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Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 07 March 2018
Aethelflaed (Anonymous)
Aethelflaed (r. 911-918 CE) was the daughter of King Alfred the Great of Wessex (r. 871-899 CE) and became queen of Mercia following the death of her husband Aethelred, Lord of the Mercians (r. 881-911 CE). She is best known as the “Lady of the Mercians” who defeated the Vikings and established English rule which would be consolidated by her brother Edward the Elder (r. 899-924 CE) and lay the foundation for the reign of the first recognized English king, Aethelstan, who was king of the Anglo-Saxons 924-927 CE and King of the English 927-939 CE.
Aethelstan is recognized by later historians as a pivotal figure in British history for his achievements in defeating the last of the Viking strongholds, centralizing the government, and establishing Britain as a potent force in European politics. It is unlikely, however, that he would have been able to accomplish what he did were it not for the influence of Aethelflaed of Mercia.
Her reign was so effective that she would eclipse those of contemporaries such as her brother Edward the Elder in Wessex and, in her own time, she seems to have been more widely respected than even her famous father. Aethelflaed continued the policies initiated by Alfred in accord with Aethelred but, after her husband’s death, ruled on her own as she orchestrated the policies and practices which resulted in diminishing the power of the Danes in Britain and allowed for unification of the land under Edward and later Aethelstan.



Nothing is known of Aethelflaed’s youth and she only enters the pages of history at the age of 15 or 16 when she was married to Aethelred. Her probable date of birth is 870 or 871 CE based on the approximate date of her marriage. Her name most likely means “overflowing with nobility” according to scholar Joanna Arman (32). “Aethel” means “noble” but the meaning of “flaed”, again according to Arman, is unclear but “could mean something like `flood’, or something flowing over.” (32). Her name has also been translated as “noble beauty”.
Aethelflaed’s mother was Ealhswith, a noblewoman of Mercia. Ealswith came from a long line of Mercian nobles just as Aethelflaed’s father, Alfred, was descended from the royalty of Wessex. Sources regularly cite Aethelflaed as Alfred’s oldest daughter but it is unknown whether she was also his oldest child. Her brother, Edward, appears to have been younger than she was.
There can be little doubt, however, that Alfred’s children were brought up in an atmosphere of piety, scholarship, and devotion to family and country which were all defining characteristics of the king. Arman notes how young women who dedicated themselves to the church and renounced the world were provided with a good education but that “there are allusions to all of Alfred’s five children, including his two daughters who did not go into the church, having enjoyed an education.” (74).
In the same way that her brother Edward was provided with a tutor, so too may Aethelflaed have been. It is apparent from her later rule and court life that she was highly educated and cultured. It is unlikely, however, that Alfred himself would have spent much time with his daughter as he was occupied throughout her childhood fending off Viking incursions into Wessex.
Statue of Aethelflaed

Statue of Aethelflaed

The Vikings had first appeared in Britain in 793 CE when they landed off Dorset and sacked the priory of Lindisfarne, slaughtering the monks and carrying off anything of value. From that time on, Britain was at the mercy of these raiders from the sea who struck without warning, slaughtered without discrimination, and plundered at will.
By the time Alfred was a prince and military commander, in c. 865 CE, these raids had transformed into full-scale invasions under the leadership of skilled warriors like Halfdane (865-877 CE) and his brother Ivar the Boneless (c. 870 CE). These two commanders led the massive invasion of the Great Army in 865 CE which proved itself invincible, defeating every force thrown against it, and conquering every region they entered.
Alfred and his brother, Aethelred of Wessex (r. 865–871 CE), met the Vikings in battle at Reading and were defeated but at The Battle of Ashdown in January of 871 CE their combined forces drove the Vikings from the field and proved Alfred’s skill in battle. His victory did nothing to halt the Viking incursions, however, and he was afterwards defeated and driven into hiding.



