-325), who converted Armenia to Christianity, belonged to the royal race of the Arsacidae. He had studied at Caesarea. He and his family had hellenising tendencies in religion, education, and politics. There was a section opposed to Hellenism which favoured Syrian ideas and, in politics, inclined to Persia. At this early period of Christianity, the Bible was read in Greek in the north-west provinces of Armenia, while in the south-east provinces it was read in Syriac. During this period, schools were established for the education of the young on Christian principles. Out of the pupils in these schools about 100 were chosen to be sent to educational centres abroad, where Greek learning was taught. At the time when this contact of Armenians with Greek culture took place, the ancient glories of Hellas were past, and Greek scholars busied themselves chiefly with theological subtilties. Of course the main object of educating the students from the Christian schools was to indoctrinate them in religious lore and fit them for the priesthood, but, nevertheless, the youths also brought away with them a tincture of Greek culture, and this led to the rise of the Golden Age of Armenian literature.
It was the aim of the Greek Empire at this time to make the Armenian Church a branch of the Greek Church and to gain a political ascendency over the Armenians, but the head of the Armenian Church and the leaders of the intellectual movement were resolved on religious. and national independence. Towards that end two important steps were taken. In 404, the Armenian alphabet was invented, and, in 491, the Armenian Church was separated from the Greek Church.
The Armenian language belongs to the Indo-European group. Though it has been regarded by some as an offshoot of the Iranic branch, recent scholars of eminence have maintained its right to rank as a distinct branch, intermediate between the Iranic and the European. It has a very independent character and many peculiarities of its own; it has also great strength and flexibility. It has a great number of roots, and is capable of expressing ideas of all kinds and denoting fine shades of meaning. It is read from left to right like European languages. It is rich in particles, to which circumstance its expressiveness is partly due. It has also a treasure of dialectic words, which have the effect of importing vigour to Armenian speech. It is not harsh in sound, as has been alleged by some who are imperfectly acquainted with it. Its alphabet consists of thirty-six characters, with which it is possible to represent every variety of sound, consisting of vowels as well as consonants; it has no vowel points, in this respect resembling the European, and differing from most oriental, alphabets. The spelling is almost perfectly phonetic.
The language of the period with which we are dealing was Grabar or Ancient Armenian, which remained the literary language till the beginning of the nineteenth century and is still the Church language, being used in all religious services. Modern Armenian has not departed very widely from Grabar. During pagan times, the Armenians had an alphabet of their own, but, on the introduction of Christianity, it was discarded on account of its pagan origin.
The honour of being the inventor of the new Armenian alphabet belongs to St. Mesrop (361-440), a former secretary of King Tiridates. He found some of the ancient letters and invented others to complete the alphabet in 404. St. Mesrop and St. Sahak (353-439) were the forerunners of the Armenian intellectual movement, the former as the inventor of the alphabet, the latter, together with his pupils, as the translator of the Bible into Armenian. This translation is called “the Queen of Translations.” The language is so simple and direct, and, at the same time, so beautiful, that there is nothing to be compared with it.
The Armenian translation of the Bible is the foundation-stone of Armenian Christianity. Perhaps no translation of the Scriptures has ever made so deep an impression on a people as this one has made on the Armenians. By them it was taken as a symbolical history of their own country. Did not the events recorded in the very first chapters happen in Armenia? and also the second Creation after the Flood? Did not their beloved mountain, Ararat, figure in the latter story? In the Bible they found even the names of their national heroes, Haik and Vahagn, though, as we have seen, for the latter names only the translators are responsible. Other Bible stories resemble the records of Armenian history. Moses led his tribe from the land of bondage into a land of freedom, just as Haik did. All the stories of suffering under a foreign yoke and of revolt against oppression have their parallels in the annals of Armenia.
151:1 Translations of Moses of Khorene: Latin (with Armenian text), Whiston (G. & G.), London, 1736; Italian, Cappelletti (G.), Venice, 1841; Tommaseo (H.), Venice, 1849-50; German, Lauer (M.), Regensburg, 1869; French (with Armenian text), Le Vaillant de Florivel (P. E.), Paris, 1841 (2 vols.), and in Langlois’ Collection, vol. ii.; Russian, M. Emin, Moscow.
At the end of the fourth century (374-383), Nerses the Great was Catholicos. During these ten years he displayed great energy. Under his rule, many councils were held and many regulations drawn up to safeguard the morals of the people. In addition to this, a number of schools, hospitals, orphanages, almshouses, and other charitable institutions arose under his supervision. A contemporary historian says that during Nerses’ term of office, upwards of 2000 abbeys and monasteries were built. These religious houses served as centres, not only of religious life, but also of learning, where numerous ecclesiastics and teachers were trained. This intellectual movement, which was of a purely religious and educational character, not merely lived through the political tempest of those times, but gradually grew and progressed. In the year 400, the representative of the Arsacid dynasty on the throne was Vramshapuh, an able monarch, who, being himself a lover of peace, did much to encourage and foster the intellectual movement and to keep the country free from foreign foes and internal dissensions. King Vramshapuh reigned twenty-one years and it was, approximately, these years that constituted what is called “the Golden Age of Armenian literature.” St. Sahak (353-439), who, with St. Mesrop, was the moving spirit of the intellectual movement, was Catholicos during part of this period.
The Golden Period was of short duration, only lasting twenty-five years, but it was rich in achievements. The students educated abroad on their return originated a new literature, pervaded by Christian ideas. They considered themselves as torch-bearers in the new movement, and all their work is animated by inspiration.
This period is one of marvellous activity. The new national alphabet had charms that wrought like magic and, coupled with the new religion of hope, captivated all Armenian hearts. Armenians realised that it was a religion for the people, not merely for the great and powerful. All over Armenia national schools were opened. Nearly every book of importance written in Greek and Syriac was translated into Armenian, as well as some of the Latin authors. Translation was a recognised profession, and “translator” was a title of honour, like the European “doctor.” There are upwards of fifty chronicles and histories written in ancient Armenian, which is richer in literature than the Greek of the same period, and the Armenian language is so flexible and so well adapted to the exact rendering of every kind of literature that if, for instance, the Anabasis of Xenophon were lost, it might be reproduced in Greek, almost word for word, from the Armenian version. Among the writings which now survive only in Armenian, the originals having been lost, are the Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, two works of Philo on Providence, together with some of his Biblical commentaries, the Chronicle of Eusebius, the works of St. Ephrem and others.
Besides translations, Armenia produced, during the period with which we are concerned, original works, chiefly of an historical character. These give very succinct accounts of the Persian and Mongol invasions, and throw fresh light on the state of the East during the Middle Ages. As these works lie outside our present subject, we cannot here even name their authors. Those who wish to investigate them are referred to what we have written elsewhere. 1
What is most remarkable is that, at the very beginning of the intellectual movement, when the alphabet had just been formed, the literary language is so highly developed, so rich and subtle, that it is more like a language which is the product of centuries of culture. This very fact shows that culture was no novelty in Armenia. The new movement only introduced a fresh era in Armenian civilisation.
Twenty-five years after the introduction of the Armenian alphabet, the Arsacid dynasty fell (428), the last king being Artashir III. From this time the Armenians have ceased to be politically independent.
From 432 onwards, the greater part of Armenia was governed by Persian satraps. The Persians regarded with great apprehension the adoption of Christianity in Armenia, as this caused the Armenians to enter into closer relations with the Greeks. As a matter of fact, at the end of the fourth century, the Greeks came to aid the Armenians in driving away the Persians. It was the aim of the Persians to eradicate Christianity from Armenia. In order to further this object, they declared war on the Greek Empire. The latter, instead of fighting, made peace with the Persians, accepting very humiliating terms. The Armenians were left to their fate, but, nevertheless, they resolved to stand up for their religion against the Persian monarch, who led a great army against them with the intention of enforcing Zoroastrianism. At this time there was no Armenian king. The majority of the remaining princes and nobles, however, formed a regular army, the people gladly serving as volunteers, though there was a very small party, led by Prince Vasak Suni, that were inclined, for political reasons, to entertain the Persian proposals.
All this took place between 449 and 454. The first religious war (451) is known as Vardanantz, because Vardan Mamikonian, who was the commander-in-chief of the Armenian army of defence, was the moving spirit in the struggle of Armenian Christianity against the religion of Persia. He fell in the battle of Avarair, but his fame survived him and he is the most beloved of Armenian heroes.
This war, though it crushed the hopes in which the Armenians had indulged themselves of regaining their political independence, nevertheless convinced the Persians of the impossibility of uprooting a religion which was so firmly implanted in the hearts of the people.
The first religious war was followed by a second, in which the Armenian princes offered a valiant resistance and the Persians were obliged to give way. The leader of the resisting princes was appointed satrap by the Persians. Thus Armenia won back partial independence, the Persians themselves appointing an Armenian satrap and proclaiming religious liberty. The Chief of the Magi, who was sent to convert the Armenians to Mazdiism, returned unsuccessful and reported to the Persian king: “Even if the immortals themselves came to our aid, it would be impossible to establish Mazdiism in Armenia.” Although Vardan and his followers perished in this war, and although the Armenians, apparently, lost the battle, the struggle resulted in the triumph of the ideal for which Armenia was struggling–that of religious freedom. This the Persians realised and never, after this time, did they make any attempt to force the Armenians to change their faith. Neither did any of the various Mohammedan conquerors venture on any steps towards bringing about the conversion of the whole Armenian nation, though they have enforced conformity on a small scale; they have had to content themselves with political supremacy. The Mohammedan world has realised that Christianity is a great power in Armenia, and this is the reason why the religious heads of the nation–the Catholicos and the patriarchs–meet with great consideration, not only from the governments of Christian states, but also from Mohammedan powers; both by Christian and by Mohammedan countries which have rule over Armenia these dignitaries are recognised as representatives of their country, not only in religious, but also in secular affairs. Thus the Christian National Church has been one of the chief factors of the unity and the national consciousness which exists among Armenians even up to the present day, and this is the reason why the battle of Vardan is regarded as a national triumph and is still annually commemorated. 1
154:1 See Travel and Politics in Armenia, by Noel Buxton, MP., and Rev. Harold Buxton; with Introduction by Viscount Bryce and a Contribution on Armenian History and Culture by Aram Raffi. Smith, Elder & Co. 1914.
