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Hungary - Paganism and non-Christian religions

1. Evidence of paganism

1A. Pagan genealogies

The genealogy of the Hungarian ruling house (house of Árpád) was seen as continuous from pagan through Christian times. Its descent, according to one myth recorded in a modified form in the medieval Christian chronicle of the Hungarian Anonymous, was from the union of a woman (Emese) and a hawk. He also related the genealogy of leading nobles as descendants of conquering chieftains. The Hungarians according to him came from Scythia. The Chronicle of the Hungarian Anonymous is dated to the late 12th or early 13th century by most scholars, and to the late 13th century by some. The information given by the chronicler  is now widely seen as partly reflecting trends in his own age and partly being learned inventions rather than precise data from earlier periods. The Chronicle of Simon of Kéza, from the late 13th century, elaborates the relationship of the Huns and the Hungarians. This was a learned creation: he borrowed this idea from western European sources and elaborated it.

'P. magistri, qui Anonymus dicitur, Gesta Hungarorum' in I. Szentpétery, ed., Scriptores Rerum Hungaricarum, vol. 1 (Budapest, 1937), pp. 13-117.

'Simonis de Kéza Gesta Hungarorum' in I. Szentpétery, ed., Scriptores Rerum Hungaricarum, vol. 1 (Budapest, 1937), pp. 129-94.

Simon of Kéza, The Deeds of the Hungarians, ed. and tr. L. Veszprémy and F. Schaer (Budapest, 1999).

N. Berend, 'How many medieval Europes? The 'pagans' of Hungary and regional diversity in Christendom' in P Linehan and J. Nelson, eds. The Medieval World (London and New York, 2001), pp. 77-92.

S. Domanovszky, Kézai Simon mester és krónikája (Budapest, 1906).

Gy. Györffy, Krónikáink és a magyar őstörténet, 2nd rev. edn. (Budapest, 1993).

J. Szűcs, 'Theoretical elements in Master Simon of Kéza's Gesta Hungarorum (1282-1285)' in Simon of Kéza, The Deeds of the Hungarians, ed. and tr. L. Veszprémy and F. Schaer (Budapest, 1999), pp. xxix-cii.

I. Vásáry, 'Medieval Theories concerning the primordial homeland of the Hungarians' in Popoli delle steppe: Unni, Avari, Ungari, vol. 1 (Spoleto, 1988), pp. 213-42.

1B. Writing down of pagan myths in Christian chronicles

There are no pre-Christian literary accounts: everything we know about pagan myths survives in medieval Christian chronicles. No extensive record of any myths exists, only references and brief stories in the chronicles. These include the story of the brothers Hunor and Magor, led by a miraculous stag to new lands; of the birth of Álmos, the ancestor of the Árpád-dynasty, from the union of a woman (Emese) and a hawk (turul), although the Christian chronicler reported the story as a dream rather than an actual union. The legend of the white horse is also reported, according to which the Conquerors exchanged a horse for water, earth and grass, thereby buying the country; elements of oath-taking known from other sources may have been reinterpreted in a folkloric manner in the creation of this story. In addition, chronicles refer to earlier forms of oral traditions: epic poems about the military deeds of heroes, and laments. The Hungarian Anonymous made references to pagan myths as a 'hostile witness'; he was dismissive of the 'peasants' false tales' and the songs of entertainers; the authenticity of the oral tradition included in his chronicle is debated.

I. Szentpétery, ed. Scriptores Rerum Hungaricarum, vol. 1 (Budapest, 1937).

J. Deér, Pogány magyarság, keresztény magyarság. Reprint. (Budapest, 1993).

Gy. Györffy, Krónikáink és a magyar őstörténet. 2nd rev. edn. (Budapest, 1993).

L. Kovács and L. Veszprémy, eds. A honfoglaláskor írott forrásai. (Budapest, 1996).

Gy. Kristó, Magyar Historiográfia I. Történetírás a középkori Magyarországon. (Budapest, 2002), chapter 1.

J. Szűcs, A magyar nemzeti tudat kialakulása. (Szeged, 1992).

1C. Archaeological evidence of cult sites, cultic activity 

No archaeological evidence of cult-sites is known from the Carpathian Basin. No direct sources are known related to Hungarian paganism from the field of art and architecture. The interpretation of the goldsmith work of the Conquest age (10th century) is debatable: some scholars claim that they reflect the pagan Hungarian mythology while others do not accept this view. For the traditional shamanistic interpretation, see the article by I. Fodor, which includes previous literature and the most complete catalogue of the related materials. Pagan beliefs and practices have been reconstructed on the basis of linguistic evidence and later folklore.

