Armenians: Kyrsilos and Strabo on a Thessalian origin story, on worship of Anahita and on supposed sacred prostitution (early first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Armenians: Kyrsilos and Strabo on a Thessalian origin story, on worship of Anahita and on supposed sacred prostitution (early first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 20, 2024,

Ancient author: Kyrsilos of Pharsalos (late fourth century BCE), FGrHist 130 F1, and Medeios of Larissa (late fourth century BCE), FGrHist 129 F1 (link to FGrHist), in Strabo (first century CE), Geography 11.14 (link).

Comments: After outlining peoples in historical Median territory, Strabo turns to the Armenians, who are characterized as largely adopting Median and Persian customs. Strabo draws on the historians Kyrsilos of Pharsalos (otherwise unknown) and Medeios of Larissa (both in Thessaly) for a Greek migration legend (the “ancient account” here) that has Armenians as a Thessalian Greek colony.

In outlining customs, Strabo suggests that Armenians particularly favoured the Persian deity Anahita and he claims that it was customary for Armenian women generally to engage in sacred prostitution. The notion that foreign peoples engaged in sacred prostitution and other supposedly sexually deviant behaviours is common in Greek ethnographic discourses but has recently been deconstructed by scholars as a myth. On the myth of sacred prostitution, see the comments on Herodotos’ account of Babylonians and Assyrians at this link.


[For Strabo’s preceding discussion of Medes, go to this link].

[Introduction to Armenia]

(11.14.1) Regarding Armenia, the southern parts of it have the Taurus mountains situated in front of them, which separates Armenia from the entire country between the Euphrates and the Tigris, the country called Mesopotamia. The eastern parts border on Greater Armenia and Atropatene. On the north it borders the mountains of Parachoathras that lie above the Caspian Sea, as well as Albania, Iberia, and the Kaukasos mountains [i.e. all east of the Black Sea, not to be confused with the western Albania and Iberia]. The Kaukasos mountains encircle these peoples and border on Armenia, and borders also on the Moschian and Kolchian mountains as far as the Tibaranians, as they are called. On the west are these peoples and the mountains Paryadres and Skydises in their extent to Lesser Armenia and the river-land of the Euphrates, which latter separates Armenia from Cappadocia and Commagene. . . [omitted extensive geographical details].

[Armenians’ origin story and customs, according to Kyrsilos and Medeios]

(11.14.12) There is an ancient account of the Armenian people (ethnos) to this effect: that Armenos of Armenion, a Thessalian city [near modern Petra, Greece] which lies between Pherai and Larisa on lake Boibe, as I have already said, accompanied Jason into Armenia. Kyrsilos the Pharsalian and Medeios the Larissaian, who accompanied Alexander, say that Armenia was named after Armenos, and that, of the followers of Armenos, some settled in Akilisene, which in earlier times was subject to the Sophenians, whereas others settled in Syspiritis, as far as Kalachene and Adiabene, outside the Armenian mountains. They also say that the clothing of the Armenians is Thessalian, for example, the long tunics, which in tragedies are called Thessalian and are wrapped around the breast, as well as the cloaks that are fastened on with clasps, another way in which the tragedians imitated the Thessalians. For the tragedian had to have some alien decoration of this kind. Since the Thessalians in particular wore long robes, probably because they of all the Greeks lived in the most northerly and coldest region, they were the most suitable objects of imitation for actors in their theatrical make-ups. And they say that Armenians’ style of horsemanship is Thessalian, both theirs and similarly that of the Medes. To this the expedition of Jason and the Jasonian monuments bear witness, some of which were built by the rulers of the country, just as the temple of Jason at Abdera was built by Parmenion.

(11.14.13) It is thought that the Araxes [Aras] river was given the same name as the Peneios [Pineios] river by Armenos and his followers because of its similarity to that river, because they say that that river also was called Araxes because of the fact that it “divided” (aparaxai) Ossa from Olympos, the division called “Tempe.” And it is said that in ancient times the Araxes in Armenia, after descending from the mountains, spread out and formed a sea in the plains below, since it had no outlet, but that Jason, to make it like Tempe, made the division through which the water now precipitates itself into the Caspian sea, and that for this reason the Araxene plain, through which the river flows to its sudden descent, was relieved of the sea. Now this account of the Araxes contains some plausibility. However, the account of Herodotos is not at all plausible, because he says that after flowing out of the country of the Matienians it splits into forty rivers and separates the Scythians from the Baktrians [Histories 1.202]. Kallisthenes, also, follows Herodotos.

[Other nearby peoples, including Saraparians, Gouranians and Medes]

(11.14.14) It is also said of certain of the Ainianians that some of them settled in Vitia and others above the Armenians beyond the Abos and the Nibaros mountain peaks [of mount Ararat]. These two mountains are parts of the Taurus, and of these the Abos is near the road that leads into Ekbatana past the temple of Baris. It is also said that certain of the Thracians, those called “Saraparians,” that is “Decapitators,” settled beyond Armenia near the Gouranians and the Medes, a savage and intractable people, mountaineers, scalpers, and beheaders, for this last is the meaning of “Saraparians.” I have already discussed Medeia in my account of the Medes. Therefore, from all this, it is supposed that both the Medes and the Armenians are in a way related to the Thessalians and the descendants of Jason and Medeia. This, then, is the ancient account. . . [omitted subsequent account of more recent history outlining who controlled the area under successive empires, ending with the Armenian rulers Tigranes and Artavasdes and subsequent client rulers allied with the Romans].

[Armenian customs related to the gods and supposed sacred prostitution]

(11.14.16) Now the sacred rites of the Persians, one and all, are held in honour by both the Medes and the Armenians. However, those for Anaitis [Persian goddess Anahita] are held in exceptional honour by the Armenians, who have built temples in her honour in different places, and especially in Akilisene. Here they dedicate to her service male and female slaves. Actually this is not a remarkable thing. But the most illustrious men among this people (ethnos) actually consecrate to her their daughters while young women. It is the custom for these first to be prostituted in the temple of the goddess for a long time and after this to be given in marriage. No one disdains marrying such a woman. Something like this is also related by Herodotos in his account of the Lydian women. He says that every one of them prostitutes themselves [Histories 1.93, 199]. And they are so kindly disposed to their lovers that they not only entertain them hospitably but also exchange presents with them, often giving more than they receive, since the girls from wealthy homes have resources. However, they do not admit any man that comes along, but probably those of equal rank with themselves.

[For Strabo’s subsequent discussion of Cappadocians, go to this link].


Source of translation: H.L. Jones, Strabo, 8 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1917-28), public domain (passed away in 1932), adapted by Harland.

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