When Armenia had ceased to be an independent state, its literature became more religious, as the clergy were anxious to foster devotion. Christianity introduced a new kind of poetry, namely, Church hymns and chants. These were called, in Armenian, sharakans. They were not only written in metre, but they were composed with a view to being sung. The word sharakan means a “row of gems.” Historians of the Middle Ages say that the sharakans were mainly written by the “translators,” i.e., by writers of the fourth and fifth centuries. As a matter of fact, very few sharakans were written after the thirteenth century. Since then, no prayers or hymns have been introduced into the Armenian Church.
It is said by writers of the Middle Ages that St. Sahak arranged the sharakans for ten voices and St. Stephanos for twenty-six voices, corresponding to created things–elements, plants, birds, and animals. There were also women sharakan writers. One of these was Sahakadukht, who lived in the eighth century. She not only wrote, but also composed music, and taught singing. Out of modesty, she used to hide behind a curtain, whence she gave instruction to both sexes. An historian of the time, Ghevond Eretz, says of her sharakans: “They were angelic songs on earth.” Singing was considered a great art in Armenia, and musicians were called “philosophers.” Several of such “philosophers” were canonised and had the word “philosopher” prefixed to their names. The fame of some of these musicians spread to foreign lands. This explains the fact that, when Catholicos Petros Getadardz went to Constantinople, he took with him a company of musicians, whom he presented, as a gift, for the service of the Byzantine court.
There was a revival of sharakan-writing in the thirteenth century, which was a flourishing literary period. It was during this time that Bishop Khachatour Tarinetzi invented distinctively Armenian musical notes, which are quite unrelated to European ones, so that the Armenians had now, not only an alphabet of their own, but also their own musical notation, and their hymns could be set to music. This notation was improved in the eighteenth century.
Armenian hymns are written in a style which is not only picturesque, but which also has a charm of its own; its colours are very rich; the pictures it conjures up are vivid. When one remembers that many of them were written when national life and death were hanging in the balance, because of foreign oppression, at a time when they had no one to turn to but the Creator, we understand how it is that so much tenderness, hope, and devotion are embodied in these “rows of gems,” nor can one help thinking that Armenian is the natural language for religious poems. A vein of mysticism runs through many of these hymns, especially through those written by Gregory of Narek (951-1009), one example of which–“The Christ-Child”–appears on page 113 of this volume. But this mysticism is not obscure; on the contrary, it is to the hymn what light and shade are to a picture serving to bring it into touch with nature.
Hymns have always been popular among the Armenians. Even peasants know them by heart and sing them. The hymn tunes are unique, being entirely independent of those of other Christian nations. Their somewhat strange rhythm recalls the chorus of singers round the altars of the pagan gods. No doubt some pagan melodies have found their way into the Christian hymn tunes of Armenia.
The Armenians are rich in folksongs. The music to which these songs are set possesses great charm. In it, also, the rhythm is most important. An Armenian composer, speaking of these folksongs, says:–
“By means of those ethereal and heavenly waves of melody one sees enchanting mermaids who, after dancing on the banks of large and small lakes and poising themselves on the waters, allure towards themselves the pagan Armenians, offering love kisses to all minstrels.”
In later years Armenian music and poetry were affected by European influence, but in her hymns and folksongs she has musical treasures that are all her own.
Side by side with the written literature of this period, the unwritten literature continued to grow. The latter consists mainly of folktales, fables, and proverbs.
It is easy to distinguish a Christian folktale from a pagan one by the different ideals embodied in it. Some of the folktales of this period have arisen out of historical events.
In the folktales, it is the youngest child that is the hero or heroine. These stories express the people’s outlook on life and are the product of their experiences, which have been handed down from generation to generation.
There is a great deal of folklore current in Armenia, some of which has been collected and published.
Grigor Magistros says that, in his time, unwritten fables in rhyme were very popular.
There are also many Armenian proverbs. It seems to have been a custom in ancient times –and the usage is still retained in some places–for a man to go and meet the girl he wishes to marry on the banks of a stream or in a forest and to ask her a riddle. If she gives the correct answer to the riddle, he marries her.
Here are a few of the riddles used on these occasions:–
“What paper is it that you cannot write on? and what sort of pen can write on this paper?”
A maiden who desires to marry the man should answer:–
“The heart is the paper on which no pen can write; language is the pen that writes on the heart.”
“What rose is it that opens in the winter and in due time fades and is gone?”
Answer: “Snow is the rose that opens in the winter; when summer comes, it fades and is gone.”
“The brother chases the sister, the sister the brother, but neither can catch the other.”
Answer: “The sun and the moon.”
There is another usage, belonging especially to young girls, which has given rise to an extensive literature. This literature consists of charm-verses, which are used for fortune-telling. A selection of these is given on pages 67-68.
Once a year, on the Eve of Ascension Day, young maidens who want their fortunes told decorate a bowl with certain specially selected flowers. Into this bowl each girl casts a token –a ring, a brooch, a thimble. After filling the bowl with flowers of seven different kinds, and water drawn from seven springs, they cover it with an embroidered cloth and take it by night to the priest, who says a prayer over it. They then put it out in the moonlight, open to the stars, leaving it till dawn. Next morning, at daybreak, furnished with provisions for the whole day, they go out of the village carrying the bowl, to the side of a spring, to the foot of a mountain, or into an open field, gathering, on the way, various kinds of flowers, with which they deck themselves. Arrived at their destination, they first play games, dance, and sing, then they take a beautiful little girl, too young to tell where the sun rises, who has been previously chosen for their purpose and gaily dressed for the occasion, and who does not know to whom each token belongs, and cover her face with a richly wrought veil, so that she may not see what is in the bowl. The child draws the articles out of the bowl, one by one, and holds each in her hand. While she does this, one of the party recites a charm-song, and the owner of each token takes the song which accompanies it as her fortune.
There are thousands of these charm-songs. In form they are very simple. Sometimes two consecutive lines deal with quite distinct subjects, though they rhyme together and their construction is the same. Each is a perfect poem.
After the end of the Arsacid dynasty, Armenia remained under the rule of Persia for two hundred years. During this period, sometimes the whole country fell temporarily into the hands of the Greeks; on other occasions the same fate befell a few provinces. Speaking generally, after the fall of the Arsacidae, the eastern–and more extensive–part of Armenia remained under Persian rule, and the western–and smaller–part came under Greek dominion. The Greeks and the Persians were continually fighting with one another for the possession of the whole country. Armenia was the battlefield, and the sufferer was always the Armenian people. After the Arabs had embraced Mohammedanism, they formed a powerful empire, conquering Mesopotamia and then passing on to Persia. They forced the Persians to become Mohammedans, and in 640 entered Armenia. Eastern Armenia, which was then in the hands of the Persians, fell into their possession.
The Greeks greatly dreaded the taking of Armenia by the Arabs, as it formed a strong barrier against the assault of the Greek colonies in Asia Minor. Therefore, as they had before fought in Armenia against the Persians, so they now proceeded to fight against the Arabs; and again Armenia was the battlefield and the sufferers were the Armenians. The Greeks came from time to time demanding tribute of them, and if their demand were resisted, the people were plundered and slaughtered. On the departure of the Greek army, the Arabs came, making the same demand. Thus, during the first two hundred years following the fall of the Arsacidae, the Armenians were between the two fires of the Persians and the Greeks, and then for another two hundred years between the two fires of the Greeks and the Arabs. During this period, the Armenian princes offered resistance from time to time and succeeded in regaining independence for short intervals. The governors set by the Arabs over Armenia were in the habit of persecuting the native princes, to prevent them from organising revolts. Of these governors, the most bloodthirsty were Kashm and Bugha. The former cunningly invited all the Armenian princes to the town of Nakhejevan, where they assembled in the church; whereupon, by order of the government, the church was surrounded by piles of wood and set on fire, and the princes burnt alive (704). The army was then set to plunder and slaughter the Armenians and burn the towns and villages, as the people, deprived of their princes, could offer no resistance. Many were exiled to the Arab capital, Damascus. Bugha (850) surpassed even Kashm in his cruelty, but we need not chronicle his atrocities here. Under such governors as these, the tribute and the taxes were enormous, and the people became very poor. There were, however, also good governors, during whose rule the people were free from oppression and were allowed to pursue their peaceful occupations.
But gradually the power of the Arabs declined.
156:1 The history of this war is recorded by Eghishé, a contemporary ecclesiastic, whose work is more widely read than any book except the Bible. He is a poet rather than an historian.
The Armenians took advantage of the weakening of the Arab power to form independent kingdoms. One of the principal noble families during the period of Arab dominion was that of the Bagratuni. This family was rich and powerful and had much land in its possession. Under the Arsacidae, the head of this family was hereditary “coronator” (i.e., he had the privilege of putting the crown on the king’s head, on the occasion of a new sovereign). During the rule of the Arabs, the command of the Armenian army was given to this family. The Bagratuni, though extremely courageous and patriotic, were also cautious and tactful in their relations with the Arabs, whom they served faithfully, thus gaining the respect of the Khalifs. As they also won the love and esteem of their own countrymen by rebuilding and restoring what the Arabs had destroyed, they were able to act as mediators between the Khalifs and the Armenian people. In wars against the enemies of the Arabs, members of this family had many successes. Once a Persian prince revolted against the Khalif and a Persian army of 80,000 marched into Armenia. The Arabs were too weak to make any resistance, but Ashot Bagratuni with his troops defeated the invaders. After the victory, the Khalif of Bagdad sent a crown to Ashot, thus making him a king, thinking, “He is so powerful that, if I do not give him a crown, he will seize one for himself.”
Thus in 885 Ashot became the first king of the Bagratuni dynasty. The Greek emperor, Basil I., also sent a crown to Ashot, with a view to gaining the friendship and influence of Armenia. During the dominion of the Bagratuni, the régime of the Arsacidae was restored and the country prospered. Ani, which was the seat of government during the greater part of this period, though formerly it was little more than a fortress, became one of the most flourishing cities of the time. It was full of fine edifices–churches, palaces, museums, etc.–and was called “the city of a thousand and one churches.” Its fame even spread to foreign lands.
There were several other noble Armenian families with ambitions. In 908 one of these–the Ardzruni family–made the lands they held into a kingdom, called Vaspurakan, with Van as a capital city. In taking this step they were encouraged by the Arabs, who were watching with alarm the growing power of the Bagratuni.
In 908 another Armenian kingdom was set up with Kars as its capital.
Ashot III., who was then the king of the Bagratuni dynasty, was quite aware that the Arabs were encouraging the formation of small Armenian kingdoms, but he offered no opposition, leaving his rivals alone to serve the people each in his own way.
