Literature: David of Sasun

David of Sasun or David of Sassoun (Armenian: Սասունցի Դավիթ; Sasuntsi Davit) is the story of an Armenian epic hero who drove Arab-Egyptian invaders out of Armenia. As an oral tale, it dates from as early as the 8th century and was for centuries rehearsed by village bards. It wasn't put in written form until 1873, by Garegin Srvantdziantz, and it was published the next year. David of Sasun itself is really part three of a four-cycle epic poem called the Daredevils of Sassoun (Սասնա Ծռեր; Sasna Tsrer), but in most modern printings of the story the title has been changed due to the popularity of David. When told, normally at least one of the four cycles would be left out, but the cycle about David almost never was.

The tale begins with the King of Sasun (a historically Armenian province, west of Lake Van), Lion-Mher, regretting that he has no heir in his old age due to his queen being unable to conceive. He is visited by an angel who informs him that his queen will bear a son, but in exchange both of them will die. He agrees, and nine months later David is born, and his parents die. With Lion-Mher dead, Sasun is invaded by Egypt and its citizens forced to pay them tribute. David is sent to live with his paternal uncle Big-Voiced Ohan, now the ruler of Sasun, who surrendered to Egypt. David is told nothing of his past due to the wishes of Ohan's wife, weary of him because David might try to take the throne from Ohan. David is sent outside most of his childhood, befriending wild animals and terrorizing the town by bringing them home with him. One day he meets an old hag in the woods, who tells him about his father. With this knowledge David decides to become a warrior, take back his throne and challenge Egypt for Sasun's independence.

Though Egypt has never actually conquered Sasun or Armenia, the epic poem was composed during a time that Islamic empires were growing in the region. The Egyptians were originally stand-ins for the Arabs, who were known to have taxed non-Muslims to ridiculous extremes when they ruled Armenia. One reason for its continued popularity through the centuries would be the Turkish dominance of Western Armenia for most of the last millennium. It has been pointed out by scholars that there exist pagan elements in the tale as well, suggesting it may even be older than previously thought, but it is difficult to say for certain (for instance, the name "Mher" comes from the Armenian name for the god Mithra, Mihr).

In 2012, the epic was included in UNESCO's Intangible Cultural heritage list.

An English translation of poet Hovhannes Tumanian's version of the tale, now in the Public Domain, can be read here. In 2010, after ten years of Development Hell, an Animated Adaptation was produced in Armenia directed by Arman Manaryan called Sasna Tsrer, covering the first three cycles of "Daredevils of Sasun".


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