Armenian Mythology

by Mardiros H. Ananikian

Chapter VI

Nature Worship and Nature Myths

1. Sun, Moon, and Stars

[47] MOSES of Chorene makes repeated allusions to the worship of the sun and moon in Armenia. In oaths the name of the sun was almost invariably invoked (1), and there were also altars and images of the sun and moon (2). Of what type these images were, and how far they were influenced by Syrian or Magian sun-worship, we cannot tell. We shall presently see the medieval conceptions of the forms of the sun and moon. Modern Armenians imagine the sun to be like the wheel of a water-mill (3). Agathangelos, in the alleged letter of Diocletian to Tiridates, unconsciously bears witness to the Armenian veneration for the sun, moon and stars (4). But the oldest witness is Xenophon, who notes that the Armenians sacrificed horses to the sun (5), perhaps with some reference to his need of them in his daily course through the skies. The eighth month of the Armenian year and, what is more significant, the first day of every month, were consecrated to the sun and bore its name, while the twenty-fourth day in the Armenian month was consecrated to the moon. The Armenians, like the Persians and most of the sun-worshipping peoples of the East, prayed toward the rising sun, a custom which the early church adopted, so that to this day the Armenian churches are built and the Armenian dead are buried toward the east, the west being the abode of evil spirits. As to the moon, Ohannes Mantaguni in the Fifth Century bears witness to the belief that the moon prospers or mars the plants (6), and Anania of Shirak says in his Demonstrations (7) "The first fathers called [48] her the nurse of the plants," a quite widely spread idea which has its parallel, both in the west and in the short Mah-yasht of the Avesta, particularly in the statement that vegetation grows best in the time of the waxing moon (8). At certain of its phases the moon caused diseases, especially epilepsy, which was called the moon-disease, and Eznik tries to combat this superstition with the explanation that it is caused by demons whose activity is connected with the phases of the moon (9)! The modem Armenians are still very much afraid of the baleful influence of the moon upon children and try to ward it off by magical ceremonies in the presence of the moon (10).

As among many other peoples, the eclipse of the sun and moon was thought to be caused by dragons which endeavor to swallow these luminaries. But the "evil star" of the Western Armenians is a plain survival of the superstitions current among the Persians, who held that these phenomena were caused by two dark bodies, offspring of the primaeval ox, revolving below the sun and moon, and occasionally passing between them and the earth (11). When the moon was at an eclipse, the sorcerers said that it resembled a demon (?). It was, moreover, a popular belief that a sorcerer could bind the sun and moon in their course, or deprive them of their light. He could bring the sun or moon down from heaven by witchcraft and although it was larger than many countries (worlds?) put together, the sorcerers could set the moon in a threshing floor, and although without breasts, they could milk it like a cow (12). This latter point betrays some reminiscence of a primaeval cow in its relation to the moon and perhaps shows that this luminary was regarded by the Armenians also as a goddess of fertility. Needless to add that the eclipses and the appearance of comets foreboded evil. Their chronologies are full of notices of such astronomical phenomena that presaged great national and universal disasters. Along with all these practices, there was a special type of divination by the moon.

[49] Both sun and moon worship have left deep traces in the popular beliefs of the present Armenians (13).

A few ancient stellar myths have survived, in a fragmentary condition. Orion, Sirius, and other stars were perhaps involved in myths concerning the national hero, Hayk, as they bear his name.

We have seen that Vahagn's stealing straw from Ba'al Shamin and forming the Milky Way, has an unmistakable reference to his character. The Milky Way itself was anciently known as "the Straw-thief's Way," and the myth is current among the Bulgarians, who may have inherited it from the ancient Thracians.

Some of the other extant sun-myths have to do with the great luminary's travel beyond the western horizon. The setting sun has always been spoken of among the Armenians and among Slavs as the sun that is going to his mother. According to Frazer "Stesichorus also described the sun embarking in a golden goblet that he might cross the ocean in the darkness of night and come to his mother, his wedded wife and children dear." The sun may, therefore, have been imagined as a young person, who, in his resplendent procession through the skies, is on his way to a re-incarnation. The people probably believed in a daily occurrence of death and birth, which the sun, as the heavenly fire, has in common with the fire, and which was most probably a return into a heavenly stalk or tree and reappearance from it. This heavenly stalk or tree itself must therefore have been the mother of the sun, as well as of the fire, and in relation to the sun was known to the Letts and even to the ancient Egyptians. The Armenians have forgotten the original identity of the mother of the sun and have produced other divergent accounts of which Abeghian has given us several (15), They often think the dawn or the evening twilight to be the mother of the sun. She is a brilliant woman with eyes shining like the beams of the sun and with a golden garment, [50] who bestows beauty upon the maidens at sunset. Now she is imagined as a good woman helping those whom the sun punished, now as a bad woman cursing and changing men into stone. The mother of the sun is usually supposed to reside in the palace of the sun, which is either in the east at the end of the world or in a sea, like the Lake of Van. In the absence of a sea, there is at least a basin near the mother. Like the Letto-Lithuanians, who thought that Perkuna Tete, the mother of the thunder and lightning, bathes the sun, and refreshes him at the end of the day, the Armenians also associate this mother closely with the bath which the sun takes at the close of his daily journey. The palace itself is gorgeously described. It is situated in a far-off place where there are no men, no birds, no trees, and no turf, and where the great silence is disturbed only by the murmur of springs welling up in the middle of each one of the twelve courts, which are built of blue marble and spanned over by arches. In the middle court, over the spring, there is a pavilion where the mother of the sun waits for him, sitting on the edge of a pearl bed among lights. When he returns he bathes in the spring, is taken up, laid in bed and nursed by his mother.