It is unknown whether Aethelflaed would have accompanied her father into exile. The sources - which only focus on the king and not on his family - only note that Alfred traveled in secret, and often disguised, with a small company of men. He was forced into this position by a Viking raid on Chippenham led by the Viking warlord Guthrum (died c. 890 CE) in 878 CE which caught him and his army completely by surprise. Alfred and his family were at Chippenham celebrating Christmas when the attack was launched and, since anyone who did not manage to escape was killed or enslaved, it is more than probable that Alfred took his family with him when he fled.
After a few months in hiding and conducting guerrilla raids on Viking settlements, Alfred was able to mobilize a sizeable force and defeated the Vikings under Guthrum at The Battle of Eddington in May 878 CE. This was the decisive engagement which gave Alfred the power to finally dictate terms to his opponents who, thus far into his reign, had consistently held the upper hand. Guthrum and thirty of his chieftains were baptized as Christians as part of the treaty and they swore not to raise arms against Wessex again.
Although the Vikings kept their word and stayed clear of Wessex, the treaty in no way stipulated that they had to leave Britain; and so they stayed and fortified previously established settlements in Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia. In 886 CE Alfred drove the Vikings from London and secured it and, shortly afterwards, arranged the marriage between his eldest daughter and the king of Mercia, Aethelred.


Although it is sometimes claimed that Aethelflaed’s marriage was arranged to secure an alliance between Wessex and Mercia, this is inaccurate. The two regions were already allied by the marriage of Alfred and Ealswith decades before and Aethelred had already accepted Alfred as his lord prior to 886 CE. A more accurate understanding of the marriage is that it was a display of unity which not only renewed each region’s commitment to the other but made a clear statement of strength to the Vikings.
Aethelred was at least ten years older than Aethelflaed and had probably been betrothed to her early on. He had accepted Alfred as his overlord as early as 883 CE following Alfred’s victory at Eddington. Aethelred is referred to as a great Christian warrior who fought against the heathen Vikings but there is no record of how he became king of Mercia. However it happened, he had control of the region by the 880’s CE and was a powerful warlord at the time of the marriage.
St Oswald's Priory, Gloucester

St Oswald's Priory, Gloucester

Aethelred and Aethelflaed began their reign from the city of Gloucester, not far from Wessex, and close to her family’s estates. Even though later romantic traditions would come to characterize their union as a loveless marriage of convenience, there is no evidence for this claim. They had one daughter, Aelfwynn, who is first named on a land charter in 903 CE but was not old enough to sign it as a legal witness. She may have been born shortly after the marriage but her birth date is unknown. William of Malmsbury, writing much later, claims that the birth of Aelfwynn almost killed Aethelflaed and she took measures to make sure she had no more children.


Aethelred and Aethelflaed worked in accord with Alfred of Wessex and mirrored his Burghal System of defense - in which fortified towns could easily be reinforced by others within a day's march - as well as his educational policies. Following Alfred’s lead, they invited men of learning from other countries to Mercia to teach their clerics Latin and further other educational goals. They also restored, improved, and rebuilt cities and towns which had been damaged or destroyed during the Viking Wars.
The peace Alfred had won from the Vikings at Eddington and then at London, however, were only temporary respites in the struggle between the people of Britain and the Norse invaders. Although the period afterwards was somewhat less stressful, Viking raids and difficulties between Viking settlers and others continued, and in 892 CE the situation worsened when a new host of Viking raiders arrived under the leadership of the Dane Hastein (also given as Haesten). Alfred and Aethelred fought repeated engagements against Hastein from 892 CE until Hastein disappears from history in 896 CE. He may have been killed in battle but it seems this would have been noted; most likely he either left Britain or died of natural causes.
King Alfred died in 899 CE and was succeeded by his son Edward. Edward sent his son, Aethelstan, to the Mercian court in 900 CE to be raised by Aethelred and Aethelflaed alongside their daughter. Aethelstan would remain in Mercia throughout his younger years, educated at the court with his cousin Aelfwynn, and would later gain military experience on campaigns with Aethelred and then with Aethelflaed.
England Around 910 CE

England Around 910 CE

The king and queen of Mercia were great patrons of the church and freely endowed different priories and churches with large sums of money. They sent a raiding party into hostile territory to retrieve the bones of St. Oswald – the pious king of Northumbria who had founded the priory of Lindisfarne – and built a priory to house them at Gloucester. They would both be interred in this building, close by the relics of the saint, after their deaths.
They were especially generous to the church at Worcester who, in return, agreed to pray for them and dedicate services or at least psalms to their honor and for their continued health. In spite of these prayers, around 902 CE, Aethelred was stricken with a disease which seems to have incapacitated him. It would worsen over the next few years and, during this time, Aethelflaed effectively ruled alone.


Sources from this period reference Aethelred’s illness and make clear that Aethelflaed was the defining power in Mercia. The most famous story comes from the Irish Annals and recounts how, in 907 CE, a Norwegian Viking named Ingimund came from Ireland with his troops to “Aethelflaed, Queen of the Saxons, for her husband Aethelred was sick at that time” asking for a place he could peacefully settle in (170).


