The name “David” comes from the Hebrew for “the beloved one.” Like the Old Testament David who slew Goliath, David of Sassoon is the beloved, national hero, the defiant and self-reliant youth, who by the grace of God defends his homeland in an unequal duel against a titanic oppressor.
of Sassoon presented here is Hovhannes Toumanian’s captivating rhymed version of the third cycle
of the epic. The epic spans four
generations of the house of Sassoon, a mountainous enclave of the Armenian
highlands, west of Lake Van and
begins with two brothers, Sanasar and Balthasar. Some
scholars link them to the brothers Adramelek and Sarasar, the sons of Hezekiah (2 Kings 19:37, Is. 37:38),
the king of
In the epic of David of Sassoon, the Moslems (referred to as Musr or Egypt in this version of the epic) and their leader (referred to Melik - king) may have displaced the Assyrians, and two thousand years of history may be compressed into a single storyline, but the north-south geopolitical dynamic between Armenia and Mesopotamia persisted in the people’s collective memory and remained deep rooted in the repertoire of Armenian oral tradition.
The next cycle is the story of David’s father, Lion Mher, who is the epitome of the noble, wise, fair and self-sacrificing father-king. Approaching old age without an heir, he accepts with gentility the passing of his generation as the price of the next generation. As the reading from the Armenian requiem states, “except a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears fruit.” (John 12:24). Lion Mher represents the strength of nature and rectitude of character that bears fruit in his son, David, who is raised an "orphan, no keeper on earth."
story resonates not only with the Old Testament David, but also with the battle
between Hayk of Armenia and Bel
of Assyria. Hayk
is the Armenian Orion
(Job 9:9), the deified archer-protector-forefather of the
Armenians. His deification has been
linked by some scholars to the Prometheus story in Greek mythology. In Movses Khorenatsi’s history, the story of Hayk’s
titanic battle with Bel is one of the key episodes in
the formation of the Armenian people. Hayk was a handsome, friendly man, with curly hair,
sparkling eyes, and strong arms. He was
a man of giant stature, a mighty archer and fearless warrior. Hayk and his
people, since the time of their forefathers Noah and Japheth lived in and
An epic cannot be summed up in a single word or from a single point of view. Each reader and listener will relate to certain characters and events in different ways. Nevertheless, the image of David of Sassoon, his nobility, fearlessness, strength, and simplicity, while having special significance for Armenians, has a universal appeal that speaks to all peoples.
Finally, a word about this translation. There are several English translations of David of Sassoon, including a blank verse translation of Toumanian's version of this work. So why this translation? Primarily because no other English translation has attempted to replicate the rhymes and rhythms of the Toumanian version, ¬ in short, the music of the poetry that draws the reader in and pulls the reader forward through line after line of this marvelous epic work.
Thomas J. Samuelian