Armenian Legends and Poems  at sacred-texts.com
When Armenia had ceased to be an independent state, its literature became more religious, as the clergy were anxious to foster devotion. Christianity introduced a new kind of poetry, namely, Church hymns and chants. These were called, in Armenian, sharakans. They were not only written in metre, but they were composed with a view to being sung. The word sharakan means a "row of gems." Historians of the Middle Ages say that the sharakans were mainly written by the "translators," i.e., by writers of the fourth and fifth centuries. As a matter of fact, very few sharakans were written after the thirteenth century. Since then, no prayers or hymns have been introduced into the Armenian Church.
It is said by writers of the Middle Ages that St. Sahak arranged the sharakans for ten voices and St. Stephanos for twenty-six voices, corresponding to created things--elements, plants, birds, and animals. There were also women sharakan writers. One of these was Sahakadukht, who lived in the eighth century. She not only wrote, but also composed music, and taught singing. Out of modesty, she used to hide behind a curtain, whence she gave instruction to both sexes. An historian of the time, Ghevond Eretz, says of her sharakans: "They were angelic songs on earth." Singing was considered a great art in Armenia, and musicians were called "philosophers." Several of such "philosophers" were canonised and had the word "philosopher" prefixed to their names. The fame of some of these musicians spread to foreign lands. This explains the fact that, when Catholicos Petros Getadardz went to Constantinople, he took with him a company of musicians, whom he presented, as a gift, for the service of the Byzantine court.
There was a revival of sharakan-writing in the thirteenth century, which was a flourishing
literary period. It was during this time that Bishop Khachatour Tarinetzi invented distinctively Armenian musical notes, which are quite unrelated to European ones, so that the Armenians had now, not only an alphabet of their own, but also their own musical notation, and their hymns could be set to music. This notation was improved in the eighteenth century.
Armenian hymns are written in a style which is not only picturesque, but which also has a charm of its own; its colours are very rich; the pictures it conjures up are vivid. When one remembers that many of them were written when national life and death were hanging in the balance, because of foreign oppression, at a time when they had no one to turn to but the Creator, we understand how it is that so much tenderness, hope, and devotion are embodied in these "rows of gems," nor can one help thinking that Armenian is the natural language for religious poems. A vein of mysticism runs through many of these hymns, especially through those written by Gregory of Narek (951-1009), one example of which--"The Christ-Child"--appears on page 113 of this volume. But this mysticism is not obscure; on the contrary, it is to the hymn what light and shade are to a picture serving to bring it into touch with nature.
Hymns have always been popular among the Armenians. Even peasants know them by heart and sing them. The hymn tunes are unique, being entirely independent of those of other Christian nations. Their somewhat strange rhythm recalls the chorus of singers round the altars of the pagan gods. No doubt some pagan melodies have found their way into the Christian hymn tunes of Armenia.
The Armenians are rich in folksongs. The music to which these songs are set possesses great charm. In it, also, the rhythm is most important. An Armenian composer, speaking of these folksongs, says:--
"By means of those ethereal and heavenly waves of melody one sees enchanting mermaids who, after dancing on the banks of large and small lakes and poising themselves on the waters, allure towards themselves the pagan Armenians, offering love kisses to all minstrels."
In later years Armenian music and poetry were affected by European influence, but in her hymns and folksongs she has musical treasures that are all her own.
Side by side with the written literature of this period, the unwritten literature continued to grow. The latter consists mainly of folktales, fables, and proverbs.
It is easy to distinguish a Christian folktale from a pagan one by the different ideals embodied in it. Some of the folktales of this period have arisen out of historical events.
In the folktales, it is the youngest child that is the hero or heroine. These stories express
the people's outlook on life and are the product of their experiences, which have been handed down from generation to generation.
There is a great deal of folklore current in Armenia, some of which has been collected and published.
Grigor Magistros says that, in his time, unwritten fables in rhyme were very popular.
There are also many Armenian proverbs. It seems to have been a custom in ancient times --and the usage is still retained in some places--for a man to go and meet the girl he wishes to marry on the banks of a stream or in a forest and to ask her a riddle. If she gives the correct answer to the riddle, he marries her.
Here are a few of the riddles used on these occasions:--
"What paper is it that you cannot write on? and what sort of pen can write on this paper?"