She granted him lands near the city of Chester but, after he had settled his people there, he noticed there were even more attractive areas around what he had been given. He then complained to the neighboring Danes and other Norwegians that he had been given too little when he deserved so much more and initiated a plan to take Chester by force.
Aethelred is mentioned repeatedly throughout this story as being “sick”, “very sick” or “sick and on the verge of death” (171-173). Messengers arrived at the court to tell the queen about Ingimund’s plan and, even though Aethelred is cited as party to the response, it seems to have been Aethelflaed who prepared the battle plan that saved the city.
She first gathered a large army and then instructed the people of Chester on how to deploy the troops outside the city and fight with the gates open. Inside the city walls a much larger troop of cavalry would be stationed and, at a given point, the army outside should give way before the Vikings and retreat through the open gates where the troop of horse would be unleashed on the invaders.
At the same time, Aethelflaed wrote to the Irish who had allied themselves with Ingimund and appealed to them as friends who had been wronged by a common enemy. She asked them why they were fighting in the interests of those who had invaded their own country against her people who had never done them any wrong and further suggested the Irish chiefs should ask the Vikings what lands and goods were promised them for risking their lives in a cause not their own. Her letter was effective and, either just before or during the battle, the Irish switched sides.
The defense of Chester worked almost as Aethelflaed had planned. The defenders retreated and the cavalry massacred the Vikings who followed them. The attackers refused to give up, however, and the battle went on as the people of Chester defended the city by pouring boiling hot beer down on the Vikings from the walls. When the Vikings defended themselves with shields, the defenders hurled down the hives of honey bees while continuing to scald the Vikings with beer until the attack was called off and the city was saved.
Miniature of Aethelflaed

Miniature of Aethelflaed


Aethelred died in 911 CE with no male heir and Aethelflaed became sole ruler under the title “Lady of the Mercians”. In Asser’s Life of King Alfred (written c. 893 CE), the author goes on at length regarding the custom in Wessex of not allowing a woman to sit as queen alongside a king because of a former queen who abused her power and position. In Mercia, however, the queenship had long been respected even though no woman had ever ruled the kingdom alone before. It is to Aethelflaed’s credit that there is no record of any challenge to her succession.
Her brother Edward either took or received London and the surrounding lands from her shortly after Aethelred’s death and this transaction has been interpreted by some later historians as sealing a deal in which Edward recognized the legitimacy of Aethelflaed’s reign. Edward and Aethelflaed worked together afterwards to enlarge the burh system of both their regions and join them together for a tighter network of defense.
Arman notes how “they occasionally brought armies with them to clear their paths of any Vikings” (160). Edward’s burhs were constructed as a show of kingly authority and military strength while, according to Arman, Aethelflaed had a different focus:
Aethelflaed seems to have been asserting her lordship by ensuring her kingdom was well defended. Her new burhs were more than just defensive structures, however; they were also planned towns. Inside the walls of many burhs the streets were laid out neatly according to the old Roman pattern, with four main streets intersected north to south and east to west and smaller side streets veering off them. People were encouraged to settle, and the men who served in the garrison may have been given `burgage’ plots within the town where they could live with their families. (162)
Aethelflaed oversaw the construction of these burhs between 912-917 CE while also fighting off Viking attacks and attending to the business of governing Mercia. In 909 CE, Edward had launched an offensive into the Danelaw in which the soldiers sacked villages and slaughtered inhabitants for over a month. In retaliation, the Vikings struck back at Mercia.
In 916 CE, an abbot named Ecgberht was murdered along with his companions while possibly on a diplomatic mission from Mercia to Wales. Arman, citing the Anglo-SaxonChronicle, writes, “Aethelflaed’s response was swift, decisive, and ruthless. Within three days, we are told, she had raised an army and marched them into Wales.” (191).
In 917 CE she again took the field at the head of her troops in a campaign against the Danes of Derby and was victorious. The next year she marched on Leicester which surrendered without a fight and these victories convinced the Danes of York to submit to her rule peacefully. The leading men of York were preparing for a formal submission when Aethelflaed died at Tamworth, possibly of a stroke, on 12 June 918 CE.



