Hungarian Belief in Fairies
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Author: M. J. Mandoki
Posted: August 12th. 2016
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A lot has been written about the Celtic, Norse and Greek faiths of Europe. If one looks for literature on Paganism or mythology, plenty of books and articles can be found on these traditions. What about the rest of the European Old Faiths, though? What is known about them? This question has led me to investigate my own background.
Having been born and raised in Hungary, I knew very little about the pre-Christian faith of Hungarians. For this reason, I bought a book on the Ancient Faith (better known in North-America as the Old Faith) on my recent trip to my home country. The book is called A Magyar Tündérvallás (The Hungarian Fairy Religion) (2015) , written by Lajos Bíró. The book has given me a new perspective on the Hungarian Ancient Faith and has enriched my greater understanding of the European traditions. The following is a summary of the basic Hungarian ancient belief in fairies.
First of all, there is a definite ontological problem in the Hungarian tradition. It is difficult to know what kinds of being (s) the Hungarians had truly worshipped before the arrival of Christianity. The identity of the main being is not a mystery; she is referred to as "Boldogasszony", which literarily means "happy woman". The issue is her status. Often times, she is understood and translated as "The Mother Goddess". However, there is little evidence that Hungarians ever believed in gods. Rather, she is identified with the name "Ilona" who is known to be the Queen of the Fairies in Hungarian literature (Bíró, p. 41) . Hence, it is much more appropriate to think of the Hungarians as worshippers of fairies rather than worshippers of gods.
Of course, even the word "fairy" can cause a problem. The Hungarian word is tündér, which is clearly derived from the verb "to shine" or "to sparkle". Hence, the fairy is a being that shines or sparkles. It comes very close to the idea that a fairy is another-worldly being of light or, at least, emits light. Unfortunately, the nature of these sparkly or shiny beings is often in question because their description is also reminiscent of the nymphs found in Greek mythology (p. 27) . Most likely, the problem is rooted in the original Hungarian understanding of these beings that is dissimilar to beings of other faiths.
To be more specific, although the pre-Christian Hungarians had a clear understanding of their own faith; that is, the ontological nature of Ilona; she simply cannot be neatly identified with any existing categories the English speakers are familiar with. Still, she can be best thought of as the Queen of Fairies.
The name "Ilona" is also mysterious. The etymology of the name informs people that Ilona is the "bright one" or "shining light". It is associated with the Greek name "Helena" and Helen of Troy. Yet, there is a lot more to this name. Ilona is made of two Hungarian words. In the old Hungarian language, "ill" or "illa" means breath and "ana" or "ama" means womanly or mother (Magyar, p. 75) . Thus, the words suggest that she is the original mother whose breath is responsible for the existence of visible reality.
All fairies serve the queen of the fairies. Often times, they serve as messengers to people. Fairies can be seen at full moon (Bíró, p. 33) . They descend from mountaintops or emerge through mountain caves, which are known to be symbolic entrances from and to higher levels of reality. According to the most ancient belief, fairies are associated with springtime. In fact, their land is called "springland" (p. 33) . The reason is simple. The queen of fairies and her messengers are creators and the time of creation is springtime. Nature comes alive and recreates herself at this time. This is the reason that fairies are known to have flowers fallen from the sole of their feet when they dance. They are creators of life and beauty. Hence, the most ancient belief puts the greatest dance of the fairies to the end of spring, at Summer Solstice. They descend to the highest clearance below the mountaintop for their dance. Apparently, they put on a big show in honour of the end of spring, the end of their time of creation.
The fairies' world is often located on mountain tops (p. 54) . They live on the top of golden mountains so high that whoever climbs up on them is often directly faced with the moon and the stars. The trees, shrubs and houses are all made of gold. Yet, other Hungarian traditions associate them with water. They arrive from the forest walking down on mountain springs to dance (p. 65) . In other tales, fairies live on islands inside trees that reach up to the heavens in the middle of lakes and the fairies can be seen swimming at moonlight. Some stories go as far as associating fairies with swamps.
Symbolically, swamps represent the original, dark chaos of the universe out of which life has emerged (p. 66) . Its filthy, smelly and wet environment, which is, nevertheless, filled with life and has a sexual connotation, as well. Thus, fairies are both associated with the purest perfection of the higher worlds and the original chaos of the universe before its birth.
One thing is for certain: fairies are the most beautiful creatures in the universe. Ilona is often described using the adjective "beautiful" in old songs. She is cited as Beautiful Ilona, the most beautiful woman in the world, reminding people that she has another-worldly appearance, a bedazzling presence. She is described as wearing pearls, which is directly associated with seashells (p. 70) . Her linkage to both water and beauty offers similarity with the depiction of Aphrodite in Greek mythology. The fairies in general are thought to be beautiful women with very long hair. They are sometimes seen above waters combing their long hairs.
