Once upon a time, 4,000 years ago - How the Armenian hero Hayk Nahapet slew the giant Bel

11 August 2492 BCE, 4505 years ago, according to Armenian traditional chronology, the legendary Armenian founding figure Hayk Nahapet slew the giant Bel in a battle in the Hakkari region, south of Lake Van.

“From the hills, Hayk could see Bel’s camp. Bel and his men were well armed with helmets, lances and swords. Undaunted, Hayk’s entourage advanced. The earth shook as the titans did battle. Bel had expected an easy victory, but to his dismay, his troops fell into disarray. Before Bel could retreat and regroup, Hayk took aim, pulled his bow taut with his mighty hand and released his arrow. The arrow flew with such force that it pierced Bel’s armor, shot through the giant’s chest and stuck into the ground behind him. Bel would no longer menace the people of Hayk. Ever since these heroic deeds in defense of the land of his forefathers, the country has been called Hayk, and the valley where the battle took place came to be known as Hayots dzor (Valley of the Armenians).” (Moses of Chorene, “History of Armenia”)

An allegorical illustration of Hayk by the Armenian painter Mkrtum Hovnatanyan (1779 – 1846),
showing the patriarch pointing at the slain and mummified Bel
with the fatal arrow still protruding from his chest,
a map showing the Lake Van region (then part of the Russian, Persian and Ottoman Empire)
 and Mount Ararat with Noah’s Ark on top of it in the background.

When the time of the last protohistoric civilisations had come in Mesopotamia and the local copper-stone age Kura-Araxes tribes were slowly dispersed by the early Bronze Age Trialeti culture in the region between the plain of Ararat and southeastern Georgia, legend has it that Hayk, the great-grandson of Noah, led his people away from the tyranny of the giant Bel in Babylon and founded a village near Mount Ararat. When Bel ordered Hayk’s people to return and Hayk refused, the giant assembled an army to bring them back under his thumb. Forewarned, Hayk and his warriors marched to meet him at a gorge and when battle ensued, Hayk killed Bel with an arrow shot through his chest at long distance and Bel’s men fled. Hayk had Bel embalmed and buried on a hill named Gerezmank. Tombs there are maybe an echo of the Trialeti people who left behind a number of elaborate kurgans, barrows, in high places. The myth of Zeus, fleeing from the Caucasus from his enemies, the titans, and later killing them with arrows in Sicily is told in accordance in Greece, while the myth of Hayk became embedded into the Greco-Christian context, Bel is equalled with Nimrod, Hayk sometimes with Heracles.

Gevork Bashindzhagian, Ararat (1912), National Museum of Fine Arts (Erevan)

Identifying Hayk with the Hittites who settled the region during the 2nd millennium BCE or the Mesopotamian deity Hayasa is improbable, but Hayk, even if not exactly homophonous with “Armenia” to contemporary ears, is very probably the “Deus Armenicus”, the aetiological founding father of a high civilisation on the intersection of Western Asia and Eastern Europe, that began its long, rich and often tragic history as Hayastan and later, at least since the 6th century BCE, as Armenia.

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