Pre-Christian Healers in a Christian Society
Armenia, an independent republic formerly within the Soviet Union, was the world’s first country to adopt Christianity as its national religion in 301 A.D. Consequently, one might assume that few traces remain of pre-Christian ways—and then only in remote villages and ancient monasteries lost in the mountains. A closer examination, however, dispels this stereotypical view. In spring 2002, during fieldwork in the Kotayk region of Armenia, I participated in a feast in the ruins of a monastery devoted to the local saints Poghos and Petros. A middle-aged woman with a mentally disabled boy of about 16 sat just in front of the door of a chapel. I later learned that the woman, Vardanush, was a healer and diviner in the region. She attracted my attention when pilgrims approached her with a request to bless a sacrificial rooster, a ritual usually performed only by a priest. Though she had no salt (blessed salt is normally put in the animal’s mouth before slaughtering) she put her hand on the cock’s head and pronounced: “God bless this sacrifice, let it be accepted, let your wishes come true.”
During local feasts, pagan rituals thrive, the blood of sacrificial animals and birds is shed, the zurna (a traditional wind instrument) cries out, and rope-walkers in their multi-colored costumes dance just as their medieval colleagues once did, as depicted in ancient Armenian manuscripts. Pre-Christian traditions are also found among contemporary ritual specialists who engage in healing and divinatory practices involving “pouring wax/lead,” “turning a sieve,” “throwing beans,” and “measuring fright.” Most of these practices are described in medieval Armenian sources as components of a pre-Christian shamanistic ritual of healers who were known as kakhards. (Antonian, 2002) Kakhards’ practices contained many elements of classic shamanism. They suffered from shamanistic diseases, traveled or flew to the world of spirits on vessels, and fell into “ecstasy” or an altered state of consciousness (ASC) during the healing ritual, as described by fifth-century author Yeznik Koghbatsi: “Kakhard must be possessed by spirits before he starts healing other people.” The word kakhard lost its ancient meaning—healers and diviners are now mostly called nayogh, “people who are looking”—but it is still used in contemporary Armenian in a pejorative way, meaning “sorcerer.”
Kakhard Selection and Initiation
Vardanush was bestowed with healing abilities while dreaming after suffering from a drawn-out illness. She said she fell sick because she refused to accept the bestowal of special powers. She was familiar with the difficulties of her “mission” because her grandmother was also a hereditary healer and diviner. The process of empowerment of a person with healing skills and abilities often takes place in dreams, and many healers and diviners willingly tell people about their dreams, especially their initiatory dreams, to convince people that they received abilities from saints. Practitioners’ fantastic stories about how they received their skills have similar content and motives. The dream establishes contact with the “other” world, the world of spirits. In dreams, future healers often find themselves in strange places, symbolically indicating the beyond. In an overwhelming number of cases the main action takes place either on a mountain or on a water surface such as a sea or lake.
These themes are illustrated in the dream of Tsaghik Airian, a woman-healer from Karabagh who now lives in one of Yerevan’s suburbs. Tsaghik saw herself moving on a bridge. At the other end of the bridge she was met by an old white man who accompanied her to a palace on a sacred mountain. Tsaghik was struck by the number of treasures that were gathered there. The man suggested she pick something up. She liked a carpet, but the old man took it out from her hands and instead gave her a shabby shawl with a patch in the center. The patch symbolized the navel and it meant that Tsaghik would receive or acquire the ability to cure gynecological diseases.
Varsik, another healer, said that in her initiatory dream she climbed Golgotha, the mountain where Christ was crucified, in an attempt to reach the crucified Christ. Drops of His sacred blood fell down into Varsik’s eyes, making her blind. The nails that fixed Christ to the Cross pierced her breast. Christ then opened her breast, took out the heart and replaced it with his own. Thus she acquired healing and divining abilities—she cures problems in the nervous system, skin conditions, and other diseases.
Details of Varsik’s dream illustrate the components of classical shamanistic initiation when neophytes are blinded or dismembered in order to get new sight or insight and a new powerful body. Dreams of blindness are connected with a perception that, in receiving supernatural skills, shamans can lose their eyesight. (Vitebsky) Blindness, as a component of the “passing period” to becoming a healer, is often mentioned in healers’ stories. Varsik, Lusine, and many others remained blind for some period until they started their healing practice.
The dreams of contemporary healers often display mountains, a widespread mythological symbol of the center of the world. (Eliade) A sacred mountain is a location where shamanistic skills and abilities are delivered to a future healer after they have passed a test. Another ancient symbol of the beyond, represented in a series of dreams of healers and diviners, is a mythic “endless” and “bottomless” sea or a lake widely encountered in Armenian folklore. (Harutyunyan) Before she was awarded divination and healing skills, healer Knarik was required to go through Sevan lake by following a narrow stony path that emerged in waves. Diviner-healer Alvard walked on the surface of the sea in her initiatory dream.
