The “tree of life” exists in many cultures: referred to as Sida in Islam, the tree of Ea in Babylonia, the Tree of Paradise in the Old Testament, the white Haoma (sometimes homa) in Zoroaster, and Soma in Hinduism. The mythologies differ slightly, but all place importance on the fruit and juice that it bears. In the context of this exhibit, “The Scale of Life”, it is of particular interest to us that Indo-European mythology emphasized the water that ran through the tree’s roots more than the tree itself. For Indo-Europeans, water was the creator of life.
The depths of water have long been mysterious to man, holding the power for both creation and destruction. During the Kingdom of Urartu (9th c. B.C.), this phenomenon was embodied through Tesheiba, the Urartean god of tempests who defeated the mythical water creature, Vishap. Tesheiba became Vahagn in Armenian folklore, an epic hero who slayed the dragons of Lake Van and cast them into the sun to burn.
The history of water dragons and serpents in Armenia is complex: the result of cross-fertilization among Zoroastrianism, folk epic, and Christian narratives. A prime example is found in the depiction of the story of “Jonah and the Whale” at the Holy Cross Church at Akht’Amar island in Lake Van, present day Turkey. This is a favorite Christian subject that symbolizes resurrection, yet Akht’amar’s uniqueness is seen in the representation of the whale as a dragon. This imagery in part comes from the Armenian translation of the Bible that distinguishes between the creature that engulfs Jonah, and that which expels him, referring to the former as a fish (ket) and the later as a dragon (vishap-zkan). The Bible’s Armenian wording literally links the dragon (vishap) to salvation, a connection that was already part of Zoroastrian mythology, Armenia’s previous religious creed. Furthermore, the rich oral tradition of epic tales was particularly popular and elaborate in the Van region. So much so that the lake was said to be filled with dragons. And so through the story of “Jonah and the Whale”, Armenians were able to find metaphoric depth linking their own lake to the biblical tale.
It is noteworthy to mention an excerpt from the epic first published in 1874 by Bishop Garegin Srvandtsyants that tells the story of four generations of heroes from Van. It begins with King Gagik whose daughter Tsovinar is forced to marry a Caliph from Bagdad to save Armenia from war. Before making this sacrifice, she goes for a walk by the shores of Lake Van, where she sees a spring emerge from a protruding rock at the lake’s center. Thirsty, she drinks from the spring, impregnating her with twins Sanasar and Baghdassar. When they come of age, the twins escape the Caliph and arrive at Lake Van in search of a seahorse with great powers. Sanasar is fearless and dives into the lake where he discovers a garden, a palace, magic weapons, and the seahorse. In the underwater kingdom, the mother of god gives Sanasar water to drink. He grows strong and tames the seahorse, defeats a water dragon, and returns to land bigger and more virile. The empowering “kat’naghbiur”, or “milky fountain”, from which he drinks is the same water that impregnated his mother. This divine “semen virilis” or combination of milk, semen and power is common imagery in Indian and Syriac Christian traditions. For Zoroastrians, the cosmic sea was called “Vourukasha” or “Sea of milk” and is where serpents lived along with the goddess Anahita who was believed to help with fertility and pregnancy. In this tale, water represents the source of fertility, strength, and hidden blessings only visible to the brave.
So we see that in Armenian Christianity, Epic tales, and Zoroastrianism, water has long been associated with creation, resurrection, and even fertility. Whether we refer to the Vishap, a sea-horse, Jonah’s whale, or the milky water itself, these mythical creatures are the result of centuries and even millennia of the re-appropriation of symbols and a rich oral tradition.
In “The Scale of Life”, six artists reinterpret mythological water symbols from their contemporary standpoint. Some of the artists are inspired by the earth’s elements, like in the works of Felix Romanos and Moushegh Mkhitaryan.
Felix has long been inspired by the ocean. His works reflect water’s duality: its ability to create and destroy, as well as the contradiction between its vast emptiness and multitude of life forms.
Moushegh represents the elements of water, fire, earth and air through his four “Zinvor” (Soldiers). The soldiers embody the power of each element, the strength we must find in them, and the importance of their unity or brotherhood.
Artists Melissa Finkenbiner, Hrachya Vardanyan and Avedik Vardanyan examine the complex relationship we have with symbols and deciphering a distant past.
In her installation piece, “Joints of Vishapakar”, Melissa shows our attempt to piece together historical artifacts like the history behind the Vishapakars (dragon stones), phallic megaliths that were erected by bodies of water and whose origin remains mostly unknown. The picture is incomplete, like the space between her disjointed bricks, and we can only fill the emptiness with stories and legends.
The mystery of the dragon stones has been a theme that brothers Hrachya and Avedik have developed for the past two years. In their collaborative project “Return of Dragon Carpet”, the artists have created works on canvas and in metallic sculpture (shown here), as well as performance and video art. They explore the symbols that surround us- whether in woven carpets, megaliths, or epic stories- and see them as our attempt to get closer to the source.
In LUSKA’s augmented mural, the artist creates a mythical creature of her own, a woman-serpent-dragon from her “alien series” in which she morphs imaginary aquatic and cosmic creatures. We invite the viewer to experience and question these mythical symbols. However unreal they may be, they carry within them the markers of a very real history of human interest in the world, its elements, and creation.
Anna K. Gargarian, Curator
Artists: Alice Dunseath, Melissa Finkenbiner, LUSKA, Félix Romanos, Moushegh Mkhitaryan, Avetik Vardanyan, Hrachya Vardanyan.