Armenian Festival Combines Paganism And Nationalism

Onnik Krikorian, a journalist and photographer from the United Kingdom living and working in the Republic of Armenia.

EurasiaNet, NY
July 27 2007

Tradition, in the South Caucasus, dies hard. With the ancient July
festival of Vardavar, one small group of Armenians is seeing a chance
to relive Armenia’s pagan past, and affirm the country’s national

Armenia adopted Christianity as its state religion in 301 AD,
thereafter destroying or converting its pagan temples. For most
Armenians, this date represents the turning point for their nation,
and one that would later distance it from Muslim neighbors in Iran,
Azerbaijan and Turkey.

But each year at Armenia’s only remaining pagan temple, at Garni,
32 kilometers east of Yerevan, a few hundred Armenians gather to
celebrate Vardavar as an event that they consider represents Armenians’
true and original faith. The festival is perhaps the most popular of
all traditional and religious events in the Armenian calendar, with
youngsters and adults gleefully dumping water over hapless passers-by.

The celebration has now been absorbed into the Christian calendar,
but was traditionally associated with Astghik, the Armenian goddess
of water, beauty, love and fertility. The festival’s name is derived
from the Armenian word for rose, "vard." Early observers of Vardavar
offered Astghik roses and sprinkled water on each other, or feasted
near water in the hope that she would provide rain in time for harvest.

Now re-invented to represent the transfiguration of Christ, the holiday
is scheduled by the Armenian Church to be held approximately 98 days
after Easter.

At Garni, pagan priests placed sacrificial knives in fire, as well
as rose petals in earthenware jugs of water, before reading aloud
from the Ukhtagir, a collection of pre-Christian folk stories and
legends immortalizing Armenia’s pagan gods written by Slak Kakosian,
the founder of the Pagan Covenant, one of Armenia’s main pagan
organizations. Founded in 1990, the group now claims it has over
1,000 members.

In the group’s events, nationalism and paganism mingle equally. "We
are pagans," said 43-year-old Zohrab Petrosian, Kakosian’s successor.

"We are Armenians, but we don’t know our true religion. Simply lighting
a candle in a church or wearing a cross around our necks does not make
us Christian. I’ve been a member of this organization for 10 years,
but as an Armenian I’ve been pagan since the day I was born."

At the Garni Vardavar observances, one of the highest-profile attendees
was Armen Avetisian, leader of the ultra-nationalist Union of Armenian
Aryans, who received a three-year suspended sentence in 2005 for
inciting racial hatred against Jews. [For background see the Eurasia
Insight archive].

Avetisian and his followers wore black t-shirts featuring the picture
of Garegin Njdeh, an Armenian national hero who lived from 1886-1955.

Njdeh was a skillful military leader and anti-Bolshevik activist
who developed a philosophy that blended religious and nationalist
elements. His ideas have been influential in shaping the political
platforms of modern-day parties, including the governing Republican
Party of Armenia, as well as its junior coalition partner, the Armenian
Revolutionary Federation – Dashnakstutiun.

Until recently, many of those attending the pagan festivals were
affiliated with the Republican Party, but now members of other parties
are starting to join in. This year, for example, apart from members
of the Union of Armenian Ayrans, most other people in attendance
identified themselves as members of the Armenian Revolutionary
Federation – Dashnakstutiun.

The appearance of ultra-nationalists, however, raises concern in
some circles that the pagan movement could make a radical departure
toward the extreme right. Armenian pagans tend to dismiss the concern,
though. Many at the Garni observances said politics wasn’t a factor
for them. Robert Garabedian, an ethnic Armenian astrophysicist from
Germany, was baptized as a pagan at the Garni event. Speaking to
EurasiaNet, Garabedian said that spending Vardavar at the temple
site carried a personal rather than political significance. "I’m
Zoroastrian, Christian and Buddhist, and now I want to be baptized
into the same religion that my [Armenian] ancestors followed," he said.

The hordes of children drenching pedestrians and motorists with water
usually overshadow any such quests for meaning on Vardavar. Even so,
Armenia’s pagans might take comfort in the fact that torrential rains
unexpectedly hit Armenia at the festival’s end on July 15. As the
rain poured down in the days that followed, one can only wonder if
Astghik wasn’t listening, after all.