Armenian Legends and Poems  at sacred-texts.com
The period whose history we have sketched (twelfth to fourteenth centuries), especially the two former centuries, is called the Silver Age of Armenian literature. The independence of Armenia gave a breathing space which facilitated the production of literary works. This is the period of the revival of learning and also the period when Armenia came in contact with the countries of Western Europe and became acquainted with Western civilisation.
CATHOLICOS NERSES, surnamed "the Gracious," is the most brilliant author of the beginning of this period (1100-1173). He was the great-grandchild of Grigor Magistros, and his brother Grigorios was Catholicos before him. His songs and sharakans are greatly loved by the people and some of the latter are sung in the churches. He was canonised as a saint. Nerses was the first Armenian to write very long poems. He followed his great-grandfather in using rhyme. There is a great variety of metre in his works. As a rule his long poems are written in eight-feet lines, the same rhyme being employed nearly throughout the poem. This practice he abandoned in certain cases for, as he himself remarks, "it might tire the reader"! He has also poems written in couplets of short lines, which are the most musical and successful of his works. Some of his poems have peculiarities of their own. He sometimes begins the lines of the first stanza with A, those of the next with B, and so on in alphabetical order, or he uses the same letter for the beginning of the first line and the conclusion of the last. He also sometimes makes metrical acrostics of his own name. Of course these contrivances were in common use in his time. Sometimes he makes acrostics of the titles or names in dedications of his poems. But these artificialities do not spoil the poem or give the impression of a tour de force, in fact they are so unobtrusive that they might easily escape the reader's notice. In all he has written 15,000 lines.
One of his long poems entitled Jesus the Son consists of 4000 eight-feet lines. These lines, with very few exceptions, end with the Armenian syllable -in. Some of the songs in this poem are very beautiful and are sung in churches.
Another of his long poems is an elegy on the Fall of Edessa which was taken from the
[paragraph continues] Crusaders by the Turks in 1144. This is an allegory: the town itself recounts its misfortunes and addresses itself to other cities of the world, to the mountains, to the seas, and begs them not to judge her by what she is in her present condition, but assures them that she was once a crown bearer and in a most happy state, but now she is in mourning, and misfortune has befallen her. As Nerses was a contemporary of the event which forms the subject of the poem, the latter has an historical value, being a first-hand source of information relating to the times of the Crusaders.
Nerses also wrote a long poem narrating the history of Armenia from the days of Haik up to his own time. Leo III., one hundred and fifty years after the poet's death, asked the bishop Vahram Rabun to continue the poem from the death of Nerses to his own time (1275), thus giving the annals of the Rubinian dynasty. In writing this sequel, in 1500 lines, he said: "It is a bold act to continue the work of Nerses the Gracious," but he adds that, knowing that with gold thread embroidery black threads are sometimes introduced, he consented to undertake the labour.
It is not within our province here to describe the great work achieved by Nerses in other directions, but he was much beloved by his people and has left an immortal name as the greatest personality of his age. We only here record one incident to show the breadth of his ideas. In the town of Edessa pestilence was raging and sufferers from the disease were taken out of the town and segregated. It was considered hopeless to cure them, as it was believed that the disease came as a punishment from God. Nerses sent out an epistle to the plague-stricken people, offering them consolation, saying that, in compensation for their suffering, they would receive eternal bliss. In this letter, he declares that the disease was not sent from Heaven as a punishment and people should not avoid the sick; on the contrary, it was their duty to care for their brethren when they were in distress, and he assured them that, with patience and right treatment, it was possible to get rid of the disease.
This counsel made an immense impression on the people, as they had the word of the Catholicos that this was not a heaven-sent chastisement; they nursed the patients and in a short time the pestilence was stayed.
This idea of Nerses, though it is now commonly held, was very remarkable in the age in which he lived. Nerses the Gracious is considered the Fénelon of Armenia. Some of his elegies are perfect gems of poetic art. One of his prayers is divided into twenty-four verses, according to the twenty-four hours, one verse to be used each hour, but, seeing that this is sometimes impracticable, he says that it might be read in three portions of light verses in the morning, at noon, and at night. If this division is also impossible, he recommends that it
should be read in two portions, in the morning and evening. This prayer has been translated into thirty-six languages, of which English is one.
An example of the work of Nerses the Gracious, entitled "The Arrival of the Crusaders," is given in this volume on page 58.
This is hardly a representative poem and is not the best specimen of the author's work. It was inserted because of the interest of the Crusades for Europeans. The gems of his work may be found among the sharakans, which we can say without hesitation will bear comparison with any work of this class in any language of the world. Unfortunately, it is impossible to do justice to these hymns in a translation. Nerses also wrote verses for children, and riddles, both in the vernacular.
In general, his language is simple and expressive. He also composed short fables, according to a contemporary historian; some of these were recited at weddings and other festivals.
