Armenian mythology: 6 ancient pagan gods we still love today
March 12, 2020
As a kid, three VHS tapes I’d play over and over—to a point, where I had memorized every single word recorded: Disney’s “Aladdin,” the first “Harry Potter” movie (insert “Sorcerer’s” vs. “Philosopher’s” debate here) and, of course, the funky, gospel-soundtracked “Hercules.”
You remember the lyrics: "Who put the 'glad' in 'gladiator?' HERC-U-LES! Whose daring deeds are great theater? HERC-U-LES!"
All 9-year-old geeks have obsessed over Greek mythology, Ancient Egyptian history, or dinosaurs and fossils at one point. My weakness: the false gods of Mount Olympia! We Armenians aren’t too different from the Greeks, from geopolitical oppression by neighboring empires, to heavy-liquor-and-folk-dance feasts, our histories often click in harmony. And that’s especially the case for our mythologies where our gods aren’t much different (or less extravagant!). Which gods are the most popular in Armenian mythology and what features make them our all-time-favorites? Read on to find out!
Before I get into our all-time-fave gods, I’d like to introduce the artist who has been so generous and allowed us to use his awesome illustrations for this piece.
Mher Aroyan is a 27-year-old graduate of California State University-Fullerton, where he obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in Illustration Arts. Born in Baghdad, Iraq, and raised in Beirut, Lebanon, and Yerevan, Armenia, Mher currently resides and works in Los Angeles.
What sets Mher’s art apart is his unique use of 3D art. His works depicting Armenian legends and mythical gods are digitally sculpted and even 3D-printable. Mher’s inspiration for getting into 3D art arose from his love of Yervand Kochar’s statue of David of Sasun in Yerevan. He’s actually always been fascinated by the tales of the Daredevils of Sasun, as well as the stories of Hayk Nahapet and Vahagn the dragon-slayer (see below). If you love Mher’s marvelous designs as much as we do, you can support him by buying his Armenian-themed art on his website.
What’s the common thread between water, wisdom, fertility, and healing? Hint: It’s not the Avatar from the Last Airbender! It’s actually the Armenian pagan goddess Anahit. Anahit’s name is widespread and commonly used in Armenian communities around the world. From Armenian history classes to erotic Aphrodite-inspired art, Anahit is considered the mother of Armenian paganism. The bronze head of the seductress, which is displayed at the British Museum today, is often the only symbol used in reference to her (unfortunately). Her statue was actually used by our ancestors for healing powers: The Anahit temples, which were found mostly in Armenia’s Artashat region, were known to welcome the sick and the ill, as it was believed that Goddess Anahit would help them heal and recover!
Aramazd—known to us as the Armenian Zeus—is the almighty patriarchal deity figure of Armenian Paganism. Legend has it that his name (and concept) comes from the Zoroastrian God Ahura Mazda, following the Median conquest of Armenia in the 6th century BCE. Under his six-pack of stone, Aramazd represents fertility, rain, and abundance. Nane and Mihr, among other pagan Armenian gods, are thought to be his children. Anahit, on the other hand, was both his daughter and lover. No questions, please.
Behold! The reason we love celebrating Vardavar, an annual Armenian water holiday, so excitedly (perhaps also unsustainably) is because its roots trace back to Astghik, the Armenian pagan goddess of fertility, love, skylight, beauty, and water. Known as Vahagn’s devoted lover (we’ll get to him in a bit), her temples were located in Artamet, Van, as well as in Ashtishat/Taron, Mush. Fun fact: Her temples were often referred to as “Vahagn’s bedrooms,” since it was known to be the spot “where all the magic happened.” Today, like many pagan traditions, Vardavar has been incorporated into Christianity and is known in the Armenian Church as the Day of Transfiguration of Jesus Christ.
Nane (pronounced "gnaw neh") is the feminist warrior of Armenian mythology we all love. A spear in one hand and a shield in the other, she is the Armenian goddess of motherhood, war, and wisdom. The daughter of Aramazd and sister of Mihr and Anahit, she shares many similarities with the Greek goddess Athena. The cults of Nane and Anahit were closely associated with one another, as were their temples and places of worship. Unfortunately, the adoption of Christianity destroyed many ancient artifacts and scriptures dedicated to Nane. We do know, however, that Armenian kings used to consult the elderly women of the kingdom for strategic advice before battles, since the women reminded them of the mighty Nane.
Tir, unlike the other gods and goddesses, did not belong to the bloodline of Aramazd. He was, however, known to be one of his messengers, created by Hayk Nahapet (not Zuckerberg). He was the god of many things, including wisdom, art, written language, rhetoric, and schooling. Similar to the Greek god of Hermes, he was also a fortune-teller and explainer of dreams. Tir also was the one who would register Armenians on Aramazd’s nice-and-naughty lists (a la St. Nick). Tir was known for appreciating the writers, architects, artists, and poets of the Armenian Highland. (Also, I'm almost certain you want a pair of Tir’s winged-shoes. I know I do!)
Vahagn Vishapakagh (aka Vahagn the dragon-slayer)
Vahagn was the most badass Armenian pagan god. He was the god of thunder, fire, and war and part of the “triad” with Anahit and Aramazd. Vahagn is best-known for his dragon-slaying skills (he would have served well at King's Landing), which is portrayed in his statue standing in Yerevan, Armenia. Movses Khorenatsi's (Moses of Chorene) History of Armenia (fifth century AD) refers to the ancient song/poem "The Birth of Vahagn," which describes Vahagn’s origin and nature. Unfortunately, references to Vahagn's dragon-conquering in the song have been lost. Nonetheless, his Vishapakagh (dragon-slayer) nickname has stuck. You can find the part of the poem describing his birth here.
Honorable mention: Tzovinar
It’s worth featuring Tzovinar and Mihr as honorable mentions. Tzovinar, the goddess of water, rain, and sea, translates to “daughter of the seas”. She’s known to bring rain upon Earth with her fury and was mother to legends such as Sanasar and Baghdasar.
Honorable mention: Mihr
Mihr, on the other hand, was the god of the light of heaven and the sun. It’s worth noting that the month of February, including the much loved Trndez celebrations, was dedicated to him in pre-Christian Armenia.