A maiden who desires to marry the man should answer:--
"The heart is the paper on which no pen can write; language is the pen that writes on the heart."
"What rose is it that opens in the winter and in due time fades and is gone?"
Answer: "Snow is the rose that opens in the winter; when summer comes, it fades and is gone."
"The brother chases the sister, the sister the brother, but neither can catch the other."
Answer: "The sun and the moon."
There is another usage, belonging especially to young girls, which has given rise to an extensive literature. This literature consists of charm-verses, which are used for fortune-telling. A selection of these is given on pages 67-68.
Once a year, on the Eve of Ascension Day, young maidens who want their fortunes told decorate a bowl with certain specially selected flowers. Into this bowl each girl casts a token --a ring, a brooch, a thimble. After filling the bowl with flowers of seven different kinds, and water drawn from seven springs, they cover it with an embroidered cloth and take it by night to the priest, who says a prayer over it. They then put it out in the moonlight, open to the stars, leaving it till dawn. Next morning, at daybreak, furnished with provisions for the whole day, they go out of the village carrying the bowl, to the side of a spring, to the foot of a mountain, or into an open field, gathering, on the way, various kinds of flowers, with which they deck themselves. Arrived at their destination, they first play games, dance, and sing, then they take a beautiful little girl, too young to tell where the sun rises, who has been previously chosen for their purpose and gaily dressed for the occasion, and who does not know to whom
each token belongs, and cover her face with a richly wrought veil, so that she may not see what is in the bowl. The child draws the articles out of the bowl, one by one, and holds each in her hand. While she does this, one of the party recites a charm-song, and the owner of each token takes the song which accompanies it as her fortune.
There are thousands of these charm-songs. In form they are very simple. Sometimes two consecutive lines deal with quite distinct subjects, though they rhyme together and their construction is the same. Each is a perfect poem.
After the end of the Arsacid dynasty, Armenia remained under the rule of Persia for two hundred years. During this period, sometimes the whole country fell temporarily into the hands of the Greeks; on other occasions the same fate befell a few provinces. Speaking generally, after the fall of the Arsacidae, the eastern--and more extensive--part of Armenia remained under Persian rule, and the western--and smaller--part came under Greek dominion. The Greeks and the Persians were continually fighting with one another for the possession of the whole country. Armenia was the battlefield, and the sufferer was always the Armenian people. After the Arabs had embraced Mohammedanism, they formed a powerful empire, conquering Mesopotamia and then passing on to Persia. They forced the Persians to become Mohammedans, and in 640 entered Armenia. Eastern Armenia, which was then in the hands of the Persians, fell into their possession.
The Greeks greatly dreaded the taking of Armenia by the Arabs, as it formed a strong barrier against the assault of the Greek colonies in Asia Minor. Therefore, as they had before fought in Armenia against the Persians, so they now proceeded to fight against the Arabs; and again Armenia was the battlefield and the sufferers were the Armenians. The Greeks came from time to time demanding tribute of them, and if their demand were resisted, the people were plundered and slaughtered. On the departure of the Greek army, the Arabs came, making the same demand. Thus, during the first two hundred years following the fall of the Arsacidae, the Armenians were between the two fires of the Persians and the Greeks, and then for another two hundred years between the two fires of the Greeks and the Arabs. During this period, the Armenian princes offered resistance from time to time and succeeded in regaining independence for short intervals. The governors set by the Arabs over Armenia were in the habit of persecuting the native princes, to prevent them from organising revolts. Of these governors, the most bloodthirsty were Kashm and Bugha. The former cunningly invited all the Armenian princes to the town of Nakhejevan, where they assembled in the church; whereupon, by order of the government, the church was surrounded by piles of wood and set on fire, and the princes burnt alive (704). The army was then set to plunder and
slaughter the Armenians and burn the towns and villages, as the people, deprived of their princes, could offer no resistance. Many were exiled to the Arab capital, Damascus. Bugha (850) surpassed even Kashm in his cruelty, but we need not chronicle his atrocities here. Under such governors as these, the tribute and the taxes were enormous, and the people became very poor. There were, however, also good governors, during whose rule the people were free from oppression and were allowed to pursue their peaceful occupations.
But gradually the power of the Arabs declined.
156:1 The history of this war is recorded by Eghishé, a contemporary ecclesiastic, whose work is more widely read than any book except the Bible. He is a poet rather than an historian.