A DISTINGUISHED English student of folk-lore has written: "Armenia offers a rich and hitherto almost untouched field to the folk-lorist, the difficulty of grappling with the language--the alphabet even of which was described by Byron as 'a very Waterloo of an alphabet'--having hitherto baffled European collectors."
So far as I can learn, the two volumes of Armenian folk-tales collected by Bishop Sirwantzdiants have hitherto been accessible to English and European readers only through the medium of a rare and more or less imperfect German translation. The late Ohannes Chatschumian had begun a compilation of Armenian folk-lore for Miss Alice Fletcher; but the work was cut short by his early death. Prof. Minas Tcheraz, of King's College, London, has published from time to time during the last eight years, in his paper "L'Armenie," a series of interesting articles on the folk-lore and fairy tales of the Armenians, under the title "L'Orient Inedit." He gathered these stories from the lips of the poorer classes in Constantinople, as Mr. Seklemian did in Erzroom. Prof. Tcheraz says: "The lowest strata of the population, having received no instruction, and not having changed perceptibly since the earliest centuries of our planet, keep still intact the traditions of the past. It is above all from the talk of the women of the common people, born in Constantinople or from the provinces, that these things are to be learned. Gifted with strong memories and brilliant imaginations, they still preserve all the legends bequeathed from the past." But the files of "L'Armenie," like the books of Bishop Sirwantzdiants, are inaccessible to the general public. Mr. Seklemian has therefore rendered a real service to students of folk-lore who are unacquainted with the Oriental languages, by bringing these curious and interesting tales within their reach.
Many things combine to give especial value to Armenian folk-lore. Among these are the great antiquity of the Armenian race, and its singular tenacity of its own ideas and traditions.
Armenia was the seat of one of the most ancient civilizations on the globe. Its people were contemporary with the Assyrians and Babylonians. They are of Aryan race, and of pure Caucasian blood. Their origin is lost in the mists of time. According to their own tradition, they are descended from Togarmah, a grandson of Japhet, who settled in Armenia after the Ark rested on Ararat. In the earliest days of recorded history, we find them already occupying their present home. They are referred to by Herodotus. Xenophon describes their manners and customs much as they still exist in the mountain villages. The Bible relates that the sons of Sennacherib escaped "into the land of Armenia," (2 Kings xix., 37; Isaiah xxxvii., 38.) Ezekiel refers to Armenia, under the name of Togarmah, as furnishing Tyre with horses and mules, animals for which it is still famous; and "the Kingdom of Ararat" is one of the nations called upon by Jeremiah to aid in the destruction of Babylon. In the famous inscriptions of the Achemenidæ, at Persepolis and at Behistun, the name of Armenia occurs in various forms.
The Armenians, according to their own histories and mythology, enjoyed four periods of national independence, under four different dynasties, extending over about 3,000 years. The ruins of Ani and other great cities still testify to their former power and splendor. It is now many centuries, however, since they lost their political independence, and their country has been little more than a battle-ground for rival invaders. Geographically, Armenia is the bridge between Europe and Asia. In the early centuries, the Armenians acted the part of Horatius and "kept the bridge," defending the gate of Europe against successive invasions of the uncivilized hordes of Asia. Their resistance was finally beaten down by superior numbers, and now for hundreds of years the armies of Europe and Asia have been marching and counter-marching across that bridge, slaughtering and devastating as they went, till it is a wonder that any Armenians are left, as a distinct race. Yet no race has ever retained its own characteristics more clearly. This persistency of the Armenian type is perhaps the most remarkable instance of race-survival in history, except that of the Jews. Good observers say that it is due in large measure to the comparatively pure family life of the Armenians in the interior of Turkey, and especially to the virtue of the Armenian women.
Tradition relates that Christianity was preached in Armenia early in the first century, by the Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew. It is historic fact that about A. D. 276 the king and the whole nation became Christian, under the preaching of St. Gregory, called "the Illuminator." The Armenian Church is thus the oldest national Christian church in the world.