This Ashot was one of the greatest sovereigns of this dynasty. He was called “Ashot the Compassionate” because of his love of the people and his numerous charitable provisions for their benefit. It was said that he would never dine without sending for some beggars out of the street to share the meal with him.
The most renowned as well as the wisest and most powerful king of this dynasty was Gagik I. (990-1020), under whom the country enjoyed its period of greatest prosperity.
The danger of the Arabs was past, but now a new peril threatened the East, that of the Seljukian Turks, who came from Central Asia in search of a new country. Persia and Mesopotamia fell before them and they entered Armenia. Several of the Armenian princes offered them stout resistance with some success, but, fearing that this success was only temporary, others transferred themselves and their subjects to more secure parts of the country.
The Seljuks conquered Persia and established a Persian kingdom of their own, but the new Persia was no longer Zoroastrian, but Mohammedan. Armenia again became a battlefield. The Greeks also claimed the city of Ani, and this led to many conflicts in which the Armenians made a brave defence. The town, however, fell through treachery and the Greeks devastated some parts of the country, treating the inhabitants no better than the Arabs and the Seljuks had done. In order to weaken the power of Armenia, they also made attempts to exterminate the native princes and nobles.
About the same time, the Seljuks again invaded Armenia and completed the desolation which the Greeks had begun. They wrought great destruction in Ani.
The last king of the Bagratuni dynasty was unable to re-establish his kingdom and was killed by the Greeks. His two sons and his grandson were poisoned. So ended the race of the Bagratuni whose dynasty had lasted 160 years.
During the rule of this house, the country had a period of rest and the energies of the people were directed to the restoration and development of the country. The ruined monasteries and churches were rebuilt, schools were again established; commerce, arts, and handicrafts throve. This was a particularly flourishing time for the national architecture, which now assumed a new character. Most of the Armenian abbeys and churches were built during this time, and as these places had always been seats of learning, alternative erudition revived, original writing and the transcription of manuscripts going on briskly within the convent walls. The literature of this period is chiefly of a religious character. In it we see traces of Arabic influence–the influence of the eighth century, when Arabic literature was at its zenith. The chief debt of Armenian literature to the Arabs is the introduction of rhyme, which is first found in Armenian verse in the eleventh century.
In dealing with this period, as we are only concerned with Armenian poetry, we must leave unmentioned the historians and other famous prose writers.
The most remarkable Armenian poet under the Bagratuni dynasty was GRIGOR NAREKATZI (951-1009), who has been called the Pindar of Armenia and has also been canonised as a saint. From his pen came elegies, odes, panegyrics, and homilies. His sacred elegies (ninety-five in number) are elevated in style, showing Arabian influence, and very pure in sentiment. His canticles and melodies are still chanted in the Armenian Church. Verbosity is a characteristic of his work; in one passage the word “God” is accompanied by ninety adjectives.
He was greatly loved and revered by the people, but he aroused jealousy in some of his ecclesiastical colleagues. On one occasion, they went to the Catholicos with accusations against him. The Catholicos appointed priests to investigate the case. These priests repaired to the abbey where Grigor Narekatzi was, arriving about dinner time on a Friday. To their surprise they found roast pigeons on the table, and reminded Grigor that it was fast-day, whereupon the latter said, addressing himself to the pigeons: “If that be so, off with you!” and the roasted birds took to themselves wings and flew away. The astonished investigators, without going into the case, turned back and reported the miracle to the Catholicos. Of course this is an extravagant legend, but it shows the high estimation in which Grigor Narekatzi was held by his contemporaries.
The greatest work of this writer and the one on which his fame rests is Narek. It is divided into ninety-five chapters, and is a tragic devotional monologue composed of poetical prayers. Here the author reveals his heart and soul in converse with God. Hope, fear, love, faith, repentance, entreaty, aspiration, breathe as if mingled with tears in fine and noble lines and periods. There is a copious stream of epithets, a flood of rhetoric, an unfailing flow of ideas. With all this wealth of diction, this work is sincere and strikingly original, and gives evidence of the author’s high-soaring imagination. He begins with an address to God, in which he represents himself as one of the vilest of creatures, saying that, if all the trees in all the forests of the world were pens and all the seas ink, they would not suffice to write down his sins, but towards even such sinfulness as this the mercy of God is great, and the Creator is so powerful that it will be possible for Him to bleach the sins as white as snow.
This work gives evidence that its author had, on the one hand, great love of God and a firm faith, and on the other hand a vivid imagination and poetic fire. All this he has worded together with great skill.
Narek is a mingling of prose and verse. It begins in prose and then breaks into verse, then again, after continuing to some length, returns to prose, and so on. It was printed for the first time in 1673 at Constantinople; in all thirty editions have been published in different places. It stands by itself, being the only long mystic work in Armenian literature, mysticism being quite alien to the typical Armenian mind. Even the mysticism of Narek and a few other works of the same period has its own peculiarities. It is not so obscure as ordinary mysticism, partaking, rather, of the nature of allegory. Notwithstanding its unusual character, Narek was formerly regarded with veneration little short of that accorded to the Bible itself. Within recent times superstitious people ascribed to it miraculous medical qualities, believing that if certain chapters were read over a patient he would be cured. It was also believed that if any one read certain chapters–forty in number–with concentrated attention, banishing thought of everything else, he would have the power of controlling devils, but this it is said is very difficult and even dangerous, because while the reading is going on, evil spirits come and try to distract the mind of the reader, annoying, terrifying, and even torturing him; if his attention wanders, he may become possessed. All this shows the value and importance that were attached to Narek. At the end of this work, the author states that he finished writing it in the year 1001-2. Gregory of Narek also wrote several songs. Some of his prayers and sharakans are used in the church services. Another great writer of this period was Grigor Magistros ( -1058) who produced poetry of some value. He was of princely lineage and, unlike the Armenian authors who were his predecessors or contemporaries, he was a layman. He gained reputation as a linguist, a scholar, and a writer, and was one of the greatest politicians of his time. He received the title of “duke” from the Greek emperors Constantine and Monomachus. Early in life he gave up politics and retired to his estate, where he devoted himself to literary pursuits. He wrote both poetry and prose. His chief poetical work is a long metrical narration (a thousand lines in extent) of the principal events recorded in the Bible, from the Creation to the Resurrection of Christ. The author states that this work was written in three days at the request of a Mohammedan noble who wished to make acquaintance with the Christian Scriptures and who, after reading the poem, became converted to Christianity. Grigor Magistros was almost the first poet to adopt the use of rhyme, introduced into Armenia by the Arabs. In his work Grigor Magistros tells some interesting stories which he has learnt from the peasants. One is the following. The lark, fearing that heaven would fall down, lay on her back, stretching up her feet towards the sky, thinking she would thus prevent the catastrophe. Some laughed at her and said, “With your spindle legs, you want to become a tree, O bird, with a mind capacious as the sea.” The lark replied, “I am doing what I can.”
At the end of the eleventh century, chronicles and histories were written in ancient Armenian (Grabar), but there was also a language of the people, in which books for popular use, such as collections of medical recipes, began to be written at this period, as well as songs. When the country again lost its independence many migrations took place. It was not only peasants and citizens who migrated; some of the nobles also sought more secure dwelling places in mountainous districts. The majority of these settled in the region of the Taurus Mountains, and there the emigrants multiplied to such an extent that they equalled the Greeks in number. In their new home they built many churches and abbeys, where they educated the boys of the settlement. Soon they established a number of villages and small towns, and the princes set up fortresses. The Byzantine emperors rather encouraged this progress, as they thought that the existence of small buffer-states on their frontier would serve as a barrier against the attacks of Mohammedan countries. One of these princes, Rubin by name, established himself there in 1080. He chose an impregnable stronghold, and the Armenians of the neighbourhood came and put themselves under his protection. Other Armenian princes, settled in the surrounding districts, adopted him as their chief. Having concentrated and strengthened his power, he ruled his little realm–which was called, after him, the Rubinian Principality–with great wisdom for fifteen years. He was succeeded by his son, Constantine, in 1095. Constantine extended his dominions by taking some almost impregnable fortresses from the Greeks. During his reign many Europeans began to come, with their armies, to the East. They wore the badge of the cross on their arms, and were therefore called “Crusaders.” They cleared Palestine and Syria of Mohammedans and set up new Christian principalities in those countries. The Armenians called these strangers “Latins” because they were all Catholics of the Roman Church. Constantine rendered great services to the Crusaders by furnishing them with guides, providing them with provisions, etc., and the European princes, as an acknowledgment, conferred on him the title of “marquis.”
The successors of Constantine extended still further the boundaries of the principality. After gaining possession of the mountains and strongholds, they came to the plains of Cilicia and imposed their rule as far as the sea-coast. At this time the Byzantine Empire was very
weak, and the Mohammedan Seljuks and Arabs were not very strong, as they had become divided among themselves and were engaged in strife with one another. The Crusaders had also formed new Christian principalities in those regions, so that the Rubinians had no fears either of Mohammedans or of any other foe. Precisely one hundred years after the accession of Rubin I., the Armenians possessed the extensive reach of territory between the Taurus Range and the sea, where they had built many fortresses, towns, and even ports.
Leo II. (1185) succeeded in repelling the attacks of the Sultan of Damascus and other Mohammedan rulers, even taking some towns from them.
During this period, Saladin, Sultan of Egypt, taking advantage of dissension among the crusading princes, attacked them, and took Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine (1187).
Then a new Crusade was started, led by the German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. This monarch sent emissaries to Leo, asking his help against the Mohammedans, promising him a crown as a reward. Leo supplied the Crusaders with provisions and rendered them other assistance. Barbarossa died without fulfilling his promise, but the crown was sent by his successor, Henry VI., after consultation with the Pope of Rome. Leo was crowned king in 1198. The following year, the new Armenian king also obtained recognition from the Byzantine Emperor, who sent him a crown. Leo still further extended his dominions and put the whole kingdom into excellent condition. He did not, like the Bagratunis, re-establish the régime of the Arsacidae, but tried to imitate European institutions, inviting many French, English, and German experts to his kingdom, giving them appointments in the court, the army, and the council. Many new schools were opened in this reign in which the teaching was entrusted to learned Europeans as well as to Armenians.
Arts and handicrafts, commerce and agriculture also flourished under this king. Leo died in 1219 after a reign of thirty-four years. For his great services to his people, he was called “Leo the Benefactor.”
