Armenian Religion

views updated


ARMENIAN RELIGION . The Armenians' remotest ancestors immigrated to Anatolia in the mid-second millennium bce. Related to speakers of the Thraco-Phrygian languages of the Indo-European family, they probably brought with them a religion akin to that of the proto-Greeks, adopting also elements of the cultures of Asianic peoples such as the Hittites, from whose name the Armenian word hay ("Armenian") may be derived. Thus, the Armenian divinity Torkʿ is the Hittite Tarundas, and the Armenian word now used for "God," Astuac, may have been the name of an Asianic deity, although its etymology remains hypothetical. The Armenian word di-kʿ ("god[s]") is an Indo-European cognate to the Latin deus.

The Armenians were at first concentrated in the area of Van (Urartean Biaina), a city on the southeastern shore of Lake Van, in eastern Anatolia, and in the Sasun region, a mountainous district to the west of the lake. The Armenian god Vahagn (Av., Verethraghna; cf. Sogdian Vashaghn ), whose cult centered in the area of present-day Muş, appears to have assimilated the dragon-slaying exploits of the Urartean Teisheba, a weather god. An Urartean "gate of God" in the rock of Van was consecrated to Mher (Av., Mithra) and is still known in the living epic of Sasun as Mheri dun ("gate of Mher"), preserving the Urartean usage.

Although Herodotos in the fifth century bce still recalled the Armenians as Phrygian colonists of Phrygian-like speech, they had been conquered twicefirst by the Medes about 583 bce, then by the Persians under Cyrus II the Greatand had assimilated elements of the conquering cultures. After the conquest of Cyrus, the faith of the Iranian prophet Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) was to exercise the primary influence upon the Armenian religion; indeed, Zoroaster was believed by Clement of Alexandria and other classical writers to have been identical with Err, the son of Armenios of the Republic of Plato. Strabo (Geography 11.13.9, 11.14.6) declared that the Armenians and the Medes performed the same religious rites, those "of the Persians," the Medes having been also the source of the way of life (ethē ) of the Persians themselves. Like the Armenian language, which retains its ancient and distinct character while preserving a preponderance of Northwestern Iranian loanwords of the pre-Sasanid period, the ancient religion of the Armenians apparently retained distinct local features, although the great majority of its religious terms and practices belong to the Zoroastrianism of Arsacid Iran and earlier periods.

Ahura Mazdā (OPers., Ahuramazda), creator god of Zoroastrianism, was worshiped by the Armenians as Aramazd, the Parthian form of his name. The principal cult center of Aramazd, the "father of all" (Agathangelos, para. 785), was a temple in Ani, Daranaghi, where the necropolis of the Armenian Arsacids was also located. (Later, the center of the cult shifted to the royal capital at Bagawan, to the east.) The shrine of Barshamin (Sem., Baʿal Shamin, "the lord of heaven") was established at Tʿordan, a village near Ani, probably to indicate that the Semitic god was seen to resemble the Iranian creator god. A similar reformist trend toward monotheism based on an Iranian model is seen in the inscriptions of Arebsun in nearby Cappadocia, probably of the late Achaemenid period, in which is described in Aramaic the marriage to Bel (Baal) of the "religion of Mazdā-worship" (OPers., dainâ mazdayasnïsh ).

According to Movsēs Khorenatsʿi, Mazhan, the brother of King Artashēs I (Gr., Artaxias; early second century bce), served as the priest of Aramazd, while the noble families (nakharar s) served the lesser divinities of whom Aramazd was regarded as the maker; the Vah(n)unis, for instance, may even derive their name from Vahagn, whom they served. According to foreign writers, the most popular of these lesser divinities was Anahit (Gr., Anaitis; OIran., Anāhitā), and it is she who seems to be shown in the mass-produced terra-cotta votive figurines found at Artaxata and other ancient Armenian sites, with one or several male children clinging to her matronly robes, like the scenes of Cybele and the infant Attis. The Armenian Nanē (Pth., *Nanai; Gr., Nanaia) seems to have been a goddess of almost identical character, except that Anahit, as in Iran, was also a goddess of the waters, which Nanē probably was not. Another Armenian goddess, Astghik ("little star"), consort of Vahagn, seems to be identical with Astarte.

Armenian and pre-Sasanid Iranian temples often contained cult statuessuch shrines were called in Armenian bagin s ("places of the god")but it seems that, with or without images, all Armenian temples had fire altars, called atrushan s (like bagīn, a Middle Iranian loanword), so that the major Zoroastrian rites might be consecrated there. A place for fire, and its light, was a focal point of worship and cultic life.

The chief shrine of Vahagn stood at Ashtishat ("rich in yasht s" ["acts of worship"]), the place later consecrated to Saint John the Baptist by Gregory the Illuminator as the earliest see of the Armenian church. Vahagn is described in a fragment of a hymn preserved by Khorenatsʿi (1.31) as "sun-eyed" and "fiery-haired," attributes found in the Avesta and later applied in Christian Armenia to Mary and to seraphs. From various sources it appears that Vahagn was regarded as a sun god, perhaps acquiring this feature from Mihr (Mithra), who is closely associated with the sun in Zoroastrianism. There is oblique evidence of a conflict between devotees of the two gods in Armenia. Nonetheless, the Armenian word for a pagan temple, mehean, containing the name of Mithra, indicates the god's great importance, and it is noteworthy that this term for a Zoroastrian place of rites is very similar to, but much earlier than, the Persian dar-i Mihr (with which the Armenian Mheri dun, mentioned above, is indeed identical).