As a Christian nation whose lot has been cast beyond the frontiers of Christendom, the Armenians have had to suffer continual persecution,--in the early times from the Persian fire-worshippers, in later centuries from the Mohammedans. Since the withdrawal of the Crusaders, to whom they alone of Asiatic nations gave aid and support, the Armenians have been at the mercy of the surrounding heathen peoples. Their country has been invaded successively by the Caliphs of Baghdad, the Sultans of Egypt, the Khans of Tartary, the Shahs of Persia, and the Ottoman Turks. All these invasions were accompanied by great slaughter and fierce barbarities; but the Armenians have held steadfastly to their faith for more than 1,500 years. They have clung not only to Christianity, but to their own peculiar form of Christianity. At many periods of their history they could have obtained a measure of protection if they would have conformed either to the Roman Catholic or to the Greek Church; but they have remained a distinct national communion of Eastern Christians.
This tenacity is one of the most marked features of the Armenian character. It gives an additional interest to their folk-lore and to their customs, many of which have come down substantially unchanged from the farthest antiquity. Intensely wedded to Christianity as the nation has become through perpetual persecution, there are yet a multitude of curious Pagan rites, dating back before the dawn of recorded history, which still prevail among the common people, especially in the villages that nestle in remote nooks among the Caucasus mountains.
When the Armenians adopted Christianity, the old Pagan festivals could not be rooted out; they were only baptized, so to speak, with Christian names. On February 26th, in Armenia, every young man who has been married within the year brings a load of aromatic shrubs, and a huge pile is made of them in the church-yard. In the evening, after a religious service in the open air, the clergyman advances with a taper, and sets fire to the heap. All the villagers, men, women and children, dance around the great bonfire, and the boys and young men show their courage and agility by leaping over it. When the flames have died down, each person carries home a glowing brand, and places it on his hearthstone for good luck. This festival is now celebrated in commemoration of the bringing of the infant Christ to the Temple; but it is an old Pagan rite in honor of Mihr, the god of fire.
In summer, a festival is held in commemoration of the subsiding of the Deluge. Local traditions of a Flood lingered in the region around Mt. Ararat long before the introduction of Christianity. On "the day of our Father Noah," it is everybody's object to "baptize" everybody else by pouring water over him. Even a bishop will be drenched without ceremony, if he ventures to show himself on the street. It is considered necessary that every one should be baptized before sunset. After the sun goes down, hundreds of tame doves are let loose, in honor of Noah's dove, and they play and "tumble" in the air, while all the people are out rowing on the river, or walking along its banks and sprinkling each other with water. This festival is a great delight to the Armenian boys.
"Fortune day" is more especially the day of the Armenian girls. It is now celebrated on the fortieth day after Easter, in honor of Christ's ascension; but it is much older than Christianity. On the previous evening, the village girls assemble, and go in silence and mystery to fill a jar with water from seven springs. A single spoken word would break the spell. The jar is set for the night in some secret place under the open sky, where it can be "watched by the stars." The young men of the village try their best to find it, or to coax from the girls the secret of its hiding place, but in vain. Next morning the girls bring out the jar in triumph, wreathe it with flowers, and carry it in procession to a grassy place outside the village. Everybody drops into it some small object easily identified--a ring, a coin, a snail-shell, etc. A little girl about four years old, dressed in white, blindfolded and veiled, takes her stand beside the jar. She represents Fortune. An older girl begins to sing a verse of poetry, and the whole choir of girls joins in. The little girl then takes out of the jar one of the things that have been dropped into it, and holds it up. The verse that has been sung is supposed to predict the fortune of the owner. This ceremony is repeated till everything has been taken out of the jar. Afterwards the villagers dance in a circle, hand-in-hand. On this occasion every girl weaves herself a cross of flowers, which is hung on the wall of her home, near the fireplace, and is carefully saved until the next "Fortune day."
The brightest point in Armenian history is the "Holy War" of the fifth century. In A. D. 450, a vast Persian army invaded Armenia to force the Armenians to embrace fire-worship. The battle was fought on the plain of Avarair, under Mt. Ararat. The much smaller force of the Armenians was defeated, and their leader, Vartan, was killed; but the obstinate resistance offered by rich and poor,--men, women and children, convinced the King of Persia that he could never make fire-worshippers of the Armenians. Eghishe (Elisaeus), an Armenian bishop and historian who wrote in the fifth century, relates that even the high priest of fire saw it to be impossible, and said to the Persian monarch, "These people have put on Christianity not like a garment, but like their flesh and blood." To-day, after 1,400 years, the Armenian mountaineers, at their festivals, still drink the health of Vartan next after that of the Catholicos, or head of their Church. From time immemorial it has been the custom in Armenian schools to celebrate the anniversary of the battle with songs and recitations, and to wreathe the picture of "Vartan the Red" with red flowers. Of late years, this celebration has been forbidden by the government.