It was under the rule of this king that Armenia entered into close relations with Europe. Just as the Zoroastrian Persians and afterwards the Greeks had inflicted all kinds of persecutions on the Armenians in order to convert them to their religions, so also in the reign of Leo II. and for many years afterwards the popes of Rome did everything possible to make the Armenians join their Church. The popes promised the Armenians help against the Mohammedans, they even offered to organise a Crusade, but the first condition was that the Armenians should become Catholics. When the Armenians did not accept these advances, a number of Catholic priests came to Armenia and tried to convert them. These priests were called “Unitors.” At this time the Tartars (who were heathens) became very strong and conquered Persia. The Armenian king when this conquest took place was Hetum. This king, though he maintained friendly relations with the courts of Europe, attached little weight to promises emanating from these quarters; he therefore formed an alliance with the Tartars against the Mohammedans. He tried to indoctrinate his new allies in Christian ideas and almost effected their conversion to Christianity. That he did not quite gain his object is due to external causes. Hetum, in conjunction with the Tartars, fought successfully against many Mohammedan sultans, but the Egyptian mamelukes grew strong and the Tartars became Mohammedans (1302), whereupon enmity arose between them and the Armenians. Three Mohammedan races–Seljuks, Tartars, and mamelukes–one after another attacked Cilicia, devastating the country and plundering many towns. The Armenians asked assistance from the Pope and from European kings; help was promised from France, but it never came, so the Tartars conquered Cilicia and slew its king, who, however, was avenged by his youngest brother, Ashin, who collected an army and drove the Tartars out of the country (1308).
The Mohammedan kingdoms became very powerful at this time. The mamelukes dominated, besides Egypt, Arabia, Palestine, and Syria as far as the Euphrates.
The common aim of all the Mohammedan governments was to destroy the independent kingdom of Armenia, because it was the only Christian state in Asia that was capable of rendering assistance to European sovereigns should any of them enter on a new Crusade in order to gain possession of the Holy Sepulchre. When the mamelukes heard that the European states were planning a new Crusade, they formed an alliance with the Tartars and the Sultan of Iconia and devastated Cilicia. But the Armenians made a brave defence and the mamelukes granted a peace for fifteen years. By this peace it was agreed that the King of Armenia should pay a certain amount of tribute and the mamelukes should restore the places they had taken. Again there was talk of a Crusade, and the Sultan of Egypt again attacked Cilicia. Leo V. (King of Armenia) asked for help from Europe, but the only assistance given was 10,000 florins sent by the King of France and a few sacks of corn from the Pope. This was not what the Armenians wanted; in fact they were again left to their fate. The Mohammedan sultan offered to restore Leo’s kingdom if he would swear on the Cross and the Gospels that he would have no dealings with the Crusaders. Leo V. died in 1341, and as he had no children the throne passed to the Lusignan dynasty.
There were only four kings of this dynasty: the last king was Leo VI. (1365-1375). He was taken prisoner when the sultan invaded and devastated Cilicia. Thus ended the kingdom of Armenia. After a few years, through the mediation of John, King of Castille, Leo was set at liberty. He came to Europe to ask for help in regaining his kingdom. There was a talk of a Crusade specially on behalf of the Armenians, but it never went beyond the stage of promises, and the last King of Armenia died in Paris in 1393 and is buried there in the Abbey of St. Celestin.
We have spoken mostly of Cilicia during this period. If we wish to complete the picture of the devastation of Armenia, we must name Zenghis Khan, Tamerlane (1387), and other enemies of the human race, but we will not enter into particulars of their work of desolation.
The period whose history we have sketched (twelfth to fourteenth centuries), especially the two former centuries, is called the Silver Age of Armenian literature. The independence of Armenia gave a breathing space which facilitated the production of literary works. This is the period of the revival of learning and also the period when Armenia came in contact with the countries of Western Europe and became acquainted with Western civilisation.
CATHOLICOS NERSES, surnamed “the Gracious,” is the most brilliant author of the beginning of this period (1100-1173). He was the great-grandchild of Grigor Magistros, and his brother Grigorios was Catholicos before him. His songs and sharakans are greatly loved by the people and some of the latter are sung in the churches. He was canonised as a saint. Nerses was the first Armenian to write very long poems. He followed his great-grandfather in using rhyme. There is a great variety of metre in his works. As a rule his long poems are written in eight-feet lines, the same rhyme being employed nearly throughout the poem. This practice he abandoned in certain cases for, as he himself remarks, “it might tire the reader”! He has also poems written in couplets of short lines, which are the most musical and successful of his works. Some of his poems have peculiarities of their own. He sometimes begins the lines of the first stanza with A, those of the next with B, and so on in alphabetical order, or he uses the same letter for the beginning of the first line and the conclusion of the last. He also sometimes makes metrical acrostics of his own name. Of course these contrivances were in common use in his time. Sometimes he makes acrostics of the titles or names in dedications of his poems. But these artificialities do not spoil the poem or give the impression of a tour de force, in fact they are so unobtrusive that they might easily escape the reader’s notice. In all he has written 15,000 lines.
One of his long poems entitled Jesus the Son consists of 4000 eight-feet lines. These lines, with very few exceptions, end with the Armenian syllable –in. Some of the songs in this poem are very beautiful and are sung in churches.
Another of his long poems is an elegy on the Fall of Edessa which was taken from the Crusaders by the Turks in 1144. This is an allegory: the town itself recounts its misfortunes and addresses itself to other cities of the world, to the mountains, to the seas, and begs them not to judge her by what she is in her present condition, but assures them that she was once a crown bearer and in a most happy state, but now she is in mourning, and misfortune has befallen her. As Nerses was a contemporary of the event which forms the subject of the poem, the latter has an historical value, being a first-hand source of information relating to the times of the Crusaders.
Nerses also wrote a long poem narrating the history of Armenia from the days of Haik up to his own time. Leo III., one hundred and fifty years after the poet’s death, asked the bishop Vahram Rabun to continue the poem from the death of Nerses to his own time (1275), thus giving the annals of the Rubinian dynasty. In writing this sequel, in 1500 lines, he said: “It is a bold act to continue the work of Nerses the Gracious,” but he adds that, knowing that with gold thread embroidery black threads are sometimes introduced, he consented to undertake the labour.
It is not within our province here to describe the great work achieved by Nerses in other directions, but he was much beloved by his people and has left an immortal name as the greatest personality of his age. We only here record one incident to show the breadth of his ideas. In the town of Edessa pestilence was raging and sufferers from the disease were taken out of the town and segregated. It was considered hopeless to cure them, as it was believed that the disease came as a punishment from God. Nerses sent out an epistle to the plague-stricken people, offering them consolation, saying that, in compensation for their suffering, they would receive eternal bliss. In this letter, he declares that the disease was not sent from Heaven as a punishment and people should not avoid the sick; on the contrary, it was their duty to care for their brethren when they were in distress, and he assured them that, with patience and right treatment, it was possible to get rid of the disease.
This counsel made an immense impression on the people, as they had the word of the Catholicos that this was not a heaven-sent chastisement; they nursed the patients and in a short time the pestilence was stayed.
This idea of Nerses, though it is now commonly held, was very remarkable in the age in which he lived. Nerses the Gracious is considered the Fénelon of Armenia. Some of his elegies are perfect gems of poetic art. One of his prayers is divided into twenty-four verses, according to the twenty-four hours, one verse to be used each hour, but, seeing that this is sometimes impracticable, he says that it might be read in three portions of light verses in the morning, at noon, and at night. If this division is also impossible, he recommends that it should be read in two portions, in the morning and evening. This prayer has been translated into thirty-six languages, of which English is one.
An example of the work of Nerses the Gracious, entitled “The Arrival of the Crusaders,” is given in this volume on page 58.
This is hardly a representative poem and is not the best specimen of the author’s work. It was inserted because of the interest of the Crusades for Europeans. The gems of his work may be found among the sharakans, which we can say without hesitation will bear comparison with any work of this class in any language of the world. Unfortunately, it is impossible to do justice to these hymns in a translation. Nerses also wrote verses for children, and riddles, both in the vernacular.
In general, his language is simple and expressive. He also composed short fables, according to a contemporary historian; some of these were recited at weddings and other festivals.
Mkhitar Gosh was the author of one hundred and fifty fables, marked by good taste, purity, and elegance. He died in 1213. He is called the Aesop of Armenia.
The following is a specimen of Mkhitar Gosh’s fables: The owl sent matchmakers to the eagle, asking his daughter in marriage, in these terms: “You are the ruler of the day; I am the ruler of the night. It will be better for us to form an alliance by marriage.”
The proposal was accepted.
After the wedding, the bridegroom could not see by day and the bride could not see by night. Therefore the falcons ridiculed them, and their marriage was unhappy.
This fable is meant as a warning against marriages between Christians and pagans.
Many of Mkhitar Gosh’s fables are very original and have a charm of their own.
Another famous fabulist was Vardan Aigektzi. His collection of fables is called The Book of the Fox. Several additions have been made to this work by later hands, so that the book has no uniformity of style and some fables in the collection are childish and trivial.
This is one of the fables in this book:
Mankind is like three fools. The first went to the tops of the mountains trying to catch a wind, and take it home, but though he tried a hundred years he never caught a wind that was as big as a drop of rain. The second, taking with him a number of servants and a great deal of money, sat down by the side of a river, trying to use its waters as a tablet on which to inscribe an elegy, but he could not form a word or trace a letter, though he laboured for a hundred years. The third tried to surpass the others by undertaking two enterprises at once. He had a huge bow made with arrows to match, and tried by night to shoot at the stars and other heavenly bodies and bring them home, that he alone might have light, but he could not catch a spark. Besides this, during the day he ran after his own shadow, but never caught it, though he tried for a hundred years.
The moral of this fable is the futility of human life and human endeavour. “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”
MOSES KAGHANKATVATZI (seventh century) mentions in his history some interesting fables. In one of them, which arose when there was a great famine in the land, the story is put into the mouth of a personification of the grain millet, whose narrative is to this effect:–
“I, Millet, was lying in an unknown place in the village of Kaku, in the province of Shakashen. All the purchasers treated me with contempt and rejected me. Then came my brother, Famine, and dominated the land. From that day I went and sat on the tables of the King and the Catholicos.”
Armenian apologues and proverbial sayings are worthy of attention. Here are a few characteristic specimens; some of these are rhymed in the original, in others the contrasted words rhyme:–
One fool threw a stone into a well; forty wise men were unable to get it out.