Her daughter Aelfwynn succeeded her but only for a few months before she was deposed by Edward who claimed Mercia for Wessex and united the regions under his rule. Aelfwynn was brought to Wessex by Edward but what happened to her after that is unknown. The Mercians opposed domination by Wessex and it seems likely that Edward positioned his son Aethelstan – who by that point was more a prince of Mercia than Wessex – as a mediator at this time. When Edward died in 924 CE, his son by a second marriage, Aelfweard, succeeded him but died only 16 days later.
Aethelstan was proclaimed king by the Mercians and was then reluctantly accepted by the nobles of Wessex to become King of the Anglo-Saxons and, eventually, the first recognized king of the English people. Among his early achievements was completing the work Aethelflaed had begun by conquering the city of York and uniting England under a single ruler in 927 CE.
Aethelstan had grown up at the court of his aunt and uncle in Mercia. His education had been entirely their responsibility and, most likely, this fell more to Aethelflaed than her husband. Aethelstan’s great achievements in education, law, foreign policy, and building projects would all have been influenced by his early years in the court of Mercia.
Historians two centuries later would write of Aethelflaed as a great ruler, far more than they would of Edward or even Alfred the Great, and acknowledged her influence over the prince who became the greatest king of his age. These same historians, most notably William of Malmsbury, also recognize Aethelflaed’s significance in her own right as a woman who effectively ruled her kingdom during a time of crisis and left a lasting legacy for her people not only through her influence on her nephew but chiefly by her own accomplishments.

Oedipus at Colonus › Origins

Definition and Origins

by Donald L. Wasson
published on 08 March 2018
Oedipus at Colonus (Thomas Hawk)
Oedipus at Colonus was the third play of the Oedipustrilogy written by the great Greek tragedian Sophocles (c. 496 - c. 406 BCE). Although written in the years prior to his death, it would finally be presented by his son Iophon at a dramatic competition in 401 BCE. The play’s sequel Antigonewas actually written years earlier in 441 BCE. Oedipus at Colonus accounts for the final years of the fallen king, 20 years after his exile from Thebes. Blind, weak and dressed in rags, he accepted his fate and wandered from town to town as an outcast accompanied only by his young daughter Antigone. Arriving outside Athens at Colonus, he is befriended by the king of Athens, Theseus, who offers him protection. Oedipus speaks of a prophecy that says whatever city grants him sanctuary will be given special protection. Knowledge of this prophecy comes to the attention of Creon, his brother-in-law, and his son Polyneices who want to take advantage of the blinded king. Both had coldly refused him shelter in the past but now travel to Colonus to offer him sanctuary.


Along with Aeschylus and Euripides, Sophocles represents the greatest of the Greek playwrights. In the 4th and 5th centuries BCE, Greek tragedians performed their plays in outdoor theaters at various festivals and rituals in a series competitions. The purpose of these tragedies was to not only entertain but also to educate the Greek citizen, to explore a problem. Along with a chorus of singers to explain the action, there were actors often three (later four or more and always male) who wore masks and costumes. Although he was often considered a passionless observer of life, classicist Edith Hamilton in her book The Greek Way believed Sophocles was the embodiment of what we believe to be Greek. “He is direct, lucid, simple, reasonable. Excess - the word is not to be mentioned in his presence. Restraint is his as no other writer’s” (199).


Sophocles was born into a wealthy family in the small Athenian suburb of Colonus, the site of his play. He was active in Athenian public life serving as treasurer, general and envoy. Later, because he was so respected, he became a member of a group of magistrates given the task of organizing finances and domestic affairs after the disastrous defeat of Athens at Syracuse (412-411 BCE). Although active in Athenian political circles, his plays rarely contain any references to current events or issues, making the dating of his plays difficult. He had two sons (one by his wife and one by his mistress); Iophon and Ariston both became playwrights.



All three plays are based on an old myth which was quite familiar to the audience. In Oedipus the King, Oedipus fulfills a prophecy that foretold that he would murder his father and marry his mother. At Oedipus’ birth, his father, hoping to avoid his own fate, had his son taken away. Providence, however, interceded, and the young boy was raised by the king and queen of Corinth. Unfortunately, Oedipus learned of the prophecy and unknowingly believing it meant his adoptive parents, he left Corinth. On route to Thebes, he got into an altercation and killed a man who happened to have been the Theban king, his real father. Upon arriving in the city, he saved the people by solving the riddle of the Sphinx and was rewarded by marrying the now-widowed queen (his mother). Years later when the truth was finally revealed, the queen committed suicide and Oedipus blinded himself and went into exile. Although Sophocles chose to exile Oedipus, various authors have viewed the outcome differently; both Homer and Euripides have him remain in Thebes although relinquishing the throne. Now, in Sophocles’ final play the story continued as Oedipus realized that he was near death and decided to choose a final resting place.


