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The Critical Corner - 06/29/2004

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Why we should read... 

'The Armenian Pantheon' by Professor Levon Katcheryan 
284pp, USA, 2001

A History of Armenian Pagan Deities

Armenian News Network / Groong
May 29, 2004

By Eddie Arnavoudian


Professor Levon Khatcheryan's 'The Armenian National Pantheon', a
comprehensive history of the major pre-Christian Armenian pagan
deities, fills a gap.  Examining the religious institutions,
organisations, temples, ceremonial traditions and rituals that
developed around Armenian pagan gods, he shows them forming a broad
and complex cultural, ideological and political foundation for
Armenian society. That the Armenian pantheon set deep and perhaps
indelible roots in Armenian life is testified to by the stubbornness
with which paganism survived well into the second century of Armenian
Christianity and subsequently as it continued to influence Armenian
literature, popular mythology and culture well into the 19th century.

To produce this highly readable and instructive work Khatcheryan had
to overcome a terrible scarcity of original sources, most of these
being destroyed by the victorious Christian Church in the 4th century
and thereafter. He leaps the abyss of historical ignorance through a
meticulous scrutiny of the hostile and possibly falsified references
to pagan gods that are recorded in classical Armenian Christian
literature and complements this by intelligent and imaginative insight
and supposition suggested by studies of non-Armenian pagan gods, by
C. M. Bowra in particular.

While Armenians, like many other peoples, adopted Assyrian, Greek,
Persian and other gods either voluntarily or under duress through the
centuries, they were refined, pruned, adjusted and Armenianized so
much so that they sometimes have little resemblance to their
original. Thus appropriated and remoulded, these naturalised deities
went on to play a crucial role in the ideological and intellectual
definition of the Armenian state as against their Persian, Greek,
Assyrian and other neighbours.

Like its Christian successors, the pagan church commanded a leading
social, intellectual and cultural position in society, a position
founded on its vast economic wealth and landholding that included
slaves and serfs. Spread across the land, its temples in honour of the
nine main gods were also centres of learning harbouring both the
existing stock of knowledge as well as the wise men of the day. They
were in addition social centres and gathering points for travellers,
traders and soldiers.

The highly structured and elaborate Armenian pantheon had at its
centre nine deities, each serving a particular sphere of social life.
Armenian gods, like those of the Greeks, had human form, suggesting a
level of social and intellectual development in which human
consciousness, having mastered some of the secrets of nature, had
ceased to attribute magical or godly powers to inanimate elements of
nature. The Father of all Armenian Gods was Aramazd but perhaps the
most famous and popular was his daughter Anahit. Both were foreign
importations, but centuries of history refashioned and enhanced them
to suit local need and so they acquired a very specific, particular
Armenian character.

Unfortunately the lack of sources leaves us only a dry and formal
picture for Aramazd, who possesses all the attributes of a supreme
deity. He is the creator of heaven and earth, the god of hope and
success and the supreme legislator and distributor of justice. He was
not just the first among equals but an almost omnipotent power so
unlike the Persian pantheon, where two antagonistic supreme gods, one
evil and one virtuous, exist in perpetual conflict. Alas there is in
the records left of Aramazd none of the adventure, heroism, romance
and poetry that lend the Greek or Roman gods their magical
magnificence.

Aramazd may have been supreme but his popularity was dimmed by that of
his daughter the Goddess Anahit, a popularity attested to by Roman
historians as well as Armenians and by the record of at least ten
temples containing her statues.  Her popularity was such that the
leaders of Armenian Christianity in a gesture of compromise to entice
a doubting population built their Christian Churches on the destroyed
foundations of Anahit's temples and named these after a similar female
god like figure, the Virgin Mary.

Besides possessing many of her father's attributes, Anahit was also
the guardian of Armenia's state security, worshiped for her powers to
endow military strength and courage. She was also the guarantor of
happiness and a bountiful life for the state and the people. Elements
of her status as a Goddess of Fertility survived in popular rituals
right up to the 19th century, being adopted even by Turkish women
hoping for pregnancy.  Besides Anahit, Aramazd had a son, Vahagn the
god of storms, wind and rain who, deploying lighting and storms, came
to symbolise struggle, war and victory. One of his functions was to
battle against demons that attempted to divert the fertilising flow of
heavenly water away from the needy earth.

A particularly fascinating and indeed exciting element of
Khatcheryan's account is the survival of pagan traditions, stories and
influences through the early Christian period right up to the 19th
century. Mihr, the Armenian God of Truth and Light, for example,
appears as late as the 8th century when the epic of David of Sassoon
was first fashioned in the Armenian resistance to Arab imperial rule.
Dir the pagan Armenian God of Wisdom, Education and Knowledge survives
in the Armenian term Diratzoo to denote a schoolmaster. A scribe, Dir
had as one of his tasks the cataloguing of all those condemned to the
afterlife. This role has given rise to the Armenian curse 'groghe
dani' (let the scribe dispense with him).

In the case of Asdghig, goddess of love, of passion and eroticism
numerous sites, hills, mountains and villages retained her name for
centuries beyond the pagan era. Her enduring popularity also forced
the Church to adopt, albeit suitably adjusted, a water festival in her
honour. Vanadoor, the god of hospitality, is another whose traditions
have endured into Christianity and beyond with the celebration and
feasting known as 'baregentan'. Attempting a relatively comprehensive
picture, Khatcheryan ends his book with a glance at deities that have
little or no record in the 5th century Armenian classics. Among them
are Kissane and Temedre two gods of Indian origin and one Santached
the god of the underworld.

Despite a limitation in its focus on the ideological and cultural
level with insufficient consideration of the political, social or
economic factors that contributed to the evolution and development of
Armenian paganism, this volume is a wonderful read. It is also well
produced, with good quality paper, though its cover is a touch gaudy
with its glossy gold.


--
Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from
Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on
Armenian literature.  His works on literary and political issues
have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open
Letter in Los Angeles.

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