He crossed the sea safely, and was drowned in a brook.
They were reading the Gospel over the wolf’s head. He said: “Hurry up! The sheep will get past.”
They asked the partridge: “Why are your feet red?” “From the cold,” he replied. “We have seen you in the summer as well,” they rejoined.
Are you the corn of the upper field? (Who are you that you should be set above others?)
A black cat has passed between them. (Referring to friends who have quarrelled.)
Whenever you touch a stone, may it become gold! (A blessing.)
The donkey began its tricks on the bridge.
Light for others, fire for the house. (A saint abroad, a devil at home.)
The black donkey is tied up at the gate. (A worthless thing is always at hand.)
Here is a riddle by Nerses Shnorhali:–
I saw an outspread white tent, wherein black hens were perched, that laid eggs of various kinds and spoke in human language. (A book.)
Between the end of the thirteenth century and the beginning of the fourteenth lived, almost contemporaneously, three great poets, all ecclesiastics:–CONSTANTINE ERZINGATZI, HOVHANNES ERZINGATZI, and FRIK, who were almost the last singers of the dying Armenian kingdom.
The first of these, CONSTANTINE ERZINGATZI, was born about 1250-1260 in
[paragraph continues] Erzingan. From early youth he showed poetic talent and gained favour from the people, but incurred the jealousy of his own associates. In one of his poems he says he cannot tell why his enemies hate him and expresses a desire to know their reason. Erzingatzi had a friend, a certain Amir Tol, who lived in Tabriz. Erzingatzi used to send his poems, as he wrote them, to this friend, who entered them in a book. The poems in this collection number twenty-two. The manuscript is preserved in the library of St. Lazare, Venice. The themes of Erzingatzi’s poems are–among other things–the love of the rose and the nightingale, the beauty of nature, the wedding of the flowers, spring, dawn, and morning. In his love poems, he throws over his emotions a mystic veil of celestial hue, and some of his lines rise to a higher level than ordinary amorous verse. For him, love and beauty are one and the same. He says that one who is without love has no sense of beauty. He calls his lady-love a breeze of spring, and himself a thirsty flower, but a flower on which only a hot southern blast is ever blowing, so that his love-thirst continually endures. He likens his mistress to the radiant heavenly bodies–the sun, moon, and stars–but her light is stronger than that of all other luminaries, for it alone can illumine his darkened heart.
Erzingatzi says that, if he is to have any share in the life of love in this world, he will be content with one hour of “morning love” that springs from the heart. For that he is willing to exchange his life. He prays to God for such love, always emphasising the word “morning.”
Among his works is a beautiful poem on Spring, which begins with a hundred thousand thanksgivings for the blessing that has flown down from heaven to earth:–
“It was dark and every stone was ice-bound; there was not a green herb, but now the earth arrays itself anew. The winter was like a prison, the spring like a sun that rises in the night. Everything is merry and joyous; even the dew-bringing cloud thunders gently, spanning the earth with its bow and causing many swift rivers to flow, which, without distinction, throw into rapturous intoxication all places of the earth.
“Terribly roar the streams that come down from the mountains, but, after strolling to and fro among the meadows in loving fashion, pass on to touch the face of the sea.
“The birds sing sweetly; the swallow chants psalms, the lark comes, reciting the praise of the morning. All leap into life–plants, birds, beasts with their offspring; they all form themselves into one great flock and dance together. The flowers have assembled in the garden. The Nightingale, proclaiming the glad things of the great resurrection, also enters the garden, seeking the Rose.
“When the time is ripe, she opens, and the other flowers, when they see the splendour of the Rose, run off, over hill and dale, and, from fear, lose their colour. The Nightingale is intoxicated with the sweet odour of the Rose. Then takes place a festival of nature and the Rose sings her own praise.”
The original text of this poem is a real achievement as regards language, poetical expressions, and art, showing that Erzingatzi was a master of his craft.
Erzingatzi was also the author of a long narrative poem, called Farman and Asman, recounting the love adventures of a Persian princess. This was composed at the request of a Syrian knight and shows some traces of Persian influence.
Another long narrative poem of this writer, entitled A Girl’s Questions, seems to owe something to Arabic literature.
Erzingatzi is also the author of many didactic poems. Here are a few stanzas from another of his poems:–
“Waken from your dreams
And behold, you that were sleeping,
How through all the night
They their sleepless watch are keeping.
Ever circling round
By the will of God who made them:
And heaven’s arches wide
To uplift and hold He bade them.
“I awoke from sleep
And a while I stood and waited.
When the long night passed,
When appeared the dawn belated,–
Many stars of light
Watching stood to greet the morning;
Servants of our God,
All the sky of night adorning.
“Then a Star arose
Near the Morning Star, in Heaven;
Fairer than all stars,
Radiance to that Star was given.
“When the moon beheld
She bade all the stars to vanish.
All turned pale, and set,
As she spoke their light to banish.
Cleared was heaven’s face
And the sun arose in splendour;
Then a Child appeared,
Sweet the Name He had, and tender.” 1
HOVHANNES ERZINGATZI (b. 1250) was educated in a monastery on the confines of Georgia and Armenia under a bishop who was renowned for his learning. He returned to Erzingan in 1272 and travelled to Jerusalem in 1281, in the course of his journey passing through Cilicia in order to visit the Armenian royal seat, where King Leon was then reigning. By his learning and talents he attracted the attention of the Catholicos, who appointed him director of all the schools in the city.
By order of the Catholicos, he wrote a grammar, remarkable for its clear and comprehensible style and language. He also came under the notice of the king. At the annual horse race two of the king’s sons were among the competitors. On this occasion Erzingatzi made a speech, which left a great impression and gained him recognition as an orator. In Cilicia he learnt Latin and made several translations from that language into Armenian. He wrote many Biblical commentaries, besides other religious and devotional works, as well as treatises on astrology; but his fame rests chiefly on his verse. In addition to religious and moral poems, he wrote love songs, and lays relating to nature. In his ethical as well as in his love poems we find quaint metaphors and similes.
As, for instance, in the following stanza, where our poet seems to be forestalling Bunyan:–
“All my sins I once amassed
And sat down before them weeping.
When the caravan went past
With my load I followed, leaping.
Then an angel that we met,
‘Woful pilgrim, whither farest?
Thou wilt there no lodging get
With that burden that thou bearest.'”
In another poem, entitled “Like an Ocean is this World,” which appears on page 59 of
this volume, he uses the metaphor afterwards employed in Donne’s Hymn to Christ and Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar.
His love poems are exquisitely fresh and rich.
The aesthetic character of his love and his enthusiasm for beauty are shown by his declaration, in one of the poems, after a rapturous expression of his passion for a lady of whom he gives a rich-hued word-portrait, that the only thing that keeps his feelings within bounds is the knowledge that, after death, her face will wither and its colours fade.
In 1284 he went to Tiflis, the capital town of Georgia, where he gave, in the newly-built church, on the occasion of its opening, a discourse on the movements of the heavenly bodies. This subject had a great fascination for him and he treated it in a manner that deeply impressed his hearers, including the king’s son who was present. His discourse was not a sermon, but a poetical oration. On the prince’s asking him to write a poem on the same subject, he wrote one of a thousand lines. At the desire of another prince, he composed another poem on the same theme.
KHACHATUR KECHARETZI (better known by his pen-name, FRIK) was a priest who was born at the end of the thirteenth century and died about 1330. He wrote many poems, several of which are of an allegorical character; also laments on the state of his country, and several mystic and other religious poems, as well as love songs; but his most characteristic work is the poem addressed to God, asking why He is unmindful of the terrible condition of the Armenian nation, and also enumerating the inequalities of the world, showing how the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer.
“If we are useless creatures?” (he says) “unworthy of Thy care, why dost Thou not entirely destroy us?”
An extract from this long poem is given in this volume on page xv.
173:1 All the metrical translations quoted are by Miss Z. C. Boyajian. Like her other translations in this volume they are almost literal renderings, and the original metre has been kept.
At the close of the fourteenth century, the glory of Cilicia vanished, as the Armenian kingdom became extinct, after an existence of nearly three hundred years; and Armenia once more became the scene of turmoil and bloodshed.
The fifteenth century opened with the invasion of Tamerlane, when the country was again desolated and subdued. This was a century of the overthrow of Eastern civilisation.
The Byzantine Empire, shaken from its foundation, was dashed to pieces, and its capital, Constantinople, fell into the hands of the Ottomans (1453), a new Mohammedan power, which aspired to become master of the whole of Asia. The Turcomans and, later, the Persians, tried to check the advance of the Turks into their territories. Hence commenced a long series of wars between the two Mohammedan states which continued through four centuries, and Armenia passed now into the hands of the one, now into the hands of the other. The country was again the scene of war, wherein reigned desolation, fire, and death.
After the occupation of Constantinople, Turkish influence extended over most of the eastern part of Armenia.
From this time, migrations of Armenians out of their own country into different parts of the world became more frequent.
Twenty years after the invention of printing (1476) a grammar in many tongues was published in France, which contains several pages in Armenian.
In 1512 the first Armenian printed book was issued in Venice. After that Armenians set up presses in various countries.
Notwithstanding the political position of the country, its poetry continued to flourish and assumed a definite character; and the voices of the poets rose continually louder and louder. This century, together with the two preceding and the two following ones, forms a flourishing age for poetry.
The chief poets of this century are:–Hovhannes Tulkourantzi, Mkrtich Naghash, Grigoris of Aghtamar, Nahapet Kouchak, Arakel Sunetzi.
HOVHANNES TULKOURANTZI (1450-1525) was Catholicos of Sis. He is a poet of the days of spring, flowers, beauty, love. He wrote also moral and religious poems, besides other things. He cannot understand how it is possible for one who loves a beautiful woman to grow old and die.
“Whosoever loves you, how can he die? How can his face grow pale in death?”
He sings of the sanctity of family life, warning his readers against the strange woman “who brings torment and grief. Even his lawful wife brought trouble to Adam; what then is to be expected of the stranger?”
He has a striking poem on Death, which he addresses thus:–
“There is nothing so bitter as thou, no venom is more bitter; only Hell surpasseth thee, and it is thou who bringest Hell in thy train. Solomon remembered thee, saying, ‘Of what profit is my wisdom? Say not I am a King possessing gold and treasures.’
“Alas, O death! thou hast a grudge against the sons of Adam and thou avengest thyself on them.
