Vishapakar, The Unique Megaliths of the Armenian Plateau - 2007

Armenia's famous Christian-era khatchqar (cross-stone) and their prehistoric pagan ancestors, the Vishapaqar (dragon-stone): The following articles discuss two of Armenia's most enduring cultural and spiritual expressions - Armenia's native megaliths, and their millennial long presence upon the ancient landscape of historic Armenia.



Vishapakar, The Unique Megaliths of the Armenian Plateau

Vishapakar - Dragon Stones
By Armen Petrosyan, Ph.D.

The unique monuments of prehistoric Armenia, XE "višap" vishaps (Arm. višap ‘serpent, dragon’ an Iranian borrwing) or “dragon stones” are spread in many provinces of historical Armenia – Gegharkunik, Aragatsotn, Javakhk, Tayk, etc. They are cigar-shaped huge stones, 10-20 feet tall, usually situated in the mountains, near the sources of rivers and lakes. Many of them are in the shape of fish; they have a bull’s skin (complete with head and feet) carved into them; there is also a stream of water flowing from the mouth of the bull’s skin and some vishaps have images of water birds carved below the bull’s head. The earliest višap XE "višap" stelae would be dated, probably, from the 18th-16th centuries BC; an Urartian inscription in a višap from Garni testifies that they were created in pre-Urartian times (before the 8th century BC).

A number of theories try to interpret the meaning of these stones. One theory holds that these monuments represented mythological dragons guarding the sources of the waters (B. Piotrovski). Another two trace back, respectively, to Astghik, the goddess of fertility and love (M. Abeghian) and Ara Geghecik ‘Ara the Handsome,’ the “dying and rising god” of Armenian tradition (G. Ghapantsyan). The present author has his own interpretation of these stalae, which may be represented as follows.

The Indo-European “basic myth,” reconstructed by V.V. Ivanov and V.N. Toporov, tells the story of the battle of the thunder god and his adversary the serpent. The victory of the god results in origination of cosmic waters (rain, rivers). Certain aspects of the dragon stones reveal their links with the “basic myth.” In this context, it is evident that the huge fish would represent the water serpent (the dragon-serpents were sometimes conceived in the shape of fish; e.g. in Oppian’s Halieutika the dragon Typhon is represented as a fish), while the bull is the symbol of the thunder god in many ancient Near Eastern and Indo-European traditions (Hurrian, Hittite, Indian, Greek, and Armenian). The wavy lines below the bull’s head may be interpreted as rainy waters triggered by the battle between the god and the serpent.

The name of the serpent in the “basic myth” is derived from the Indo-European stem *wel-. According to the rules of the Armenian language, the Indo-European *wel- would have developed into geł- (New Eastern Armenian pronunciation: gegh-). In this context it is characteristic that the višap stones are concentrated mainly in the Gełam province, Gełakuni district, on the Gełamay Mountains to the east of Sevan Lake (modern Gegharkunik province of Armenia). The two largest groups of them are located, respectively, on Mt. Geł, at the source of the river Azat, and near the Gełi fortress. Characteristically, the mountain beside Geł, the highest of the Gełamay range, is called Azhdahak from the name of the dragon of ancient Iranian tradition XE "Aždahak" .