The beauty of the fairies is emphasized in their presence in animal forms, as well. They take the shape of birds in Hungarian songs and stories (p. 72) . They may appear as golden ducks, white swans, doves or, most often, geese. In old Hungarian fairy tales, their forms depend on the role they play. They are ducks in stories where abundance is emphasized. They are swans, if the focus is on their beauty. They are doves, if they need to carry messages or whisper secrets. They are geese, if the nature of their being is highlighted. In fact, the most important form they can have is the form of goose.
The word for goose in Hungarian is "lúd", which is very close the word "lélek" that means spirit. As geese, they are in the form of spirit being, emphasizing their origin from the higher world. The image is that of a white coloured spirit being, light in weight, travelling through the air with ease and landing as sparkly, shiny beings of light in an instance. Of course, their correlation with the Greek element of air is undeniable.
Despite the fact that fairies fly out of their castle and dance at full moon, they are still thought to be "Sun-Beings". The sun is the powerful, blinding light that can warm up the beings on this Earth, making life possible. The fairies love warmth and light, as the golden colour of their land and hair show. They appreciate the offerings of warm and sweet bread, honey and milk. It may come as a surprise to some people that these sun and warm loving fairies are set in direct opposition to the dark, moon loving Witches who are thought to be evil (p. 55) .
The Hungarian Ancient Faith is not kind to witches*. Witches are linked to winter, darkness and the underworld. In some parts of Hungary, the belief exists that, if bad things happen at new moon, it means that the Witches have grown in their evil power. The waxing moon grows the Witches' power and the waning moon weakens it. Yet, in between the two, the full moon belongs to the fairies.
In sheer truth, the Hungarian culture and language do not carry supportive understanding of the concept of "witch". The nature based Ancient Faith is not associated with Witchcraft at all. The reason is simple. The word "witch", as it is known in Western Europe and North-America, has its origin in Old English and Low German. It comes from the word "Wicca" and is associated with supernatural powers. The Hungarian word "boszorkány" (witch) , on the other hand, comes from the Old Turkish word "baszargan", which means "to push". The word is linked to the lingering spirits who are Earth-bound and are trying to return to the physical world by entering a woman's womb. They are thought to be pushy, in a sense of being aggressive, and can cause illnesses.
Hence, the general image of the Witch in Hungary is of a person who works with dark and evil forces of Earthbound spirits. The word itself was reshaped and gained today's more popular meaning in Hungary during the Mediaeval Ages with the introduction of Christianity where women were accused of being heretics and possessing evil powers. In essence, the Ancient Faith is not kind to Witches in Hungary because of their origin as evil, lingering spirits rather than as great beings with supernatural powers.
In fact, with the revival of paganism in Hungary, practitioners of the Ancient Faith call themselves "táltos", which translates to priest and stands close to the meaning and idea of a shaman. Táltos is a word that is used to describe a priest of the Ancient Faith only. A Christian priest uses the word "pap", which is completely different both in form and meaning. The word "witch" does not seem to be in use in relation to the Ancient Faith at all. This is the reason that I found it rather amusing that Silver RavenWolf's book, "Teen Witch" was translated word for word to Hungarian. It is funny, since the concept of the "witch" in Hungarian is meaningless in the sense that it is used on the cover of the book. Teenage táltos (priest (ess) or shaman) would have reflected RavenWolf's meaning much more faithfully.
All in all, the Hungarian Ancient Faith in fairies offers a lot more than just providing information about fairies. It teaches the difficulties of translating words that carry unique ideas and concepts. It also demonstrates the danger of misidentifying and misunderstanding ontological beings and their metaphysical places in reality. Although the Hungarian story of the fairies clearly borrows from other traditions, such as the Greek and the Turkish, the belief is unique and requires a great deal of study to truly understand it.
I have personally gained a great deal by investing the time into the study of these fairies. They are mysterious and beautiful beings, carrying an almost romantic image, yet, at the same time, a deeper philosophical sense, as well, about the origin and destination of human life in the greater reality. As an author and philosopher, it also inspired me to write a short story called, The Dance of the Fairies, that I sent to a short story competition. Since life is not about the destination but about the journey, I can say that spending time with the Hungarian fairies from my birth country was well worth the journey.
* I did not capitalize the words "witch" and "witches" in certain places in the text. I argue in the essay that the Hungarian word is not equivalent to the English. I did capitalize them where the English meaning of them were used. I have also used Canadian English to write the essay. The spelling of some words may be different from the American spelling.
Bíró, L. (2015) . A Magyar Tündérvallás (The Hungarian Fairy Religion) , Budapest: Angyali Menedék Kiadó
Magyar, A. (1997) . A Csoda Szarvas (The Miraculous Stag) , Budapest: Magyar Adorján Baráti Kör
She Knows Canada Baby Names, Powered by Zergnet. Resource retrieved: http://www.sheknows.com/baby-names/name/ilona
Hungarian Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia, citing the works of Gábor Lükö on belief in witches. Resources retrieved: https://hu.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boszork%C3%A1ny
M. J. Mandoki
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