“Thou didst not consider that Moses was a prophet, nor art thou ashamed of assaulting David; thou takest even Father Abraham; thou draggest King Tiridates from his throne; and thou respectest not the Emperor Constantine. 1
“If a hero is attended by 1000 horsemen and arrayed in six coats of armour, thou shootest thine arrows at him and bringest him down, then thou castest him into prison and before the entrance thou placest a great stone.”
The poem continues:–
“Like an eagle flying far,
Forth on wide-spread wings thou farest;
All the strong ones of the earth
In thy wing-tips rolled thou bearest.”
In other poems we see his susceptibility to passion and his sense of love’s power. In one of these poems he depicts 1 a bishop of 100 years old whose beard had turned from white to yellow and who, when officiating at the altar, suddenly uttered the name of a lady in his invocation before the cross.
MKRTICH NAGHASH was Archbishop of Diarbekr. He lived when the country was in difficult political circumstances. His talents were appreciated not only by Armenians, but also by the Mohammedan rulers with whom, thanks to his tact, he established friendly relations, whereby he was able to protect his compatriots from many oppressions. He built a church, which he adorned with beautiful pictures of his own painting. But, after the death of the Mohammedan princes who were his patrons, tyranny and oppression began again under their successors. He went to Byzantium to solicit aid for his suffering countrymen, but returned disappointed.
Besides his artistic skill, he was a poet of considerable merit. His poems are generally on moral and religious themes–the vanity of the world, avarice, and so forth; he also wrote songs of exile, and love songs.
In his poem on avarice he says that that vice is the root of all evil: “Kings and princes are continually fighting against one another, watering the country with blood. They destroy flourishing towns; they drive the inhabitants into exile; and spread desolation wherever they go; and all this is through avarice.”
He goes on to specify other evils springing from this sin.
In the love songs of Mkrtich Naghash, the Rose and the Nightingale whisper to each other fiery love speeches complaining of each other’s cruelty. Then they admonish each other not to let their passion consume them, and sing each other’s praises.
This is an extract from one of his songs of exile: “The thoughts of an exile from his country are wanderers like himself. If his mind is wiser than Solomon’s, if his words are precious pearls, in a foreign land they bid him be silent and call him an ignorant fool. His death is as bitter as his life; there is no one to cross his hands over his heart; they laugh as they cover him with earth; no mourner follows him to the grave. But I, Naghash, say that an exile’s heart is tender. In a foreign land, what is sweet seems gall; the rose becomes a thorn. Speak gently to an exile; give him a helping hand, and you will expiate your sins which rankle like thorns.”
These songs of exile (or pilgrim songs) are a special feature of Armenian poetry and for ages have been written by various poets. They are original and often quaint and express the feelings of Armenians who live far from their native mountains and fields, showing how they pine for the land of their birth, reflecting the natural beauties of their fatherland, and their yearning for their hearth and the dear faces of home.
In 1469 in the town of Mardin there was an epidemic of smallpox, which caused many deaths. He thus describes one of the victims: “A youth beautiful to see, the image of the sun; his brows were arches; his eyes like lamps guiding him by their light. This lovely child lay on the ground, writhing piteously, looking to right and left, while the terrible Angel of Death was busily engaged in loosing the cords of his soul. Then the boy cried, saying: ‘Pity me and save me from the hands of this holy angel, for I am young.’ Then he turned to his father, and asking help from him, said: ‘There are a thousand desires in my heart and not one of them fulfilled.’
“The father answered: ‘I would not begrudge gold and silver for thy redemption; but these are of no avail. I would willingly give my life for thine.’ In the end the light of the child’s life was extinguished; the lovely hue of his face faded; his sea-like eyes lost their lustre; the power of his graceful arm was cut off.”
Here is a translation in verse of a poem on a mysterious Flower:–
“All the lovely flowers that were
One by one have left and gone,
One Flower too there was that went
Mourned and wept by every one.
Sweetest fragrance had that Flower,
Scent that filled the earth and air,
So that all the flowers of earth
Sought in love this Blossom fair.
Some for this sweet Flow’ret’s sake
Paled and withered languidly;
Many for this Flow’ret’s sake
Blossomed like the almond tree.
God Himself had sent that Flower,
But all did not know its worth.
He that gave took back His own,
Many wept upon the earth.
And the Flower went to a place
Where all flowers rejoiced and smiled;
Flowers of many a brilliant hue
With its sweetness it beguiled.
From its beauty other flowers
Borrowed lustre, and they glowed;
Every blossom in its kind
To that Flower knelt and bowed.”
GRIGORIS OF AGHTAMAR was born about 1418 and was Catholicos of Aghtamar, an island in the Lake of Van, which has picturesque surroundings fit to inspire a poet; so that it is not surprising that our Catholicos became a singer animated by poetic fire, the exponent of love and beauty–of the Nightingale and the Rose.
It is evident, from his works, that Grigoris had a great love of life. We see this especially in a poem entitled The Gardener and his Garden. The Gardener, says the poet, enters his garden every morning and hears the sweet voice of the nightingale as he examines the newly planted flowers of various colours. This beautiful spot he surrounds with a hedge, bringing stones from the river, thorns from the mountain. He has just built arbours, made a fountain, introduced little running brooks, and planted vines, when, all of a sudden, a voice utters the command: “Come out of thy garden.” It is Death who beckons him out. He expostulates: “I have not yet seen life and light; I have not yet seen the fruit of the garden; I have not yet smelt the rose; I have not yet drunk my wine or filled my casks; I have not plucked flowers for a nosegay. I have not yet rejoiced over my garden.”
But his prayers are not heeded; obedient to the unchangeable law of the universe, he at last capitulates to the Angel of Death.
After describing the Gardener’s death and burial, the poet goes on to tell what happens to the garden after its owner has left it; the rose fades; the other flowers disappear; the hedge is broken down, and what was once a lovely garden becomes a scene of desolation.
This is his description of the face of his lady-love. He likens her eyebrows to a sword; the sparkle of her eyes to a sharp lance; her eyes to the sunlit sea. She is, he says, as straight as a willow; her lips are like harp strings; her teeth, a row of pearls; her tongue is sugar; and, wherever she rests, the place becomes a garden. She has fragrance sweeter than the violet of the spring; she is like a white rose, pure and sweet, like a newly opened flower; a young almond plant. Her face is red and white, like an apple of the forest. She soars high, like a daring eagle. She is brilliant as a peacock with golden feathers.
We have in this volume (page 52) a translation of one of Grigoris’ longer poems, entitled “Concerning the Rose and the Nightingale,” in which it is interesting to note that–quaintly enough–the poet gives the text of a letter sent with great pomp, by special messengers, to the Rose; adding the consequence which followed, and the verbal answer returned.
The subject of the Rose and the Nightingale is a Persian one originally, but the outstanding characteristics of the Armenian versions consist in the refinements and subtleties of the feelings described, the deference paid to the Rose, and the idea of continuity and faithfulness in love. These feelings are minutely described in this beautiful poem, and summed up in the Rose’s message to the Nightingale on p. 56:–
“I cannot there return immediately;
A little he must wait, in patient wise:
But if his love is perfectly with me,
Tell him to look for it in Paradise.”
These ideals constitute the difference between the mentality of Mohammedanism and Christianity.
NAHAPET KOUCHAK was a fine poet of the seventeenth century. He is called the Psalmist of Love. Although there is a slight resemblance in style between his writings and those of the Persian poets, his poetry is original. The works attributed to him have only recently been published as a whole; they have been translated into French and other languages, and greatly admired. Some critics have placed him higher than Sadi and other Persian poets. (Examples of his work are given on pages 4, 5, and 31.)
ARAKEL SUNETZI was the Metropolitan of the province of Suni. He appears to have possessed a thorough acquaintance with the writings of his time. His chief work is the Book of Adam, a long narrative poem, telling the story of the Fall in the style of a romance in which theology, lyrics, heroic lays, and folklore are all fused together.
Adam, though because of his great love for his wife he was inclined to yield to her petition, yet wavered, not knowing whether to hearken to his spouse or to his Creator. “But his mind
went with his eyes; he deserted God, but not the woman; for, without Eve, half of his body was dead, and with the other half it was impossible to live.”
Among the lyrics in this book is one entitled The Rib, of which we subjoin two stanzas:–
“The rib is bow-shaped, so her face,
Sped by her looks, is like a dart;
Who gazeth on a woman’s grace,
No salve or drug can cure his smart.
“And for the rib is high and low–
One side is vaulted, one is round,
Her face doth love and sweetness show
Whilst in her heart fierce hate is found.”
Here is a passage from another poem of Sunetzi’s entitled The Glory of the Saints, describing the Resurrection:–
“Opened are the tombs;
Now rise the dead that long in dust have lain.
Decked with brilliant hues,
Bright as the sun, they cannot fade again.
While the earth, renewed,
Doth greet the Lord, all fresh and dazzling white;
And the heavens are decked
More richly than before, sevenfold more bright.
Then in heaven shines forth
With arms stretched out like rays, the Holy Rood.
With the Cross appear
The hosts of fire–a countless multitude.
Butterflies dance forth
Amongst the angels–none may mark them out.”
In the sixteenth century, Turkish and Persian wars became fiercer and the Armenian history of this century becomes the record of the sufferings of the country during these wars. Poets of this period were Nerses Mokatzi, Minas Tokhatzi, Ghazar of Sebastia, Sarkavak Bertaktzi.
NERSES MOKATZI was an ecclesiastic and poet. Very few of his works have come down to us. One of the poems we have–entitled The Dispute between Heaven and Earth–is interesting. The poet begins by saying that Heaven and Earth are brothers. One day these brothers disputed as to which of them was the greater. “Of course,” says the poet, “the Heaven is high, but the Earth is more fruitful.”
He then goes on to report a dialogue between the brothers in which each enumerates his own possessions, declaring them superior to those of the other. The following is a short prose summary of this dialogue:–
Heaven. Surely I possess more than you. The stars, with their radiance, are all in my domain.
Earth. The flowers, with their six thousand colours, are in mine.
Heaven. If I withhold my dew, how will your flowers array themselves?
Earth. You derive your dew from the sea, which originates in me. If I cut off the source of the sea, how would you get your dew?
Heaven. I have something else that you have not: should I veil my sun your flowers would fade.
Earth. Oh, I will bring forth waters from my abyss to keep my flowers alive.
Heaven. The lightning and the hail could destroy your flowers if I willed it so.
