A History of Armenian Pagan Deities
(A part of Eddie Arnavoudian's review on 'The Armenian Pantheon' by
Professor Levon Katcheryan)
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
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
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.
Pantheon of Armenian gods
The Armenian god or goddess is listed with the Greek equivalent deity in parenthesis
Aramazd (Zeus) - The father of all gods and goddesses, the creator of heaven and earth. The first two letters in his name, "AR" is the Indo-European root for sun, light, and life. Aramazd was the source of earth's fertility, making it fruitful and bountiful. The celebration in his honor was called Am'nor, or New Year, which was celebrated on March 21 in the old Armenian calendar (also the Spring equinox).
Anahit (Artemis) - The goddess of fertility and birth, in early period she was the goddess of war. By the 1st c. BCE she was the main deity in Armenia.
Nuneh (Athena) - The goddess of wisdom, common sense, motherhood and protector of the home, keeper of the family.
Vahagan (Hephaestus) - The god of thunder, clouds and fire. Comes from "Vah" -god, "Agne" - fire. Vahagan is the constellation Orion.
Astghik (Aphrodite) - The goddess of love and beauty, symbolized by skylight. She was the wife or lover of Vahagan, the god of fire and metal. She was also the goddess of water. The celebration in her honor occurred in mid June and was called Vardevar. It is still celebrated in Armenia by pouring water on unsuspecting passersby.
Ara Geghetsik- "Ara the Beautiful- the god of spring, flora, agriculture, sowing and water. He is associated with Isis, Vishnu and Dionysus, as the symbol of new life.
Haik - a king, but in legend the father of Armenia. He slew the Babylonian god Bel, which in history was Nemruth, the Babylonian king described in the bible as attempting to build the tower of Babel. Haiks armies invaded Babylon, and establish the kingdom from which Armenians claim their heritage. The legend of Haik is the forerunner of the legend of Hercules.
Tsovinar, Nar - The goddess of water, sea, rain. She was a fire creature, who forced the rain and hail to fall from the heavens with her fury.
Vanatur - the god of hospitality and bountiful hosts.
Tir (Apollo) - the god of literature, science and art, also an interpreter of dreams.
Tork Angegh (Aries) - the god of power, bravery, war, the military.
Aralez - One of the oldest gods in the Armenian pantheon, Aralez was a god in the form of a dog, whose powers included the ability to resurrect the dead by licking wounds clean.