A few comments on myths, magyar and Christian. Posts proceed by date, from bottom to top.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Szent István

István, the son of Géza, the son of Taksony, the son of Zsolt, the son of Árpád, the son of Álmos, the son of Ügek and Emese...

István died in 1038 and was sainted in 1083. August 20 is the day of his feast in Hungary. When he was born, he was given the name Vajk, but was baptized István (Estefan, Stefan, Steven; from stephanos, Greek for crown. Nomen est omen). His father had had the ambition of founding a Christian dynasty, but according to church legends he could not, as an angel told him in a vision, because he had blood on his hands. (Which monarch did not?) But his son would fulfill the dream.

The historical István was a strong, talented ruler, who built a western, European kingdom based on a mixed, in part semi-nomadic population - thus finishing the work his father had begun. He organized counties, bishoprics, built churches and cathedrals, a bureaucracy, successfully sought diplomatic ties with Bavaria to the left, and the Slavic kingdoms to the east. He was powerful enough to defend Hungary against invaders, eastern or western.

He took a wife, Gizella, from the Bavarian dynastic line, thereby sealing the Western alliance. The alternatives would have been remaining independent, "pagan", at war with the rest of the world, or accepting Byzantine Orthodoxy, as eastern and southern Slavdom had done. But then Hungary would still have remained a target for the West.

In fact István did have to fight, on several fronts. Against German armies that threatened the country's independence; against his own kinfolk, who, with their supporters, sought to overthrow and even murder him; against "pagan" rebels, who hated the often foreign clergy and taxes collected by the lords, ecclesiastic and worldly.

Louis Elteto

Thursday, August 12, 2004

The Christian Symbols

The Communists suppressed not only nationalism and its symbols, they also did their best to control and eventually eliminate Christianity and its churches.

To me, Communism is a religion, and the party is its church.
And churches traditionally tolerate no competition. Convert or be destroyed. See the Islamist parallels in our own times.

It was so in Hungary after 896. István's father, Géza [GAY-zuh] accepted Christ, and István took his religion so seriously that he later achived sainthood. But during his life he dealt harshly with those Magyars who opposed him - Magyars labeled simply pagans by the chroniclers. (There were other considerations as well, and debate about their nature has yet to cease.) There were riots, civil wars, and in the end, Roman Catholic domination of the newly organized Hungarian realm.

There have been Hungarian nationalists (and there are a number still) who see the establishment of the official state church in Hungary as little more than a German plot. That view stems from several
later centuries of Habsburg rule, during which - much as in Spain, also a Habsburg realm - church and state existed in symbiosis with one another. What was good for the church was thought good for the country, and vice versa.

But the Reformation and the concurrent Turkish occupation of much of Hungary changed many a thing. From that point on, national-populists were usually Protestants, while royalists tended to remain loyal Catholics.

In the 16th century it was religion which was the most important mark of a man, not national allegiance. The writers of the day speak of Magyar heroes in the same context as of Christian soldiers, and it turns out that either label could fit Germans, Croats and other groups subject to the Crown. In the 17th century, Count Miklós Zrínyi writes his famous epic of the Hungarian defense of Szigetvár (Fort Sziget) from the Moslems, in which many of the protagonists are Croats. Zrínyi himself, though a Hungarian aristocrat, was of prominent Croatian stock.

The symbols of Christianity need not be explained to the educated American reader: belief in the Bible as the Word of God, belief in Christ, in the resurrection (or eternal life), the Cross, the Holy Ghost, to mention but the most important, are symbols for Catholics and Protestants alike. The interpretation of these symbols may have differed from church to church and time to time, but all agree that those who have accepted them were - or are - Christians. There are additional symbols galore that are not universally Christian, e.g. the Papacy, the mass, the saints, the sign of the Cross. These are Catholic symbols and signs, rejected by most Protestant denominations. The chalice was - and has remained - a Protestant symbol of the Reformation, because the Catholics would only let the priests have a drink of wine during communion, not the congregation. But even they have relented since.

Some disagreements - about predestination, for instance, or whether God was one in three or three in one, or only one now and forever, have lost their significance for most intelligent people today, but were questions to die for - and to kill for! - in those dark days of brutal power struggle among nations and churches.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

The Discrediting of Myths

Christianity has taught, from the beginning, that there is neither "Greek nor Jew" in Christ, there are only Christians. The Catholic Churches - Greek and Roman - did their best to destroy so-called "pagan" myths, but they did strive to satisfy the need for identification with national symbols, among other things by elevating members of various nations (let me refrain from using the often pejorative term "ethnic group") to sainthood and by the establishment of holy places.

The Magyars were given saints for the most part from members of the Árpád dynasty: István and László were kings, Imre a crown prince, Margit, Erzsébet, Kinga and Hedvig princesses. Emese was largely forgotten - until the 19th century, when a romantic nationalism rediscovered her and the chronicles where she had resided. (As to holy places, let's just take Csíksomlyó [cheek-showm-yowe] in Transylvania, which has become a national place of pilgrimage every summer, and not just for Catholics.)

This "modern," romantic nationalism was blatantly used by political-military alliances in nearly all European countries as propaganda in support of their megalomaniac "right wing" policies. Look at the monuments that governments built to celebrate themselves - you will find them in Paris and in Rome, in Berlin and Vienna - and even in Budapest. The superman-sized statues of national heroes on Hősök tere (Heroes' Square) are certainly not congruent with Hungarian military history since, say, 1301, when the last Árpád ruler "laid down his spoon".

World War I should have taught Europe a lesson, but not all were willing to learn it. In particular the German and the Italian governments (Hitler and Mussolini) exploited mythical ideas to further their ends.

But let's stay with Hungary. To make a long story short, Hungary lost both world wars. After the second loss came 44 years of Soviet occupation and a Communist regime that was not at all tolerant regarding national symbols of any kind. (There had been a brief Bolshevik government in 1919 as well.) The Communists pursued a conscious demythologization of Hungarian history and literature, with the result that two generations grew up before 1989 (the year of Communism's collapse in Hungary) without a familiarity with Emese and related symbols.

With the newly found freedom we are now witnessing a renewal of interest in the old national symbols. Unfortunately, there is no lack of dilettantes who take them literally, and respectable intellectuals will therefore have nothing to do with them.

Yet the symbols are a fountain of Magyar culture; used responsibly, they preserve and fructify.


According to old chronicles, Emese [eh-meh-sheh] was the name of the mother of Álmos [ahl-mowsh] (from the root álom=dream), the father of Árpád, the founder of the Árpád Dynasty, Hungary's first royal family after the Settlement (around 896 AD). The mythical turul bird, one of the Hungarians' totem animals, appeared to Emese in a dream and announced to her the coming of her son, Álmos, from whom a mighty people would descend.

This is an example of a myth. Myths are often a set of symbols that a people hold in common, and are themselves neither true nor untrue. They are part of a common heritage with whom the people to whom it has been given identifies. White Americans, being a young nation, have no similar myths, but the oldest inhabitants of the land, the Native Americans or Indians, certainly do. That people need to identify with such myths may explain the inordinate fascination of currently younger Americans with Celtic legends and beliefs, or with Germanic paganism.

Many myth-motifs are universal, or nearly so - that is, they are found in all parts of the world. That does not make identifying with particular versions any less valid for a given people. Mothers' dreams of mighty sons, announced by mythical messengers may be legion - but Emese belongs only to the Magyars (as do Álmos and Árpád, who are both also historical).