Earth. I have mountains and valleys that would intercept them and shield the flowers.
Heaven. All brave and wise men are buried in your depths.
Earth. When God recalls the souls that are His, what is to be done? If I did not receive and conceal their bodies, the angels would flee from the deathly odour, and Heaven and Earth would be shaken.
Heaven. The Nine Orders of Angels are all here with me.
Earth. In my realm are the Apostles and Prophets.
Heaven. I am the Heaven of Seven Regions; the Sun, the Moon, and the Creator-God sitting on His throne all have their abode in me.
Earth. Your Seven Regions will be shaken from their foundation. The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars will be cast into the darkness and your Creator-God, with His throne, will descend to me. The Judgment will be held in my domain.
“Heaven then bent down its head
To the Earth in adoration,
You too, children of the Earth,
Bow to her in adoration.
What is higher than the Earth
Praise and love bring to enwreathe her.
For to-day we walk on her
And to-morrow sleep beneath her.” 1
This poem is interesting, as it breathes the spirit of the revival of popular poetry, with its worship of nature, beauty, and love, of which things the Earth is the personification. Hence the poet exalts Earth above Heaven. Here we see also a change of ideas. The older Christian poets were churchmen and sang contempt of the present world and concentration on the joys of heaven. This new note, struck from the beginning of the fifteenth century, gradually grows bolder, and sounds forth daringly, as we hear it in this poem, which seems all the more remarkable when we remember that its author was a priest. This is the song, not of a lover of vanities, but, rather, of an enthusiast, who loves beauty and has learnt that it is good to live on the earth, because it also contains beautiful things that are worth living for. This poem also shows the conquest of learning and science which, at the time it was written, had found their way into Armenia as well as elsewhere, perhaps through the new Armenian colonies formed in Europe and other parts of the world.
MINAS TOKHATZI, a humorous poet, lived in Poland. He wrote verses on Toothache and on Tobacco (descanting on its objectionable odour and showing how the smoker becomes its slave); also on Flies.
To convey an idea of his art, we give the substance of the last-named work:–
“The flies,” says the poet, “for some reason or other, went forth to combat against me. They also entered into a conspiracy with my penknife. Knowing of this, I implored the knife not to listen to the accursed insects, who had already caused me enough pain. The attack was begun in a novel fashion; the flies came, buzzing, in gay and merry mood, and settled on my hands and arms in a friendly manner, asking me to write them something in red ink. At the same time, the penknife, playing me a perfidious trick, cut my hand. I protested against this treatment. The penknife justified itself by saying it had acted thus because I had told a lie. I got a few moments’ rest, after this, from the flies, till, at dinnertime, I met with three of them, who announced that more were coming. The combat was renewed. During the night, the flies were relieved by their allies, the fleas.”
GHAZAR OF SEBASTIA, an ecclesiastic, has fallen under the spell of some eyes ” as deep as the sea.” He describes the torment under which he is pining away and his longing for his mistress’s arrival, like the longing of a patient for his physician. The face of his love (he says) is like glistening amber; her eyes are so bewitching, that
“The sun and moon have unto thee come down,
Lovingly on thy locks they hang, and gleam;
And clustering stars thy beauteous forehead crown,
Aflame and drunken with thy love they seem.”/
There is nothing known of SARKAVAK BERTAKTZI, but this poem from his pen is interesting
“O vine, you should commended be
For you are beautiful to see;
Your fruit is of all fruits most fair:–
The crown and diadem they wear.
Like strands of gold your branches spread,
Like ropes of pearl the grapes they thread.
For some are dark and some are white,
And some are red, transmitting light.
Some glow like amber in the dusk,
Perfumed with frankincense and musk.
Left us by the Creator’s care,–
From Eden’s fields a keepsake rare.
To us on earth you seem to be
The fruit of immortality.
To Noah you were by angels borne
His heart to gladden and adorn.
Your fruit when gathered from the vine
Unto the wine-press we assign;
Your juice like crimson roses glows
And through the press in torrents flows.
Then into jars we pour the meath,
There without fire to boil and seethe.
How many kings around you press,
Your name how many princes bless!
The Sovereign’s heart you fill with joy,
With power to conquer and destroy;
If he is wroth with any man,
And places him beneath his ban,
One drop of you immediately
Would move his heart to set him free.
The man that from his birth was blind,
Drinking of you, his sight doth find;
Of glorious cities he can tell,
Wherein his footsteps never fell.
The dumb, that halted in his speech,
To prate with fluency you teach.
More glibly than a parrot, he
Will jest and wanton dotingly.
At mass, within the sacred cup,
The holy priest doth raise you up.
Disease and pain through you will cease,
By you all sinners find release.
To town and village you are borne,
To convent, wilderness forlorn;
Where men do not your sparkle see,
No mass nor service can there be.”
The seventeenth century resembles its predecessor as regards the political position of Armenia, except that the misery is even greater.
175:1 These monarchs are mentioned because they were the first Christian sovereigns.
176:1 In the Armenian Church there are two classes of clergy–the higher order to which bishops belong and who do not marry, and the lower order of parish priests who do marry.
181:1 It is interesting to compare this with a Persian poem by Essedi of Tus called a dispute between Day and Night. In the former the Earth is victorious, in the latter the Day. The Persian is essentially Mohammedan in spirit and conventional, whereas the Armenian is almost modern.
Day. By day the pious fast and pray;
And solemn feasts are held by day.
Night. Day can but paint the skies with blue,
Night’s starry hosts amaze the view.
Day. . . . I am a Moslem–white my vest,
Thou a vile thief, in sable drest.
Out, negro-face!–dar’st thou compare
Thy cheeks with mine, so purely fair?
. . . The Sun is ruddy, strong, and hale:
The moon is sickly, wan, and pale.
Methinks ’twas ne’er in story told
That silver had the worth of gold!
The moon, a slave, is bowed and bent,
She knows her light is only lent,
She hurries on, the way to clear,
Till the Great Shah himself appear.
From “The Rose Garden of Persia.”
During the last years of the eighteenth century, the Russian conquest of Armenia began.
At the end of the eighteenth century an Armenian monk named MKHITAR SEPASTATZI established at St. Lazare in Venice an Armenian Brotherhood, who devoted themselves to literature. This Brotherhood is still in existence, and has a branch in Vienna. During this period of more than a century its members have printed hundreds of old MSS. of historical value. They have also produced many works dealing with history and other branches of learning, and translations of foreign classics, thus rendering a great service to Armenian literature.
It will be remembered that Byron stayed at St. Lazare and studied Armenian. He actually took part in the publication of an Armenian-English dictionary and grammar.
For centuries music and song have become a joy to Armenians through minstrels called ashoughs. Ashoughs are invited to all weddings and other festivities, where they are the life of the party and the makers of merriment. They sing also on the bridges and in the squares, and wander from courtyard to courtyard. Their song is not always merry; it is sometimes sad, sometimes even bitter. They always carry with them their saz or tar or kamancha, oriental instruments, on which they accompany their songs. Many of the ashoughs are blind. To be an ashough is considered a high attainment. In order to acquire the art, any one who aspires to become an ashough first observes a fast of seven weeks, then goes to the monastery of Sourb Karapet, which is the Parnassus of Armenian musicians. “Sourb Karapet” is John the Baptist, who is the patron saint of Armenian minstrels. In the Near East, ashoughs (who are mostly Armenians) are greatly admired not only by Armenians, but by Persians, Turks, and other races, as some of them sing in other languages besides Armenian. Some ashoughs sing their own verses, but as a rule the songs are the composition of a special class of poets. The songs of these other ashoughs often reveal deep feelings and many of them are high-class poems.
As a typical ashough author, I will only mention SAYAT NOVA. His lyre attained extreme sweetness; he combines all the vivid colouring of the East with soft and refined shading. He was born in 1712. He was a special favourite at the court of the Georgian king. In his own words, he “sat in the palace among the beauties and sang to them,” but his songs seem not merely to be poems in praise of court beauties, or for their amusement; they seem an expression of the deep feelings of his heart. A word-picture of his lady-love will be found on page 74 of this volume (“Thy Voice is Sweet”).
His love is so intense that one sees at once that he is capable of deep feelings and one is drawn to him; yet this love is pure and unselfish. He describes his love as a sea and himself as a little barque floating on it. For ten years he has wooed the lady as a prince, but without success; he will not relinquish the pursuit of her, but resolves now for seven years to pay court to her in the character of a pilgrim-minstrel.
He is even content only to sleep on her doorstep. There is something else that is a part of his life, namely, his kamancha. He threatens to cut the strings of his instrument if he is a week without seeing his beloved.
Once he comes face to face with his lady-love and says:–
“What avails me now a physician? The ointment burns, and does not heal the wound, but your medicine is a different one.”
But she replies that she has no remedy for him. In another poem he is in despair, and says:–
“Without thee, of what use is the world’s wealth? I will don the habit of a monk and visit the monasteries one by one. Perhaps in one of them I shall discover a way of redemption from my hopeless love.” (See “Without Thee what are Song and Dance to Me?” on page 85 of this volume.)
In another poem he expresses the wavering between earthly and heavenly life, saying:–
“If one obeys the will of the soul, then the body is offended. How shall I escape this sorrow?
At last he carries out his declaration and becomes a monk. He secludes himself from the world in a lonely monastery, far away from Tiflis; but once he hears that a minstrel has come to that city whom none can equal, whereupon he steals out of the monastery, disguised as a layman, and taking his saz with him, goes to Tiflis, enters into contest with the new minstrel, and conquering him, saves the honour of his native town.
In 1795 Agha Mohammed Khan laid waste Tiflis and many other towns of that region. His soldiers entered the monastery where Sayat Nova was praying and commanded him to come out and become a Mohammedan if he wished to save his life; but he replied, in verse, that he was an Armenian and would not deny his Christ. He was therefore martyred on the spot. Other poems of his appear on pages 35 (“I have a Word I fain would say”), 14 (“I beheld my Love this Morning”), 110 (“Thou art so Sweet”).
We have given specimens of mediaeval Armenian poetry; we now proceed to indicate in outline its most striking characteristics.
The theme of the Armenian pagan minstrels was the heroic deeds of their country’s history. The adoption of Christianity imparted to Armenian poetry a specific form and tone. At the same time it was the revival of the old Armenian valour, which, strengthened by the circumstances in which the Armenians lived, produced a religious poetry of great purity of feeling, and of a depth and solemnity unequalled by any other poetry of this class.