Mkhitar Gosh was the author of one hundred and fifty fables, marked by good taste, purity, and elegance. He died in 1213. He is called the Aesop of Armenia.
The following is a specimen of Mkhitar Gosh's fables: The owl sent matchmakers to the eagle, asking his daughter in marriage, in these terms: "You are the ruler of the day; I am the ruler of the night. It will be better for us to form an alliance by marriage."
The proposal was accepted.
After the wedding, the bridegroom could not see by day and the bride could not see by night. Therefore the falcons ridiculed them, and their marriage was unhappy.
This fable is meant as a warning against marriages between Christians and pagans.
Many of Mkhitar Gosh's fables are very original and have a charm of their own.
Another famous fabulist was Vardan Aigektzi. His collection of fables is called The Book of the Fox. Several additions have been made to this work by later hands, so that the book has no uniformity of style and some fables in the collection are childish and trivial.
This is one of the fables in this book:
Mankind is like three fools. The first went to the tops of the mountains trying to catch a wind, and take it home, but though he tried a hundred years he never caught a wind that was as big as a drop of rain. The second, taking with him a number of servants and a great deal of money, sat down by the side of a river, trying to use its waters as a tablet on which to inscribe an elegy, but he could not form a word or trace a letter, though he laboured for a hundred years. The third tried to surpass the others by undertaking two enterprises at once. He had a huge bow made with arrows to match, and tried by night to shoot at the stars and other heavenly bodies and bring them home, that he alone might have light, but he could not catch
a spark. Besides this, during the day he ran after his own shadow, but never caught it, though he tried for a hundred years.
The moral of this fable is the futility of human life and human endeavour. "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity."
MOSES KAGHANKATVATZI (seventh century) mentions in his history some interesting fables. In one of them, which arose when there was a great famine in the land, the story is put into the mouth of a personification of the grain millet, whose narrative is to this effect:--
"I, Millet, was lying in an unknown place in the village of Kaku, in the province of Shakashen. All the purchasers treated me with contempt and rejected me. Then came my brother, Famine, and dominated the land. From that day I went and sat on the tables of the King and the Catholicos."
Armenian apologues and proverbial sayings are worthy of attention. Here are a few characteristic specimens; some of these are rhymed in the original, in others the contrasted words rhyme:--
One fool threw a stone into a well; forty wise men were unable to get it out.
He crossed the sea safely, and was drowned in a brook.
They were reading the Gospel over the wolf's head. He said: "Hurry up! The sheep will get past."
They asked the partridge: "Why are your feet red?" "From the cold," he replied. "We have seen you in the summer as well," they rejoined.
Are you the corn of the upper field? (Who are you that you should be set above others?)
A black cat has passed between them. (Referring to friends who have quarrelled.)
Whenever you touch a stone, may it become gold! (A blessing.)
The donkey began its tricks on the bridge.
Light for others, fire for the house. (A saint abroad, a devil at home.)
The black donkey is tied up at the gate. (A worthless thing is always at hand.)
Here is a riddle by Nerses Shnorhali:--
I saw an outspread white tent, wherein black hens were perched, that laid eggs of various kinds and spoke in human language. (A book.)
Between the end of the thirteenth century and the beginning of the fourteenth lived, almost contemporaneously, three great poets, all ecclesiastics:--CONSTANTINE ERZINGATZI, HOVHANNES ERZINGATZI, and FRIK, who were almost the last singers of the dying Armenian kingdom.
The first of these, CONSTANTINE ERZINGATZI, was born about 1250-1260 in
[paragraph continues] Erzingan. From early youth he showed poetic talent and gained favour from the people, but incurred the jealousy of his own associates. In one of his poems he says he cannot tell why his enemies hate him and expresses a desire to know their reason. Erzingatzi had a friend, a certain Amir Tol, who lived in Tabriz. Erzingatzi used to send his poems, as he wrote them, to this friend, who entered them in a book. The poems in this collection number twenty-two. The manuscript is preserved in the library of St. Lazare, Venice. The themes of Erzingatzi's poems are--among other things--the love of the rose and the nightingale, the beauty of nature, the wedding of the flowers, spring, dawn, and morning. In his love poems, he throws over his emotions a mystic veil of celestial hue, and some of his lines rise to a higher level than ordinary amorous verse. For him, love and beauty are one and the same. He says that one who is without love has no sense of beauty. He calls his lady-love a breeze of spring, and himself a thirsty flower, but a flower on which only a hot southern blast is ever blowing, so that his love-thirst continually endures. He likens his mistress to the radiant heavenly bodies--the sun, moon, and stars--but her light is stronger than that of all other luminaries, for it alone can illumine his darkened heart.
Erzingatzi says that, if he is to have any share in the life of love in this world, he will be content with one hour of "morning love" that springs from the heart. For that he is willing to exchange his life. He prays to God for such love, always emphasising the word "morning."
