Hungarian Religion

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HUNGARIAN RELIGION . Hungarian belongs to the Uralic languages, which can be traced back by historical linguistic methods at least to 50004000 bce. Its subdivision, the Finno-Ugric languages, can be traced back similarly to 40003000 bce. To reconstruct the earliest possible phases of Uralic or Finno-Ugric religions, we could find their roots in etymologies in the northernmost parts of Central Eurasia. The Ugrians (i.e., today's Voguls, Ostyaks, and Hungarians) might have lived to the east of the Ural Mountains from about 3000 bce. They were hunters, fishermen, and gatherers around the taiga area. We do not know with any certainty when the Hungarians finally separated from the Ob-Ugrians remaining in Siberia, but their long westward migration lasted more than two thousand years. Thus, the forefathers of the Hungarians crossed the steppes and finally learned animal husbandry and some agriculture. When Byzantine and other sources describe in the eighth- and ninth-centuries ce the way of life of the Hungarians (whom they called Turks), they mention their military ability, the "worship of the fire" and burials, their "sacred kings," and a rather complicated social structure of tribes and auxiliary tribes characteristic of nomads. By about 896 ce the seven Hungarian tribes invaded the central regions of the Carpathian Basin. Hungarian sources in medieval times were already calling the event the Conquest or Land-Taking. It was the turning point in the history of religions among the Hungarians.

Only after that time do we find relevant historical, linguistic, and archaeological data that reflect the religion of early Hungarians. Since then Europeans have seen them as relatives of the Huns, and that false association became the origin of the term Hungarian in European languages. The ethnonym Magyar, a term that can be traced back to Ugrian time, is identical with the ethnonym of the Voguls, Mansi.

Inseparable from the establishment of the feudal Hungarian kingdom, Christianity was declared the official religion in 1000 ce by the Roman church. But we know from historical and linguistic data that even before that time Hungarians had already had contacts with Byzantine, Czech, German, and Italian priests, and already among the "conquering" Hungarians were adherents of the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths. Hungarian Muslims, called böszörmény, originally meaning "Musulman," lived in Hungary until about the fourteenth century. Several times the Jews in the Middle Ages were expelled from Hungary. Then Sephardic Jews came together with the Ottomans in the sixteenth century, but they left the country by the end of the seventeenth century. Immediately thereafter the forefathers of today's Hungarian Jews emigrated from Central Europe. The majority of the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi came from Galicia in the nineteenth century, when northeast Hungary was a haven for famous Hasidic "wonder-making rabbis."

Hypothetic Early Forms

Five thousand years of early Hungarian religion remains thus a field for comparative studies, based sometimes on speculation rather than research. In Hungarian there are Uralic words reflecting the dualistic concepts of the soul (lélek, "soul of the breath," later also with the meaning "spirit" or "ghost," as opposed perhaps to the later íz, a "spirit of disease"). A curious Hungarian word, reg-, "being intoxicated," can be compared with the "heat" component of the Siberian shaman's séance. If it is a cognate word to Hungarian rejt, "to hide," it might be connected with the activity of early seers too. The names for two figures in modern Hungarian folk beliefs, tudós and táltos (both "persons with supernatural power or knowledge") also have solid Uralic etymologies. On the other hand, the possible traces of Uralic totemism or shamanism in modern Hungarian are not known. No origin myth or legend among the Hungarians can be connected with such a distant time. Several scholars such as Róheim, Diószegi, and Hoppál have argued for such connectionsfor example, for the origin myth concerning the stars in the Milky Way (being "the path of the souls of the dead") or for the myth on chasing the mythical elk/deerbut their arguments are not convincing. The phratrial system of the Ob-Ugrians stresses a distinction between "raw meat eating" and "cooked meat eating" kinship groups, but this distinction was unknown among the Hungarians. In Hungarian there are no direct references even to the archaic Siberian cosmology (tripartite word, cosmic tree, the sky and stars as a tent with holes), and the Hungarian data (on upper and lower worlds, more precisely on the "other world," másvilág ) are too vague and too widely dispersed to date them back five millennia and exactly to the Uralic or Altaic area. Also, the oldest terms in Hungarian traditional healing, including the word beteg, "sick person," have Siberian parallels, which makes them hard to interpret.

During the time of the migrations the early Hungarians had long, steady, or fortuitous contact with several Turkic and Iranian peoples, and judging by the loanwords in Hungarian and some funeral customs, early attributes of the god(s) can be traced to that time. The South Siberian Altaic word for "shaman" (bö) was known in early Hungarian too, perhaps with the meaning "head of the sib, chieftain." At the time of the migration two interesting forms of totemism may have been developed: tribes and their leaders associated themselves with predatory birds (such as falcons and eagles), and an "agricultural totemism" developed in personal names. (The name of the leader of the Hungarians at the time of the Conquest, Árpád, literally "barley" plus a personal diminutive, is a good example.) In both cases the terminology comes from Turkic languages, which might have been the tongue of the tribal elite. The names for the "seven" tribes do not show direct religious indications.

