Navasard: 11 facts about the Armenian New Year you never knew about!
August 09, 2019
We Armenians love our pagan festivals: From Vardavar to Trndez to Boon Barekendan, even the most pious Christians will celebrate these “Christianized” holidays with glee. Yet, the most important date for our ancestors in the pre-Christian era is notably missing from our calendars today. Read on to learn about the ancient Armenian holiday of Navasard!
For many centuries, Armenians from all walks of life cherished and celebrated Navasard, which today has all but faded into obscurity, with only a handful even knowing about its rich, fabled history. So, what was this holiday that captivated our ancestors and that modern ethnographers (and some dedicated villagers) are trying to bring back? Find out with these 11 facts about Navasard!
1. It is as old as Armenia herself
Navasard is the ancient Armenian New Year, which was celebrated in antiquity for 30 days, from Aug. 11 to Sept. 9. It commemorated our Genesis story, where, according to legend, on Aug. 11, 2492 BC, Hayk Nahapet killed the Babylonian tyrant, Bel, thus establishing the Armenian nation. According to the hin haykakan tomar, (the ancient Armenian calendar), we are now in the year 4511! (Photo: “Hayk striking Bel,” by Rubik Kocharian. peopleofar.com)
2. 11 is an important number
Aug. 11 was quite the eventful day for ancient Armenians. In addition to marking the official birth of Armenia, it was also believed to be the day when the biblical Noah’s Ark landed on Mount Ararat. (Photo: “Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat,” by Simone de Myle, dated 1570. Nederlands Instituut voor Kunstgeschie)
3. Day of the Gods
Navasard was a day to please the seven main Armenian pagan gods through various sacrifices of grains and animals (matagh), with the hope of being granted wishes, like fertility and love, in the coming year. Ancient Armenians believed that, on Navasard, the gods would descend from their celestial dwelling on Mount Ararat to bathe in the Aratsani River (now Murat River in Western Armenia, modern-day Turkey) then stick around to watch mortals celebrate. (Painting: Pantheon of Armenian gods and goddess. arevorti.blogspot.com)
4. The original Burning Man?
Pretty much everyone—young and old, rich and poor—would camp out around the river basin to participate in the festivities. The entire expanse was covered by tents. Reportedly, the King’s was golden and the most ostentatious belonged to society’s elites. For weeks on end, crowds would engage in outdoor parties, musicians would perform their tunes, poets would recite their works, and all would dance and be merry. What a way to ring in the new year! Suddenly, the idea of huddling in the cold with a million other strangers to watch the NYC Ball Drop seems infinitely less cool. (Photo: A scene from a village festival in Armenia. gardmantour.com)
5. ...Or Olympics?
Navasard was quite the elaborate affair, but it did not solely consist of music and food. Competitive activities, like hunting and horse racing, in particular, were highly popular, as were water games (ring any Vardavar bells?). In fact, the Navasardian games were so intense, that some have compared them to the Olympic Games of antiquity! (Photo: Modern-day Vardavar celebrations in Yerevan, Armenia. travellika.com)