Further, that the sun crosses a vast sea to reach the east was also known to the Armenians. Eznik is trying to prove that this is a myth but that the sun passes underneath the earth all the same. The sea is, of course, the primaeval ocean upon which the earth was founded. It is on this journey that the sun shines on the Armenian world of the dead as he did on the Babylonian Aralu and on the Egyptian and Greek Hades. The following extract from an Armenian collection of folklore unites the sun's relation to Hades and to the subterranean ocean: "And at sun-set the sun is the portion of the dead. It enters the sea and, passing under the earth, emerges in the morning at the other side " (16).

Medieval writers (17) speak about the horses of the sun, [51] an idea which is no more foreign to the Persians than to the Greeks. One counts four of them, and calls them Enik, Menik, Benik, and Senik, which sound like artificial or magic names, but evidently picture the sun on his quadriga. Another, mingling the scientific ideas of his time with mythical images, says: "The sun is a compound of fire, salt, and iron, light blended with lightning, fire that has been shaped--or with a slight emendation--fire drawn by horses. There are in it twelve windows with double shutters, eleven of which look upward, and one to the earth. Wouldst thou know the shape of the sun? It is that of a man deprived of reason and speech standing between two horses. If its eye (or its real essence) were not in a dish, the world would blaze up before it like a mass of wool." The reader will readily recognize in "the windows of the sun " a far-off echo of early Greek philosophy.

Ordinarily in present-day myths the sun is thought to be a young man and the moon a young girl. But, on the other hand, the Germanic idea of a feminine sun and masculine moon is not foreign to Armenian thought. They are brother and sister, but sometimes also passionate lovers who are engaged in a weary search for each other through the trackless fields of the heavens. In such cases it is the youthful moon who is pining away for the sun-maid. Bashfulness is very characteristic of the two luminaries, as fair maids. So the sun hurls fiery needles at the bold eyes which presume to gaze upon her face, and the moon covers hers with a sevenfold veil of clouds (18). These very transparent and poetic myths, however, have little in them that might be called ancient.

The ancient Armenians, like the Latins, possessed two different names for the moon. One of these was Lusin, an unmistakable cognate of Luna ( originally Lucna or Lucina ), and the other Ami(n)s, which now like the Latin mens, signifies "month." No doubt Lusin designated the moon as a female goddess, while Amins corresponded to the Phrygian men or Lunus.

[52] The same mediaeval and quasi-scientific author who gives the above semi-mythological description of the sun, portrays the moon in the following manner: "The moon was made out of five parts, three of which are light, the fourth is fire, and the fifth, motion...which is a compound. It is cloud-like, light-like (luminous) dense air, with twelve windows, six of which look heavenward and six earthward. What are the forms of the moon? In it are two sea-buffaloes (?). The light enters into the mouth of the one and is waning in the mouth of the other. For the light of the moon comes from the sun" (19). Here again the sea-buffaloes may be a dim and confused reminiscence of a "primaeval cow" which was associated with the moon and, no doubt, suggested by the peculiar form of the crescent. Let us add also that the Armenians spoke of the monthly rebirth of the moon, although myths concerning it are lacking.

Fragments of Babylonian star-lore found their way into Armenia probably through Median Magi. We have noticed the planetary basis of the pantheon. In later times, however, some of the planets came into a bad repute (20). Anania of Shirak (seventh century) reports that heathen (?) held Jupiter and Venus to be beneficent, Saturn and Mars were malicious, but Mercury was indifferent.

Stars and planets and especially the signs of the Zodiac were bound up with human destiny upon which they exercised a decisive influence. According to Eznik (21) the Armenians believed that these heavenly objects caused births and deaths. Good and ill luck were dependent upon the entrance of certain stars into certain signs of the Zodiac. So they said: "When Saturn is in the ascendant, a king dies; when Leo (the lion) is ascendant, a king is born. When the Taurus is ascendant, a powerful and good person is born. With Aries, a rich person is born, ' just as the ram has a thick fleece.' With the Scorpion, a wicked and sinful person comes to the world. Whoever is [53] born when Hayk (Mars?) is in the ascendant dies by iron, i.e., the sword." Much of this star lore is still current among the Mohammedans in a more complete form.

Eznik alludes again and again to the popular belief that stars, constellations, and Zodiacal signs which bear names of animals like Sirius (dog), Arcturus (bear), were originally animals of those names that have been lifted up into the heavens.

Something of the Armenian belief in the influence that Zodiacal signs could exercise on the weather and crops is preserved by al-Biruni (22) where we read: "I heard a number of Armenian learned men relate that on the morning of the Fox-day there appears on the highest mountain, between the Interior and the Exterior country, a white ram (Aries?) which is not seen at any other time of the year except about this time of this Day. Now the inhabitants of that country infer that the year will be prosperous if the ram bleats; that it will be sterile if it does not bleat."


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