ARMENIAN LITERATURE ***
Produced by Juliet Sutherland, Susan Skinner and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.
POETRY, DRAMA, FOLK-LORE, AND CLASSIC TRADITIONS
TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH FOR THE FIRST TIME
WITH A SPECIAL INTRODUCTION BY
ROBERT ARNOT, M.A.
The literature of ancient Armenia that is still extant is meagre in quantity and to a large extent ecclesiastical in tone. To realize its oriental color one must resort entirely to that portion which deals with the home life of the people, with their fasts and festivals, their emotions, manners, and traditions. The ecclesiastical character of much of the early Armenian literature is accounted for by the fact that Christianity was preached there in the first century after Christ, by the apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew, and that the Armenian Church is the oldest national Christian Church in the world.
It is no doubt owing to the conversion of the entire Armenian nation under the passionate preaching of Gregory the Illuminator that most of the literary products, of primitive Armenia--the mythological legends and chants of heroic deeds sung by bards--are lost. The Church would have none of them. Gregory not only destroyed the pagan temples, but he sought to stamp out the pagan literature--the poetry and recorded traditions that celebrated the deeds of gods and goddesses and of national heroes. He would have succeeded, too, had not the romantic spirit of the race clung fondly to their ballads and folk-lore. Ecclesiastical historiographers in referring to those times say quaintly enough, meaning to censure the people, that in spite of their great religious advantages the Armenians persisted in singing some of their heathen ballads as late as the twelfth century. Curiously enough, we owe the fragments we possess of early Armenian poetry to these same ecclesiastical critics. These fragments suggest a popular poesy, stirring and full of powerful imagery, employed mostly in celebrating royal marriages, religious feasts, and containing dirges for the dead, and ballads of customs--not a wide field, but one invaluable to the philologist and to ethnological students.
The Christian chroniclers and critics, however, while preserving but little of the verse of early Armenia, have handed down to us many legends and traditions, though they relate them, unfortunately, with much carelessness and with a contempt for detail that is often exasperating to one seeking for instructive parallelisms between the heroic legends of different nations. Evidently the only object of the ecclesiastical chroniclers in preserving these legends was to invest their descriptions of the times with a local color. Even Moses of Chorene, who by royal command collected many of these legends, and in his sympathetic treatment of them evinces poetic genius and keen literary appreciation, fails to realize the importance of his task. After speaking of the old Armenian kings with enthusiasm, and even condoning their paganism for the sake of their virility, he leaves his collection in the utmost disorder and positively without a note or comment. In the face of such difficulties, therefore, it has been hard to present specimens of early Armenian folk-lore and legends that shall give the reader a rightful idea of the race and the time.
As Armenia was the highroad between Asia and Europe, these old stories and folk-plays show the influence of migrating and invading people. The mythology of the Chaldeans and Persians mingles oddly with traditions purely Armenian. This is well shown in the story of David of Sassun, given in this volume. David was the local hero of the place where Moses of Chorene was born and probably spent his declining years, after years of literary labor and study in Athens and Alexandria. The name of the district was Mush, and close by the monastery in which Moses was buried lies the village of Sassun.
David's history is rich in personal incident, and recalls to the reader the tales related of the Persian Izdubar, the Chaldeo-Babylonian Nimrod, and the Greek Heracles. He is as much the hero of the tale as is Joseph Andrews in Fielding's classic of that name. His marvellous strength is used as handily for a jest as for some prodigious victory over man or monster. He is drawn for us as a bold, reckless fellow, with a rollicking sense of humor, which, in truth, sits but awkwardly upon the intense devotion to the Cross and its demands with which Moses or some later redactor has seen fit to burden this purely pagan hero. David is very human in spite of his blood-stained club and combative instincts, and his kindliness and bonhomie awake in us a passing disappointment at his untimely demise.