Armenia: Pagan Games

Institute for War & Peace Reporting
Aug 18 2004


In a country normally associated with strong Christian identity, many
are opting for the old gods.

By Karine Ter-Saakian in Garni

Standing on Mount Aragats, the high priest waited until the sun set
his torch on fire so that it could be carried to the pagan temple of
Garni. Thus began Navasard, one of Armenia’s oldest and most popular
holidays, celebrated every year on August 11.

According to legend, on this day the patriarch Hayk slew the tyrant
Bel and freed his family and future generations of Armenians.

The combination of athletics and ancient rituals makes Navasard
reminiscent of the Olympic Games.

After the high priest clad in a red tunic faces the sun and sings a
hymn to Vahagn, the festivities begin with young people singing and
dancing, and playing at archery. Anyone wishing to join the pagan
community is initiated in a “fire and sword” ritual, and then plants
an apricot tree.

Although all this looks like time-honoured ceremony – this year is
counted as the 9,588th since the birth of Vahagn, the supreme deity in
the Armenian pagan pantheon – the festival is in fact a modern

“We resumed celebrating ancient Armenian holidays in 1990,” Slak
Kakosian, the high priest of Armenia, told IWPR. “Before that,
everything was banned. They sent me to the prison camps for two years
for ‘nationalism’ in 1961, and forced me to emigrate to the United
States in 1965. I only came back during the Gorbachev era.”

Politically, the pagan community is affiliated with the Armenian
Republican Party, whose philosophy is based on the teachings of
Tsegakron, the Armenian pre-Christian religion.

But the latter-day pagans distance themselves from politics.
Historian Ara Stepanian, who comes here from St Petersburg in Russia
every year, said, “There’s too much politics in people’s lives
already, and

that’s not good. The more people think about spiritual revival, the
better their chances of survival.”

He recommends that the Ukhtagir, or pagan scripture, should replace
the Bible as every thinking Armenian’s handbook.

“A thousand copies of the book are soon due out in print, and
community members will hand them out to the people. It is not our
intention to fully replace the Bible with the Ukhtagir, but Armenian
people should know they did not descend from Noah, but that they lived
here in the mountains of Armenia before the Flood,” said Kakosian.

Armenia is commonly regarded as the world’s first Christian state,
following the conversion of King Tiridates in the year 301, and its
religious identity has marked it out among its largely Muslim

But pre-Christian sun-worship still lingers in the national
consciousness. As well as the temple at Garni, Armenia also has its
own prehistoric Stonehenge, known as Karaundj, or Singing Stones, in
the south of the country. A sprawling structure with hundreds of
standing monoliths, it was built 6,000 years ago as a temple of the
sun, doubling as an astronomical observatory.

In a poll recently held by the Centre for Strategic and National
Studies in Yerevan, 34 per cent of Armenians said they consider
themselves Christian, 24 per cent said they were atheists, and 32 per
cent declared themselves to be pagans. “The slight differences in
percentages of believers proves that 1,700 years of Christianity have
failed to eradicate the old faith in Armenia,” said political
commentator Eduard Enfiajian, also a member of the pagan community.

“In Armenia, many people identify religion with the church
establishment. Not us. We have nothing against Christianity, but as a
social institution, it is not acceptable to us. Religion is

separated from the state, but in reality, they teach Christianity even
in kindergartens, not to mention schools, universities and the armed
forces. To me, this is wrong; a person should be able to choose which

God he will obey.”

The Armenian Apostolic Church takes an unusually relaxed view of its
pagan competitors, considering its hostility to more recent
evangelical groups.

“Unlike the new sects, they have nothing to do with Christianity,”
explained the Reverend Vagram Melikian, press spokesman for the
Armenian church in Echmiadzin. “The Armenian Church has an unequivocal
stance on sectarians, but we do not interfere in pagan affairs.”

Some Armenians manage to combine sympathy for both the traditional
Christian church and paganism.

“The pagans are custodians of the old customs,” explained Alexander
Amarian, head of the Help Centre for the Victims of Destructive Cults,
which campaigns against other religious groups or “sects” as they are

commonly called here. “The Armenian nation must remember its
pre-Christian past, and Ara’s Children [a pagan group] help them
remember. They also support the Armenian Apostolic Church in its
fight against destructive sects. A protest against sects was held
recently. Freedom

of worship is important, but we cannot give free rein to those sects
that impinge on our national identity.”

Many young people are getting involved in the pre-Christian rites.

Anait, 20, joined the pagan community 12 months ago. “I like it here.

No one tells me what to do. They tell us about the Armenian history
before Christianity, and give us books to read. It seems our people
are returning to their ancient roots. Garni is a spiritual centre of
cosmic significance. Paganism has no rigid rules or commandments,” she
told IWPR.

Anait, who is a medical student, wears a swastika sign around her
neck. Her fellow students strongly disapprove. “For an Armenian, it is
appropriate to wear a cross, not a Nazi symbol,” said student Ruben.
“If I had my way, I would ban all those sects and weird religions.
Our church is much too tolerant of them.”

“To most people, the swastika is a Nazi symbol, but that is not so,”
said Gagik Hairapetian, a pagan priest. “The swastika is a pagan
symbol. Those young Armenians people who wear swastikas are no Nazis.

Only an ignorant person identifies the swastika with Nazis.”

A young army lieutenant, who asked not to be named, strongly agreed:
for him the pagan ceremonies were all about Armenian patriotism. “I
came to paganism quite consciously,” he said. “I am convinced that
this is the true Armenian faith, and that it helped us win the war
[with Azerbaijan] I feel it in my bones.”

Karine Ter-Saakian is a freelance journalist based in Yerevan