If we agree that carpets are messages of our ancestors addressed to us, we must assume that ornaments have meaning, and lexical value, if you want; culturologically speaking, they have symbolic content.
The word ‘symbol’ ascends to the Greek ‘symbolon’, which means ‘a token, pledge, sign’, the Armenian equivalent of which specifies it as ‘a sign of mystery’. A symbol is the unified picture of spiritual and intellectual communication, a code and a cryptogram. It is a notion, a gnosiological category, which manifests itself through linear-structural and figurative perception.
In ancient times the knowledge of symbols was considered secret knowledge, because symbols were ciphered, and this was knowledge given from heaven. With the absence of script and writing, oral and complex gnosiology could not actually be equally available to everybody, so only sages, magi, priests, the church and court elite were masters of the secret and meaning enveloped deep in the symbols, and the others perceived them only by outer features… Each image is certain knowledge, wisdom and essence at the same time.
So, to be able to “peruse” a carpet (the enveloped message), one must be a priest, an educated person, to decipher the ideas, which had imbued the collective consciousness (Carl Jung), feelings and memory of numerous generations of people in the course of centuries. Everyone here sees what his sight enables him to see.
The symbolic significance of Armenian carpets is manifested by geometrical symbols, symbols of animals, plants, colours, figures and letters of the Armenian alphabet.
The application of geometrical symbols is so widespread in the form and content of carpet art, that a carpet type has received the name of “geometrical carpet”. The perception and assimilation of the world is first of all connected with sight and still more with observation. Any object is measure, shape and quantity. “Life is shape, and shapes are aspects of life. In nature, these shapes and relations cannot be a result of mere chance, and all that what is called rational life is valued as a necessary connection between forms…” – Henri Focillon.
Man’s “limited brain” is not able to fully enjoy and embrace the spaciousness of cosmic infinity. It is here that geometrical symbols come to the aid of the ancient man. They come as a pictorial language to perceive the structure of world creation and non-embraceable spaciousness, as a “key” to reveal and, consequently, assimilate the ritual image of the space. This means that on the first level of intellectual cognition, geometrical images and (figures) are equivalent rearrangements of the universe in man’s mental perceptions. The collective consciousness of mankind seems to ‘model’ the symbolic shapes of geometrical images, which gradually harmonize with conscious and social perception. In other words, these symbols can be perceived as an alphabet of human mind, as the most primordial and “universal” language of specifying things and phenomena. Geometrical symbols manifest themselves in the ritual structure of Armenian carpets as follows:
Circles: In a general sense, a circle symbolizes the soul and the spiritual, infiniteness, eternity and perfection. It has an evil-warding-off significance and magical-ritual application. It is often perceived as the opposite of the square, contrasting the spiritual (the circle) and the material (the square). Let us recall the fundamental principle of transforming the square into a circle in the surrealists’ manifesto.
The single-lined, dotted line circle with a hooked nucleus is the symbol of the sun (A. Miller, B. Rybakov, Kh. Samvelian, H. Martirosian, H. Israelian and others). The circle and circular images are linked with an embryo, an egg and a grain (A. Mnatsakanian and others), especially if it appears with a cross, a tree of life, birds and symbols of coupling and fertility.
The centre of a circle is a source of endless revolutions of time and space. Dividing a circle into twelve parts, we receive the annual revolution of a/the planet (as in expressions ‘the year made a circle’, ‘all the year round’, ‘the round year-bread tarehats (a ritual New Year cake)’, etc. A zodiacal circle also measures one year. In carpet art, the horizontal line divides a circle into summer-winter solstice, and when the division is made by a vertical line as well, we have the four seasons of a year. If these lines take the shape of a pointer, then we have the four points of the world.
In ornamentation, the circle appears combined with other forms. A square inscribed into a circle signifies the victory of the spiritual over the material (the subordinate).
A triangle in the circle signifies the spiritual (God) in the infinity and perfection (like the haloes over the saints’ heads). It should be observed here that diverse notions may be placed in a circle, if we try to underline the idea of their eternity and perfection. This may be a tree of life, paired birds, crosses, verdant crosses, lilies, clovers, etc.
The unity of concentric circles signifies space. In the symbolic system of Christianity, circles represent spiritual hierarchies or different grades of creation. Three circles joined together signify trinity, and two circles set together are twins, and quite often, the unity of the earth and the heaven.
