UPDATE 3/6/15: This post was made back in 2012, when I was just starting to explore Hungary’s past and long before I started piecing together a possible “pagan path” of Hungary’s culture and mythology. For more detailed (and better written) information use the Hungary, Magyar, 30 Days of Paganism, and Deities tags or search for those keywords to find my other posts about Hungarian paganism. I am in the process of compiling a link list for all the posts I make of that topic so that it’s all easier to find.
Hello all, it’s hard to believe that it has already been half a year since my last post here, but I really was that busy. Thankfully my thesis is done and I can do a bit of personal stuff, like this blog.
Something that I have been wrestling with this past year is the title of this post, “Hungarian Paganism”, and the fight is far from over. People have been living in Central Europe since Neanderthal times, and the land has seen many tribes migrate through and/or settle on it over the ages. These people include at least some of my ancestors, as I have two known Great-grandparents that came from Hungary in the late 1800s/early 1900s. This includes a Budapest connection, which was a pretty cosmopolitan city back then.
So naturally, in my personal quest to form a “paganism” through my heritage, Hungary’s ancient past becomes relevant. The problem is the lack of English sources, as Hungarian does not translate as well as German does into English. On top of the fact that Hungarian myth and religion does not seem to excite a lot of scholars outside of Hungary itself, so as an American my options are extremely limited. What little I have found so far, I have to be wary of, in case it’s just 19th century Romanticism and other modern bullcrap that is made to fill in the holes.
Life is just so difficult sometimes.
Frustrating aspects aside, I’m slowly piecing together some sort of cosmology, deity list, and ideas of customs. There are things from English and a few Hungarian sources that are repeated often, and can be seen in collected folklore. One idea is the concept of a Tree of Life or a World Tree, which is depicted in various ways in folklore. Often it is a gigantic tree that seem to grow up into the heavens and carries the houses and special horses of various beings in the branches. These include the Sun, Moon, witches, dragons, trapped princesses, and stopping points for the táltos or tátos (a term that is roughly translated into English as “shaman”, because the role shares some characteristics with Mongolian shamans…however, “shaman” is misleading, so I will continue to use the Hungarian term instead). The tree may also have the Turul falcon roosting at the top, alongside the Sun and Moon being carried in the branches (rather than living in houses). Supposedly the world tree is divided into 3 sections or worlds, which is basically Upper world/Heaven, Middle World/Earth’s surface, and Underwold/Hell (Heaven and Hell are mentioned because the tree has been incorporated into folk Christianity over time). The entire tree is said to grow out of the skull of a horse or a deer (Wikipedia says a reindeer, which doesn’t make much sense given the geographic location of Reindeer).
I’ve seen this World Tree concept be used as a bit of evidence for the Magyar-FinnoUgric connection theory in linguistics, because those cultures also seem to have a World Tree concept. I’m no professional in either linguistics or ancient history, so I don’t know how sturdy this theory is, but the tree does look similar to concepts usually seen in Central Asia.
This link has a translation and scanned images of some information about “Hungarian Shamanism” made in the 1800s, so it is necessary to keep a bag of salt nearby. However, there are some interesting details about the World tree and the táltos there. They have been recorded to exist up to the 20th century (and if any legit ones still exist today or realize what they are, I highly doubt they would mention it to anyone).
Deities/honored beings are a tougher area to figure out. So far the most commonly mentioned one, and the one that still maintains some relevancy to contemporary Hungary under a Catholic guise, is Boldogasszony. Apparently that name is really a title grouping 7 individuals together, and the mother of them all is called Nagy Boldogasszony. The roles ascribed to her, or them, includes common “Mother Goddess” ideas such as fertility (of family and land) and agriculture (which is basically another form of fertility concerns). She also seems to play a part in enforcing social taboos against women, such as what days to wash clothing on. Interestingly, that day is Tuesday, which is also a day linked to a being enforcing social taboos in German, Austrian, Polish, and other countries’ folklore. In a most creative fashion, these beings are called “Tuesday women”. Just something about Tuesdays I suppose, not sure why that is.
Nowadays [Nagy] Boldogasszony is another Virgin Mary, acting as the Queen of Hungary. It is unclear if this means that Mary corresponds greatly to traits that Boldogasszony already had back then, or if it is a superficial correspondence made through the two of them being (relatively) big deals in their respective cultures.
