The Primary History of Armenia


History of the Ancestors

Translator's Preface

[i] The short work known as the Primary History of Armenia (or History of the Ancestors), describes the earliest legendary history of the Armenians. The History contains six sections or chapters (three narrative episodes and three chronological sections) which may not be the work of a single author. Taken together, they do not form a cohesive structure. The first chapter recounts the gestes of Hayk, eponymous ancestor of the Armenian (Hay) people. Included are the stories of Hayk's departure from Babylon; his successful rebellion against the Babylonian tyrant, Bel; his settlement on the Armenian highlands; as well as an account of the life, death, and "resurrection" of his descendant, Ara the Handsome. Chapter two describes the rise of the Arsacids in Iran and the establishment of the Arsacid dynasty in Armenia. Another writer or editor, in our opinion, added the final two paragraphs of this chapter, which are historically inaccurate listings of the rulers of the Parthians (from "Arshak" to Artawan (d. A.D. 227) and the rulers of the Armenians (to King Pap, 367-c. 374). The third chapter is a short "chronological" section deriving from later authors. It seems to have been inserted, unsuccessfully, as a bridge. Chapter four is an account of the origin of the Mamikonean House, which is missing some beginning lines or paragraphs. Chapters five and six contain historically inaccurate tables of the rulers of the Byzantines and Persians, ending with the last Sasanian shah, Yazdgird III (632-651). The "chronological" sections of the Primary History, chapters three, five, and six, are not translated here.

An editor's hand seems visible at the very beginning of the work. This editor, writing in an obtuse style, gives a confused statement of his purpose and intentions. He cites his sources in a much-debated passage, invoking a mysterious figure named Mar Abas as well as some unlikely foreign archival material. Here the editor is trying to explain where the legends which follow came from, but the explanation is not convincing. Nor are modern translations of the opening paragraphs (including our own) particularly clear or satisfying. The legends themselves are written in a spare and direct style, quite unlike the opening paragraphs. It seems probable that the editor, or another compiler, tried to unite some fragmentary writings he had at hand, perhaps adding some of the chronological sections himself.

[ii] The six sections were first published by T. Mihrdatian in 1851 in Constantinople as the first six chapters of a larger work that follows it, the History of Sebeos, which is a narrative history of Armenia in the seventh century. What Mihrdatian's exemplar actually looked like is debated, while the original manuscript it was based on has since been lost. However, Mihrdatian himself is believed to have divided the work into chapters, numbered them, and inserted chapter summaries on his own. Already by 1862 the philologist K. Patkanean had questioned whether the initial chapters really belonged with Sebeos' History. Thus began an ongoing debate about these six originally untitled and incomplete writings, which came to be known as the Primary History, the History of the Ancestors, or the Anonymous of Sebeos. While few Armenists today believe that the Primary History and Sebeos' History are the work of the same author, nonetheless, by convention, the episodes and tables of the Primary History continue to be published as the first six chapters of Sebeos. For more on the manuscript tradition see the Translator's Preface to Sebeos' History.

The oldest legendary material preserved in the Primary History long predates the current era and seems to be describing events of the first millenium B.C. When this material was put into writing is another matter. The story of Mar Abas and the foreign archives, though unlikely in the precise detail presented, may generally be correct in suggesting that some of the material was written in foreign languages, predating the creation of the Armenian alphabet and the beginnings of writing in Armenian in the early fifth century A.D. These particular legends probably were known to fifth-century writers in some form, either as ballads sung by minstrels (gusans), or in written form. The same legends are told with some differences in another Armenian source, the History of the Armenians by Movses Xorenats'i, but it is not certain that Movses used the Primary History directly. Even if Movses did use the work directly, it still does not help with a precise dating. This is because Movses' own History probably first appeared in the eighth century, although it contains some tantalizing portions that seem to be much earlier. Nor does the fact that the Primary History has come down to us attached to a seventh-century work necessarily mean that it was written in that century. The question of the dating of the sections of the Primary History cannot be resolved at present, based on existing Armenian sources.

This translation was made from G. V. Abgaryan's critical edition of Sebeos [Patmut'iwn Sebe'osi (Erevan, 1979)]. An earlier English translation, by R. W. Thomson, appeared in 1978 as an appendix to his Moses Khorenats'i History of the Armenians (Cambridge, Mass., 1978) pp. 357-368.

The transliteration used here is a modification of the new Library of Congress system for Armenian, substituting x for the LOC's kh, for the thirteenth character of the Armenian alphabet (խ). Otherwise we follow the LOC transliteration, which eliminates diacritical marks above or below a character, and substitutes single or double quotation marks to the character's right. In the LOC romanization, the seventh character of the alphabet (է) appears as e', the eighth (ը) as e", the twenty-eighth (ռ) as r', and the thirty-eighth (o), as o'.

Robert Bedrosian
Long Branch, New Jersey 2004

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