In most cases, initiatory trials are preceded by a period of physical, mental, or emotional suffering—the so-called “shamanistic disease” that occurs when future shamans refuse to follow their calling. All of the healers and community members I spoke to agree that the healer’s and diviner’s mission is severe, full of responsibility, self-denial, and even hard physical suffering. No one would choose this path voluntarily. But no one can resist the “saints.”
The period for “becoming a healer” is filled with drama and often occurs at times when critical changes are taking place in the lives of future shamans. For many women healers, a major life change occurs just after they have married and moved into their husband’s village or apartment. Such change of social status is often accompanied by the sudden acquisition of mystic abilities, and may even provoke it. Death or disease also severely impacts the future healer, particularly when it strikes parents, a husband, or children. Varsik started “looking” (a term signifying the process of divining and healing) after she lost her father. A woman in another village recalled that her own grandmother had become a healer after her child was kidnapped. Alvard had her initiatory dream while sitting on the deathbed of her small daughter. The healer Karine finally decided to accept her “bestowal” after successive illnesses and accidents happened to her three children. She was inclined to interpret this dramatic period of her life as a punishment inflicted by saints for her reluctance to follow their requirements.
The period of physical, mental, and emotional disorder ends when the person selected by the saints agrees to follow. Healers are bestowed with specific rituals, secret magic means, and personal prayers. The latter is taught by saints in the initiatory dream and should be kept secret so it will not lose its magic force. As a rule, “professional secrets” are not inherited, except for medicinal recipes in cases where family members have prepared herbal drugs across generations.
Many Armenian healers receive patients in a separate location from their house if they live in a rural area. The locations are rectangular structures with an interior ensuring the sacredness of the place. Those who cannot afford the separate construction or who live in a city make use of the most remote or isolated part of their house or apartment, where people do not live. Armenians believe that in such places spirits and devils find shelter. Inside walls are covered with images of saints (srbi nkar), which are often reproductions of famous paintings by Leonardo, Rafael, and others representing Biblical stories and personages. Also placed on a table are a Bible, mystic books, talismen and amulets, and other tools of magico-religious practice. Healers prefer meeting tete-a-tete with a patient and the presence of other people is usually prohibited. I did, however, have several chances to witness the ritual, including a case when the patient was unable to attend and his mother instead brought his shirt to represent him.
Vardanush’s mode of healing is touching a patient with her hands and fingers or making passes in the air. The ritual is accompanied by whispering prayers passed to her by saints in an initiatory dream. Vardanush said she often flies with saints in the air, communicates with them, and receives advice and support. Dreams are her main mode of communication with saints, as they are to a majority of Armenian magico-religious practitioners.
Bavakan lives in one of the most remote mountain villages of Armenia. In healing, she seats her patient, puts her hand on his head and whispers: “Ter Astvats, Astvatsatsin Mariam [God, Virgin Mary].” Her whispering gets faster and the words are barely understandable. Bavakan ends the prayer with unnaturally long and deep yawning, after which she remains frozen for some time. Yawning is one of the most widely known symptoms of the impending ASC. For Armenian healers, it is a sign of the establishment of contact with spirits, saints, or other supernatural creatures. As soon as she comes to herself, Bavakan crosses the patient three times, then pours a spoon of melted wax into a bowl of cold water. When the wax plate hardens, she takes it out and starts her divination. She says what or who is the cause of disease (or misfortune), why it happened, and what to do in order to eliminate it. At the same time, the ritual is empowered to exorcise the disease, “fright.” Fright is a sickness expressed via severe headaches, depression, insomnia, or mental or emotional disorders, and is caused by sorcery on the part of animal- or man-shaped spirits. For example, the healer may say, “You are frightened by a dog or a dead man, or an ‘evil eye.’” Each diviner-healer possesses his or her own version of the healing ritual. Some include a demonstration of tricks and the preparation of amulets. The healer Siran from the village of Masis opens locks at a distance to destroy the evil forces and “open” one’s luck. She also prepares amulets from garlic, a piece of green fabric, and needles.
Some healers do not practice ASC, while others demonstrate clear signs of an ASC or even possession. Geghanoush, a healer from a region of Vayots Dzor, said she does not start her séance until she has been “contacted” by her saints while in deep silence, sitting before a lighted candle. In some difficult cases, instead of experiencing a light trance she is possessed by spirits and has heavy attacks similar to epilepsy. Varsik said she experiences visions regarding the patient’s state, diagnosis, and outcome of the disease while in an ASC. She said she sees everything in vegetal and animalistic images.