It may be reasonably inferred that the aforementioned place names from the stem geł- < *wel- XE "*wel-" would have been derived from the name of the Indo-European mythic serpent. Moreover, the dragon stones themselves probably would have been called *geł- < *wel- before the Iranian loanword višap XE "višap" replaced their original Indo-European name.[1] According to Armenian tradition, the Gełam province was founded by Gełam, the first patriarch of the eastern provinces of Greater Armenia (Xorenac‘i I, 12). The Armenian place-names with the first element geł- are concentrated in the province of Gełam. Significantly, XE "Gełam" Gełakuni is attested as Uelikuni/ Uelikuhi (to read: Weliku-ni/hi) among the local pre-Urartian “kingdoms” occupied in the 8th century by the kings of Urartu, which shows that those interconnected toponyms are derived from the protoform *wel- XE "*wel-" . On the other hand, the name of the district of the “dragon stones” Ueliku XE "Ueliku" -(ni/hi), in the context of mythological traditions of the ancient peoples of the Armenian Highland is comparable to that of the stone giant Ullikummi, the famous adversary of the thunder and storm god Teshub XE "Ullikummi" . In the Hurrian myth, attested in the 2th millennium BC, Kumarbi XE "Kumarbi" , the father and adversary of Teshub, plots to overthrow him. Kumarbi impregnates a great rock in the “Cold Spring” and it bears Ullikummi. The gods battle the monster, but it has grown so big that they are unable to harm it. The end of the myth is not preserved but probably contained the final victory of the weather god. Ni and hi in Ueliku XE "Ueliku" -ni/hi are alternative Urartian suffixes (common formants in place-names), while mmi is a Hurrian suffix. Thus, Weliku-(ni/hi) of the pre-Urartian population of the Lake Sevan region and the Hurrian Ullikummi XE "Ullikummi" may have been derived from the Indo-European name of the serpent (a derivative of *wel-).[2] There is an interesting word Gełni, var. Gełnik, Głni ‘Armenian,’ that survived only in the Armenian medieval dictionary of Eremia Meghretsi. There are no other data on this interesting term, but it may be considered in the context of Armenian and Indo-European onomastics. Since in folk tradition the two other Armenian ethnonyms, Hay and Armen, were connected to the names of the patriarchs of the ethnogonic myth Hayk and Aram, it is fair to assume that Gełni would have been linked with the consonant names of that myth—Gełam XE "Gełam" and Ara Gełec‘ik. Numerous Indo-European tribal and place names comparable to *wel- XE "*wel-" have been considered in the context of the “basic myth” (cf. Celtic Volcae, Illirian Velsounas, Italic Volski, etc.). This theory poses some intriguing questions. The bull’s skin is frequently carved on the “dragon stones” as if the skin were thrown on the mouth of the fish (on the top of the stela). This cannot be interpreted otherwise than as an imitation of the bull sacrifice ritual. That is, the bull, symbol of the thunder god, appears to have been sacrificed to the giant fish, symbol of the serpent. Why imitate the ritual instead of performing a real sacrifice? The Hurrian and Urartian languages represent two branches of the Hurro-Urartaian language family, while Armenian is an Indo-European language. The name Ulikummi, as we have seen, may well be borrowed from Indo-European, yet scholars regard the Ullikummi myth as entirely Hurrian, not Indo-European. The question, then, is who were the creators of the “dragon stones”—the Hurro-Urartian or Indo-European tribes? [1] Georgian *gwel- ‘snake,’ which is borrowed from the intermediate Proto-Armenian stage of IE *wel- (> *gwel- > geł-), corroborates this reconstruction. Notably, the Georgian composite gwel-wešapi ‘snake-dragon’ combines these two names of the serpent.

[2]The interpretation of Ullikummi as ‘the destroyer of the sacred city of Kummi’ is a folk etymology. The name may be etymologized as Ulliku + mmi (Hurrian suffix).

Armen Yeghisheh Petrosyan, born 1948, Doctor of Philology, is the author of four monographs and a series of articles on the history, culture, mythology, religion, languages and early ethnic composition of the Armenian Highland, including articles on the origins of the Armenian people, and Urartian and pre-Christian Armenian religion.


Khachkars (Cross Stones) of the Armenian Highlands

Like the Celtic cross, which was inherited from earlier pagan stone monuments, the Armenian Khachkar can be traced to prehistoric monuments. Its earliest roots may be menhirs which dot the Neolithic, Copper and Bronze Age landscape. One menhir form is the obelisk, which appeared beginning around 4000 BC. At MokhraBlur near Yerevan the largest obelisk in Armenia can be found, a massive polished black stone weighing in at 10 tons. Looking eerily like the great obelisk floating in space at the beginning of "2001, Space Odyssey", these early monuments are all the more mysterious for their massive clean shape, and the fact they were hauled by hand from stone quarries miles away. At MokhraBlur, the great obelisk is the only stone element in that 4th millennium BC city of 25,000.

