Armenian Legends and Poems  at sacred-texts.com
We have frequently quoted Moses of Khorene, whose work contains all the extant remains of the epics and all the information that has come down to us with regard to these poems. In fact the first book of his History, as well as the first nine chapters of Book II., consists of summaries and quotations from epics, together with other legends. In taking leave of the pre-Christian period of Armenia let us cast a glance on this historian and his work.
Moses of Khorene was born some time between A.D. 404 and 408. He was one of those young Armenians who were sent by the ecclesiastical authorities to Greece for higher education. After completing his studies, he worked in the libraries of Alexandria, Palestine, and other places. On his return from Palestine, he was shipwrecked on the coast of Italy; thence he went to Rome, Athens, and Byzantium, returning to Armenia about 440. He found his benefactors dead, the Arsacid dynasty extinct, and Christianity endangered by the Persians. It is said that on his return he was so disappointed in both the clergy and the laity--being especially grieved by the ignorance of the former--that he retired into solitude and remained concealed for some time. It happened that the Catholicos Gute, while travelling, alighted at a certain village where he was entertained by the peasants, each of whom made a short speech in his honour. An old man who was of the company was urged also to say something. At first he excused himself on the plea that he was a stranger, but, on being further pressed, to the surprise of all present, he recited an impromptu ode greeting the Catholicos and ended by disclosing his identity, proclaiming himself Moses of Khorene. At first the Catholicos was incredulous, but, on a careful examination of the old man's features, he recognised him as one of his former fellow-students, whereupon he burst into tears and held him in a long embrace.
That day was one of great rejoicing in Armenia, and, soon after, Moses became Bishop of Bagravand.
These Armenian students educated abroad were looked on askance by some of the ignorant clergy, and, for this reason, some of the former used to retire and study in seclusion. In his History, Moses of Khorene inveighs bitterly against these illiterate priests.
Ghazar Pharpe says:--
"Moses, the philosopher of blessed memory, met with much opposition and annoyance from the unlearned clergy, who called this enlightened man a heretic, and in their ignorance found fault with his books, besides performing many unfriendly acts towards him."
After this passage, several pages of the manuscript are missing. The next page we have begins:--
"They exhumed his bones from the grave and threw them into the river."
It is doubtful whether these words refer to Moses or to some one else.
Moses of Khorene attempted to write the history of two or three thousand years, beginning with dark and unknown ages, weaving his materials in such a way as to produce a vivid and life-like picture, tinged with the colours of all the centuries which he depicts. He writes in poetic language and his style is simple and picturesque. Every event recorded by him becomes beautiful, noble, and great. There is not a paragraph, not a sentence, which falls below the general level of the work. The History is a marvellous panorama, which, as it unfolds, fills us with ever fresh wonder and admiration. The story of Tiridates is narrated in such a way as to draw tears from every reader and--to use an Armenian expression--to make him feel as if the hairs of his head had turned into thorns. He speaks with such warm admiration of Tigranes that it might be thought he was speaking of a contemporary.
In the following passage he displays strong feeling, in reference to one of his teachers whom he found dead on his return from abroad.
"Where is the calm of those gentle eyes, which to the just gave rest, and inspired the guilty with awe?
"Where is the smile of his cheerful lips, as he met his pupils?
"Where is the hope that enlivened the tedium of weary journeys? that gave repose in the midst of labour?
"How shall I write my tragedy? and who is there to weep at it?"
One sees by his writing that Moses was a man of strong character, with firm principles, neither vacillating nor superficial. The reader is profoundly impressed by his words; they sink deeply into him, pressing like lead on a tablet, and casting him under the spell of the author. This effect is due, in part, to his convincing power; it is impossible not to realise what he records. His statements are concise; what others would take pages to express, he conveys in a few words. In descriptive powers he is unrivalled, not only among Armenians, but even as compared with Greek and Roman historians. His graphic pictures of people and places, together with his remarks and reflections and his frequent quotations from the national epics, prove his historical skill and literary taste.
In a word, as one reads him, one feels him to be a genius of the first magnitude.
Moses of Khorene wrote his History at the request of Sahak Bagratuni, a man of noble or princely birth. The History consists of three books. Book I., as we have already said, is mainly based on national epics and legends. Although these relate only to a few heroes, the treatment is very elaborate.
Then comes the history of 180 years, over which he passes very lightly, merely giving a
list of names, with a few words added to each. This shows that, for this period, he has not been able to find any material in the native epics and songs.