In the minds of the common people, all sorts of picturesque superstitions still cluster around that battle-field. A particular kind of red flowers grow there, which are found nowhere else; and they are believed to have sprung from the blood of the Christian army. A species of antelope, with a pouch on its breast secreting a fragrant musk, is supposed to have acquired this peculiarity by browsing on herbage wet with the same blood. It is also believed that at Avarair the nightingales all sing "Vartan, Vartan!"
To the Armenian peasant, all nature is full of stories. The forests, the springs, the mountains, the lakes, the flowers,--all have spirits. An infinite number of strange superstitions prevail, some of which may cast a valuable light upon the early mythology of Asia. This, of course, refers only to the uneducated Armenians. The educated classes are no more superstitious than those of other nationalities.
Almost all travelers have been struck by the ability of the Armenians, and by the marked difference between them and other Oriental races. Lamartine calls them "the Swiss of the East." Dulaurier compares them to the Dutch. American missionaries speak of them as "the Anglo-Saxons of Eastern Turkey." The Hon. James Bryce, author of "The American Commonwealth," who has traveled in Armenia and studied the people, says:
"Among all those who dwell in Western Asia, they stand first, with a capacity for intellectual and moral progress, as well as with a natural tenacity of will and purpose, beyond that of all their neighbors--not merely of Turks, Tartars, Kurds and Persians, but also of Russians. They are a strong race, not only with vigorous nerves and sinews, physically active and energetic, but also of conspicuous brain power."
Mrs. Isabella Bird Bishop, the well-known English traveler, says: "It is not possible to deny that they are the most capable, energetic, enterprising and pushing race in Western Asia, physically superior and intellectually acute; and above all they are a race which can be raised in all respects to our own level, neither religion, color, customs, nor inferiority in intellect or force constituting any barrier between us. Their shrewdness and aptitude for business are remarkable, and whatever exists of commercial enterprise in Eastern Asia Minor is almost altogether in their hands."
Dr. Grace N. Kimball, after living for years in the heart of Armenia, describes the Armenians as "a race full of enterprise and the spirit of advancement, much like ourselves in characteristics, and full of possibilities of every kind."
Lord Byron said: "It would perhaps be difficult to find in the annals of a nation less crime than in those of this people, whose virtues are those of peace, and whose vices are the result of the oppression it has undergone."
Dr. Cyrus Hamlin, the founder of Robert College, who spent thirty-five years in Turkey teaching among them, says: "The Armenians are a noble race."
Dr. James L. Barton, of the American Board of Foreign Missions, ex-president of Euphrates College, writes: "I know the Armenians to be, by inheritance, religious, industrious and faithful. They are not inferior in mental ability to any race on earth. I say this after eight years' connection with Euphrates College, which has continually from 550 to 625 Armenians upon its list of students, and after superintending schools which have four thousand more of them."
While much criticism has been passed upon the Armenians by transient tourists, we may say truly of them, with the Rev. Edwin M. Bliss, late of Constantinople, that "those who know the race most widely and most intimately esteem it the most highly."
Armenia has been described by a European traveler as the land of unsolved riddles. It is full of most interesting problems for the antiquarian, in its ruined cities, its rock grottoes, its unexplored mounds or tumuli, its half-effaced inscriptions, and the repositories of precious manuscripts in its ancient monasteries. But all these are doomed to remain uninvestigated, as its fertile fields must remain untilled, its rich mines unworked, and the fine natural abilities of its people unimproved by education, until the present disturbed condition of the country becomes quiet. When Armenia is thus "opened up" to the peaceful investigator, the folk-lorists will profit by the opportunity, as well as other classes of scholars. Meanwhile, rich gleanings may be obtained from the educated and English-speaking Armenians in this country; and by far the largest and most interesting collection yet made of these is the present work. Both the author and the publishers are to be congratulated on this valuable contribution to the world of folk-lore.
Alice Stone Blackwell.