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Armenia is a land of traditions. Traditions that are often born out of necessity to cope with harsh life conditions. One such tradition is the ancient practice of dayeakut’iwn.

Dayeakut’iwn is a form of child rearing, practiced anciently in Armenia, where a parent would send their child to be reared and educated in a different household. This practice was in particularly popular among the Armenian nobility during the antiquity. In modern Armenian dayeak simply means “wet nurse,” but anciently it referred to one entrusted with educating and nurturing a child for an extended period.

During the middle ages the young sons of Armenian lords (Nakharar) were sent to be raised and educated by other lords, sometimes in distant districts. At around the age fifteen years a youth would return home, often with a bride from his “adopted” family. Between the youth (called the san “pupil,” “foster child,” or “protege”) and the host lord (called the dayeak), a life-long bond existed; should the youth go home with a wife, the mutual interests of two Nakharar houses would be advanced.

On the left - the king of Armenia Trdat III, on the right - a bas-relief on the Surb Khach cathedral (X century) on the Akhtamar island (Western Armenia, Turkey)

The antiquity of this practice goes back to times immemorial and can be attested from the earliest Armenian manuscripts. The Armenian historian Movses Khorenatsi (ca. 410–490s AD) projected dayeakut’iwn far back into Armenian prehistory—to the times of the legendary kings Vagharsh and Eruand. Indeed, given the worship in ancient Armenia of a fertility goddess (Anahit), known as the protectress and benefactress of pregnant women and young children, it does not seem unlikely that dayeakut’iwn (with specific roles for both females and males) was practiced among the Armenians long before the fifth century sources were compiled or written.

From its earliest days the Armenian Highlands were ruled by various noble clans (tohm) that on many occasions engaged in vicious warfare with each other. In some instances the lineages of particular clans extended far back into Urartian times (pre-sixth century B.C.). One part of the nobility, was composed of descendants of the ancient clan leaders who held authority by hereditary right. Another part of the nobility was a “created” aristocracy of officials appointed by the Crown. Dayeakut’iwn proved to be instrumental in helping the future leaders of their clan acquire valuable skills like hunting, warfare and diplomacy from other (distant) clans.

Bas relief of a hunting scene on horseback, early 14th century. Church of the White Virgin, Spitakawor Siwnik 

But the practice was not merely about creating family ties with other nobility. It was also very important for the mere survival of an heir to the family clan.

In fourth to fifth century Armenia the Arsacid family tried to exterminate competing Nakharar families on more than one occasion. But this was no easy matter. To eliminate a Nakharar clan/family (which sometimes included thousands of related individuals) and to confiscate its land for the Crown meant that every male clan member had to be killed. Should but one male baby survive, he could (on reaching his majority) reclaim all of his clan’s lands; and, under the customary law operating in Armenia, the Crown could be forced to fully restore and reinstate the sole survivor.

Under such potentially uncertain circumstances of life, the great nakharar clans took precautions to prevent total annihilation. It was most certainly concern for clan survival which initially led to the popularity of the dayeakut’iwn tradition among the lords. For if a nakharar’s infant sons lived in distant parts of the country, a massacre directed against the center of the nakharardom might cause great loss of life, but the children (and thus the future clan) would be safe. Custody of sole-surviving noble children was of paramount importance in nakharar Armenia, especially to the guardian Houses (tuns) which stood to gain from merging their lines with those of their dependent wards. Beyond insuring a clan’s survival in dangerous times, dayeakut’iwn served as a means of drawing nakharar families together in times of relative peace. The influence of the dayeak on his charge was deep and profound; similarly, the san (foster child) in later life often did his utmost to assist his dayeak or dayeak-family. Armenian historians of the fifth century, such as Agat’angeghos, P’awstos Buzand, and Ghazar P’arpets’i, have preserved several interesting references to dayeakut’iwn which confirm the double nature of this institution.

According to Agat’angeghos, it was thanks to dayeaks that the lives of the future king Trdat (Armenia’s first Christian king, ruled ca. 303-330) and the future Gregory the Illuminator or Grigor Lusavorich were saved. Both Grigor and Trdat were rescued in their infancies from extermination attempts directed against their clans.

The importance of the guardianship of noble children is seen once more in P’awstos’ account of Vach’e’s small son, Artavazd. In this instance, the child’s guardians also controlled the Mamikonians’ hereditary office of Sparapet (hereditary title of supreme commander) during their ward’s minority:

"…General Vach’e had a son who was a very small boy, named after his grandfather, Artawazd. They placed him on the pillow of his patrimonial gah [throne], and in the presence of the king, they placed his father’s patiw [diadem] on his head and put him in the sparapetut’iwn of his father. For [Artawazd] was the son of a very meritorious [individual], and of a very meritorious azg [race/tribe] and [furthermore] there was no other [individual] in that azg who was robust, since they had died in the great war. The affairs of the generalship were assumed by Arshawir Kamsarakan, prince of Shirak and the district of Arsharunik’, and by Andovk, prince of Siwnik’, since they were brothers-in-law of the tun [House] of the Mamikonean tohm. The great archbishop Vrt’anes and the king ordered Arshawir and Andovk to raise the lad Artawazd so that he might occupy the position of his ancestors and of his father…."

Medieval sources often focus on the male dayeaks and their role in protecting and educating the future clan leaders. However, this role was not exclusive to men, and it can be inferred from several accounts in medieval texts. The work of Movses Khorenatsi The History of Armenia (5th c. AD) as well as Armenia’s epic Daredevils of Sassoun both contain information on the role of women on this topic. Khorenatsi’s work provides a fleeting glimpse of the Armenian noblewoman’s role in dayeakut’iwn.

"But we must say why he was called Sanatruk. Abgar’s sister, Awde, was traveling to Armenia in winter when she encountered a snowstorm in the mountains of Korduk’. The tempest scattered them all until no one could descry his travelling companion. Now his dayeak Sanota, sister of Biurat Bagratuni and wife of Xoren Artsruni, took the child—for he was an infant—and put him in her bosom, remaining under the snow for three days and three nights. They tell a fable about this to the effect that a marvelous white animal was sent by the gods and protected the child. But as far as we understand the matter, it happened like this: a white dog sent out to search for them, found the child and dayeak. So he was called Sanatruk, which is derived from the dayeak’s name, meaning “gift of Sanota.”

Sanatruk and Avde after three days in snow storm, by G. Fusaro (19th c.) 

Dayeak relations protected the clan from domestic and foreign threats to its physical existence. Whether in times of warfare or of relative peace, the dayeak’s influence over his ward was substantial. Sometimes motivated by kinship, altruism, and humanity, the fourth century nakharars often appear to have used dayeakut’iwn to further their own clan’s ambitions.

Source: People of Ar, Dayeakut’iwn in Ancient Armenia by Robert Bedrosian (1984)


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