Among his works is a beautiful poem on Spring, which begins with a hundred thousand thanksgivings for the blessing that has flown down from heaven to earth:--
"It was dark and every stone was ice-bound; there was not a green herb, but now the earth arrays itself anew. The winter was like a prison, the spring like a sun that rises in the night. Everything is merry and joyous; even the dew-bringing cloud thunders gently, spanning the earth with its bow and causing many swift rivers to flow, which, without distinction, throw into rapturous intoxication all places of the earth.
"Terribly roar the streams that come down from the mountains, but, after strolling to and fro among the meadows in loving fashion, pass on to touch the face of the sea.
"The birds sing sweetly; the swallow chants psalms, the lark comes, reciting the praise of the morning. All leap into life--plants, birds, beasts with their offspring; they all form themselves into one great flock and dance together. The flowers have assembled in the garden. The Nightingale, proclaiming the glad things of the great resurrection, also enters the garden, seeking the Rose.
"When the time is ripe, she opens, and the other flowers, when they see the splendour of
the Rose, run off, over hill and dale, and, from fear, lose their colour. The Nightingale is intoxicated with the sweet odour of the Rose. Then takes place a festival of nature and the Rose sings her own praise."
The original text of this poem is a real achievement as regards language, poetical expressions, and art, showing that Erzingatzi was a master of his craft.
Erzingatzi was also the author of a long narrative poem, called Farman and Asman, recounting the love adventures of a Persian princess. This was composed at the request of a Syrian knight and shows some traces of Persian influence.
Another long narrative poem of this writer, entitled A Girl's Questions, seems to owe something to Arabic literature.
Erzingatzi is also the author of many didactic poems. Here are a few stanzas from another of his poems:--
"I awoke from sleep
And a while I stood and waited.
When the long night passed,
When appeared the dawn belated,--
Many stars of light
Watching stood to greet the morning;
Servants of our God,
All the sky of night adorning.
"Then a Star arose
Near the Morning Star, in Heaven;
Fairer than all stars,
Radiance to that Star was given.
"When the moon beheld
She bade all the stars to vanish.
HOVHANNES ERZINGATZI (b. 1250) was educated in a monastery on the confines of Georgia and Armenia under a bishop who was renowned for his learning. He returned to Erzingan in 1272 and travelled to Jerusalem in 1281, in the course of his journey passing through Cilicia in order to visit the Armenian royal seat, where King Leon was then reigning. By his learning and talents he attracted the attention of the Catholicos, who appointed him director of all the schools in the city.
By order of the Catholicos, he wrote a grammar, remarkable for its clear and comprehensible style and language. He also came under the notice of the king. At the annual horse race two of the king's sons were among the competitors. On this occasion Erzingatzi made a speech, which left a great impression and gained him recognition as an orator. In Cilicia he learnt Latin and made several translations from that language into Armenian. He wrote many Biblical commentaries, besides other religious and devotional works, as well as treatises on astrology; but his fame rests chiefly on his verse. In addition to religious and moral poems, he wrote love songs, and lays relating to nature. In his ethical as well as in his love poems we find quaint metaphors and similes.
As, for instance, in the following stanza, where our poet seems to be forestalling Bunyan:--
In another poem, entitled "Like an Ocean is this World," which appears on page 59 of
this volume, he uses the metaphor afterwards employed in Donne's Hymn to Christ and Tennyson's Crossing the Bar.
His love poems are exquisitely fresh and rich.
The aesthetic character of his love and his enthusiasm for beauty are shown by his declaration, in one of the poems, after a rapturous expression of his passion for a lady of whom he gives a rich-hued word-portrait, that the only thing that keeps his feelings within bounds is the knowledge that, after death, her face will wither and its colours fade.
In 1284 he went to Tiflis, the capital town of Georgia, where he gave, in the newly-built church, on the occasion of its opening, a discourse on the movements of the heavenly bodies. This subject had a great fascination for him and he treated it in a manner that deeply impressed his hearers, including the king's son who was present. His discourse was not a sermon, but a poetical oration. On the prince's asking him to write a poem on the same subject, he wrote one of a thousand lines. At the desire of another prince, he composed another poem on the same theme.
KHACHATUR KECHARETZI (better known by his pen-name, FRIK) was a priest who was born at the end of the thirteenth century and died about 1330. He wrote many poems, several of which are of an allegorical character; also laments on the state of his country, and several mystic and other religious poems, as well as love songs; but his most characteristic work is the poem addressed to God, asking why He is unmindful of the terrible condition of the Armenian nation, and also enumerating the inequalities of the world, showing how the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer.
"If we are useless creatures?" (he says) "unworthy of Thy care, why dost Thou not entirely destroy us?"
An extract from this long poem is given in this volume on page xv.
173:1 All the metrical translations quoted are by Miss Z. C. Boyajian. Like her other translations in this volume they are almost literal renderings, and the original metre has been kept.