Oedipus at Colonus has a rather small cast of central characters: Oedipus, his daughters Antigone and Ismene, Theseus, Creon, Polyneices, a stranger, a messenger, and, of course, the chorus. To many, the Oedipus in Oedipus at Colonus is not the same character as in Oedipus the King. Paul Roche in his translation of the Oedipus plays believed in Oedipus at Colonus the former king finally accedes to his fate and thereby rises to a restored sense of dignity, becoming a vehicle of divine justice. To Michael Grant in his The Classical Greeks, the storyline of Oedipus has been modified so that the former king does not sin but has been sinned against. Editor Moses Hadas in his book Greek Drama said that at the time of the play’s writing Athens was beginning its gradual decline, and Sophocles returned to the story of Oedipus as a farewell to both the city and the stage. Theseus is included in the play “to glorify Athenian traditions of justice and generosity…” (167).


The play begins at a grove in Colonus just outside Athens. As Antigone and Oedipus enter the grove, the former king turns to his daughter and says:
My daughter - daughter of the blind old man - where have we come to now, Antigone? What lands are these or holdings of what city? Who will be kind to Oedipus this evening and give alms to the wanderer? (145)
Recognizing the area as Athens, she describes the grove to her father and guides him to a large, flat rock. A lone stranger approaches from a distance and reprimands Oedipus for sitting on the rock, for it is considered to be holy, an area dedicated to the master horseman Colonus. He tells them that they must move and informs them that the land is governed by Theseus, son of Aegeus. Oedipus requests that the stranger go and seek Theseus, telling him that a little kindness will gain him much. After the stranger leaves, Oedipus turns to Antigone and says:
I have first bent my knees in this new land, therefore be mindful of me and of Apollo. For when he gave me oracles of evil, he also spoke of this, a resting place I should find home among the sacred Furies; that I might round out there my bitter life. (150)
He tells her that the place that accepts him will receive benefits but the ones that have driven him away will be cursed. After Antigone and Oedipus move away from the sacred rock, the chorus enters (they had been sent by the stranger) and, upon seeing the father and daughter, immediately asks the old king and daughter to come forward. They tell Oedipus to identify himself. Oedipus only replies that he is an exile and begs them not to ask anything more. After further questioning, he finally admits that he is the ruined Oedipus and adds that he is cursed. Their reaction is immediate: "Away with you? Out with you? Leave our country.” (156) Oedipus pleads with them to give him shelter. Antigone speaks on her father’s behalf asking them to have mercy on a beaten man. Understanding Oedipus’ plea, they decide to leave the matter in the hands of Theseus.
Theatre Masks

