Hungarian history is etched all over the Budapestian cityscape. It’s a dynamic history: wickedly wonderful, tragically beautiful and filled with stories of every type. I love the history of these people. In fact, I love history full stop. It may be my favourite thing in the entire world.
‘History’ is one of my central motivations to travel in the first place; I am ravenous to better understand our global heritage through the art of storytelling. Stories provide us with continuity as a human race. Without stories we are merely leaves blowing in the wind; with them a magical forest takes shape. And there’s perhaps no richer grove to wander through than the history of the Magyars.
One of the most interesting aspects of Hungary is the fact that it is a cultural and linguistic island smack dab in the middle of Europe. The Magyar language can hardly be compared to anything at all. It’s not Slavic, its not Germanic, its surely not a romance language and its confusing as HELL. Why is this? How did a country surrounded on all sides by different languages resist the infiltration of any of them?
This is one of the central theses I have become interested in whilst learning about the Hungarian story. It is a confusing phenomenon, to say the least. And one that has led centuries of Magyar historians to focus on the origination of their people. Which is the focus of our article today: the origin story.
With the Hungarian nation, there are really two different origin stories: 1. The official date the Hungarian state was settled and 2. The mythical origin of the Magyar people.
Most historians agree that the modern Hungarian state was settled towards the end of the 9th century. The ‘official’ consensus is that this occurred in the year 896. This was when 7 Magyar chieftains – led by the indomitable Arpad – stormed like hellfire through the plains of central Europe. As the story goes, these Magyars were actually claiming lands that their distant ancestors, Atilla and his Huns, conquered 4 centuries earlier.
Ohhhhh, so that’s why Atilla is the most popular male name in all of Hungary today. They are related to the Huns…. Hungarians…. that makes sense. I suppose? Well, it’s not so straightforward and a lot of the story is tangled up in historicism and myth. Plus, the commonalities between “Hun” and “Hungarian” is really a misnomer. Hungarians call their own country Magyarország – or land of the Magyars. And that is the story I will tell to you all today: the mythical background of the Magyar people.
There was a book written in the early 13th century called The Gesta Hungarorum aka The Deeds of the Hungarians. Nobody knows who wrote it – I mean the author literally named himself “Anonymous”. One of the chief accomplishments of this ancient scroll was that it laid out the foundation story of the Hungarian state. Going back to the uncertain mists of the Magyar prehistory and The Legend of the White Stag.
Many moons and more before
From long lost legends misty lore
In stranger lands of shifting sands
And bloody lusting tales of gore
We have old Nimrod, hunter king
Of whom the storytellers sing
And he did breed from fertile seed
The twins who’s fable I now bring
Alright, I’m not going to do this whole thing in verse. It’s nice to read rhymes but let’s not lose the thread of the story I’m trying to tell here. So… where was I… right… there was this old hunter king named Nimrod and our story picks up with his twin sons: Hunor and Magor.
The two lads were on a hunt by the Caspian Sea. You know, out over near Georgia and Azerbaijan – somewhere in that neck of the woods. Anyway, they saw this white stag in the forest and they left pops behind to go follow the miraculous beast. It led them through the forests and fields until they lost sight of the white stag and decided to settle for a bit on a particularly pleasant looking island.
It was on this island that Hunor and Magor took a little wander. They were foraging through sunlight dappled undergrowth, whistling – presumably – as they went when what’s that!!
They stopped suddenly and saw through the thickets a gaggle of beautiful women; waifish, fairy-like, glistening in the pockets of light that flooded down from the tall trees. Hunor and Magor took the two most beautiful of these fairy goddesses as their wives.
From Hunor’s lineage sprang the Huns and from Magor came the Magyars. The Huns followed the white stag to the promised land of the Carpathian Basin. They famously stormed through Europe in the middle of the 5th century, conquering lands – including modern day Hungary – and subjecting the peoples of the central European plain to their rule. Many argue that Attila the Hun and his rabid horde were one of the main contributors to the eventual fall of the Roman empire.
The Magyars, on the other hand, dithered around the Caucasus mountains of eastern Europe for a few centuries before finally getting their act together and finding the promised land at the end of the 9th century.
This legend of the White Stag was laid out as a justification for the eventual conquest of the Carpathian basin by the Magyars. In other words, Hungarian historians have argued that these Magyar settlers were claiming lands that their previous ancestors had already settled in. Now the exact veracity of this theory is doubtful. There has been no proof that the Hungarians and the Huns are actually related. Yet the story persists and that is what is important.
What is also important is this idea of a mythical background to the Hungarian people. It alludes that there is something ancient and even Asiatic about the Hungarian origin. It marks them apart from the origination of other peoples in Central and Eastern Europe and provides a legendary explanation for there difference. Nimrod, Hunor and Magor are biblical figures: Scythian kings and princes from the Mesopotamian region. The legend of the White Stag is a connecting fibre that provides an alleged connection between this early human civilization and the Hungarian origin. Again, its truth is not important – what’s important is that it is important. Myth and the story are what I am interested in.
I plan to tell a piece of this illustrious story in a creative way each week as the summer progresses and I hope to cover the wide breadth of the Hungarian tale. Perhaps one week I will examine a particular figure from a certain era, or – like this week – I shall relay to you an interesting myth or legend. Ultimately I want us to use these historical contexts as a lens with which to focus back onto current day Budapest.
Next week we shall focus on the aforementioned Magyar conquest of the Carpathian basin at the end of the 9th century. Though this ‘second founding’ of the Hungarian state is much more rooted in reality, there are still plenty of legends involved. I am particularly interested in the military might of these early Magyars. Their strength was largely comprised of fearsome archers who terrorized Europe for a century and a half from backs of their horses towards the end of the first millennia A.D.
“A sagittis Hungarorum Libera nos Domine!”… From the Arrows of the Hungarians, deliver us, oh lord!!!