Among the other gods, the Armenians worshiped Tir (MIran., Tīr), chief of the scribal art and keeper of celestial records, including, some believed, those of human destiny. He survives in modern Armenian folklore as the Grogh ("writer"); a clairvoyant is called Groghi gzir ("deputy of the Grogh"). Spandaramet (MIran., Spandārmad; Av., Spenta Ārmaiti), goddess of the earth, was also venerated. (Her name is rendered as "Dionysos" in the fifth-century Armenian translation of the biblical books of the Maccabees.) Another form of the same name, sandaramet, sometimes pluralized with kʿ or shortened to sandarkʿ (cf. Cappadocian Sondara ), is Southwestern Iranian and may reflect pre-Zoroastrian beliefs, for it is a common noun used in Armenian texts to refer simply to the underworld. Torkʿ of Anggh (Ingila), treated by Khorenatsʿi as a legendary and fearsome hero, is an Asianic divinity equated with Nergal in the Armenian translation of the Bible. There was an Armenian royal necropolis at Anggh, so it seems that Torkʿ was regarded as a divinity of the underworld. Two of the Zoroastrian Amesha Spentas, Haurvatāt ("health") and Ameretat ("long life"), often paired, gave their name to a flower (see Agathangelos, para. 643), which Armenian maidens pluck in silence on Ascension Eve (talking at meals is believed by Zoroastrians to offend the two divinities).

Ancient Armenians celebrated the Iranian New Year, Nawasard (OPers., *Navasarda), which was consecrated to Aramazd. A midwinter feast of fire, Ahekan (OPers., *Athrākana), still survives with its rituals intact in Christianity as Tearnendaaj, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord to the Temple. The old month-name of Mehekan preserves the memory of Mihragān, the feast of Mithra, and Anahit seems to have received special reverence on Vardava, a feast of roses and of the waters. At year's end, Hrotitsʿ (from Avestan Fravashayō ) commemorated the holy spirits of the departed, leading Agathangelos (para. 16) to accuse the Armenians of being uruapashtkʿ ("worshipers of souls").

Although monotheistic in its regard for Ahura Mazdā as the creator of all that is good in heaven and earth, Zoroastrianism postulates a cosmic dualism in which the Lord Wisdom (Av., Ahura Mazdā; Pahl., Ōhrmazd) strives against an inferior but independent adversary, the Hostile Spirit (Av., Angra Mainyu; Pahl., Ahriman). The name of the latter is found in two forms in Armenian, Arhmn and Haramani, and Armenian words for evil people and noxious creatures (e.g., druzhan, "betrayer"; kakhard, "witch"; gazan, "beast") are often of Iranian origin and reflect a dualistic attitude. The Zoroastrian ethical habits of cleanliness, reverence for fire and light, and steadfast cheer in the battle against evil seem to have been fully integrated into Armenian Christianity, which reveres God as hrashapʿar in some hymns, an epithet combining the two characteristically Mazdean features of frasha- ("visibly miraculous") and khvarenah ("divine glory") in loanwords from Middle Iranian.

Gregory the Illuminator, son of an Armenian Arsacid nakharar named Sūrēn Pahlav, converted King Tiridates to Christianity in the second decade of the fourth century. Armies were sent to destroy the old temples, and churches were built over the ruins. The kʿrmapet s, or high priests, resisted with main force this military imposition of a new creed, and many Armenian nakharar s joined the fifth-century Sasanid king Yazdegerd II in his campaign to reconvert the Armenians to Zoroastrianism. But the iconoclastic state church of southwestern Iran differed too greatly from the old faith to appeal to many Armenians, and the translation of scripture into Armenian with the newly invented alphabet of Mesrop Mashtots' made the patriarchs and the saints "Armenian-speaking" (hayerēnakhaws ), as Koriwn wrote. Christianity triumphed over all but a small sect, the Arewordikʿ ("children of the sun"), who were said by medieval writers to follow the teachings of "the magus Zoroaster," worshiping the sun and exposing rather than burying the dead. A very few adherents of the sect may have been alive at the time of the 1915 holocaust, when traditional Armenian society was obliterated.

See Also

Armenian Church.


Abeghian, Manuk. Der armenische Volksglaube. Leipzig, 1899. Reprinted with an Armenian translation in his Erker, vol. 7 (Yerevan, 1975).

Alishan, Lerond. Hin hawatkʿ kam hetʿanosakan krōnkʿ Hayotsʿ. Venice, 1910.

Ananikian, Mardiros H. "Armenian Mythology." In The Mythology of All Races, vol. 7, edited by J. A. MacCulloch, pp. 5100. Boston, 1925.

Gelzer, Heinrich. "Zur armenischen Götterlehre." Berichte der königlichen sächsischen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften (Leipzig) 48 (1896): 99148. Translated into Armenian by Y. T'orosean (Venice, 1897).

Russell, J. R. Zoroastrianism in Armenia. Cambridge, Mass., 1987.

New Sources

Hovannisian, Richard G. The Armenian People from Ancient to Modern Times: The Dynastic Periods: From Antiquity to the Fourteenth Century. New York, 1997.

Kochakian, Garabed. Art in The Armenian Church: Origins and Teaching. New Rochelle, N.Y., 1995.

Matthews, Thomas F., and Roger S. Wieck, eds. Treasures in Heaven: Armenian Art, Religion, and Society. New York, 1998.

Salt, Jeremy. Imperialism, Evangelism and the Ottoman Armenians 18781896. London, 1993.

Thomson, Robert W. Studies in Armenian Literature and Christianity. Brookfield, Vt., 1994.

J. R. Russell (1987)

Revised Bibliography

About this article

Armenian Religion

Updated About content Print Article