Theatre Masks

As they wait for Theseus' arrival, Ismene, Oedipus' second daughter, appears, bringing news from Thebes. Her brother Polyneices has been betrayed, stripped of his power and exiled, fleeing to Argos where he hopes to raise an army and return to conquer Thebes. With the problems brewing in Thebes, Ismene wonders how long it will be before the gods have pity on him. She speaks of a prophecy from the Delphi oracle that says “… you shall be much solicited by our people before your death - and after - for their welfare” (163). She adds that the gods that once threw him out will now sustain him. Over time Oedipus has realized that he had acted hastily and now understands that his punishment has been far greater than his crime. Ismene warns him that Creon is on his way to take him back to settle him near Thebes. Hearing the conversation between Ismene and Oedipus, the chorus leader speaks:
Oedipus, you are surely worth our pity: you, and your children, too. And since you claim also to be a savior of our land, I’d like to give you counsel for good luck. (167)
Soon after Ismene leaves, Theseus arrives at the grove and immediately recognizes Oedipus. He wonders what the old blinded king wants. Oedipus speaks of his sons and the family curse and how the Delphi oracle compels them to summon him. Realizing his plight, Oedipus asks only to remain in Athens.
I was expelled from my own land by my own sons, and now, as a parricide, my return is not allowed. [...] Here I shall prevail over those who banished me. (174, 176)
Theseus promises that he will not betray Oedipus and no one will be allowed to take him against his will. Soon after Theseus leaves, Creon approaches with a number of soldiers. He advances towards Oedipus, Antigone, and the chorus. He turns to Oedipus and asks him to come home:
I see from your eyes that my arrival has been a cause of sudden fear to you. Do not be fearful and say nothing hostile. I have not come for any hostile action. [...] I grieve for your unhappiness, old man. I see you ravaged as you are, a stranger everywhere, never at rest with only a girl to serve you in your need. (180-181)
He says that poor Antigone has been leading a beggar’s life, never knowing marriage; it is a disgrace. Of course, Oedipus does not believe him, calls him a rascal, and asks him to leave him and his daughter alone. However, Creon gives him a dire warning and informs him that he has already taken Ismene captive. His soldiers grab Antigone. The soldiers drag Antigone away, and as Creon grabs Oedipus, Theseus arrives with a small army of his own. He is told that Antigone and Ismene have been taken prisoner. Turning to Creon, he warns him:
You shall never leave this land of Attica until you produce those girls here in my presence. (190)
Creon responds saying he did not know Athens was a place for exiles. He claims that Oedipus had placed a curse on him and his people; it was an injury that deserved retaliation. Theseus tires of Creon’s excuses, and shortly after Theseus and Creon leave, the Athenian king returns with both Antigone and Ismene. Oedipus is elated:
I have what is dearest to me in the world to die now would not be so terrible since you are near me. (197)
However, his happiness is short-lived, for he received word that a man claiming to be a relative has been asking about him in Athens. Theseus said the man was found praying at the altar of Poseidon. Oedipus realizes that it must be his son Polyneices. Antigone begs his father to listen Polyneices, and Oedipus agrees. Polyneices arrives and addresses his father. He tells them that he is a fugitive, too. He was banished from Thebes and had found asylum in Argos, where he hopes to raise an army and return to Thebes. He asks for forgiveness and begs his father to come with him. He will defeat his brother and bring Oedipus home to Thebes. Oedipus rejects his offer and informs him that he will not defeat his brother. Polyneices will die by his brother’s hands, and his brother will die by his.
I abominate and disown you wretched scum. Go with this malediction I here pronounce for you that you will never master you native land by force of arms. (207)
As Polyneices departs, Oedipus and his daughters hear thunder. Oedipus realizes that the end is near and asks for Theseus in order to give him his blessing and fulfill his promise for Athens. The thunder is from Zeus, and it is a sign that it is time for him to die. Speaking to his daughters, he tells them that he will take only Theseus with him to the place where he will die, and adds that the Athenian king must not disclose it to anyone. Oedipus takes his daughters and Theseus to where the angel of death, Hermes, and Persephone lead him.
Greek Tragedy Mask

Greek Tragedy Mask

Shortly, a messenger arrives to speak to the chorus. Oedipus is dead. He tells of the old king’s final moments. With his daughters weeping, he told them they no longer had to bear the burden of caring for him, but he reminded them that they were not to witness his death. Theseus was the only one permitted to stay and see his final resting place. Later, when Theseus returned to a solemn Antigone and Ismene, they asked if they could see his final resting spot, but he said no. Antigone regrettably accepts her father’s last wishes and simply adds that she will return to Thebes with a hope to stop the war between her brothers.


As he approached his own death, Sophocles wrote the play as the long and unpopular war between Sparta and Athens was being fought and Spartan forces sat on the edge of the city. The play was a final homage to his city and beloved stage. In Oedipus at Colonus the blinded, fallen king dies. After 20 years as an outcast, Oedipus had arrived at Colonus with the hope that his odyssey was finally at an end. However, his death was not to be in vain. He was befriended by Theseus who was promised that Athens would receive special protection for having granted him sanctuary. Unfortunately, he learned that he was being pursued by his old nemesis Creon and his treacherous son Polyneices. In the end he and his daughters were saved, and he finally found the rest that he had sought. In Oedipus at Colonus, he came to realize that his suffering far exceeded his crime. He had acted in haste. Now, as he approached his death, he understood that he was not the victimizer but a victim. He was able to die with a restored sense of dignity.

Armenian Mythology › Origins

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 09 March 2018
Vahagn the Dragon Slayer (Chaojoker)
The mythology of ancient Armenia is a rich blend of indigenous traditions with imported ideas from neighbouring cultures and migrating peoples added over the centuries. The legends and stories helped to explain natural phenomena, provide an explanation of the nation’s origins, and commemorate key historical events such as wars and invasions.


