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From duduks to dragons: Armenian references in 'Game of Thrones'

May 09, 2019

In pictures

By Lilly Torosyan

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From duduks to dragons: Armenian references in 'Game of Thrones'

If you’ve ever watched a show or film and thought, “wow, that costume looks like taraz (traditional Armenian attire)” or “this soundtrack sounds super Armenian,” you’re not alone. There are many examples throughout Hollywood of Armenian references, characters, music, and even language. The wildly popular television series, Game of Thrones (GoT), takes place in a fantasy world, but derives many inspirations from real life places, icons, events, and people. As we gear up for the gripping season finale this Sunday, we thought we’d break down the show’s several subtle (and not-so-subtle) Armenian references. Whether fact or fiction, it’s all in good fun!

Beware of spoilers below!

Spoiler alert! 

 

Ancient spiral symbols = Arevakhach?

On the very first episode of GoT, we are shown a pile of bodies arranged in circular spirals. This image recurs mysteriously throughout the seasons, culminating in season seven episode four, when the King of the North, Jon Snow, shows the Dragon Queen, Daenerys Targaryen, cave carvings that appear to depict the Children of the Forest and their alliance with the First Men thousands of years ago to defeat the humanoid ice creatures, known as White Walkers, and their ruler, the Night King. This is an integral scene where Jon tries to convince Daenerys to join forces to defeat the powerful White Walkers, who seek to turn the living into undead creatures—a feat that also gave birth to scores of “Bend the Knee” memes last summer. (Photo: Olga Hamilton of Light Digital Art)

Solar symbolism in Pagan Armenia

As with many pre-Abrahamic religions, the sun occupied a special place in ancient Armenian divinity. Pagan Armenians worshipped the sun using a variety of depictions and prayers rooted in architectural figures and symbols, prayer rituals, and celebratory commemorations. Solar symbolism was so essential to Armenians that many of its depictions were preserved, even centuries after the nation’s conversion to Christianity. One such example is this image, which shows a stone carving of an arevakhach (sun-cross) symbol at the pagan Garni Temple. (Photo: Wikipedia)

'Yes im anoush Hayastani Arevakhach barn em sirum'

(A play on words from the famous Charents poem) The arevakhach is an ancient eternity symbol composed of normally eight curves (the number eight represents revival, rebirth, and recurrence), and can be depicted with wheels rotating clockwise (representing activity) or counter-clockwise (representing passivity). The round whirling sun-like symbol is the direct descendant of the pre-historic swastika and has been deemed the Armenian equivalent of the Star of David for Jews. It is one of the most salient symbols of Armenian national identity, prominently decorating ancient and medieval Armenian monasteries, temples, churches, tombs, and even the floor of Eurovision. In this image, Armenian pop singer, Aram MP3, stands on a giant projection of an arevakhach during his performance at the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest in Denmark. (Screenshot: Eurovision)

From cross stones to cave paintings

The earliest depictions of the arevakhach in the Armenian Highlands are rock inscriptions from the Stone Age. GoT’s recurring mysterious spiral images, memorialized in the cave paintings in season seven, look a lot like this ancient Armenian symbol. Are they in any way connected? (Graphic: The Daily Dot)

Hye or not?

Though the show is based on the popular book series, A Song of Fire and Ice, written by George R. R. Martin, the books do not delve into these figures. It seems like the show creators took the liberty of creating and depicting the ancient spiral symbols as a means of elevating the historical parallels between the world of Westeros and our own. As showrunner David Benioff explained, “These are patterns that have mystical significance for the Children of the Forest. We’re not sure exactly what they signify, but spiral patterns are important in a lot of different cultures in our world, and it makes sense that they would be in this world, as well.” So, though we cannot say that these symbols are specifically Armenian-derived, the similarities are a curious, and entertaining, comparison. (Graphic: Wandelion blog)

Targaryen = Targaryan?

Studying at a posh British university, one may encounter a fair share of GoT references. Due to the similarity of my last name (Torosyan) with one of the most recognizable surnames on the show, professors would frequently address me as “Targaryen.” Of course, most Armenians are not silver-blonde with violet eyes (as per the books), nor do they usually wield dragons (Or do they? More on that below), but the Internet—from Quora to Reddit—also wonders, is Targaryen an Armenian-derived name? When news broke that the Turkish military was banning GoT in its academies, some on Twitter thought it amusing to suggest the possibility that Daenerys Targaryen was, in fact, Armenian. Of course, the actual reasons for the ban were less interesting (namely, nudity and other religious motives), but the question still stood: what is the origin of the name? (Screenshot: Twitter)

Targaryen... Hye or not?

The derivation of Targaryen is still up in the air, but the likeliest explanation seems to be that it is of Persian/Zoroastrian background, like many of the female names on the show. Getting warmer…

Dragons = Vishaps?