In the Middle Ages, the poetry gave expression to the love and other emotions of the Armenian poets.
A new poetry of the now Mohammedan Persia written in modern Persian came into being almost simultaneously with the Armenian poetry of the Middle Ages.
Firdusi, Omar Khayyam, Sadi, Hafiz, with a splendid retinue of less famed singers, made Persian the language of verse which, together with Arabic poetry in its earlier stages, no doubt had some influence on the Armenian poets of the Middle Ages; but this influence affected form rather than spirit or character.
Armenian mediaeval poetry does not possess the burning hues of oriental verse, and is
perhaps less luxurious, but the grace, charm, ease, and fancy of the Armenian lays are inimitable, and their originality and occasional quaintness are so marked that one feels there is a magic in them. These characteristics are the outcome of the mutual assimilation of eastern and western art, so that the poetry of Armenia, like its language, its art, its Church, stands by itself.
In comparing Armenian with Persian and Arabic poetry, one must remember that the Armenians, as Christians, were not polygamists; and that, to them, marriage was sanctified by the law of God and man. This is what the great Persian poet Sadi says of women: “Choose a fresh wife every spring, or every New Year’s day, for the almanac of last year is good for nothing.” It would have been impossible for any Armenian poet to entertain such an idea as that.
Whereas women are so cheap in the eyes of the Persian poet, Armenian girls endowed with beauty were considered by their parents and the community very precious possessions, to be zealously guarded, as they were in constant danger of attracting the attention of their Mohammedan lords and being forcibly carried off into harems. This fact had the effect of mingling compassion with the Armenian poets’ admiration of a girl’s beauty and made them write more feelingly of women.
It must also be remembered that, whereas Mohammedanism looks upon woman as a soulless being, in the eyes of a Christian she possesses a soul as precious as that of a man.
It is an interesting fact that love poems were written by the clergy, often by ecclesiastics of high position, who, by the law of the Armenian Church, are vowed to celibacy. One explanation of this is that they were born poets, and only regarded love as one among many feelings fitted to be the subject of verse. Their use of the first person is only dramatic.
There are also many folksongs which differ, in style and character, from the love-songs of poets. The spirit of these songs is that of Armenian pagan poems. The following is an example of songs of this class. It describes the adventure of a girl.
“I beheld a youth to-day
As at dawn I walked unheeding,
And the youth stopped on his way,
Struck my cheek, and left it bleeding.
Then my mother questioned me,
‘Who was it that struck you?’ saying,
‘’Twas a thorn, as near the tree
With the roses I was playing.’
‘May the tree turn dry and sear
Which thy pretty cheek left bleeding!
‘Mother, dear, oh, do not speak,
’Twas a youth that stopped to kiss it.
’Twas for luck he kissed my cheek,
If thou curse him he will miss it!'”
Armenian religious and devotional poetry has characteristics of its own. This class of literature falls into two divisions. In the first division are works of a purely literary character written in old Armenian; in the second, works meant for popular use, written in the language of the people. These latter are written in a more familiar style, proverbs and paraphrases being often introduced, in a picturesque fashion, which appeals to the unlearned.
As an example of the popular class of literature we give an extract from a poem about Gregory the Illuminator, who was cast by King Tiridates into a well infested with serpents and other loathsome creatures:–
“‘Take the saint and put him into the prison where dragon-serpents are assembled.’
They took the saint and put him in the prison where the dragon-serpents were assembled.
And the poisonous serpents inclined their tongues in worship.
And said: ‘Pity us, O Saint Gregory, and hearken to the complaint of us, dragon-serpents.
It is many thousands of years since we drank water from the springs;
We have not drunk water from the springs, but only the blood of condemned men.
We have eaten no green herbs, but only the flesh of the condemned.'”
The poet goes on to tell how St. Gregory when he came out of the well set free the dragon-serpents in answer to their prayer.
This poem is very old, being written in the fifth or sixth century at the latest. The metre is that of the pagan poets.
We cite here another poem of this class–an allegorical description of Christ on the Cross
“A little Bird I saw–a peerless One
Upon the four-armed Sign, that peer hath none.
O Peerless One, who is like Thee, Thou Peerless One?
“Its silvery wings were of a matchless white
More brilliant than the sun’s clear, matchless light.
O Matchless One, who is like Thee, Thou Matchless One?
“Piteous Its voice–a great, transcendent sigh;
Mighty, as Gabriel’s transcendent cry.
Transcendent One, who is like Thee, Transcendent One?
“Within Its eyes, gem-like, unrivalled tears;
Surpassing those the morn unrivalled wears;
Unrivalled One, who is like Thee, Unrivalled One?
A characteristic species of Armenian poetry is the lullaby. There are hundreds of old Armenian cradle-songs which are still sung by mothers to their infants, and they are exquisitely dainty and sweet.
Here are some stanzas from one of these songs:–
“Thou art lovely, feet and all,
Whom wouldst have to be thy playmate?
Hush, the silver moon I’ll call–
The bright star to be thy playmate.
“Crimson rose and petals wide,
Thou hast bloomed, our garden’s pride.
As many suns shine on thy years
As the leaves our garden bears.
“Oror, hush, the deer are here,
The deer have come from the hills so high,
Have brought sweet sleep to my baby dear,
And filled it in his deep, deep eye.”
There are series of Armenian folksongs for every event in life–birth, marriage, death, and so on.
The following is a folksong of death, being the lament of a mother over her dead son:–
“As to-night I walked alone
To the earth my ear inclining,
From the ground I heard a moan,–
My son’s voice I heard repining.
‘Do not leave me in the ground,
With the serpents round me crawling.
“Food in plenty we have found,”
To their young ones they are calling,
“From his ribs we’ll gnaw the flesh,
From his eyes drink water fresh.”‘
All the night I found no rest,
I cried out, ‘Give me a knife,
I will plunge it in my breast,
I will have no more of life!'”
Yet another feature of the literature of this period is the contemporary history in verse. We come across metrical narratives of great events written by those who experienced them. There is a long and vivid description in verse, by an eye-witness, of the siege of Constantinople. The poet is Abraham Vardapet.
There are also agricultural and craft songs, which are sung by workmen over their labour.
These songs are adapted to the movements necessitated by each occupation.
Another marked difference between Armenian and Mohammedan literature is that Armenians are entirely free from the fatalism which is a distinctive feature of the Mohammedan view of life.
Sadi relates, in his Gulistan, the story of a fisherman that gives the Mohammedan conception of Fate. This fisherman had caught a fish which his strength did not allow him to drag to shore. Fearing to be drawn into the river himself, he abandoned his line, and the fish swam away with the bait in his mouth. His companions mocked him, and he replied: “What could I do? This animal escaped because his last hour, fixed by fate, was not yet come. Fate governs all, and the fisherman cannot overcome it more than another, nor can he catch fish, if fate is against him, even in the Tigris. The fish itself, even though dry, would not die, if it were the will of fate to preserve its life.” The poet adds: “O man! why shouldst thou fear? If thy hour is not come, in vain would thy enemy rush against thee with his lance in rest: his arms and his feet would be tied by fate, and the arrow would be turned away, though in the hands of the most expert archer.”
The spirit of Armenian poetry is neither despondent nor fatalistic. Its songs are of dawn, of spring, of sunrise, of struggle; not of sunset. And perhaps this clinging to hope and this desire to live is the only secret of the survival of the Armenian nation. Armenian poetry is the product of dwellers in a hill country. To them mountains, deep valleys, clear skies, running brooks are familiar every-day companions.
This brings us down to the Renaissance of Armenian literature which took place almost simultaneously in Russia and Turkey, but the field of modern Armenian literature is such a wide one that we cannot attempt an analysis of it here. There are, however, some examples of modern Armenian poetry in this volume.
The occupation of the Armenian provinces by Russia in 1828, with the attendant emigration of thousands from Persia and Turkey into Russian Armenia, strengthened the nation. National schools were soon opened, supported by the Armenians themselves. An Armenian Academy was established in Moscow in 1815 and a Seminary in Tiflis in 1826. Many Armenians went to Moscow and Petrograd, and also to foreign universities, especially to those of Germany, Switzerland, and France. The educational revival produced a new era, and a new Armenian literature came into being. Many Armenian newspapers and reviews were founded and published in different places. Tiflis was the centre of the literature and learning of Russian Armenia. A similar revival of letters occurred in Turkish Armenia. In 1860 a national and ecclesiastical constitution was granted to the Armenians in Turkey. For Turkish Armenians the literary centres were Constantinople and Smyrna. In the latter city, good work was done in translating western classics, but Constantinople was the chief seat of Armenian culture in Turkey. Thus Armenian literature became divided into two branches–Russian Armenian and Turkish Armenian–each of which has its own peculiarities of language, style, and tone. It was poetry that first burst into bloom and reached maturity soonest. At first the motifs of the poems were mainly national. The imagination of the poets was kindled by the past, present, and future of Armenia, its sufferings, its national beauty, its shortcomings. They looked forward to a national regeneration. They were apostles of light, science, learning; and pointed out new paths of national salvation. The result of all this was the production of some beautiful national songs. These songs are not triumphant anthems like those of other countries; they are songs of suffering, but with a note of hope. Then Armenian poetry developed a truer relation with what had been created in literature and art, and the poets looked at things in a new way, and assumed new poetical forms. It combined poetry and imagination with passionate feeling for life and truth. Some of the poems of this period are of exquisite workmanship, breathing the very spirit of the time.
As we have said, Armenian poetry of the nineteenth century is so full of merit and of such intense interest that it would be impossible to do it justice without writing at great length. We have already exhausted the space at our disposal, and hope to devote a separate work to it.
Persian and Arabic poetry are things of the past, but Armenian poetry, like the Armenian nation, has an unquenchable vitality, ever advancing towards new horizons, and soaring to loftier heights.
ADDENDA AND CORRIGENDA
p. 6 (Isahakian) Died 1957
p. 17 (Essayan) Died 1947
p. 20 (Hovhannessian) For ‘Born 1869’ read ‘1864-1929’
P. 43 (Dzadourian) For ‘Born 1870’ read ‘ 1865-1917’
p. 51 (Gourghinian) Died 1927
p. 62 (Toumanian) Died 1923
p. 73 (Demirjian) Born 1877, died 1956
p. 78 (Raffi) For ‘1837-1888’ read ‘1835-1888’
p. 111 (Dodochian) Born 1830, died 1908
p. 118 (Tchobanian) Died 1954