The religion of Armenia’s first recorded state, Urartu, which was itself a confederation of smaller kingdoms, flourished principally in ancient Armenia from the 9th to 6th century BCE. The Urartu civilization was a unique mix of indigenous, Hurrian, and Mesopotamian gods and symbolism. The pantheon was headed by the trinity of Haldi (god of war), Teisheba (god of storms), and Shivini (the sun god), who were the principal beneficiaries of sacrifices and temples built in their honour. There were others, as attested by a 9th-century BCE inscription discovered in a niche in the mountains near the capital Tushpa (Van). The list, inscribed in duplicate, mentions 79 gods.
There are elements in Armenian mythology similar to the Vedic tradition of India and Egyptian ideas too, most clearly seen in Shivini, who was often represented as a kneeling man holding a winged solar disk, and therefore likely inspired by the Egyptian god of the same association, Ra. The close cultural relations between Urartu and Assyria are also illustrated by the Urartian application of the Assyrian ideograms for the gods Adad and Shamsh to their own gods Teisheba and Shivini respectively. The Tree of Life (in Armeniantsarrn kenats), another motif from Mesopotamian art, appears in various media, typically with a figure standing either side of it and making offerings. The Biblical tradition was another source of inspiration for ancient Armenians seeking to explain their surroundings and history.
As in many other ancient cultures, indigenous gods often represented such important elements or prominent natural features as water, earth, the sun, mountains, caves, and trees. Still other deities were related to ancient animalistic beliefs.


Over time the oral and ancient myths which wove together such diverse cultural threads were recorded in texts and perpetuated orally by lyre-playing bards (gusan) which were, in turn, preserved by even later writers. For example, a portion of an ancient poem recorded by the 5th-century CE historian Movses Khorenatsi describes the birth of the sun god Vahagn (who had replaced Shivini) from a reed in the sea. Unfortunately, though, and despite the best efforts of writers in Late Antiquity, without extended textual evidence from ancient Armenia itself and only an impoverished archaeological record, much of Armenian myth and religion still remains unknown or unexplained. There are small figurines from Urartian sites which are of uncertain significance, for example, of winged females, bird-men, scorpion-men and fish-men. As these hybrid creatures were frequently painted on storeroom interior walls, the most plausible explanation as to their purpose is as protective spirits, but we have no names and no certainty as to their real meaning and purpose. Below, then, are summaries of the most important ancient Armenian myths we know of today.


One of the unique contributions Movses made to Armenian history was his recounting of the foundation myth of the nation (some scholars might say ‘inventing’). This is the story of Hayk (Haik) and Bel and places the origins of the Armenian people as the descendants of the biblical Noah via his son Japheth. Hayk, a descendant of Japheth and noted archer (hence his later association with Orion), rebelled one day against Bel the evil and repressive Babylonian tyrant and returned back to his homeland around Mount Ararat in ancient Armenia, where it was thought Noah’s ark had come to rest at the end of the great flood. Bel followed Hayk and his relations so that a mighty battle followed in which Bel was killed. Hayk then gave his name to his descendants, the Hay people, and the name of the region of Armenia in the Armenian language, Hayasa. As with most legends, the grain of truth buried in the fiction is that the story of Hayk and Bel may commemorate the actual conflicts between Armenia (then Urartu) and Assyria, especially in the 8th century BCE. Bel, from the Assyrian baal meaning “lord”, represents the evil and oppressive empire of the Assyrians epitomised by such aggressive war-mongers as Tiglath-Pileser III (r. 745-727 BCE) and Sargon II (722-705 BCE) who both besieged Armenian cities.
View of Mount Ararat from Armenia

View of Mount Ararat from Armenia

The Hayk and Bel myth is much more than just a pleasant story from the country’s military past, as here explained by the political historian R. Pannosian:
In terms of popular perception this story is just as important in modern nationalist thinking as ‘objective’ history. The myth asserts that Armenians are direct descendants of Noah… The roots of the Armenian nation were thus established around Mount Ararat with Haik and his family. This story, taught to all primary students in Armenian schools around the world, has a number of powerful symbolic components. First, it makes Armenia the cradle of all civilizations since Noah’s Ark landed on the ‘Armenian’ mountain of Ararat. Second, it connects Armenians to the biblical narrative of human development. Third, it infuses a very important element of righteous rebellion against tyranny and oppression (of Babylon). Fourth, it situates freedom, independence and justice at the centre of the nation’s origins. And finally, it makes Mount Ararat the national symbol of all Armenians. (51)


Movses Khorenatsi recounts the legend of Shamiram, probably based on the Assyrian queen Semiramis (r. 811-806 BCE), another historical enemy of the Armenian people. One day Shamiram falls in love with the impossibly handsome Armenian king Ara but, being already married and a picture of moral virtue, he shows no interest in the queen and returns to his country. Shamiram’s army then follows Ara and, despite orders that no harm should come to the Armenian king, he is killed by a stray arrow. The distraught queen, having lost the object of her affections, then tries to find consolation in wandering the lands of Ara’s kingdom. Eventually, she decides to build a city near Lake Van where she will spend the summer months away from here home capital of Nineveh.
Once the splendid new city is finished, Shamiram takes the body of Ara back to her palace where it is kept at the top of a tower so that supernatural dogs (aralezk) might be called to lick him back to life. In one version the dogs perform their miracle and Ara lives once again, but in Movses’ version, unfortunately, the dogs never come and so Shamiram, to save face with her people now that the gods have forsaken her, is forced to parade a look-alike to the dead Ara.


The story of Shamiram and Ara is a typical contrast of an evil and immoral foreign ruler against one’s own virtuous sovereign and is very similar to the Greek myth of Adonis and the Babylonian Gilgamesh, both of whom reject a goddess’ advances with unfortunate consequences. Movses does not, however, paint Shamiram as all bad, for he does credit her with building the ancient Urartian canal of Artamet near Van amongst other architectural and engineering feats, perhaps in acknowledgement that these innovations were assimilated from outside Armenia.


Storms on Lake Van were thought to have been caused by the god Vahagn (the Iranian Verethraghna and broadly equivalent to the Greek Hercules) and vishaps, serpents who lived in water. Vahagn was also thought responsible for the Milky Way, known to the ancient Armenians as the “Trail of the Straw-Thief” after he stole kindling from Bel, the enemy of the Ara and Armenian people. The birth of Vahagn and his association with the Sun is here described in a poem preserved for posterity by Movses Khorenatsi:
In travail were heaven and earth,
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,
And out of the flame a youth ran!
Fiery hair had he,
Ay, too, he had flaming beard,
And his eyes, they were as suns!
(quoted in Kurkjian, 248)
The next parts of the song (now lost) described Vahagn as a fearless dragon-slayer, hence his other name of Vishabakah, literally translated as “dragon reaper”.
Vahagn’s consort was Astghik (aka Astlik), the goddess of beauty and love whose name means “little star” (translated from Beldi, the Syrian goddess). Associated with doves and roses, she had a festival dedicated to her at the beginning of summer. One story involving Astghik tells of her habit of bathing in a stream each night. On one occasion a group of local young men, eager to glimpse the naked goddess, lit a fire on a hill to see Astghik better. The goddess foiled the plan by causing a great mist to settle over the area which henceforth acquired the name “Plain of Mush” after the Armenian word mshoush, meaning mist.



Pokr Mithra (from the Iranian god of justice Mithra), also called Mihr, according to the oral tradition which is still recited today, is a god who was thought to dwell in a cave which will only open at the end of Time. Inside the cave, Little Mithra sits holding an orb of justice and is served by a raven while he awaits the coming of the Apocalypse. He was also associated with light and truth. The god has a portal carved into the rock face of the acropolis at Van named after him, the Gate of Mithra (Mheri durrn). Traditionally, offerings were made to the gods at such portals of which Van boasts many. It is possible that Mithraism was passed from Persia to the Roman world via legionaries fighting in ancient Armenia during the Parthian Wars of the 1st century CE.


Tork Angelea or Tork of Angel is a heroic figure based on Tarkhu, the weather god of Asia Minor. Once again, our source is Movses Khorenatsi, who records an oral legend of a man with great strength who can crush and split rocks before throwing large chunks at his enemies. The legend also tells of Tork scratching designs of eagles onto stone tablets using only his fingernails and throwing stones the size of hills at invading ships on the Black Sea. Perhaps based on an actual conflict in the ancient past, Movses provides the folk etymology of an-gel as “of ferocious men”, and it is interesting to note that the very name of Tarkhu means 'victor' or 'conqueror'. According to Movses, Tork was a descendant of Paskam, the grandson of Hayk.
This article was made possible with generous support from the National Association for Armenian Studies and Researchand the Knights of Vartan Fund for Armenian Studies.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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