The pagan pantheon of Armenians consisted of both local deities, as well as gods and goddesses adopted from the pantheons of the neighboring peoples. As it is with pagan pantheons, natural phenomena such as the sun and moon were worshipped. Apart from that, abstract concepts like beauty and wisdom were also defied.
One member of the ancient Armenian pantheon was Tir (Dir in Western Armenian), the deity of writing. The very fact of his worship allows one to argue that the Armenians had a written culture prior to the creation of the Armenian alphabet in the 5th century, about a century after the adoption of Christianity in Armenia in 301 AD.
While the influence of the ancient pagan pantheon was overshadowed by the dominance of the new religion, there still is some noticeable pagan influence, which can be reflected in that very god of writing. Tir, referred to as “Grogh” (“Krogh” in Western Armenian, meaning “writer”), was in charge of recording everyone’s good and evil deeds and then conducting their souls to the afterlife. In present-day Armenian, the curse “Groghe tani!” (“May the Writer take it away!”) is quite common.
Additionally, apart from swearing by one’s ancestors, it is customary to swear by one’s father’s sun (“Hors arev!”), as an example. Such phrases could indicate ancient objects of worship or perhaps guardian spirits.
Interestingly, one Armenian word that is definitely used in Christian context is “chastvats”/”chasdvadz”, which is a grammatically direct negation of the Armenian word for “God”, “Astvats”/”Asdvadz”. “Chastvats”/”chasdvadz” thus means “non-God.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean that Christianity has completely driven out all the pagan customs from the Armenian culture. In fact, the Armenian Church to this day accepts offerings of sacrificed animals as gratitude or alms. This practice is known as “matagh”/”madagh”, and it is known to have existed since at least the early days of Christianity.
Other traditions that are believed to have come from the pre-Christian times and that are now in some way connected to modern religion in Armenia include the July Vartavar (the Armenian name for the Feast of the Transfiguration), during which people play by splashing water on one another, as well as the February “Tyarnuntarach” or “Dyarnuntarch” (Feast of the Presentation of Christ to the Temple) that is celebrated by jumping over bonfires.
In response to the original material, one of the readers wrote to The 100 Years, 100 Facts Project to clarify:
The practice of giving names of pagan deities to Armenian children is a custom that began in the 19th century and continued in the 20th. I think one can check that by going through Hrachya Acharyan’s Dictionary of Personal Names. Usually, except the deities themselves, no other Armenian person with those names is mentioned throughout the Middle Ages. The oldest Ara that I have come across in historical sources was a violinist in Constantinople born in 1895. The name Astghik is mentioned a little earlier, as the stage name of a famous actress, also in Constantinople. I think it is one indicator of how Armenians changed from seeing themselves as the followers of a religious institution (the Armenian Apostolic Church) to members of a “Kulturnation” – as defined by German thinkers of the period, especially Johann Gottfried Herder.
This is an important topic, and can be the subject of a good article. If there are registers of baptisms in the Armenian churches in Constantinople/Istanbul, that would be a good place to start. Otherwise, the periodical press is our next important source. Although I cannot affirm this unconditionally, it is probable that this tradition of giving pagan names to some of the Armenian newborn began earlier in Constantinople than in the Armenian provinces of the Ottoman Empire.
Dr. Ara Sanjian
Director, Armenian Research Center
Associate Professor in Armenian and Middle Eastern History
University of Michigan-Dearborn
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