(The following is excerpted from Matthew J. Sarkisian. An Early-Eighteenth-Century Hmayil (Armenian Prayer Scroll): Introduction, Facsimile, Transcription and Annotated Translation, Edited and with a Foreword by Jesse S. Arlen. Sources from the Armenian Christian Tradition, volume 1. New York, NY: Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center, 2022. Used with permission, and available for download here.)
A hmayil (հմայիլ, pronounced hum-eye-eel) is a scroll containing prayers, supplications, Psalms, Gospel passages, sharagans (hymns), and incantations. They were typically only a few inches wide, yet could be over thirty feet in length. When rolled up, hmayils were placed in small cloth cases and carried (or even worn) by Armenians for protection during the Early Modern period (ca. fifteenth to nineteenth centuries).
According to James R. Russell, Emeritus Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University, the word hmayil is derived from Arabic ḥamāyil, the broken plural of ḥamīla. Following Acharean’s etymological dictionary, Dr. Davit Ghazaryan, senior researcher at the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts in Yerevan (commonly known as the Matenadaran), contends that its source is the Pahlavi (Middle Persian) word humav, ‘blessed’. However, Andrzej Pisowicz, Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Oriental Philology, Jagiellonian University, Krakow, argues that although the Pahlavi word humāy (not humav), meaning ‘bird of good omen’, is the source of the older Armenian words hmayk‘ (հմայք), ‘omen, charm’, and hmayem (հմայեմ), ‘to augur, enchant’, neither Pahlavi word is the source of hmayil. In concurrence with Russell, Pisowicz contends that the word hmayil is derived from Arabic ḥimāla (plural ḥamāʾil), with a Semitic root of H-M-L, meaning ‘carry’, and points out that one of the meanings of Arabic ḥimāla is precisely ‘amulet’. Pisowicz believes that when Arabic words began to enter medieval Armenian dialects after the seventh-century expansion of Islam, the word h(a)mayil, with a meaning related to the verb ‘wear’, entered the Armenian language, and that this word later became associated with the older and (coincidentally) similar-sounding words hmayk‘ and hmayem.
The oldest extant hmayil is dated 1428 (Matenadaran Scroll No. 115), although it is possible that there were older ones that have not survived to this day. Hmayils were originally hand-written by scribes, and most of them were also illustrated. With the growth of Armenian printing houses in the latter-half of the seventeenth century, hmayils were also printed. Printed hmayils typically 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 that goes 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 preceding text, with some variant of the following formula: “be helper and guardian of this servant of God (name).”
Printed hmayils often included the same prayers in the same order, usually beginning with the well-known credal prayer of St. Nersēs Shnorhali (the “Gracious”), “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 41 and 12 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) seeking protection 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.
Hmayils are of linguistic interest in that the texts can encompass up to twelve centuries of the written Armenian language, with Scriptural passages written in the pure Classical Armenian of the “Golden Age” of the language (fifth century), the prayers of St. Gregory and St. Nersēs from the Pre-Middle Armenian period of the language (eighth to twelfth century), and later texts in which the language exhibits aspects of Middle Armenian (twelfth to seventeenth century). Compared to the Biblical texts and prayers of these Saints, the later texts are much simpler in their writing style as well as theology, and spelling and grammatical errors can be found. On occasion, borrowings from Arabic or Turkish are present, and the spelling of some words reflects the “western” pronunciation of certain consonants, which differs from that of Classical Armenian.
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 below (which 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) was printed in Constantinople in 1727, 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-one feet long. For the sake of presentation, the hmayil has been divided into twenty-eight sequential parts, with a transcription and translation of the Armenian text in each part.