A hmayil (հմայիլ) is a paper scroll containing prayers, supplications, Psalms, Gospel passages, sharagans, (hymns), and incantations. They were typically only a few inches wide, yet could be up to twenty-five feet in length. When rolled up, hmayils were placed in small cloth cases and carried (or even worn) by Armenians for protection, often by merchants undergoing potentially dangerous trading voyages during the Early Modern period (ca. fifteenth to nineteenth centuries).
The oldest extant hmayil is dated 1428 (Matenadaran Scroll No. 115), although it is certainly possible there were even older ones that have not survived to this day. Hmayils were originally hand-written by scribes, and most of them were also illustrated. The legibility of the script and elegance of the illustrations varied considerably. With the growth of Armenian printing houses in the latter-half of the seventeenth century, hmayils were also printed. Many printed hmayils contain a number of intricate woodcut illustrations (usually related to the subject matter, but sometimes simply for decorative purposes), and in many of them, the illustrations were hand-colored afterwards. The hmayils were printed in sections and then glued together to create a single scroll.
Hmayils were valued for their protective powers, and were often carried like an amulet, talisman or phylactery. In fact, the Armenian hmayil represents a continuation of that ancient tradition of wearing an amulet to ward-off or bind evil spirits, a phenomenon known across many cultures and going back to antiquity. At the end of many prayers, a space would be left open, usually after tsaṙayis astutsoy (ծառայիս աստուծոյ) “of/for this servant of God”, where the name(s) of the hmayil’s owner was to be written, so that its protective powers would specifically apply to those named. Prayers, hymns or songs that did not provide specific protection to the beneficiary would often contain an addendum, sometimes unrelated to the prayer, with some variant of the following formula: “be helper and guardian (օգնական և պահապան) of this servant of God (name).”
Printed hmayils often included the same prayers in the same order, usually beginning with St. Nersēs Shnorhali’s well-known prayer “With Faith I Confess” (Հաւատով Խոստովանիմ, Havadov Khosdovanim). They would often include supplications to the holy Virgin Mary, St. John the Forerunner, St. Stephen the Protomartyr, and St. Gregory the Illuminator, Prayers 12 and 41 from St. Gregory of Narek’s Book of Lamentation (Մատեան Ողբերգութեան, Matean Oghbergut‘ean), passages from the four Gospels, prayers for good commerce and the protection of merchants, and prayers (incantations) to protect from malevolent forces such as demons, evil spirits, and the evil eye. Since these malevolent forces were believed to be the cause of illness and disease, hmayils also provided healing to their named beneficiaries.
The Zohrab Information Center is in possession of one printed hmayil and four handwritten hmayils, and is currently investigating the means by which they can be digitized. Some images of these hmayils can be found here.
Library of Congress Hmayil
The hmayil below1 was printed in Constantinople in 1727,2 and is now part of the Armenian Rarities Collection of the Library of Congress. It is approximately four inches wide, and when unrolled, about twenty-two feet long. According to information on the Library of Congress website, the hmayil was repaired in the twentieth century with adhesive and Turkish paper currency. It received extensive conservation treatment at the Library of Congress and has been restored to almost its original state. Notwithstanding its very good condition, this hmayil is missing its first section and most of its second section, consisting of a decorative illustration, a short prayer to the Holy Trinity, and seven subject-matter illustrations. There is also a lacuna of approximately five lines near the end, which may not be apparent at first glance at the restored hmayil.
For the sake of presentation herein, the hmayil has been divided into twenty-eight sequential parts, and a transcription and translation of the Armenian text is presented in each part.
1 This hmayil was briefly presented by Dr. Jesse S. Arlen during the April 14, 2021, session of Krapar & Kini, and by Matthew Sarkisian during the March 28, 2022 session.
2 As stated at its end, Գրեցաւ Հէմայիլս ՚ի Թուին Հայոց, ՌՃՀԶ Մայիսի Ի, “This hmayil was written in 1179 of the Armenian Era [= 1727 a.d.] on May 20.”