Book II. relates to the Arsacid dynasty, speaking also of the introduction of Christianity, and going on to the death of Tiridates and of Gregory the Illuminator.
Book III. contains the history of the successors of Tiridates up to the sad end of the Arsacid dynasty. This book ends with a long lament over the pitiful plight of Armenia. It contains also a bitter invective against the author's contemporaries--princes, judges, clergy, soldiery--in short against all who, being careless of duty and regardless of the ideal, lead the people astray.
Moses of Khorene has left other works besides his History, one of which is a Geography, containing, among other things, an account of the British Isles.
For 1400 years, the History of Moses of Khorene was revered and accepted as the only authentic History of Armenia; and it was not till the nineteenth century that criticism was directed against it, not only by Armenian scholars, but also by French, German, Italian, English, and Russian scholars. This criticism was chiefly levelled at the principal source from which the Armenian historian professed to draw his information.
Arshak the Great, according to Moses, after casting off the Macedonian yoke and conquering Assyria, set his brother, Wargharshak, on the throne of Armenia. So commences the Arsacid dynasty. The new king wished to know what kind of men had been ruling the country before him. Was he (he asked) the successor of brave men or of bad men He found an intelligent man, a Syrian, named Mar-Abas-Katina, and sent him to his brother, Arshak the Great, with this letter:--
"To Arshak, the king of the earth and the sea, whose form and person are like unto the gods and whose triumphs are above those of all kings; the greatness of whose mind can fathom all things of earth, Wargharshak, thy youngest brother and comrade in arms, appointed by thee King of Armenia, greeting, Victory ever attend thee.
"I have received from thee the behest to encourage bravery and wisdom. I have not forgotten thy counsel. On the contrary, I have done all that my mind could devise or my skill carry into effect, and now, thanks to thy guardianship, I have put this country in order. And next I want to know who, before myself, has subdued the land of Armenia, and from whom are descended the noble families who are established here. There does not seem to be any fixed grade of classes; among the chief men, it is impossible to ascertain which is highest and which lowest; so that some confusion ensues. I therefore beg that the archives may be opened in the presence of this man whom I have sent to present himself in thy great
country, in order that he may bring back the information that is desired by thy son and brother."
This Syrian (says the historian) found in the library at Nineveh a book translated from the Chaldean into Greek, by order of Alexander the Great, which contained various ancient histories. From this book Mar-Abas copied only the authentic history of Armenia, which he took back to Wargharshak, who, esteeming this document his most precious treasure, preserved it with great care in his palace and engraved part of it on a stone monument.
It is this document of Mar-Abas-Katina that Moses of Khorene cites as his chief authority for the early authentic history of Armenia, though he also mentions several other native and foreign writers as sources of his work.
With regard to these statements, critics point out that the library of Nineveh was not in existence in the second century B.C., as it was destroyed in 625 B.C.; some even maintain that Mar-Abas-Katina was a fictitious personage, invented by Moses of Khorene to give more weight to his own statements, in accordance with the universal custom of his time, when contemporary writings were continually ascribed to the great men of old or even to imaginary characters. Moses of Khorene, say these critics, was himself a great lover of the folklore, legends, and epics of his country, but he knew that, if he gave these as his only source of information, his History would gain no credence, especially as, at the period when he wrote, just after the establishment of Christianity, everything pagan was regarded with suspicion. Moreover, Moses, being himself a bishop, could not have avowed such a source for all his statements, though, as we have said, he quotes from the epics and says that some of the contents of his work are derived from them. It is, however, generally admitted that Moses of Khorene had in his hands such a book as he describes and that this book was one of his sources. The book has even been traced.
As to Mar-Abas-Katina, although his book may not have been compiled under the circumstances described in the History, Moses may have believed that he was the author of the book in his possession. Professor Mar has even found, in Arabic literature, some independent traces of Mar-Abas-Katina.
There is also some controversy about the date of Moses of Khorene himself. By some he is placed even as late as the seventh century, because his writings contain references to events as late as that period.
But it is not difficult to account for this without disputing the generally received date of the historian, for, when we consider how many ancient books have been re-edited, we see
how easily the work before us may have been touched up by a later hand in the seventh century. 1
In concluding this account of Moses of Khorene, we must acknowledge that he has not only rendered much service to Armenian history, but that his book is one of the great works of all literature, and, if it were better known, would take a high place among the masterpieces of the world.