Finding a diagnosis and a reason for the disease is the main and the most important part of the healing process. Some divination rituals like pouring wax or lead have a healing effect as its components symbolically find and remove the disease. Bashkir shamans also pour wax as the main component of their séance. A lump of wax snatched away from the water symbolizes the soul of a patient stolen by the spirits and saved by the shaman. (Khisamitdinova) Other healing methods include magic acts aimed at destruction of sorcery and manual therapy accompanied by the use of traditional herbal drugs or magic means. Siran confessed that she can reveal and manipulate 28 veins and thus heal many diseases. Varsik uses her own saliva to heal some skin diseases. At the final stage, the patient is often sent to make a sacrifice to the saint found to be the culprit of the disease. As a rule, healers-diviners have good knowledge of all sacred places in the vicinity and visit them from time to time to keep in touch with saints.
Transformations of the Kakhards
Seventeen centuries of Christianity have brought many changes to these ancient healing rituals. According to medieval laws, divination was subject to less punishment than core shamanic healing and, as a consequence, the divinatory component predominated and acquired a healing aspect, which it still has today. Armenian coffee-ground divination, comparatively new to Armenians, is already in some cases perceived as a healing act by both healers and their clients.
Over the centuries, important components of kakhards’ practices, such as falling into long and deep ASC and traveling to the world of spirits on a vessel, almost disappeared. Traditionally, women kakhards could practice healing and divining in Armenian society more easily because official pressure from the Christian church and then the Soviets was slack. Later, under the pressure of Christian church officials, a campaign of persecution began against traditional magico-religious practitioners. Male kakhards were gradually forced to accept other ways of displaying their healing abilities, and often joined mystical branches of the Christian church, like the hermitage. Reports in Armenian biographies1 claim that hermits possess healing abilities. At the end of the 19th century some hermits still existed, and they were widely known as sorcerers and healers. Today, the number of male practitioners is limited.
The official ideology of the Soviet regime considered healers and fortunetellers anachronistic and believed that they would soon disappear. But healing traditions have been revitalized since Armenia regained independence. Unlike countries in which an outburst of shamanistic expression has been associated with national, cultural, and religious revival, the animation of this tradition in Armenia is a spontaneous reaction to stresses that Armenian society has experienced since the early 1990s when war, blockades, and economic crises affected the country. Healers have grown in number, are younger, and their clientele has grown. The gender breakdown of patients and clients has also changed; the number of men resorting to healers and diviners has increased due to the collapse of ideological barriers and increasing stresses and depression. Some theories state that periods of crisis impact the growth and energetic potential of a society and engender a strong need for ancient rehabilitation mechanisms such as shamanism or similar practices. (Kharitonova) This theory seems to hold in the case of Armenia, the world’s oldest Christian culture, where many components of traditional shamanistic practices are alive and flourishing.
1. Memorials of Armenian Hagiography, 1994 & 1998.
Yulia Antonian (email@example.com) is a doctoral student at Yerevan State University, Armenia. Her major interests are in traditional magico-religious practices, beliefs, and symbolism.
References and further reading
Antonyan, Y. (2002). On some key transformation of Armenian healing traditions. Etnograficheskoe obozrenie (Ethnographic review) Vol. 5, pp 48-61.
Avgeryan, M. (1810-1815). Complete collection of Armenian hagiography. Venice, Italy: Monastery of Saint-Lazar.
Eliade, M. (1998). The Myth of Eternal Return. Saint-Petersburg, Russia: Aleteiia. Pp 30-31. (in Russian)
Harutyunyan, S. (2001). Armenian Mythology. Hamazgain. P 9.
Kharitonova V. (1999). Spelling-conjuring art of the East Slavs: Problems of traditional interpretations and possibilities of modern research. Moscow, Russia: Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of Russian Academy of Sciences. P 53.
Khisamitdinova, F. (1996). Bashkir concepts of soul. In Shaman, Vol. 4, Nos. 1-2. Szeged, Hungary: Molnar & Kelemen Oriental Publishers. Pp 109-113.
Yeznik, K. (1994). Refutation of Heresies. Yerevan, Armenia: Yerevan State University. P 72. (in Ancient Armenian)
Memorials of Armenian Hagiography, Issue 1. (1994). Yerevan, Armenia: Nairi.
Memorials of Armenian Hagiography, Issue 2. (1998). Yerevan, Armenia. Nairi. Vitebsky, P. (1995). The Shaman: An Illustrated Guide (Living Wisdom). Boston: Little, Brown and Company. P 19.