A sabretache plate, found at Tiszabezdéd (Budapest, Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum) represents a Greek cross in the middle and fantastic animals between palmette leaves. These animals resemble  the Senmurv of Iranian Zoroastrianism, copied after a Persian or Byzantine textile. The leafy branch starting from the bottom of the ornament divides and is then reunited in the upper part of the plate: this element of the decoration is normally interpreted as the symbol for the 'Tree of Life' (or Tree of the World, Tree reaching the Sky). According to István Fodor, this is one of the earliest sabretache plates of the ancient Hungarians, produced before the Conquest, i.e. before ca. 895, in the steppe, east of the Carpathian Basin (called Etelköz by Hungarians). Some scholars argue that this plate shows the importance of shamanism. However, 'shamanism is not a formalized religion, but a multitude of ancient beliefs that have been accumulated in innumerable strata throughout the millenia combining ancient as well as more recent elements'. (Fodor, 1998, p. 28)

I. Dienes, 'Die Kunst der landnahmenden Ungarn und ihre Glaubenswelt' in Actes du XXIIe Congres International d'histoire de l'art 1 (Budapest, 1972), pp. 97-108.

The ancient Hungarians, Exhibition catalogue, ed. by I. Fodor. (Budapest, 1996); sabretache plate of Tiszabezdéd at pp. 181-4.

Europas Mitte um 1000, eds. A. Wieczorek and H.-M. Hinz. (Stuttgart, 2000),  no. 07.06.15.

I. Fodor, 'Art and religion', in: The ancient Hungarians, Exhibition catalogue, ed. by I. Fodor. (Budapest, 1996), pp. 31-6.

A. Róna-Tas, Hungarians and Europe in the Early Middle Ages (Budapest, 1999).

1D. Burial practices

The most important source material for the belief system of the Conquest Period Hungarians consists of the archaeological finds from the excavation of  thousands of contemporary burials. Graves were west-east oriented, the head to the west. Richly decorated dress, weapons, tools, remains of food and drink (indicated by vessels) are common, clearly demonstrating belief in a life after death, where the deceased needed these objects. Cemeteries, just like settlements, were protected against evil forces by fences, ditches, or buried skulls of horses or dogs  in order to prevent the disturbance of the burials.

Several burial customs indicated  belief in the 'soul'. According to the interpretation of some of the burial customs as well as the linguistic evidence, two souls were identified in that period. One of them was in the body, and ceased to exist at the moment of death, while the other was in the head. This latter soul left the head during dreams or illnesses, but it remained alive for a while even after the death of the person. This 'soul' could disturb living people, who therefore needed protection. At Tiszafüred, one elderly woman was buried tied up outside the cemetery, on the northern side, while in another grave the skull of the deceased was separated from the body and it was reburied facing down. The custom of mutilating the dead has also been observed. This means decapitation or mutilation of the hand or of the feet. Such practices were inspired by a fear of returning ghosts. A similar interpretation was given to those burials where small silver plates covered the eyes and the mouth: these are seen as obstacles that do not allow the soul to leave the head. Another type of silver plates on shrouds symbolizing an open mouth and eyes, however, may indicate the opposite, showing the way for the soul to the upper levels of the world. These beliefs may serve as explanation for the symbolic trepanation identified on skulls from several burials of this period. These were made by shaman-healers, and the same people must also have made those trepanations which were very sophisticated medical operations, sometimes affecting large parts of the skull. The high level of medical knowledge of these specialists can be proven by the signs of recovery after these very serious operations identified by physical-anthropological studies. Other direct evidence for the activity, or for the signs and symbols of shamans are very rare: the bone stick-handles carved in the shape of owls from Szeghalom and Hajdúdorog were interpreted in this way.

One of the most characteristic features of burial customs in this period is horse burial. This custom, however, was only typical for the more affluent or wealthy families. In commoners' cemeteries they can only rarely be identified; there they must signal the graves of leaders of the communities. One of the horses of the deceased was killed during the burial ceremony. Zoological studies indicate that the horses deposited in the graves were valuable animals, not old nags selected for this purpose. The slaughtered animal was skinned in such a way that the skull and the leg bones were left in the hide. In most cases, the hide then was placed on the left side of the deceased, either folded or spread out. A harness was placed on it as well. It has been argued that other parts of the horse, not deposited in the grave, were eaten by members of the community during the feast following the burial. Christian texts mention the ban on eating horse meat; they may refer to this practice. Another type of horse burial was symbolic. In this case only the harness was buried with the deceased. The difference between symbolic and real horse burials cannot be explained by the wealth of the deceased. Some symbolic horse burials contained very rich grave goods, including a bridle and breast collar adorned with silver gilt mounts and a saddle covered by silver plates. Variations of these burial types are often found in the same cemetery or even within individual grave groups. The burial of the whole body of the horse was not practised by Hungarians, a burial custom  typical of other nomadic groups.

Cs. Bálint, Südungarn im 10. Jahrhundert Studia Archaeologica (Budapest, 1991).

A. Kiss, Baranya megye X-XI. századi sírleletei (Grabfunde aus dem 10. Und 11. Jahrhundert im Komitat Baranya, Ungarn) Magyarország honfoglalás és kora Árpád-kori temetőinek leletanyaga 1 (Budapest, 1983).