It is possible that the people of legend, such as Emeshe and Nimrod, were not humans at all but were actually the names of old deities or highly powerful ancestors. Nimrod in particular, since his name seems to suggest being a wind or storm person, but I have little evidence to support such a thing. There is a linguistics argument for Emeshe to be a reference to the magical stag of legend, as the stag is actually a horned doe in Hungarian origin stories. So perhaps a representation of another deity that once had an animalistic form, maybe like the Turul? I realize that’s grasping at straws though, given how difficult it is to understand how people viewed the world back then.
I am also not sure if the Sun and Moon would be considered deities in their own right, or just be some balls that move around in the sky. Personification does occur in folklore, but lots of things get personified in that without any deeper meaning behind the act.
The most frustrating deity discovery by far is that of Xatel-Ekwa, supposedly a sun goddess that travels across a sky by being pulled by horses. I cannot find a single scrap of information on such a being that is not a copy-pasted one-liner on personal websites. Though the horse thing I can believe, as horses were quite a big deal to the old nomads. Their economic importance is reflected in art and stories, and they may have been used in major sacrificial rites at one point. As much as filling in the blanks using cross-cultural analysis is a tricky thing to do, the prominence of horses in the lives of humans all over Eurasia (and eventually, all over the world) suggests to me that divine uses or origins of horses in Hungarian culture is not improbable.
Finally, there is a suggestion, through linguistics, that Ördög, the Devil in contemporary usage, was once a sort of underworld or death deity. Not much on that unfortunately, I don’t think there is much in the way of folklore or old texts to suggest such a thing.
Now, regarding old Hungarian/Magyar customs, I did find a few so far that seemed to have a unique purpose (i.e. not something built with later Westernized Christianity’s influence). As I mentioned before, Boldogasszony is considered to be the Virgin Mary, and so she’s taken on the church’s holidays for Mary as well. This includes a day in May (often considered Mary’s Month, as one of her titles is the Queen of May in association with the springtime), where the English translation means “fruit-grafting”. This is May 25th, a little later than the Catholic holiday for Mary that occurs in Chicago but still close. What we do here is a May crowning ceremony during the first week of May, and the specific date changes slightly each year. People would bring flowers and rosaries to be blessed, and this time of year is when planting for most food crops could occur (winter lasts until April around here). This probably isn’t unique to the city though, but I digress.
Back to holidays, there seems to be another holiday in Boldogasszony’s honor on December 26th, for families. This I find interesting, because within Germanic heathenry there is a practice called “Mothernight” (various spellings) that typically occurs on December 24th. This comes from Bede’s 8th century account of the pagans he lived with in what is now known as the UK. Many Germanic reconstructionists have adopted this practice, and it may have existed near Central Europe before Christinization occurred. So I wonder if this is one of many Germanic influences on the Magyars over time, or if it existed independently. I cannot say. I personally like the idea though, as that time of year seems to be heavily associated with ghosts and scary beasties (a la’ Wild Hunt stories).
In one origin legend, where the sons Hunor and Magor (founding fathers of the Huns and Magyars, respectively) chased the magical horned doe, they happened upon a group of women dancing in celebration of some sort of holiday. It is said that this was in celebration of the magical doe, but I’m sad to say that the date is completely unknown. This has piqued my interest though, and I will not stop searching out for this possible custom (mainly because I have a personal fondness for deer, having had many interesting interactions with our White-tailed deer when out in the fields).
That’s about it so far. If you have kept up with my ramblings then you definitely deserve a cookie. Since this is a recent attempt looking at only Hungarian/Magyar sources, I may be more fruitful later one with including other known ethnicities that may have contributed to Hungarian culture. Those like the Scythians, for one, as according to Heterodous they had a settlement in Central Europe. In addition, the Scythian stag from archeological remains found in Hungary also points to a cultural contribution (and perhaps a genetic one as well). There are also a number of journal articles regarding Hungarian culture that I have sitting around in my room unread, and there might be tidbits of info in them
I have hope that a sort of Hungarian paganism can be dug up and explored, however. It’s just a matter of being patient. There’s many sources to look into of course, but it’s the separation of Christian and outside influences from the “native” paganism (as native as possible at least) that takes a long time to do.
“Hungarian Myth and Legend” http://users.cwnet.com/millenia/legend.htm
“Orkneyjar- Helya’s Night” http://www.orkneyjar.com/tradition/yule/yule3.htm
“Hungary- Paganism and non-Christian religion” http://christianization.hist.cam.ac.uk/regions/hungary/hungary-pagan-non-christ.html