A series of the most important words used even today in Hungarian religious terminology can be dated back prior to the Conquest. Examples include isten, "god"; ördög, "devil"; bűn, "sin"; üdv, "cheer," later "salvation"; bocsá/j/t, "to let free," later "to forgive"; /v/imád, "to worship," later "to adore" or "to pray"; and even kereszt, "cross." Since the words gyász, "mourning," and tor, "burial feast," belong to the same time, in those cases a continuation of customs and beliefs in later Hungarian folklore seems to be more plausible.

But even with such elaborate religious terminology, we do not find any name of any god among the Hungarians. We do not find any hints to a "mythology," even in the restricted sense of the word in which we can speak of the Ob-Ugrian "deities" or "mythology." On the other hand, the oldest known Hungarian word for "sacred" (igy ) was already used at this time. An alleged opposition between Boldogasszony, today the common name for "Holy Virgin Mary," more precisely "happy lady/woman," and szépasszony, "fair lady/woman," later a taboo name for "witch," can be dated back to that time; the problem is that we do not know the "first" meaning of those words. The word hiedelem, "belief," originally "a cool place, refrigerium," might have originated from this time, but it is registered only in late medieval Hungarian texts. Archaeological excavations from the time after the Conquest (in the territory of today's Hungary) show very rich tombs of tribal and military leaders mounted on their horses. The Hungarian tribes were surely for a while a part of the Khazar Kaganate and accepted also the institution of the Sacred King. Perhaps the father of Árpád, whose name was Álmos, "from a dream," was such a sacred ruler.

Religion after Accepting the Christian Faith

The conversion of the Hungarians was conducted through the drastic force of the state. Soon "pagan uprisings" (1046 and 1061) tried to restore old habits, including non-Christian dress, hairstyles, horse-meat eating, and horse sacrifices, and to destroy Christian churches and kill their priests. But behind these acts more political and less religious motivations were prevalent. From the decrees made by the first synod in Hungary (1092, organized by King László I) we learn of the strict prohibition of "pagan sacrifices beside springs, trees or stones," but the question arose: do the decrees reflect the actual religious situation in Hungary, or are the texts simply copies of Carolingian ecclesiastical law? As we know from the Regestrum Varadinense, ordeals (oaths upon red-hot iron) were imposed by the church; between 1208 and 1235 there were 389 such cases. "Great sinners" from Hungary had to pay to take faraway pilgrimages; for example, Georgius Miles de Ungaria (1353) and Lőrinc Tar (1410) had to visit St. Patrick's Purgatory.

The church in Hungary (in spite of good contacts with Byzantium) followed the Roman model. The imposing list of early dynastic saints in Hungary speaks to the strength of the new religion in Hungary. From the House of the Árpáds King Stephen I, Prince Imre (both canonized in 1083), King László I (canonized in 1192), Princess Elisabeth of Thuringia (canonized in 1235), and later Princess Margit (d.1270) were canonized. Among other countries in Europe, Hungary was proclaimed too as Regnum Marianum ("the Kingdom of the Holy Virgin Mary"). The veneration of King Stephan's "holy right hand" is known from 1083 on, and that of the "Holy Crown of Hungary" dates back as early as the fourteenth century (and is practiced today as well). The only religious order that emerged from Hungary (by about 1263) was the Paulians, named after the famous Hermit in Thebes. From the Angevin rulers from Naples Hungarian kings (since the fourteenth century) inherited "royal healing power" (also inherited later by the Hapsburgs). Large numbers of troops for the First, Second, and Third Crusades marched through Hungary, and King András II himself participated with Hungarian soldiers (12171218) in the Fifth Crusade. Among the places for pilgrimage for Hungarians, the most important were Rome; from 1307 the cathedral in Aachen (where King Louis the Great erected soon afterwards the magnificent Hungarian Chapel); from the thirteenth century Mariazell (where again King Louis built the Gothic Chapel in 1366); and later the tomb of Friar John of Capistran, who died in the famous 1453 Hungarian victory over the Turks. The various copies of the register of pilgrims from such cities as London, Paris, and Rome, Miracula Ioannis de Capistrano (1460), list from 180 to 621 (mostly healing) miracles there.

We do not know of early heretics active in Hungary. The bogomils in Bosnia from the twelfth century were persecuted by the Hungarian kings. We know of some flagellant groups strolling through Hungary. A few (German) Waldensians lived in west Hungary. The Hussites had some influence in Hungary too. Even a peasant revolt in Transylvania, led by Antal Budai Nagy (1437), expressed the same tendency of establishing a people's religion. The first extensive Bible translations into Hungarian date back to the second half of the fifteenth century. The religious terminology of the Hungarian translations of the Hussite Bible hints back to earlier centuries. From its very beginning (twelfththirteenth centuries) the vernacular literature in Hungary used elaborate religious terminology, including expressions of Mariology and mysticism. It was further developed by the Franciscans, who preached in Hungarian, and especially during the time of the Reformation.