Another source is also a startling new discovery, which is causing international sensation as it is swept up in controversy over its proposed dating. The stone monuments at Karahundj (see "Armenia's Stonehenge?" in this same issue) were both part of an astronomical observatory and an outdoor sun worship temple. The overall shapes of the stones bear a striking likeness to the earliest Khachkars, though they don't contain engravings, and are rough cut except for their telescopic holes. The Vishaps are perhaps the earliest direct link to Khachkars. Vishaps (Dragon Stones) can be traced back to the 5th millennium BC, where large fish-like monuments were placed at the sources of springs and rivers and which became related to the worship of Astghik, the goddess of water. Vishaps can still be found on the sides of Mt. Aragats, Arayr and especially on the Geghama mountain range that separates the Ararat valley from Lake Sevan. A few are kept in museums, and several lie in the center of Yerevan.Those made of tuf have lost many of their features over thousands of years of exposure, but some retain their intricate, fearsome features, later adorned with astronomical and animal-human designs. The symbols used on Vishaps the fish, the cross and the sacred swastika were common to early Armenian religious iconography, symbols of life, redemption and universal power. The most powerful symbol was the sun, which is depicted on Vishaps as a swirling disc. The sun symbol is also the earliest sacred symbol in Armenia, dating back to the Paleolithic period (20,000-12,000 BC). Other sacred symbols found on menhirs, Vishaps and later obelisks are signs of the zodiac, dating back to the 3rd millennium BC. Boundary stones (some of the oldest in Armenia are the boundary stones of the Babylonian king Nemruth, also known as Bel in the legend of Haik) were used to mark territories, and contained inscriptions of both royal and religious meanings. The boundary stones used during the reign of Artashes I (2nd c. BC) show examples of pre-Mashtots Armenian script. By the Urartian period, obelisks which were built from stone columns covered in cuneiform are considered direct ancestors to the Khachkar. The obelisks incorporate a universal Khachkar symbol, the tree of life.The tree of life is mentioned in Genesis in the Bible, but its use in Ancestral Armenian iconography goes back to the Metsamorian period, 5000 BC. It was universally used in the Near East as a symbol of eternity and resurrection. In Urartu, the tree of life was depicted with two side long sets of eight branches crowned by three short branches at the peak. A god-like king stood on one side of the tree, reaching for the eternal fruit. The obelisk tradition continued in Armenia's Hellenistic and Imperial Age, with contemporary historic sources remarking they held a prominent place in Armenian cities, as well as along the roads that linked them. These monuments continued to be used in the early Christian period (4th-5th cc.) and were models for column-like monuments bearing the sign of the cross. Examples of this transitional form can be found at Talin and Artik. These Christian obelisks were along with wooden crosses the earliest forms of Khachkars.



Anonymous said...

I suppose its Tengristic (Nestorian)

Anonymous said...


Because I am prepared book about SPIRITUAL TRADITIONS OF CAUCASUS,
I need some interesting pictures of the ancient, pre-christian/pre-islamic & pagan sanctuaries, holy places & temples, preahistorical megalithic sites (megaliths, dolmens, menhirs, kurgans, stone lines and fields, rock paintings & petroglyphs) -- as are there in Armenian Elara & Zorats Karer, Metsamor etc ....
-- for our prepared Book!
I need also some pictures of the Rituals, worshiping Pilgrims on the Babadaq and/or other Caucassian regions, too! Maybe you could find some such items in your Archive and help me with my work, and also with a promotion of your Country, of course.
BUT I have problem with communication with your people, I am sorry to say
- NONE ANSWERED LONG TIME! A pity because I love your Country!!!
We have completed also academic monograph publication about YEZIDISM, the first one in Czech Language (authors are the eminent Czech & Slovak academic writers / scientists),
BUT we need only pictures, We lack the illustrations for finished book, because author is very ill and he is not able to be active in this mater , I am sorry to say, .... and I would be unhappy to publish book without some pictures
at this moment I must stop preparation of book into press, hoping somebody mediate us some illustrations during near time
maybe also you will find some suitable pictures in your archive during time ?
The book could have c. 360 pages and it would be a pity to publish it without pictures, of course
Bratislava / SLOVAKIA (EU)
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