Dragon Stones in the History of Ancient Armenia

Dragon stone – վիշապներ – the ancient history of the Armenian people. Valery Bryusov, 1917:

“…Not long ago, in Transcaucasia, the attention of scholars was drawn to huge stone fish-monsters, the so-called “vishaps”, also found in the Van region. Exactly the same fish-dragons were carved by the sculptors of ancient Egypt.

An Armenian, seeing these creations of art from the distant south, born under the scorching sky of the Nile Valley and on the fragrant shores of the Aegean Sea, will certainly exclaim: “this is – our vishaps!”. Both Ramses the Great and Tigranes the Great must have considered these fish-monsters to be the creations of their ancestors.

Near the “vishaps”, one often finds original stone slabs with the image of an overturned and spread-out bull’s skin; similar slabs are found in the art of Egypt of the 3rd millennium BC, the era of Narmer. The so-called “graves of the giants” on Alagez (Aragats) are very reminiscent of Aegean tombs.

And if so far no genuine sphinxes have been discovered in the Caucasus, in ancient Armenia, this may be a mere coincidence, as images similar to sphinxes are quite common at the bases of columns in the art of the Hittites, which is so close to the art of the ancient Caucasus”…

Nikolay Marr, 1925:

“The first form of transformation of the oldest Armenian sculptural monuments are the huge stone sculptures of fish, “vishaps”, carved four to five millennia before the birth of Christ, found in the Geghama mountains. The second form is the flat columns or steles of the Van kings.

The third are carved columns with early Christian period images, up to the IX century. And after all this, finally, it – khachkar – is the fourth form”.

So, vishaps are ancient mythological creatures that were depicted as tall stone statues, menhirs. Vishaps are common in the mythologies of the countries of the Armenian Highlands and Asia.

Originally, vishaps were gods or spirits of water. The peoples inhabiting the Armenian Highlands carved images of vishaps from stone and installed them at underground water sources.

Over time, the mythological image of vishaps underwent changes and began to be associated with evil spirits, dragons, etc., often maintaining the original connection with water.

The statues of vishaps reached five meters in height – “… these are smoothly hewn blocks up to four meters and more in length – grandiose stone steles depicting fish – ‘vishaps’, identified with dragons of mythology and fairy tales…” (Abegyan M., 1941).

The exact time of their manufacture is not established. No remains of ancient settlements, fires, or other organic remains to which radiocarbon analysis could be applied were found near the vishaps. Vishaps were first discovered in 1909 in Armenia by N. Ya. Marr and Ya. I. Smirnov.

Scientists made a trip to the mountains of the Geghama range to establish the basis of stories heard from the residents of Garni, about the stone “vishaps” lying high in the mountains, on summer pastures, and to check whether it is of scientific interest.

Indeed, they found megalithic stone sculptures on a high-altitude nomadic site, which the Armenians called “Vishapner”. Most of the sculptures were in the form of fish.

The largest of the discovered vishaps reached 4.75 meters in width and 0.55 meters in length. All vishaps were felled to the ground, some of them had to be excavated.

By the way, the vishap found in Vishapner contained later drawings of crosses and an Armenian inscription dated to the 13th century AD.

Based on this find, scientists initially assumed that the vishaps were erected in the 1st millennium AD. The location of the crosses and the text indicated that in the 13th century, the vishap was still in a vertical position.

A few decades later, in 1963, a vishap was discovered in Garni, which had an earlier cuneiform inscription of the Van (Ararat, or as most historians agree, Urartian) king Argishti I. This discovery allows dating the vishaps at least to the beginning of the 1st millennium BC, and most likely to the 2nd millennium BC.

Then similar vishaps were found on the Vardenis ridge, in Syunik, near Lake Sevan, on the southern slope of Mount Aragats, in the Javakhk region, and in other regions of Armenia (Kalantar A., Sardaryan S., Karakhanyan G., Martirosyan A., Safyan P., Israyelyan A., Petrosyan S., Arakelyan B., Muradyan F., Khechoyan A., Gasparian B.). Often on their surface were placed relief images of birds, skins and heads of rams, as well as cuneiform texts. The dating of vishaps was engaged by historians (Meshchaninov I., 1925, Arakelyan B., Arutyunyan N., 1966).

Many scientists have studied and tried to interpret the meaning of the vishap stones (Petrosyan A., Piotrovsky B., Dilanyan S., Toporov V., Vaganyan V., Vaganyan G., Ivanov V.).

As a result, it was suggested that the original meaning of vishap over time was forgotten and transformed from a water deity into a demon, dragon, in other words, it became a “monster – enemy, adversary”, and the establishment of a vishap was dedicated to the victory over this enemy and served as a guard against possible opponents. Some legends, cited by Armenian historian Movses Khorenatsi, mention precisely vishaps-monsters.

The epic “Vipasank” tells about the relationships of these vishapids with the legendary Armenian kings: the leader and father of the vishaps Argavan invites king Artashes and his sons to dinner and plots against him; Artashes, returning to Artashat, sends his son Majan with an army to destroy the Vishap. However, he did not fulfill his father’s order; then the vishaps are exterminated by Artavazd.

Scientists have noted the connection between the vishaps of Armenia and similar menhirs established in the North Caucasus and in Europe, as well as similarities with similar monuments in Asia, for example, in the territory of northern Mongolia. Although stylistically the vishaps of Armenia are significantly different, researchers note an interesting interconnection between the monuments created by different peoples.

With the assertion of Christianity, Vaagn fighting with vishaps was replaced by the Archangel Gabriel. Gabriel, with his angels, enters into a battle with the vishaps, who during a storm try to consume the sun (in this case, storm clouds are the fiery bodies of vishaps, thunder is their cry, and lightning is the arrow of Gabriel Khreshtak, the staff or rod of angels). The angels lift the vishaps to the sun itself, from the rays of which they turn into ash that sprinkles down to the earth. The name vishap was also applied to Satan himself.

The main conclusion to which scientists have come is that the earliest archetypes of known motifs and images of dragons – “vishaps”, capricorns and snakes, used in the myths and legends of various peoples and cultures, were created on the territory of Armenia starting from the 7th – 5th millennium BC and became not just witnesses of the vanished pages of the ancient history of the Armenian people.

They left a deep and lasting mark in the national culture. And it is also possible that Armenian khachkars are a continuation of the tradition of vishaps – i.e., talismans against their intrigues.

P.S. Pay attention to the last photo. This stone is located on the territory of the Church of St. John the Baptist in Byurakan. In my opinion, the Arevakhach and the Tree of Life (or the Tree of the Clan) are depicted on the stone. So this stone is a precursor to the Khachkar. Of course, it’s possible that I could be wrong… Alexander Bakulin

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *