Martyrdom and the reverence for martyrs, perhaps more than any other aspect of Christianity, is difficult for the contemporary mind to contemplate. The fact of martyrdom itself is comprehensible: bravery in the face of death, conviction that renouncing Jesus Christ, Christianity, and the Armenian Church is worse than death itself, and the purity of faith expressed by the martyrs is something we can make sense of and even find commendable. Yet the emphasis on the suffering and pain in the hagiographies—biographies of saints—of the martyrs or in pictorial depictions can strike us in the twenty-first century as excessive or even gruesome. Often, we leave aside the martyrs in favor of “easier” saints such as the great Catholicoses like St. Nersess Shnorhali or important theologians like St. Gregory of Datev. We read the Teaching of St. Gregory and know that St. Gregory the Illuminator suffered in Khor Virap, the “Deep Pit,” but we rarely look to the detailed account of his torture in Agathangelos’ text. As a confessor, someone who suffered for Christianity but was not martyred, St. Gregory the Enlightener’s torture and pain is central to Agathangelos’ account. The Armenian Christian tradition is replete with saints who suffered and died in the name of Jesus Christ. Indeed, from Christ Himself as the first as ultimate martyr to the most recently canonized saints of the Armenian Church, the martyrs of the 1915 Genocide, the theme of martyrdom runs as a constant thread through Armenian Christian history.
This week, the Armenian Apostolic Church commemorates two sets of important early martyrs, the group of martyred saints known as the Sukiasank and the Voskiank. We commemorate them on the same week, the first on Tuesday and the second on Thursday, because their stories are connected. We also remember them together every week in the full litanies before the Lord’s prayer. These early martyrs, who lived and died before St. Gregory and Armenia’s conversion to Christianity, have been incredible sources of strength and inspiration for Armenian Christians throughout the centuries. Today, a lively group of clergy and laymen inspired by these saints call themselves “The Fellowship of St. Voski,” demonstrating the continued strength and inspiration such martyrs offer.
So, who are these saints? Sources like the Haysamavurk (Յայսմաւուրք)¸ the Armenian Synaxarion, a collection of daily readings of the lives of the saints, tell us that the Voskiank were five imperial delegates of the Roman Empire sent from Rome to the Armenian King Sanatruk in the second half of the first century A.D. The leader of the five delegates was named Chrysos, which translates into Armenian as ոսկի, voski/vosgi, that is, “gold.” The group became known collectively as the Voskiank after their leader. When they arrived in Armenia, the Voskiank met the Apostle Thaddeus, who was preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Armenia. Listening to his preaching, they accepted Jesus Christ and were baptized as Christians by St. Thaddeus. St. Thaddeus ordained Voski a priest after some time, and St. Voski and his companions were strengthened in the faith of Jesus Christ. After the martyrdom of St. Thaddeus, they withdrew to the mountains near a branch of the Euphrates River and lived the life of holy hermits. After forty years of living the life of hermits, through divine suggestion they left the mountains to preach the Gospel to King Ardashes and Queen Satenig of Armenia. While the king and queen were unmoved, the preaching of the Voskiank at the court did find fertile ground.
It is here that the stories of the two sets of saints intersect. Among those at the Armenian court were nineteen courtiers of Queen Satenig from the group of people known as the Alan. Some of the early Armenian historical sources discussed recently, including Movses Khorenatsi, give further details about both Queen Satenig and the Alan people, who had migrated from further north to the Caucuses near the Kingdom of Armenia. Satenig herself is described as “the Alan princess,” thus she brought these nineteen Alan courtiers with her in her marriage to the King of Armenia. It was these nineteen, whose leader was named Sukias (hence, Sukiasank), who were moved by the preaching of the Voskiank and who followed them back to the mountains and were baptized in the Euphrates river.
Of course, when the king and queen learned that nineteen of their courtiers had fled the court, they sent a military contingent after them. When the Sukiasank refused to renounce Christianity and return to the court, the soldiers, being under instruction to bring them back alive, took their anger out on the Voskiank hermits, and killed them there. This makes the Voskiank, after the apostles who preached in Armenia, the first martyrs directly related to Armenia. The Sukiasank, still refusing to return to the court, first buried the Voskiank, then withdrew to a different mountainous area in the region of Bagrevand. There, they practiced a rigorous ascetism and lived as hermits. Years later, a group of Alan soldiers found the Sukiasank in the mountains. Shocked at finding compatriots, the soldiers demanded the Sukiasank renounce their faith and return to the Kingdom of Alan. When they refused, the soldiers first tortured and then beheaded the Sukiasank.
|History of the Armenians||Attributed to Agathangelos, this history of St. Gregory the Illuminator and the conversion of Armenian has the classical Armenian facing and an English translation by Robert Thomson. It details the tortures and trials of St. Gregory before the conversion of King Drtad.|
|From Victims to Victors: The Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide||A pamphlet by our Primate, the V. Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan, on the occasion of the 2015 canonization of the martyrs of the Armenian Genocide. It includes a general discussion of martyrdom and of the theological significance of canonizing those who died in the Armenian Genocide.|
|The Fellowship of St. Voski||The website of “The Fellowship of St. Voski,” a contemporary group of clergy and faithful inspired by the spirit of St. Voski and his companions. Their magazine, The Treasury, available through the website, is an incredible source of inspiration and theological thinking, including on martyrs and martyrdom!|
While much of this information about these holy martyrs comes from the Haysumavurk or the historical works, there is another major source for the lives of these martyrs, and for many other saints. This source is the rich treasure of liturgical songs and hymns, specifically the genre of շարական, sharagan. Previously, we have discussed sharagans as sources for theological thinking, as commentaries on psalms and other parts of scripture. Today, we can emphasize another way sharagans are a source for the Armenian Christian tradition, namely, through providing information about the lives of saints. As we have discussed, every day in the Armenian Apostolic Church takes on one of three characters, as a dominical, fasting, or saint day. On days given over to the commemoration of the saints, the sharagans reflect this. Sometimes, the text of the hymns is rather generic. There are, for instance, hymns for “categories” of saints, such as martyrs or hermits.
However, for many saints, especially well-known or especially revered saints, the sharagans for the day are specific to those saints. Often, what is known as a full canon of hymns is written for saints. This means that a set of sharagans, one for each of the kinds or genres of sharagans, is written and placed together in the Sharagan book (also called a Sharagnotz). Throughout a liturgical day, there are sharagans sung during different services and at different times. Most commonly, we hear the Jashu Sharagan during Badarak on Sundays. If you arrive earlier for Morning Service at a parish where the Night or Morning Service is sung, you might hear the Orhnutyun, Hartz, Kordzk, Medzatsustse, Voghormya, Der Hergnitz, or Mangunk sharagans. If you attend an Evening Service at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, St. Vartan Cathedral, or on the rare occasions it is offered at a parish church, you will hear the Hampartsi sharagan. These are the kinds or genres of sharagans, and a full canon of sharagans will contain all of them. For some saints, such as St. Vartan and his Companions or for St. Gregory the Enlightener, there is a canon of sharagans.
Special sharagans were written for the Voskiank and Sukiasank. What makes these sharagans important as sources is that they combine different traditions of stories about the saints’ lives, perhaps even including some that were only part of the oral, unwritten tradition before the sharagan was written. At the very least, the sharagans related to these martyrs synthesize the traditional tale of their martyrdom related above with theological insights, offering not only a new way of thinking about them, but also a new source of spiritual inspiration and strength. Sharagans, then, in addition to being sources of theological reflection, can also be used as supplementary biographical or historical sources. As one important collection in translation makes clear, they are also literary pieces in their own right, serving as poetic and literary sources and inspiration for later writers.
We don’t always know the author or composer of a given sharagan, though some are attributed to specific people in the Sharagnotz itself, while other attributions are found scattered throughout other sources. In the case of the Voskiank, we do know the author: Catholicos Petros I Getadardz, who was elected Catholicos in 1019, and served for most of the middle of the eleventh century. He was known as a great composer of sharagans. The life of the early and important martyrs of St. Voski and his Companions must have been an incredible source of inspiration for Catholicos Petros I, one thousand years ago, just as the Voskiank and Sukiasank continue as sources of inspiration and examples of faith for us today in the twenty-first century.
To continue to inspire us, here is an English translation of the first stanza of the Mangunk Sharagan for the Voskiank, composed by Catholicos Petros I Getadardz:
You came worthily to the Apostle Thaddeus
to be called to discipleship.
And you were tried by the divine cleansing fire
and your gold became strengthened
in the dwelling of the angels.
Oh, blessed saints Voskiank,
intercede to the Lord, to cleanse us from our sins!
|Word-Index to the Armenian Hymnal||Compiled by Haroutiun Palandjian, this incredible resource serves as an index for the Armenian Sharagnots, listing the sharagans where specific words are used.|
|Sharakan Aprilean Nahatakats||A full canon of sharagans for the martyrs of the Armenian Genocide, composed in 1990 by Archbishop Zareh Aznavorian.|
|The Heritage of Armenian Literature||These three volumes offer a significant collection of Armenian literature in English translation, including many sharagans.|
Follow the Zohrab Information Center on Instagram @zohrabcenter to see examples of Sharagnotz books using different musical notations!