Chubby and round with curious eyes and bewildered looks, the clay figurines of traditional Armenian goddess Anahid make up an eccentric bunch. Working together, Beirut-based ceramic artists Shahé Haroutunian and Roubina Margossian have created a series of contemporary embodiments of the deity, and share the story of how she went from pagan goddess to underground idol, carefully guarding the holy salt.
The most important sacred figure in Armenian history, Anahid used to have an undisputed place in both public imaginary and everyday life. She is central to Armenian mythology where she was the sacred embodiment of crop, fruitfulness and fertility, and the goddess of a number of things including healing, wisdom, beauty, love, hunting and water; even war in early periods.
Anahid was the goddess of a number of things including healing, wisdom, beauty, love, hunting and water; even war in early periods.
“She was clearly the most favoured goddess in historical Armenia,“ says Roubina. “She was parallel to other deities, but took on an unrivalled strong position in art and folk culture.”
In historical times, the Anahid figurines could be found in every Armenian home. Their function was twofold: the first was to ensure a sacred presence in the house, and the second was to store salt for the household. In pagan Armenia, salt was a holy substance. It was used in religious ceremonies and was thought to have a sacred significance. Salt was therefore stored in special vessels in the shape of the goddess Anahid. She could be made of wood or leather, but most often she came as a clay figurine. The salt was stored inside her belly, which had the double purpose of keeping the salt free from humidity and blessed within the womb of the goddess.
Every home had its own Anahid. Usually, she was large and placed in a central location in the house, and was rarely moved from her place. She stored salt for the whole year; to be used in the family as well as for the kettle. Consuming salt from the belly of the goddess of fertility ensured both prosperity and fruitfulness in the family and a rich crop.
The salt was stored inside Anahid’s belly, which had the double purpose of keeping the salt free from humidity and blessed within the womb of the goddess.
An important goddess for a long period of time, Anahid went through many transformations. At first, her aesthetics were basic: she had no face, no clothes and no decorative details. However, she always bore a triangular symbol, indicating her female nature. With time, she acquired facial expressions and more sophisticated ornaments, and finally she was given clothes and jewellery worthy of her divine status. She was generally portrayed in three stages of womanhood starting as a virgin, then as a pregnant woman, and finally as the mother of twin children.
“When we started working on the project, we were surprised of how much there is to Anahid,” says Roubina. “We knew that there was more than what initially meets the eye, but we did not know the extent to which she developed according to changes in society.” The main such transformation came with the emergence of Christianity. A pagan symbol, worship of Anahid was strictly forbidden when Armenia became the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity in AD 301.
Anahid, who along with her creator and spouse Aramazd had been the main deity in pre-Christian Armenia, went underground.
But people in Armenia were not ready to give away with their old traditions. So Anahid, who along with her creator and spouse Aramazd had been the main deity in pre-Christian Armenia, went underground. She started to take on disguises, most often as those animals that traditionally had been associated with her worship: birds, mules, sheep and various mystical creatures. This explains why salt vessels in the shape of birds are easy to find in Armenian pottery tradition.
“The fact that she managed to transform and stay in popular culture is what makes her so interesting,” says Roubina. “She was the last of the traditional pagan symbols to be forgotten: her father, brother and spouse all were, but not her. In that way, she is unique.”
She continued to develop under Christianity. Roubina: “In the Middle Ages, people used to sing songs about her to make sure that she stayed in the collective memory. In some of these, she transformed into a witch who kidnapped young women. Later on, she was portrayed as an aged woman. She grew old in the memory of the people.” Roubina continues: “There were also songs which portrayed the old Anahid mourning the loss of her herd and crop, and others of her going through 366 different sorts of pains. Many believe that this was a way for people to mourn the loss of their favourite goddess, and to call for her resurrection.”
In the Middle Ages, people used to sing songs about Anahid to make sure that she stayed in the collective memory.
However, Anahid never made a come-back. In contemporary Armenian culture, she is not a central figure. Many do not even know who she is, although they probably recognise her in her clay incarnation: small Anahid salt cellars can be found in every Armenian souvenir shop. This disappearance from the collective memory was something that interested Roubina and Shahé.
“We wanted to bring Anahid into today’s society. We also wanted to touch upon the transformations she has gone through from the pagan era,” says Roubina. “The process of working with her was one of simultaneous creation and recreation, and it was a way of transferring her and traditional Armenian pottery into our times. Because, her story is unique and mirrors the transformation of a society. Also, she reminds us of the goddess within the contemporary woman.”
Shahé and Roubina have sold most of their Anahid figurines, but there are still a few at Plan BEY in Mar Mikhael, Beirut.