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2: One Must Descend From Some Place

<< 1: The Prehistory of the Region || 3: "From the Arrows of the Hungarians..." >>

The wondrous stag prances at the opening of the chapter with a magical and shiny-haloed crown of antlers on its head. Two princes, burning with hunting fever, gallop on two chargers in its steps. The wondrous stag leads them, lures them on for days ever deeper into the marshy area. Suddenly it vanishes. Without any trace whatsoever. But at this moment, the two disappointed young hunters, called Hunor and Magor, hear merry laughing and singing. Dismounting, they stalk stealthily until they come across a lake in which two beautiful maidens are splashing. Screaming, the daughters of King Dul flee. The two youths, again astride their horses, take after them. They meet. Passionate love immediately flares up. Hunor takes one as his wife, and Magor the other. The Huns are Hunor's descendants, the Magyars are Magor's . . . This is the way I remember the legend of our origin. These two rhyming names instilled an awareness of the Hun-Magyar kinship in me long before I learned to read.

In Simon Kézai's chronicle, entitled Gesta Hungarorum and written about 1283, the same mythical tale is slightly more somber and, irrespective of the factual truth of its essence, much more realistic. Hunor and Magor are Chief Ménrót's grown-up sons who had reached maturity and had moved into a separate tent.

"One day it happened that, as they were going out to hunt, a hind suddenly appeared in front of them on the plains, and as they undertook to pursue her, she fled from them into the Maeotian marshes. Since she completely disappeared there from their eyes, they searched for her a long time but could not chance upon her traces. After having traversed the said marshes, they decided the marshes were suitable for raising livestock. They returned to their father, and securing his consent, they moved into the Maeotian marshes with all their animals to settle down there. The region of Maeotis is a neighbor of Persia. