Zoroastrian dakhmeh, “tower of silence” near to Yazd in Central Iran
Plato in his dialogues often gives a myth in the mouth of some of his speakers. Sometimes one of the well known Greek myths, but much more often some intricate story of faraway origin that obviously proclaims of either having been composed by himself, or having been thoroughly transformed to his own taste. The purpose of these myths, as Catalin Partenie writes in her selection made in 2004 for the Oxford World’s Classic series, was on one hand to adjust historical, philosophical, political or scientific concepts of large breadth to the genre of storytelling customary in banquets and to present them as sanctioned by the authority of tradition, and on the other hand to expound some truth in an indirect and hidden way, and thus stimulating further thought, just like parables do. The best known one is of course the legend of Atlantis in the Timaeus that Plato pretends to derive from Egypt, but here belongs also the story of the androgynes cut in two halves, or that of the ring of Gyges in The Republic that made his owner invisible and which has also served as an inspiration for Tolkien.
In The Republic Socrates also narrates the vision of Er of Pamphylia who dies in a battle, but then revives on the funeral pyre and tells of his journey in the afterlife, of the souls who, according to their actions while in life, descend for a thousand years of punishment under the earth or for the same amount of pleasures to the sky, and then by choosing themselves new forms of life return to the earth again.
To me the most interesting detail in this story has always been the name of the protagonist, archetype of Aeneas of Dante. This name – in contrast to all the other Platonic myths – does not sound Greek at all. As if Plato, contrary to his custom, conserved here a foreign – Pamphylian? – name that can in fact hint to the foreign origins of this myth.
The commentaries obviously slide over this name, or if they don’t, then they fabricate a whole series of gratuitous Greek etymologies eclipsing even those by Heidegger and Isidore of Seville, like for example Bernard Suzanne does:
The name of Er (èr, contracted form of ear) means “spring” (the season). But this name, whose only mention, at 614b, is the genitive form èros, evokes much more than that. It looks like the masculine form of Hera, the name of Zeus’ wife, except for the smooth breathing replacing the rough one. And if we look at what Plato has to say about the etymology of Hera in the Cratylus (404b-c), we see that he associates it with love (eros) through the adjective “lovable (eratè)”, but also with air (aer), which, applied to Er, opposes him to Gyges the earthling : hope is not in our material, earthly nature, but in our celestial, godly power of thought and understanding, and in the power of love that sets it on the move. Panphulos, the name of Er’s tribe, means “of all tribes or races”. Shorey suggests in a note that he might as well have translated “to genos Pamphulou” by “of the tribe of Everyman”. And while we are at names, the name of Er’s father, Armenius (tou Armeniou) is a close call for Harmony (armonia), a concept dear to Plato and central to the whole Republic, as well as to the myth of Er, with the “harmony of the Sirens” mentioned at its center (617c).
Reading the 5th-century History of Armenia by the first Armenian historiographer Movses Khorenatsi, in chapter I, 15 I find the story of the Armenian king Ara and the Assyrian queen Semiramis. Ara, son of Aram was an extraordinarily beautiful man, and the queen desired him to be either her husband or her lover. She sent several embassies to him with gifts, supplications, flattery and menaces, but all in vain: Ara remained faithful to his wife. Thus Semiramis finally went with her army upon him. They clashed under the mountain that received its name Ararat from Ara, and although the queen commanded the king to be brought to her alive, he fought heroically and remained dead on the battlefield. The queen had his corpse brought to her, and – a surprising turn – had it placed on the roof of her palace. When she was asked for the reason, she answered: “I have ordered my gods to lick his wounds, and he will be restored to life.” However, as the dead fails to resurrect and begins to decompose, she commands it to be cast in a ditch, while she has dressed up one of her paramours similar to Ara in Armenian clothes and presents him to the court like this: “The gods licked Ara and brought him back to life, fulfilling our wish and pleasure. Therefore from now on they are all the more to be worshiped and honoured by us, as they fulfill our pleasures and accomplish our desires.”
Our way across Lake Van from Tatvan to Van, on the way from Istambul to Iran. The environments of Lake Van were the cradle of Armenian civilization, the central region of “Greater Armenia”
It is observed that when Christian chroniclers mention such impostures in the pagan stories quoted by them, then they are usually “rationalizing” miraculous legends, disputing the power of the pagan gods to work miracles, for this is obviously a prerogative of God. It looks like Khorenatsi did the same with the story of Ara and Semiramis. For in the Armenian mythology collected from folk tradition, Ara was in fact “licked to life” by the divine dogs, the aralezks (whose Armenian name also means “Ara-lickers”), and he thus returned from the afterlife.
I think that there are too many common elements in the stories of Ara and Er to be independent from each other. Apart from their similar names, there is the name of Ara’s father ‘Aram’ which in Greek recalls the ethnonym ‘Aramaic’, thus Platon logically could have changed it for the ethnonym Armenios, ‘Armenian’ which fits better to the origin of the story – or perhaps he converted an original attribute ho armenios, ‘the Armenian’ into tou Armeniou, ‘(son) of Armenios’. Pamphylia was an existing region in southern Anatolia, in the direction of Greater Armenia when seen from Athens, especially if we consider that the sailor nation of the Greek looked with repugnance on the countries in the interior of the continents – a good example for this is the Anabasis of Xenophon marching across this same Armenian region – and they might have hinted to them like lying somewhere, anywhere behind the seashore region nearest to it. And finally the fate of the protagonist dying in a battle to then resurrect and bring news from the afterlife makes it almost impossible that it was not this very story which was heard by Plato and rearranged for his own purpose.
If it were only this much, it would be already interesting enough. However, there is another twist in the story. The corpse put on the roof, the aralezks “licking it to life”, and even the decomposed body cast into a ditch evoke the Zoroastrian funeral ritual, as it was described by another Greek source, the History of Herodotus (I, 140) like this:
What follows is reported about their dead as a secret mystery and not with clearness, namely that the body of a Persian man is not buried until it has been torn by a bird or a dog. The Magians [= the Zoroastrian priests] I know for a certainty have this practice, for they do it openly.
In the Zoroastrian religion, neither earth nor fire can be contaminated with dead corpses. Instead, they put them on “towers of silence” (in Persian dakhmeh) built on high places outside of the towns, and later they place the bones cleaned by predatory birds and sunshine in ossaries. In modern Iran still there is one such tower near to Yazd, the city of the greatest Zoroastrian community that we have also seen. And as the renowned scholar of pre-Christian Armenian culture James Russell explains in his Zoroastrianism in Armenia (1987), this religion became dominant in Armenia after its conversion into a Persian province. And near to the Armenian town where, according to Armenian mythology, the corpse of Ara was licked to life by aralezks, and which thereafter was thus called Lezk or Aralezk, on an altitude there stood a similar Zoroastrian shrine. After the conversion of Armenia to Christian religion – first among all countries, in 303 – it was converted into a church in honor of the dying and resurrecting Saviour.
I wanted to know where Lezk is and how it is called today, but in vain. The name of this locality can be found on the web only in the relations of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. And where the map of 1914 of Van vilayet, published in the history of Van by Hovannisian, shows it – about ten kilometers to the north of Van city – there in the modern map of Turkey no locality can be found. It is possible that it was deserted in 1915 together with several other hundreds of Armenian settlements.
However, this story has one more twist in store. In fact, the scholars of Armenian mythology compare the story of Ara and Semiramis to the most important metaphor of dying and resurrecting nature, celebrated year by year from Mesopotamia through Syria and Greece to Egypt: to the story of a goddess and her lover – Inanna and Dumuzi, Ishtar and Tammuz, Cybele and Addis, Venus and Adonis –, so beautifully evoked by Thomas Mann, where the young man is wounded to death by some infernal power, but his divine lover resurrects him, and she even manages to obtain the right to spend half of the year with him in the sunshine, so that he must spend only the other half down in the other world – usually with the infernal rival of the goddess. It is not by chance that Khorenatsi also narrates in the following chapter that Semiramis, „as she liked the region very much”, had also a castle built near to Van on a cliff, so that she could spend a part of the year – the summer – there, and go back to Ninive only for the winter. This castle, albeit ruined, still stands, and its strange position made it a favorite topic for the engravings of those few 19th-century Western travelers arriving this far away.
The name of Tammuz and Ara were connected not only by erudite mythographers, but also by Armenian folk tradition, and one of their most popular dances bears the name of “Tamzara”, Tammúz-Ara. Since 1915 this dance has not been performed in Eastern Anatolia, but the Anatolian Armenians of the diaspora have preserved it together with the rest of their traditions. In the video below it is performed by the Armenian Folk Dance Society of New York. Even if it has no lyrics, there is enough history behind it so that we can include it in our “history sung” thread as well. We wish the violent death of this culture was also followed by a resurrection.