Triangles are the main symbols in the symbolism of a carpet. In the pagan period, a triangle with its apex turned up, was considered the masculine origin, the fire and the sun, while a triangle with its apex turned down symbolized the feminine origin, the water, the moon and accordingly motherhood, fertility, abundance and well-being. Triangles were also depicted on storage vessels for wine, oil, cheese and pitchers for water. Woman-shaped salt jars stand out in this aspect. Salt jars in the form of a pregnant woman bear a triangle with its apex turned up or down, symbolizing the masculine, or the feminine origin. In Armenian carpet art, the combined triangle is closely linked with khachkars (cross-stones) and trees of life as a symbol of love, fertility and procreation. In carpet art, the triangle appears with the rhomb, as a structural element. The rhomb is actually an oblique square, and forms stylized trees of life with a triangle, or the edge-band images of a carpet. The combination of a cross and a rhomb can form a triangle, and the unity of two triangles forms a rhomb. Corner crosses called “Garun” (Spring) and “Krunk” (Crane) are often seen in the carpet edge bands: the semantic interrelation here is obvious.
Squares: The material world is symbolized by a square. It embodies the four points of the world, the four primordial substances (earth, water, air and fire), the four seasons, the four ages of man, etc. The square is linked with the figure “four”. Spiritually, it symbolizes “closed space, territory”. The combination of two squares brings forth the symbol of space (the unity of the earth and the heaven). In the ornamental art of carpets, the square is expressed by letter ¸ of the Armenian alphabet.
Capitals, ploughs, lamps, asters, apples, pomegranates, honeycombs, ram horns, wheels, teeth, combs and other geometrical linear structures may be classified among geometrical symbols. Taking into consideration that it is almost impossible to separately discuss these ornaments within one article, we find it necessary to speak on the cross and the swastika, which are among the main ornamental forms in carpet art.
Crosses: The cross is largely widespread in the ornamentation of carpets. The cross, as a Christian symbol, is permanently present in the carpets, donated to churches on the celebration days connected with the worship of the cross: Khachverats (Ascension of the Holy Cross), Khach Gyut (Finding the Cross of Our Lord), Varaga Khach(Varaga Holy Cross). In numerous Armenian communities of the Diaspora, where carpet-making was one of the main occupations, weaving a cross (often disguised) on a carpet for Armenian migrants was reminiscent of their religion and identity, and reflected their nostalgia and longing to return to their motherland. Besides these motives, the cross also has a historical-philosophical and culturological symbolic meaning.
The cross is the generalized unity of the four points of the world, four primordial substances, the masculine and feminine principles (cross-breeding, as a creation instrument). The four arms of the cross are associated with four seasons, four human temperaments (Stepanos Jughayetsi). Grigor Tatevatsi compares the four arms of a cross with the tetramorph figures (man, lion, bull, eagle) of the four Evangelists and the four rivers of the paradise. Besides this general significance, the cross is associated with the tree of life in the Armenian ritual-cultic mentality. This is the reason why the Armenian cross is called “verdant” cross, and it is different from other crosses in its specific character. According to Christian notions, bless with a crossing and making a cross were considered potent means of spiritual salvation, warding-off the evil and repelling demonic powers. With the perception of this salvational and evil-warding-off significance, in the ornamentation of carpets, images of men, animals and other cultic objects often represented in the spaces between the arms of the cross seem to be protected by the cross. The cross with its numerous symbols plays an irreplaceable semantic role in the carpet decoration. It is not accidental that one of the carpet types is called “carpets with a cross-centred composition”.
Swastikas: A swastika is also called “a revolving cross” and has the same significance as the cross. It was the secret sign of gnostics and was accepted instead of the Christian cross. In ancient times, the Christians applied it as “disguised” cross. It is a sign that brings success and well-being. As a sign of vital power, it is associated with the creator and creation. Besides these general features, it is the most politicized symbol by different peoples and religions in the world (Greece, Egypt, Persia, Scandinavian countries, Buddhism, fascism, theosophy, etc.). In Armenia, the swastika is found in ancient rock paintings and Bronze Age ornaments on diverse objects (clay vessels, bronze belts, fibulas, etc.), on the findings from the archeological sites of Dvin and Lori, as well as on the fortress walls of Tsakhats Kar (8th century), Arates (10th century) and the 10th century churches in Ani. The swastikas symbolized the sun, fertility, four seasons, birth, well-being and vital power. This symbolic meaning also imbues ornamental images of the carpets. The swastika became an indivisible part of dragon carpets, especially those of “Khdzoresk” type. It is perceived as the main motif in the centre of medallions in almost all kinds of this carpet type. The entire ornamentation is built round the swastika (the sun, fire and vital power), in its characteristic canonic composition (dragons ready to swallow up the sun, and wild mountain goats neutralizing them; they are often found with trees of life, stellar signs, birds, etc.).
Zoomorphic symbols in carpet art. It is difficult to find an animal that is not like man in some qualities, or a man, whose essence does not conceal a wild instinct (the animal).
