Last year, an enigmatic sculpture of an unknown deity was unearthed at the site of a 1st-century BC temple (to be more precise, inside the supporting wall of a medieval Christian monastery) in southeastern Turkey. The sculpture portrays a bearded deity rising out of the stalk of a plant. Experts seem to be confused over the deity: in particular, Live Science reported that “more than a dozen experts contacted by Live Science had no idea who the deity was.”
Clearly, this artifact depicts a supernatural being as it had been found at the site of an ancient temple. Michael Blömer, an archaeologist from the University of Münster in Germany and a participant of the excavations, said:
“It’s clearly a god, but at the moment, it’s difficult to say who exactly it is. There are some elements reminiscent of ancient Near Eastern gods as well, so it might be some very old god from before the Romans.”
Could one assume that the sculpture portrays a native Armenian deity Vahagn? To be able to give an answer to that question, it is necessary to examine the artifact’s iconography in detail. Scholars from the University of Münster created a 3D image of the sculpture:
Roman Relief found on the Dülük Baba Tepesi 2014
As you can see, the relief portrays a bearded man rising out of a giant reed-like plant, holding the stalk of another plant. The bottom features images of a rock/mountain, a crescent moon, two flanking stars (or starfish), a rosette, and something that resembles an elongated seashell or a horn. The top of the sculpture is broken off, but had it been in its place, the relief would be human-height tall.
But why Vahang?
Vahagn was a pagan Armenian deity of courage identified with the Greek deities Heracles and Ares. It is known that Vahagn had often been associated with such plants as straws and reeds in Armenian mythology. As an example, an Armenian legend recorded by 4th-century historian Movses Khorenatsi tells about the creation of the milky way. Traditionally, the milky way was created by Vahagn who dropped stolen straws when flying over the heavens. The Armenian name for the milky way is thus translated as “Straw Thief’s Way”.
The mythical song of Vahagn’s birth provides yet another striking similarity. Khorenatsi recorded an ancient song sung in honor of Vahagn on the motif of his birth. The song recounts how Vahagn was born out of a hollow of a stalk of a red reed. Remarkably, the song also mentions that Vahagn was a bearded man when he came out of the stalk of the plant:
Fiery hair had he,
Ay, too, he had flaming beard,
This coincides with the image of the mysterious sculpture. Further, the song recounts that the plant that gave birth to Vahagn had been created by the combined efforts of the heavens and the earth. It starts as follows:
In travail were heaven and earth,
The sculpture clearly features images representing the heavens and the earth at the bottom of the relief. The stalk is depicted growing out of them, which could well represent the “travail” of the heavens and earth giving birth to the reed.
The stele also appears to depict sea life: in particular, it images a long shell and starfish flanking the rosette and the moon. This perfectly matches the legend of Vahagn’s birth as well:
In travail, too, the purple sea!
The travail held in the sea the small red reed.
Through the hollow of the stalk came forth smoke,
Through the hollow of the stalk came forth flame,
Experts argue that the deity on the sculpture is more likely a depiction of a local god rather than a Roman deity. A classicist from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland Gregory Woolf said:
“He looks to me like he was somebody from a native, very local pantheon.”
And Vahagn is certainly local. The temple that housed the stele lies atop a mountain in the vicinity of the present-day town of Gaziantep, above the ancient city of Doliche (modern Dülük). Being one of the oldest continuously inhabited regions on the planet, this area has been populated by Armenians from times immemorial. The stele is dated to the 1st century BC: in that time period, King Tigran the Great ruled Armenia, and the region was a part of his kingdom.
Furthermore, 1st-century BC king of Commagene Antiochus I Theos, a member of the Armenian royal family, created a number of statues of deities at the famous Mount Nemrut, including the stele of Vahagn. The statue of Vahagn was recorded with his Greek variant “Artagnes”, which is the Hellenistic form of the Armenian “Vahagn” and of the Avestan “Verethragna”.
It is thereby safe to conclude that Vahagn was no alien to the region or the period that his sculpture was created in.
Another observation connects this pagan sculpture to the later Armenian Christian iconography. The bottom of the stele features a rosette, which seemingly gives birth to vegetation, as well as the deity itself. This is very reminiscent of the art seen on Armenian khachkars (cross-stones) that depicts an almost identical scene, with only the deity being replaced by a cross. Remarkably, such Armenian iconography is inscribed in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list with the following description:
“Khachkars are outdoor steles carved from stone by craftspeople in Armenia and communities in the Armenian diaspora. They act as a focal point for worship, as memorial stones and as relics facilitating communication between the secular and divine. Khachkars reach 1.5 metres in height, and have an ornamentally carved cross in the middle, resting on the symbol of a sun or wheel of eternity, accompanied by vegetative-geometric motifs, carvings of saints and animals.”
This could be a testimony to a continuous cultural link between the Christian and pagan Armenian traditions, which seems to be absent from other Christian communities. Nonetheless, the sculpture seems to indeed depict the birth of Vahagn, a deity from the pagan Armenian pantheon.