Cradle of Civilization

A Blog about the Birth of Our Civilisation and Development

Vishapakar – Dragon Stones

Posted by Fredsvenn on August 14, 2014

Dragonstone from Geghama mountains

The unique monuments of prehistoric Armenia, XE “višap” vishaps (Arm. višap ‘serpent) 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; Vannic inscription in a višap from Garni testifies that they were created in pre-Vannic 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 višap XE “višap” replaced their original Indo-European name.

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 Vannic (pre-Urartian) “kingdoms”, 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 Vannic- 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-).

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? 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.

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).

“Vishapakar – Dragon Stones” by Doctor of Philology, Armen Yeghisheh Petrosyan (1948), 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 Vannic and pre-Christian Armenian religion.

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