IF I were telling my stories to an audience composed of Armenians, as I told them years ago, I would begin without any preliminary remarks or introduction. But since the audience is made up of people who are comparatively unacquainted with my native land and its traditions, naturally they will like to know who the story-teller is, where he got his narratives, and by whom and how his tales were first told.
About twenty years ago I was a boy living in a village on the heights of the Taurus Mountains in Cilicia, or Lesser Armenia, not far from the Mediterranean Sea. Like boys and girls all over the world, I was very fond of stories; but there were no story-books or other reading matter with which I and other children of my age could gratify our eager desire for stories. But better than these were the aged folks who told us all the interesting stories which our inquisitive childhood required. I had two grandmothers and half a dozen aunts, all unlettered country people, who took great delight in a rich store of folk-lore and fairy tales, and who told me the most entertaining and delightful stories that I have ever heard. In every village home there were one or two such old people, who entertained the youth of their respective homes. During the long winter evenings we boys and girls gathered together around the village hearth to listen to the old man or aged woman rehearsing tales of fairies, giants, genii, dragons, knights, winged beauties, captive maidens, and other thousand and one mysterious beings. I need not say how, with utmost interest, our youthful minds used to follow the details of these vivid and picturesque stories, drinking in every word with the greatest avidity. This was true not only of children but of grown-up people also, whose principal pastime, during the long and tedious winter nights, was the rehearsing of folk-tales and fairy stories, or listening to others as they told them.
These circumstances gave me opportunity and power to commit to memory a great number of tales and rehearse them whenever there was a favorable occasion. By this means I improved and increased my store of tales so much that I became quite a noted story-teller in our village, at a time when I was but a mere lad. Subsequently, both during my college course in Aintab, Cilicia, and during the period when I was a teacher in Erzroom, of Armenia proper, I had the opportunity to travel a great deal and to study the life and manners of the Armenians in their primitive homes. I found the same fairy stories and folk-tales current everywhere, with such slight differences only as the people made when appropriating the tales to their own surroundings and to their fund of knowledge. At that time it occurred to my mind that it would be a good plan to make a collection of these tales in order to make use of them some day, and so I kept notes of the tales just as they were told by the common, unlettered country people.
Bishop Sirwantzdiants, an Armenian clergyman, also made a collection of Armenian folk-tales, taking them from the mouth of the people just as they were told. He published his collection in two separate books. The first, "Manana" (Manna), was printed in Constantinople in 1876 by the Dindessian Printing-press (since closed), and the second, "Hamov-Hodov" (Delicious and Fragrant), was printed in Constantinople in 1884 by the Bagdadlian Printing-press.
My personal notes of Armenian tales and these two books of Bishop Sirwantzdiants have furnished the material of the present volume. As the Bishop and myself made our collections independently in different districts of Armenia, our texts naturally differed from each other in some points. But the two being substantially the same, in putting the stories into English I have followed the one which I thought to be the most original, taking all the circumstances into consideration. Let me here emphasize the point again that all the stories that appear in the present volume were taken down directly from the lips of the ignorant, unlettered peasantry of Armenia, literally without any embellishment or addition whatever, except in the case of rude and unbecoming expressions which had to undergo some slight change.
How those unlettered, ignorant people came into possession of these stories, and what the value of such tales is to the student of antiquity and ethnology, are questions which I will not venture to answer. I wish, however, to make a few statements which have been suggested to me by the study of the Armenian folk-tales and fairy stories.
The history of the Armenians is greatly mixed up with mythology and tradition, as is the case with the history of all ancient nations. Many of the legends given in the written history of Armenia bear a marked similarity to the folk-tales of the present day. The peculiar geography of Armenia must have had a great deal to do with the formation of these tales. High, inaccessible mountain ranges have divided the country into such distinct divisions that the inhabitants of one section have, even in the present time, very strange ideas with regard to the people of the other section, attributing to one another magic, witchcraft and other superhuman powers and practices. This, of course, was still more so in olden times, when the population of the country had not yet been fused together into one nation. That was probably the time when most of these tales were formed.
S. Baring-Gould supposes that many of the fairy tales current among all nations took their beginning at a time when a conquering people of one race lived among the conquered people of an entirely different race. Thus "two distinct races dwelt in close proximity, not comprehending each other, each suspicious of and dreading the other, and each investing the other with superhuman powers or knowledge." [See "Fairy Tales from Grimm" Preface, pp. xvi. and xxi.] There are many instances in Armenian history which confirm this supposition, so that in the case of such tales or portion of tales as are purely Armenian, we may suppose that the process of fusion of two ancient races, one the conquering and the other the conquered, has given birth to them. Although all the tales contained in this volume are taken directly from the lips of the Armenians, it will be noticed that some of them bear traces of Persian, Arabic and Turkish influence. This, of course, was naturally to be expected, as the Armenians have been ruled successively by these nations.
But one of the greatest factors in the formation of the distinctively Armenian tales was, no doubt, Mount Ararat. That majestic mountain, situated in the middle of an extensive plateau in the heart of Armenia, and seen from points distant a three or four days' journey, would naturally draw the attention of the people. The many mythological and historical facts attached to it; its hoary, inaccessible peak covered with everlasting snow; its towering heights piercing the sky; its high, steep precipices; its deep cañons; its underground caverns; its fierce storms, and the wild beasts and large birds living on its slopes--would naturally give birth to half-true and half-imaginary stories which gradually and by lapse of time would grow into legendary tales.
These are not the only folk-tales current among the Armenians; there are a great many more. We may be tempted to make another collection if this one proves acceptable.
Before closing these notes, I have to confess that my use of English is defective, owing to the fact that it is not my mother tongue. Consequently I owe a great deal to generous friends who have been so kind as to take up my manuscript and pass upon it before it was given to the press, smoothing the narrative without destroying the personality of the story-teller. Among these generous friends I take pleasure in mentioning the names of Mr. W. H. Brett, Librarian of the Cleveland Public Library; Mr. Wallace W. Newell, Secretary of the American Folk-Lore Society; Miss Alice Stone Blackwell, the noted poetess and editor of the Woman's Journal, and my publishers.
Now, I do not see how to remunerate these friends for their valuable assistance to me unless I share with them the "three apples" which fall from Heaven at the end of each tale, and which I had to appropriate to myself as a genuine story-teller. This I gladly do. May they prove as pleasant to them, and the stories be as interesting to you, as has been the re-telling of them to me.
A. G. Seklemian.