6. Not those Navasardian Games!
For the last 40+ years, a vibrant Los Angeles community celebrates the annual “Navasartian Games and Festival,” which features food, entertainment, and of course, the infamous games and sports of the original holiday. A few notable changes are that the celebrations take place on July Fourth weekend (not the middle of August) and in place of the tents and ashughs (traveling troubadours) are business booths and pop stars. While most of the food and games themselves vastly diverge from those of antiquity (animal sacrifice has been all but gutted, to excuse the pun), and the pagan aspect is gone, the festival spirit of Navasard is still alive and well at these games. For the past nearly-30 years, the East coast of the United States hosts a similar event. (Photo: The opening ceremony of the 39th Navasartian Games in Los Angeles, California. Asbarez)
7. For the gods, no goods were spared
According to fables, tables would collapse under the weight of all of the dishes, sweets, and dried fruits presented on this day of festivity and cheer. Many superstitious sayings today have their origins in the culinary traditions of this holiday, such as, “one cannot borrow bread on Navasard,” meaning that one must bake bread with their own wheat, which some scientists think may have originated in the Armenian Highlands. Though there was such abundance, people did not stuff themselves to the brim. So, what happened to all of this food? Most of it was simply offered as gifts to (you guessed it) the gods. (Painting: "Pomegranate Dance," by Rubik Kocharian, 2010. Art-a-Tsolum)
8. Have a drink or two but keep it together
You may assume that all of the spear-throwing, animal blood-letting, and water-fighting was (at least partially) alcohol-induced. But don’t be fooled! Sure, festival goers drank wine (after all, the world’s oldest known winery is in Armenia) but getting drunk was frowned upon at Navasard. So much so, in fact, that an ancient adage cautioned against losing control: “Gods spread lolium on the fields of drunkards.” Lolium is a type of plant that destroys crops, ICYWW. (Photo: A relief from present-day Iran, showing Armenian ambassadors bringing wine to the Persian Empire. Phillip Maiwald/Wikipedia)
9. New Year/Newroz
The word "Navasard" comes from “nav” meaning “new” and “sard” meaning “year” in Avestan (an ancient Iranian language that is now extinct). The Persian New Year, Newroz, which is still celebrated today, shares many linguistic and cultural similarities with Navasard. In the hin haykakan tomar, Navasard was also the name of the first month of the year. (Photo: A Nowruz festival in Los Angeles, Calif., 2019. NBC Los Angeles)
10. Why don’t we celebrate it anymore?
After Armenia adopted the Gregorian calendar, Jan. 1 was recognized as the official start to the year and Navasard was quickly phased out. Though many pagan festivals have been incorporated into the Armenian Church’s list of holidays, such as the hugely-popular Vardavar and Trndez, Navasard has been ignored by the Church—for a reason that we just can’t seem to understand. (Photo: The Armenian Church Calendar. hygradan.weebly.com)
11. Modern Revivals
Despite its official non-holiday status in the Republic of Armenia, in recent years, there has been a growing interest to resurrect the traditions of this ancient holiday. Armenian neo-pagans commemorate Navasard annually at the Temple of Garni, Armenia’s sole-remaining pagan temple, and various villages throughout the country have held their own celebrations, incorporating many of the staples of this beautiful holiday. We hope that one day, soon, Navasard will reclaim its rightful place in the hearts and calendars of Armenians across the world! (Photo: A contemporary Navasard celebration in Yerevan, 2016. hayernaysor.am)
Check out Estonian jazz sensation Jaak Sooäär's tune "Navasard" in our video section below. Sooäär has collaborated with Armenian jazz double bassist, educator, and the song's composer, Ara Yaralyan on the album "A Shooting Star," which includes "Navasard."
“Armenians Do Not Celebrate Navasard as National Holiday Because Hayk Nahapet Was Not Christian: Navasard Had Been One of the Most Popular Holidays before Gregorian Calendar Took Effect.” PanARMENIAN News, 13 Aug. 2010, www.panarmenian.net/eng/details/52127/.
“Navasard: the Day of the Armenian National Identity” Art-a-Tsolum, 17 May 2018, https://allinnet.info/antiquities/navasard-the-day-of-the-armenian-national-identity/
“Ancient Armenian New Year—Navasard, Art-a-Tsolum, 22 Jan. 2019, https://allinnet.info/history/ancient-armenian-new-year-navasard/
Aitamurto, Kaarina; Simpson, Scott. Modern Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe: Studies in Contemporary and Historical Paganism. Routledge, 2014.
“New Year Celebration in Armenia in Ancient Times and Nowadays: Kaghand, Navasard, New Year” Armedia.am, 2 Jan, 2019, https://armedia.am/eng/news/66782/new-year-celebration-in-armenia-in-ancient-times-and-nowadays-kaghand-navasard-new-year.html
"Navasard" by Jaak Sooäär
(Video: Jaak Sooäär - Topic YouTube page)
"Navasard" by Jaak Sooäär
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