The Dragon-Fish

British Library, Sloane MS 3544, f. 42v

In The History of the Aghuans, a tenth-century chronicle of a now extinct civilization by Movses Dasxurants’i, read and re-read in the Middle Ages but now neglected, we encounter a curious tale about a dragon-fish (վիշապաձուկ, vishapadzuk) that appeared in the Kur River in the year 835–36:

"Now the next year there were heavy rains for forty days and the Kur River overflowed and flooded the land for fifteen parsangs over its usual limits. There emerged from the Caspian Sea a dragon-fish as big as a mountain that swallowed the fishermen’s fish into its belly, and the fishermen labored in vain. However, the sailors eventually came up with a plan. They gathered in one place and, with their swords, stabbed at the fish in one spot near its tail until it died, and the Kur carried it away to wherever it came from. After that, it was easy for the fishermen to catch fish, for they came as though released from prison."

This dragon-fish was identified as the beluga sturgeon (huso huso) by Charles Dowsett, whose argument I recapitulate here.

The oldest description of the dragon (վիշապ, vishap) in Armenian literature is from the treatise Against the Sects by Yeznik Koghbats’i (born about A.D. 380):

“And the Scriptures call a gigantic serpent or sea-born creature ‘dragon’ [վիշապ]. Just as an enormous man is called a giant, so are the monstrous terrestrial serpent and mountainous sea-born creature (I mean the whale and dolphin) called ‘dragons’. Accordingly: “You crushed the heads of Leviathan [վիշապ] over the waters and you gave food to the people inhabiting the wilderness [Psalms 74:14].”

By this description, վիշապ can refer to any gigantic land or sea animal — and in the case of the latter, it can also denote a cetacean, thus serving as the Classical Armenian equivalent of κήτος (kítos; cetacean, or sea-monster). Indeed, the only time the word վիշապաձուկ occurs in the Armenian bible is as a translation of κήτος:

Եւ հրամայեցաւ ի Տեառնէ վիշապ ձկանն, եւ եթուք զնա ի ցամաք: 

"Then the Lord commanded the [dragon] fish to vomit Jonah upon dry land."

[Jonah 2:11]

But Movses could not have possibly meant cetacean, for there are no whales or dolphins to be found in the Caspian Sea. Thus we are left with the vague description of վիշապ as a marker of size, which the 13th century author and vardapet Vardan Arevelts’i gave as the sole definition of the word: “there is no such thing as a վիշապ — for whatever in the world is of great size is called a վիշապ.” By this standard, the largest fish in the Caspian Sea and the Kur river is the beluga sturgeon, which can weigh over 3,000 pounds. According to Wikipedia, “it is the third most massive living species of bony fish”, making it worthy of its draconic name.

British Library, Harley MS 4751, f. 69r

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