K. Bakay, Régészeti tanulmányok a magyar államalapítás kérdéseihez Dunántúli Dolgozatok 1 (Pécs, 1965).

I. Fodor, 'The Art and Religion of the Ancient Hungarians' in Hungarian Archaeology at the Turn of the Millenium, ed. Zs. Visy (Budapest, 2003), pp. 333-7.

K. Mesterházy, 'The Archaeological Research of the Conquest Period' in Hungarian Archaeology at the Turn of the Millenium, ed. Zs. Visy (Budapest, 2003), pp. 321-5.

L. Révész, 'The Cemeteries of the Conquest Period' in Hungarian Archaeology at the Turn of the Millenium, ed. Zs. Visy (Budapest, 2003), pp. 338-43.

1E. Statements, topoi about paganism

The chronicle accounts mostly repeat Christian topoi about pagans and apply them to the Hungarians, with the exception of allusions to raiding. The information about Géza, because it appears in several sources, is probably trustworthy.

'Chronici Hungarici compositio saeculi XIV' in I. Szentpétery, ed., Scriptores Rerum Hungaricarum, vol. 1 (Budapest, 1937), pp. 217-505.

Gerardi Moresenae Aecclesie Sev Csanadiensis Episcopi Deliberatio Svpra Hymnum Trivm Pverorvm, ed. G. Silagi, Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaeualis 49 (Turnholt, 1978).

'The Laws of Stephen I' in J. M. Bak et al., eds and trs., The Laws of the Medieval Kingdom of Hungary 1000-1301, vol. 1 (Bakersfield, CA, 1989), pp. 1-11.

'Legenda S. Stephani regis maior et minor, atque legenda ab Hartvico episcopo conscripta' in I. Szentpétery, ed., Scriptores Rerum Hungaricarum, vol. 2 (Budapest, 1938), pp. 363-440.

Liudprand, Relatio de legatione Constantinopolitana. MGH Script. rer. Germ. 1915, pp. 185-6.

Piligrim, letter c. 973-4, edited in R. Marsina, Codex diplomaticus et epistolaris Slovaciae, vol. 1 (Bratislava, 1971), pp. 41-3.

'P. magistri, qui Anonymus dicitur, Gesta Hungarorum' in I. Szentpétery, ed., Scriptores Rerum Hungaricarum, vol. 1 (Budapest, 1937), pp. 13-117.

Rodulfi Glabri historiarum libri quinque, in Rodulfi Glabri opera Oxford Medieval Texts XXIV (Oxford, 1989), pp. 1-253 (with English translation).

Thietmari Merseburgensis episcopi chronicon, ed. R. Holtzmann, MGH Script. rer. Germ. n.s. 9 (Berlin, 1935).

T. Bogyay, 'L'homme de l'Occident en face des incursions hongroises' in Miscellanea E. Várady (Modena, 1966).

G. Fasoli, Le incursioni ungare in Europa nel secolo X (Florence, 1945).

G. Fasoli, 'Points de vue sur les incursions hongroises en Europe au Xe sičcle' Cahiers de civilisation médiévale 2 (1957), pp. 17-35.

G. Fasoli, 'Unni, Avari e Ungari nelle fonti occidentali e nella storiografia' in Popoli delle steppe (Spoleto, 1988), pp. 32-43.

M. G. Kellner, 'Die Ungarneinfälle im Bild der Quellen bis 1150, Von der "Gens detestanda" zur "Gens ad fidem Christi conversa"' Studia Hungarica 46 (1997).

L. Kovács and L. Veszprémy, eds, A honfoglaláskor írott forrásai (Budapest, 1996).

2. Evidence of other non-Christian religions

2A. Knowledge/attitude of society to these

During the period that the Hungarians were part of the Khazar Empire, they probably encountered Jews and Muslims but we have no evidence of influences. Jews and Muslims lived in the kingdom of Hungary, but no descriptions about them exist from the period of Christianization; we have no evidence of possible influences. Jews appear in the 11th-12th century laws of Ladislas I and Coloman. The laws regulate the interaction between Jews and Christians (money-lending; social interaction) and their main aim is to enforce Christian practices, partly by restricting the activity of Jews. They decreed the punishment of Jews working on Christian holy days, restricted Jewish settlement to episcopal centres, prohibited the trade in and the holding of Christian slaves. Coloman also regulated sale and credit transactions. The laws prohibited intermarriage and the buying of non-kasher meat from Jews. There was an effort to forcibly convert the Muslims at the end of the 11th and in the early 12th centuries. No architectural or artistic heritage is known of non-Christian people before 1200 in Hungary.

J. M. Bak et al., eds and trs., The Laws of the Medieval Kingdom of Hungary 1000-1301, vol. 1 (Bakersfield, CA, 1989).

N. Berend, At the Gate of Christendom: Jews, Muslims and 'Pagans' in Medieval Hungary, c. 1000- c. 1300 (Cambridge, 2001).

© Nora Berend, József Laszlovszky, and Béla Zsolt Szakács