The Maxims and Wisdom of Khikar

The Maxims and Wisdom of Khikar is a masterpiece of Assyrian literature and one of the first books to be translated into Classical Armenian. The book has had a resounding influence upon Armenian writers from the 5th to the 19th centuries, including upon Yeznik of Kołb, Ghazar P’arpec’i, Yeghishe, Aristakes Lastivertc’i and the 19th century authors, Raffi and Hagop Baronian.

The earliest manuscript of Khikar ("The Story of Ahiqar"), the so-called Elephantine papyrus (found on Elephantine island in Egypt and written in Aramaic) has been dated to the 5th century BC. There are at least a dozen surviving Armenian manuscripts of Khikar dating from the 11th to the 18th centuries. Frederick Conybeare dated the Armenian translation to the 5th century AD, based on the Biblical style of composition and his finding of various of Khikar’s precepts in early works of Armenian literature. Here are three examples:

1. The first is with Yeznik of Kołb’s 5th century theological treatise:

“And truly and not forsakenly does the word of the wise man say: ‘your servant who does not hear with his ear, they make to hear with his back.’”

«Եւ արդարեւ ոչ ինչ ընդ վայր ասացեալ է բան իմաստնոյն, թէ ծառայ որ ընդ ունկն ոչ լսէ՝ ընդմկանունս տան լսել նմա։»

       Cf. Khikar:

“Son, he who does not hear with his ears, they make to hear with his back.”

«Որդեակ՝ որ ընդ ականջն ոչ լսէ ընդ թիկունսն լսեցուցանեն։»

2. The second is with Yeghishe’s History of Vartan and the Armenian War:

“Better blind of eyes than blind of mind. For just as the soul is greater than the body, so too is the vision of the mind greater than that of the body.”

«Լաւ է կոյր աչաւք քան կոյր մտաւք։ Որպէս մեծ է ոգի քան զմարմին՝ այսպէս մեծ է տեսաւորութիւնմտաց քան զմարմնոց։»

       Cf. Khikar:

“Son, better blind of eyes than blind of mind. For he who is blind of eyes is quick to learn the coming and going of the roadway, but the mentally blind forsakes the high road and goes according to his will.”

«Որդեակ՝ լաւ է կոյր աչաւք՝ քան զկոյր մտաւքքանզի կոյր աչաւք արագ ուստի զերթ եւ եկճանապարհինիսկ կոյր մտաւքն թողու զուղղորդ ճանապարհն եւ երթայ ըստ կամս իւր։»

3. The third is with Aristakes Lastivertc’i's History:

The words of liars are as succulent as quail, and fools gulp them down.

«Բանք ստոց պարարտ են իբրեւ զլոր, եւ անմիտք կլանեն զնա։»

       Cf. Khikar:

“Son, at first you will be fond of a false man, but then he will become detestable to you. For a false word is like a fat quail, but he that is foolish devours it.”

«Որդեակ՝ յառաջ սիրէ մարդ սուտբայց յետոյ ատելի լինի քեզզի բանը սուտ որպէս լոր պարարտ էբայց որ անմիտ էնա կլանէ զնա։»

Although only Yeznik refers to “the wise man/sage” (իմաստուն; as Khikar is repeatedly referred to as in the original), it was not until the 12th century that an Armenian author referred to Khikar by name in one of his riddles ("Խելօքն ծով է ու խիկար" - "The sage is [as] the sea, and Khikar", attributed to Catholicos Nerses Shnorhali).

But the most notable parallel between Khikar is to be found in one of the best-known works of Armenian literature, Raffi’s 1880 masterpiece, The Fool:

“Vartan seemed to be relaxed. His calmness resembled the tranquility of a storm-tossed sea after a tempest. ‘I will explain it all to you with a parable,’ he said to his inmates. ‘The trees of the forest sent news to their king that a tool had appeared that was destroying them mercilessly. ‘What is the tool called?’ the king asked. ‘An axe,’ the trees answered. ‘How is it formed?’ the king asked. ‘Its head is of iron, and its handle of wood,’ the trees replied. ‘That is a very dangerous tool,’ the king replied, ‘when the handle is of us.’” 

«Վարդանը, կարծես, հանգիստ էր: Նրա հանգստութիւնը նմանում էր մրրկածուփ ծովի խաղաղութեանը, որ տիրում է ալեկոծութիւնից յետոյ:—Ես ձեզ մի առակով կը բացատրեմ բոլորը, ասաց նա իր բանտակիցներին.—Անտառի ծառերը լուր տարան իրանց թագաւորին, ասելով, թէ յայտնվել է մի գործիք, որ մեզ անխնայ կոտորում է:—«Ի՞նչպէս է կոչվում այդ գործիքը,» հարցրեց թագաւորը:—«Տապար,» պատասխանեցին ծառերը:—«Ի՞նչպէս է կազմված նա», հարցրեց թագաւորը:—«Գլուխը երկաթից է, բայց կոթը փայտից», պատասխանեցին ծառերը:—«Դա շատ վտանգաւոր գործիք է, պատասխանեց թագաւորը, երբ կոթը մեզանից է:»

In Constantinople, four years after The Fool was published in Tiflis, Hagop Baronian established a new literary magazine in which he went on to publish some of his most notable works over the course of the next four years. That magazine was called Khikar.

With these and many other such examples, we can say that The Maxims and Wisdom of Khikar has left its mark upon the most renowned literary figures of Armenian literature for well over a millennium. It is therefore a most worthy project to revive this timeless work by introducing it to a modern audience, and it is with great honor that I dedicate my upcoming translation to the sage, Robert Bedrosian.

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