Human beings and dumb creatures, i.e. the speaking and thinking man and dumb animals guided by only instincts live together from time immemorial.
The path of being part of nature and fighting against it has brought them close together, but quite often made them enemies, they have “walked” together, but also “confronted” each other.
In Armenian beliefs, animals generally symbolize: – cosmic and vital phenomena (wind, breath, storm, the sun, the moon, the fire, the earth and water), fertility, the four points of the world, the sky (birds), the earth (animals) and the underworld
– secret vision (horse, frog, dog, serpent, eagle, turtle, etc.), as animals know the secrets of the underworld, the stages of development and preserve the cosmic order
– the divine and the human way of life (glory, beauty, power, fertility, love, passion, futility, decline, death, immortality, etc.)
– animals are god’s and man’s guides, envoys, counsellors and heralds (wolves, lions, horses, dogs, storks, doves, eagles, etc.), who are often able to speak, give people advice and save them from imminent danger.
In the symbolic system, irrespective of classification, an animal is represented as the one who personifies man’s qualities. According to C. Jung, the founder of psychoanalytical psychology, “an animal embodies the world of man’s subconscious instincts, as well as the spheres of the unconscious of his soul”. In the symbolic system, animals (also birds) with their opposing and contrasting often ‘replace’ man.
The worship of animals is called ‘totemism’ in scholarly terminology. A totem is an animal or a plant adopted as ancestor, from whom a family or a tribe descends, and who provides their well-being and safety. A totem was often depicted on a man’s body, on the walls of his dwelling, on his clothes, objects of everyday use and in the course of time, totems lost their initial significance and became an ornamental form.
In Armenian carpet art, the symbols of animals due to their propagation and all-embracing semantics became names of carpet types: dragon carpets, eagle carpets, bird nest carpets, stellar bird carpets, etc.
Dragons (serpents): With their diverse variants, dragon carpets are the most typical and perfect manifestations in Armenian carpet-weaving. The ornamental motif of an S-like or lyre-shaped dragon comprises the main pattern of carpet medallions and is connected with water and fertility, trees of life, the evil, wisdom, intellect and slyness.
The serpent, or the dragon, often appears with a tree of life, from the roots of which the water of life flows out, and which gives fruit of life, according to Christian beliefs. A goat or a deer is depicted between dragons, or between a dragon and the sun, or a dragon and water in the ornamental motifs of a carpet.
Goats: A goat is the symbol of masculinity, fertility and impregnation. In the pagan period, it was combined with the lightning, and in its derivative sense, it is connected with rain, thunder, fertility and vital power. Goat horns were considered a sign of abundance. The symbol of “goat lightning” occupies a great place in Armenian rock paintings (Martirosian). In Armenian ritual-cultic mentality, if the dragon swallows up the sun and obstructs the sources of water, the goat provides the interrelation “lightning-thunder-rain”. There are numerous examples in folklore, phrases, riddles and fairy-tales, where a goat’s good deeds and charity are illustrated. There are expressions in Armenian like “goats came”, “goats ran away” and similar phrases, which figuratively manifest the ideas of a thunderstorm, clouding and raining. Among such semantic interrelations is the phrase about lightning: “It is a goat, with flashes of fire on its back”. The combination of a serpent, a dragon and a goat has the meaning of balancing antagonistic powers.
Deer: The deer is a symbol of valour and abundance. It is associated with the sun, sunrise, light, fire, creation and spiritual powers. It is the eternal enemy of the serpent, i.e. the dark and the evil. According to folk ideas, the skin of a deer is a safe talisman against a serpent prick, and the powder made of antlers is a means to protect the fruit-bearing fields from witchcraft. Often the deer’s branched antlers symbolize a tree of life, sunrays, immortality and rebirth (antlers regenerate from time to time). These are the semantic reasons for the sun and the deer to appear combined with the serpent and the dragon. The deer confronting a serpent is the steadfast restraining power against the evil, and the image of a deer crushing a serpent already shows the evil annihilated and the victory of spirit.
Eagles: Eagle carpets are reminiscent of the classical period in the Armenian carpet-weaving; however, they exist until present. Compositions of eagle carpets represent two or three squares (mainly octahedral stellar flowers, quite often arrows and other symbols).
According to some researchers, both technically and semantically, eagle carpets evolved from dragon carpets. Images of the eagle and the serpent, or an eagle with a serpent in its claws, symbolize the victory of spirit. In this case, the eagle embodies spirit, and supreme power, and the serpent embodies the obsequious evil power. The eagle is bright light, and the serpent is the invisible darkness. They are in a cosmic unity, the unity of spirit and matter.
In general, in carpet decoration, the eagle is the symbol of the sun, justice, courage, victory, glory, power and spiritual upsurge.