Humanism in Hungary reached its highest point in the court of King Matthias Corvinus. He invited Italian scholars, who spread Neoplatonism, hermetism, and astrology among the elite. Johannes Regiomontanus (from 1468 on) worked in Buda in cataloging Greek astronomical manuscripts in the royal library, and in 1471 he made suggestions for a new university in Pozsony. Late Humanism in Hungary easily adopted the ideology of the Reformation. For example, Péter Bornemisza in his printed book Ördögi kísértetek (1578) added actual Hungarian narratives to Philipp Melanchthon's Lutheran devil lore. But only members of high society knew about magic, occultism, and alchemy. Paracelsus visited Hungary, John Dee wrote his Monas Hieroglyphica (1563) in Hungary, and even later he (and Edward Kelly) had Hungarian contacts. Count Boldizsár Batthyány collected a rich library of occult and alchemical works between 1570 and 1580. Later István Weszprémi, in his biography of medical doctors in Hungary (17741787), could list a dozen alchemists working in Hungary. The "golden age" of alchemy in Hungary, however, took place in the decades before the French Revolution after it was practiced generally in Europe.

The fall of the independent Hungarian kingdom was first marked by the great peasant revolt (1514) led by György Dózsa with anticlerical and antifeudal violence, but it was not marked by the fanatism of a "new religion" (as in Germany). In 1516 the winner of the decisive battle at Mohács was Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Some years later the Reformation won quickly the larger part of the country, but the Ottoman invasion of the central region of Hungary (lasting about 150 years) ended the ecclesiastic structure too. The Counter-Reformation (from the early seventeenth century), supported by the Hapsburg rulers, was successful: two-thirds of the population again became Roman Catholic.

The Reformation in Hungary (and in Transylvania) went on in steps: first the moderate Lutherans, then the more presbyteranian Calvinists gained the majority. Somewhat later in Transylvania the Unitarians and Antitrinitarians organized their churches, making there a haven for refugees from Europe. The more radical movements (e.g., the Sabbatists) remained in fact small religious groups. In spite of Ottoman rule in central Hungary, the conversion to Islam was in fact insignificant (which makes a difference to several Balkan areas). The rest of the people there, without the church hierarchy, established small religious communities. The Reformation stressed the individual's or the community's direct responsibility for its spiritual welfare, including the constant fight against sin and the devil's tricks.

There are in Hungarian archives about five thousand documents of witch trials from about 1408 to about 1768. They follow the general European pattern, and we find little "great" or "politically motivated" witch-hunting. The majority of the witches were peasant women; thus, the trials had a strong flavor of Hungarian folk belief. The Inquisition proper was not active in Hungary then, but we know of a shortened Hungarian version of the Malleus Maleficarum from Mátyás Nógrádi's Lelki próbakő (1651). Hungarian Protestant theologians studied at German, Dutch, Swiss, and other universities, bringing home the ideas of Cartesianism and Puritanism. Visionary and chiliastic tendencies can be observed from the seventeenth to the late eighteenth centuries. Johannes Amos Comenius was professor of education in Hungary from 1650 to 1654. The then generally accepted actual and political prophecies of Miklós Drábik (Nicolaus Drabitius) were also published by Comenius (Lux e tenebris, 1655; Historia relevationibus, 1659).

Inchoative religious propaganda (following the Tridentinum principles) was very active in Hungary: miracle stories and private religious pictures were distributed through the eighteenth century. In the second half of the eighteenth century the Roman Catholic Church tried to regulate practically all folk customs. (See the activity of Bishop Márton Pedantic Biro from 1744 on.) At the same time Queen Maria Theresa and King Joseph II modernized education and health care; the later instructed a radical secularization of "nonteaching" religious orders. It was the age of the first anticlerical pamphlets in Hungary. Historians have tried to collect material on early forms of Hungarian religion too. Freemasons, Rosicrucians, and alchemists were active in Hungary in the second half of the eighteenth century. The founder of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, was a medical doctor in his youth in Transylvania. But then Hungary was better known in Europe as a land of the vampires. Dom Augustin Calmet published his Dissertations sur les Apparitions des Anges, des Démons et des Esprits et sur les Revenants et Vampires de Hongrie, de Bohème, de Moravie et de Silésie (1746), which was one of the most widely read books in Europe. The Hungarian cases he refers to are not very authentic. (The same identification of vampires with Transylvania, well known from Bram Stoker's book Dracula [1897], represents another false allegation.) Hungarian folk-belief narratives tell about werewolf-like figures in Transylvania, most probably a borrowing from Romanian folk beliefs.

