Dayeakut'iwn was a form of childrearing practiced in Armenia and other parts of the Caucasus. In Armenia it involved the young sons of the country's lords or naxarars, who were sent to the sometimes distant districts of other lords, to be raised and educated there. Probably at age fifteen the youth returned to his own home, perhaps with a bride from his "adopted" family. Between the youth (called the san "pupil," "foster child," "protege") and the host naxarar (called the dayeak), a life-long bond existed; should the youth go home with a wife, the mutual interests of two naxarar Houses might be advanced. How ancient this practice was among the Armenians cannot be determined accurately. The earliest historical sources written in Armenian date from the fifth century A.D.; but dayeakut'iwn may have been practiced in Armenia many centuries earlier. In one form or another, dayeakut'iwn endured into the nineteenth century, though information on the more modern survivals of the custom comes from Georgia and other parts of the Caucasus rather than from Armenia.
Etymologically, the word dayeak is borrowed from Iranian; cognates are also found in the Kurdish, Afghan, and Baluchi languages (1). The word dayeak is still used in modern Armenian, with the limited meaning of "wetnurse." But to classical Armenian writers of the fifth century, the term had more than one meaning. The translators of the Bible into Armenian (A.D. 430s) used dayeak to refer to: (1) a wetnurse (e.g.: Exodus 2:7, Numbers 11:12, Ruth 4:16, IV Kings 11:2, 11 Chronicles 22:11); (2) a governess or tutor to a child (Genesis 35:8, 1 Thessalonians 2:71; and (3) a special guardian entrusted with educating and nurturing a child for an extended period (Isaiah 49:23, Acts 13:1, 1 Maccabees 6:14-15). It is in this last sense, most likely, that the early fifth century biographer Koriwn (Koriun) used the word. Koriwn used the adverb dayekabar ("as a dayeak", i.e, "solicitously") to describe how Mesrop Mashtots labored to teach the Armenian alphabet to the illiterate inhabitants of the district of Goght'n (note 2).
While one may ascertain the meaning of the term dayeak in fifth century Armenian literary histories, any investigation of the institution of dayeakut'iwn faces serious obstacles. These obstacles result from the nature of the sources themselves. First, none of the Armenian historical sources which have survived actually discuss this institution in any detail. Authors such as P'awstos Buzand and Ghazar P'arpec'i (fifth century) wrote for their contemporaries who already knew the features and implications of the dayeak relationship in their own day; these writers felt no need to define terms. Consequently, in a number of cases, testimonies concerning dayeakut'iwn are not direct references but allusions, i.e, a dayeak relationship is implied though the term dayeak is not used. Another problem is that dayeakut'iwn functioned as part of the customary rather than the normative laws of the Armenians. Thus, a document of great importance for the juridicial history of early Armenia—such as the Canons of the Council of Shahapiwan (A.D. 444)—makes no mention of dayeaks or dayeakut'iwn. Finally, like any enduring institution, dayeakut'iwn undoubtedly underwent subtle changes over the centuries. But the sources provide no information on them. Most likely it was this paucity of information that caused N. Adontz and C. Toumanoff (the twentieth century's two most prominent investigators of ancient Armenian society) to completely ignore the role of dayeakut'iwn in Armenian history (3). However, the existence of kindred instititutions in Georgia and other parts of the Caucasus has not gone unnoticed by scholars. Such late nineteenth to early twentieth century investigators as K. Machavariani, A. Khakhanov, M. Kovalevskii, M. Janashvili, V. Vasilkov, I. Stepanov, and N. Derzhavin commented on related practices among the Abkhazes, Ossetes, Temmirgois, the Georgians, Mingrelians, Svanetians, the Khevsurs, and the Pshavs. More recently, A. Grigolia collected and analyzed references to "milk-brotherhood" in the accounts of seventeenth to nineteenth century European travellers to Caucasia. The present study will examine classical Armenian references to dayeakut'iwn and child custody, and then evaluate them in the light of information presented in Grigolia's article, "Milkrelationship in the Caucasus" (4).
Before turning to an investigation of the Armenian sources, a few words are in order about the naxarar (lordly) society which practiced dayeakut iwn. From most ancient times, the naxarars, or lords of the Armenian highlands, were not a homogeneous group. Long before the Arsacid (Arshakuni) clan was established on the Armenian throne (ca. A.D. 63), other clans ruled large parts of the Armenian highlands as independent rulers. In some instances the lineages of particular clans extended far back into Urartian times (pre-sixth century B.C.) . In the fourth and fifth centuries A.D., the naxarar heads of these clans may have constituted a part of the prevailing court nobility, but in a number of cases individual families were militarily as powerful and politcally as influential as the royal Arsacids, or more so. One part of the nobility, thus, was composed of dynasts, i.e, the descendants of the ancient clan leaders who held authority by hereditary right. Another part of the nobility was a "created" aristocracy of officials appointed by the Crown.
As the Arsacid family attempted to exert its authority over larger parts of the Armenian highlands, it tried to deal with the dynasts as though they were merely royal appointees. This legal fiction was recognized for what it was by such ancient clans as the Mamikoneans, Bagratids, and Artsrunids who actually predated the Arsacid monarchy in Armenia and were well aware of it. Thus, as the Arsacids tried to centralize control over the districts of historical Armenia, they invariably came into conflict with the prominent naxarars who saw the Arsaclds as "first among equals," rather than as the omnipotent monarchs they aspired to be. Such a political reality was by no means unique to Armenia. It was also characteristic of Armenia's powerful neighbor to the east, Iran. Indeed, the title of Iran's monarch, shahnshah, as the Armenian ark'ayits' ark'ay (king of kings), reflected in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. and long before, not so much the grandeur of absolute sovereignty as an acknowledgement of the fact that these monarchs were kings of other kings. When these "other kings" were the monarch's own nobles, the king's role often was merely to preside, not to govern (5).
In both Armenia and Iran, internal conflicts took the form of open and covert warfare against the Crown by the lordly clans, either singly or in confederations. In both societies, the Crown (when it was strong enough) attempted to physically annihilate rebellious or insubordinate familes. In fourth to fifth century Armenia the Arsacid family tried to exterminate recalcitrant naxarar families on more than one occasion. But this was no easy matter. To eliminate a naxarar clan/family (which sometimes included thousands of related individuals) and to confiscate its land for the Crown meant that every male clan member had to be killed. Should but one male baby survive, he could (on reaching his majority) reclaim all of his clan's lands; and, under the customary law operating in Armenia, the Crown could be forced to fully restore and reinstate the sole survivor (see below)
Under such potentially uncertain circumstances of life, the great naxarar clans took precautions to prevent total annihilation. In the opinion of this writer, it was concern for clan survival which initially led to the institution of dayeakut'iwn among the lords. For if a naxarar's little sons lived in distant parts of the country, a massacre directed against the center of the naxarardom might cause great loss of life, but the children (and thus the future clan) would be safe. Custody of sole-surviving noble children was of paramount importance in naxarar Armenia, especially to the guardian Houses (tuns) which stood to gain from merging their lines with those of their dependent wards. Beyond insuring a clan's survival in dangerous times, dayeakut'iwn served as a means of drawing naxarar families together in times of relative peace. The influence of the dayeak on his charge was deep and profound; similarly, the san (foster child) in later life often did his utmost to assist his dayeak or dayeak-family. Armenian historians of the fifth century, such as Agat'angeghos, P'awstos Buzand, and Ghazar P'arpets'i, have preserved several interesting references to dayeakut'iwn which confirm the double nature of this institution.
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