For seven seasons, we saw the rise of the “sole”  remaining heir to the once-formidable Targaryen dynasty, Daenerys Targaryen. With the help of the three dragons (վիշապ - "vishap") she “gave birth to,” she quickly emerges from near-fated obscurity to become a formidable contender for the heavily sought-after Iron Throne. Centuries of fragile Targaryen rule became compounded with the disappearance of these mythical creatures, but their rebirth at the end of season 1 reintroduces the world to their fire-breathing power once more. Though Daenerys was consistently presented as a kind, just queen who used her dragons for good, after last week’s episode, we are left parsing through all of the crazy moments that should have foreshadowed her descent to madness. Lines like,"When my dragons are grown, we will take back what was stolen from me and destroy those who wronged me! We will lay waste to armies and burn cities to the ground!" should have been a clue. (Photo credit: YouTube)

Vishapakars (vishaps of stone) on Mount Ararat

Like the GoT universe, the ancient Armenians deified the fire of the sun, revering its qualities of cleansing and eternal light. However, not all fire was revered. Though not located within the current Republic of Armenia borders, Mount Ararat is one of the most prevalent and powerful cultural symbols of the Armenian nation, almost synonymous with the Armenian people. Many Armenians associate this dormant volcano with the Biblical landing place of Noah’s Ark after the flood, but its importance goes back much farther in history. The name “Ararat” is the Hebrew spelling of Urartu, the pre (or proto) Armenian civilization that once lived on the Armenian Highlands. In antiquity, Mount Ararat was home to the Armenian gods, much like Mount Olympus was for the Greeks, and thus, became the center of pagan myths and stories. Ancient Armenians believed that evil, demon spirits and creatures lived on Mount Ararat, and reigned hell on Earth. They believed Mount Ararat to be the home of the vishaps. (Photo: aratta.wordpress.com)

Vahagn the Vishapakagh

Depicted as fish-like dragons or dragon-like fish, vishaps traveled from sky to earth, causing a host of natural disasters, such as thunderstorms, earthquakes, whirlwinds, and eclipses. Vahagn, the God of Fire and War, was known as Vishapakagh (“the uprooter of dragons”), as he roamed the lands in order to free Armenia and her people from these threatening forces. (Illustration: Aram Vardazaryan of artstation.com)

Vishap is a colossal dragon in the video game, Final Fantasy XIV

In the Armenian folktale, "Zangi and Zarangi,” a boy named Suren and his lion cubs, Zangi and Zarangi, defeat three vishaps who have taken a town hostage. Today, vishaps appear in video games, such as Final Fantasy and Star Trek. In GoT, Aegon I Targaryen—the first ruler of the Targaryen dynasty—used the last three dragons in the world to conquer and unify the Seven Kingdoms, the realm that controls the continent of Westeros (where most of the action in GoT tokes place). Now, his descendant, Daenerys, seeks to reconquer Westeros with the aid of her dragons. In an interesting divergence from Armenian folklore, lions are formidable creatures in GoT but were hunted down to extinction in Westeros a few generations ago. (Illustration: finalfantasy.wikia.com)

Hye or not?

Many cultures throughout the world, from Ireland to China, have featured dragons in their mythology and folk tales. As the World of Ice & Fire sourcebook mentions, the origins of dragons have varied throughout time, from culture to culture. (Screenshot: "Game of Thrones")

As epic as soundtracks come

While the previous examples may have been long shots, there is no disputing the Armenian influence on the GoT soundtrack. George R.R. Martin has drawn huge inspiration from ancient and medieval cultures to create his universe, and the music of the show reflects those nuances and particularities. (Photo: armenianinstruments.com)

Sounds of the Armenian Highlands

An ancient double-reed woodwind flute made from aged apricot wood, the duduk, has been around for millennia, with its roots going back to the times of King Tigran the Great (95–55 B.C.). The duduk’s unique sound and the powerful emotions it invokes in the listener have made it a popular instrument in Hollywood, appearing in shows like "Battlestar Galactica" and "Star Trek," and films such as "Gladiator," "Blood Diamond," "The Russia House," and "Hotel Rwanda." The world’s foremost dudukahar (duduk player), Jivan Gasparyan, eyes his instrument in front of Armenia’s sole remaining pagan site, the Garni Temple. (Photo: Music of Armenia)

Hye or not?

The composer of GoT, Ramin Djawadi, is also quite fond of the national instrument of Armenia, whose distinctive, mournful sound features prominently in his Game of Thrones concert tour, as depicted in this image. “Thrones is very rhythmically driven. And with Daenerys, there’s the duduk, an ethnic (Armenian) sound,” explains the German-Iranian composer. Fans may recognize the instrument in the background of Daenerys’ scenes, particularly when she’s amongst the Dothraki. The theme song to House Targaryen features the haunting sounds of the duduk. Though the GoT soundtrack is quite varied, drawing on an eclectic slew of instrumental sounds, there is an indisputable Armenian voice in the repertoire. We propose a thrilling spinoff idea, once the GoT series comes to an end. (Photo: watchersonthewall.com)

Imagine a series where the Mother of Dragons and the Dragon Slayer duel it out. Who do you think would win? Let us know in the comments!

Daenerys Targaryen, Breaker of Chains, Mother of Dragons or Vahagn, God of Fire, Dragon Slayer

R + L = J? We think D + V = EPIC.

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