From "Hungarian Mythology" to the Study of Folk Beliefs: The Importance of Research on Religion in Hungary

Describing the origin and development of "ancient religion" among the Hungarians was for a long time a preoccupation of Hungarian scholars. From the eighteenth century on there were various attempts, for example, by Ferenc Otrokocsi Fóris (16481714), Daniel Cornides (17321787), and others. In 1847 the Hungarian Academy announced a competition for describing "Ancient Hungarian Religion." The winner, Ferenc Kállay (17901861), and even Bishop Arnold Ipolyi (18231886) and others, tried to show a hypothetical "historical" stratification of religious practices among early Hungarians, called "Hungarian mythology," which is the equivalent to Deutsche Mythology by the brothers Grimm. There was much discussion about the topic but little in the way of acceptable results from a scholarly standpoint. During the last hundred years positivism, Freudianism, some forms of sociology, the neo-ritual school, and Marxism served as innovative methods.

Among contemporaneous Hungarian folklorists, Vilmos Diószegi (19231972) and Mihály Hoppál (1942) follow the historical-reconstructionalist school. Innovative ideas were expressed by Géza Róheim (18911953), founder of psychoanalytic folklore research. Recently Vilmos Voigt (1940), Gábor Klaniczay (1950), Éva Pócs (1936), György Endre Szőnyi (1952), Gábor Tüskés (1955), and others want to show the European and comparative horizons of the history of religion in a wider sense of the term. Their papers have been published in numerous languages. Hungarian religion is a very important field for comparative studies because Hungarians are the only non-Indo-European people in Central Europe, with their own traditions, at the same time representing fully the common European background of religions (at least during the last thousand years).

From the beginning of the nineteenth century, popular works against superstitions were published. New Protestant churches (Adventists, Baptists) developed in Hungary. Before the First World War new communities appeared, from Jehovah's Witnesses to Nazarenes and Tolstoianists. Atheism gained a free voice too. The Marxist state after World War II struggled against religion, but to a lesser degree than other East European countries. Among the "new religions" since the 1970s, first Hare Krishna and Bahaism arrived. Today there are several small modern Hindu and modern Buddhist churches. New Age or modern "heathen" religions are insignificant. The reconstruction of the "Old Pagan Hungarian Religion" is a preoccupation of a few intellectuals. A handful of "urban shamans" learn from old sources the techniques of ecstasy and combine it with rock-music-style performances. The Hit Gyülekezete ("Congregation of Faith") is the only new Hungarian church. One should not forget that Zionism was created by a Jew born in Hungary: Theodor Herzl (18601904). Rudolf Steiner (18611925), founder of Anthroposophy, spent decisive years of his youth in Hungary. At time of the Holocaust 90 percent of Hungary's Jews were killed, but today there is a Jewish revival in Hungary, though it often lacks religious motivations.

Hungarian folklorists have made summary descriptions of folk beliefs and customs during the last two centuries. Thank to professor Sándor Bálint (19041980), the study of (mostly Roman Catholic) popular religion is very productive. The "lay prayers" were collected and published by Zsuzsanna Erdélyi (1921). József Török (1946) has studied the early Christian liturgy in Hungary. Catholic pilgrimage and imagery were studied by Gábor Barna (1950) and József Liszka (1956). Greek United folklore is a special topic of Elek Bartha (1956) and others. The Antitrinitarian (and similar) movements were the research topic of Antal Pirnát (19301997), Róbert Dán (19361986), Mihály Balázs (1948), and others. Adventists and Protestants in general were studied by László Kardos (19181980), Ambrus Molnár (19222000), and Professor Jenő Szigeti (1936). Jewish studies have a glorious past in Hungary. See the works of Immanuel Löw (18541944), Vilmos Bacher (18501913), Bertalan Kohlbach (18661944), andlast but not leastthe director of the Rabbinic Seminar in Budapest, Sándor (Alexander) Scheiber (19131985), who was one of the best-known Jewish folklorists. Hungarians are conducting important fieldwork studies in Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Carpatho-Ukrainia, discovering archaic beliefs and at the same time interethnic contacts.

The study of the sociology of religion in Hungary (especially in recent works by Miklós Tomka (1941), István Kamarás (1941), and others) is today again in progress. On the religious history of Hungary only the first sketches have been made. Still a new handbook on religions in Hungary has not yet appeared.

See Also

Alchemy; Anthroposophy; Astrology; Crusades; Dömötör, Tekla; Finno-Ugric Religions; Judaism, articles on Judaism in Northern and Eastern Europe to 1500, Judaism in Northern and Eastern Europe since 1500; Magic; Pilgrimage; Reguly, Antal; Shamanism; Witchcraft.


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