A mysterious sculpture of an unknown deity was discovered in southeast Turkey, last year. The sculpture shows an enigmatic bearded deity rising from out the stalk of a plant. Scholars seem to be baffled about the identity of the deity and Live Science reported that “More than a dozen experts contacted by Live Science had no idea who the deity was.” The sculpture was discovered at the site of a 1st century B.C. temple inside a supporting wall of a medieval Christian monastery.
It is clear that this image concerns a supernatural being since it was found at the site of an ancient temple. Michael Blömer, an archaeologist at the University of Muenster in Germany, who is excavating the site said:
“It’s clearly a god, but at the moment it’s difficult to say who exactly it is, there are some elements reminiscent of ancient Near Eastern gods, as well, so it might be some very old god from before the Romans.”
Could this be an early image of the birth myth of the native Armenian deity Vahagn? Let us first examine the iconography in more detail.
Experts from the German University of Munster have created a 3D image of the stele showing it from different perspectives. See video bellow.
The relief depicts a bearded man rising up out of a giant reed-like plant while holding the stalk of another. The bottom of the relief shows images of a mountain/rock, a crescent moon, a rosette, two flanking stars or perhaps starfish, and something that appears to resemble a horn or a long seashell. The top of the relief was broken off but when it was complete it would have stood about the size of a human being.
Vahagn was a pre-Christian Armenian deity of courage, identified with the Greek Ares and Heracles. We know that Vahagn was often associated with such plants as reeds and straws in Armenian mythology. For example the Armenian legend recorded by the 4th century historian Movses Khorenatsi tells the tale of the creation of the milky way, which according to the legend was created by the pagan deity Vahagn who dropped stolen straws during his flight over the heavens. Because of this the Armenian name for the Milky way translates as the “Straw Thief’s Way”.
Yet another piece of striking similarity comes from the mythical song of Vahagns birth. Khorenatsi recounts an ancient song sung in the honor of Vahagn that tells of a myth of his birth. The song recalls how Vahagn was born out of a hollow of a stalk of a red reed. Interestingly, the song also recounts that Vahagn was a bearded man as he came forth out of the stalk of this plant:
Fiery hair had he,
Ay, too, he had flaming beard,
Which incidentally coincides with the image of the mysterious sculpture depicting a bearded deity emerging out of a stalk of a reed-like plant. The plant out of which Vahagn was born was created by the combined efforts of the heavens and the earth, the song tells us. As it starts with the following:
In travail were heaven and earth,
On the sculpture we can clearly see images that represent the heavens and the earth at the very bottom, out of which the stalk grows. This could very well represent the travail of the heavens and the earth giving birth to the reed out of which Vahagn came forth. (read the rest of the song HERE)
The stele also seems to depict elements of sea life; an elongated shell and starfish flanking the rosette and the moon. This too perfectly coincides with the legend of Vahagn’s birth as the legend further reads:
In travail, too, the purple sea!
The travail held in the sea the small red reed.
Through the hollow of the stalk came forth smoke,
Through the hollow of the stalk came forth flame,
According to experts it’s highly probable that the deity on the stele is a depiction of a local God, rather than a Roman deity. Gregory Woolf, a classicist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland said:
“He looks to me like he was somebody from a native, very local pantheon.”
Well, Vahagn is as local as it gets. The temple where the stele was found sits on a mountaintop near the modern town of Gaziantep, above the ancient city of Doliche, or modern Dülük. The area is one of the oldest continuously settled regions on Earth. It was inhabited by Armenians from times immemorial. Armenian Satraps and Kings such as Arsames I (260–228 BC), Xerxes of Armenia (228–201 BC) and Ptolemaeus of Commagene (201–130 BC) ruled the territory. And in the 1st century BC. (to which the stele is dated) during the rule of Tigranes the Great, the region was part of the Armenian kingdom.
Moreover, the 1st century BC king of Commagene Antiochus I Theos, who was a member of the Armenian royal family himself, immortalized several large statues of deities including the statue of Vahagn, recorded with his Greek variant ‘Artagnes’ which is the Hellenistic form of the Avestan ‘Verethragna’ and the Armenian ‘Vahagn’, at the famous mount Nemrut.
Thus, it is safe to say that the deity Vahagn was no stranger to the region or the period in which the sculpture was created. Perhaps most recently the region was part of the last Armenian kingdom of Cillicia during the late High Middle Ages. It held a large Armenian population up until the Armenian Genocide of 1915.
Another interesting observation connects the pagan sculpture to the later Armenian Christian iconography. We can see on the stele a rosette at the bottom from which life seems to spring forth with vegetation and the deity himself rising from the radiant symbol. Very reminiscent of the distinctive Armenian cross-stone art that depicts a nearly identical scene, only the deity is replaced with the cross. It is noteworthy because such iconography is uniquely Armenian and is even inscribed in the representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO with the following description:
“Khachkars are outdoor steles carved from stone by craftspeople in Armenia and communities in the Armenian diaspora. They act as a focal point for worship, as memorial stones and as relics facilitating communication between the secular and divine. Khachkars reach 1.5 metres in height, and have an ornamentally carved cross in the middle, resting on the symbol of a sun or wheel of eternity, accompanied by vegetative-geometric motifs, carvings of saints and animals.”
Perhaps this is a testimony to a continual cultural link to a more distant pagan past that seems to be absent in other Christian communities. (For more example see HERE)
Regardless of the last comparison, it seems that indeed the sculpture of the unknown deity is probably a depiction of Vahagn’s birth from the Armenian pre-Christian pantheon.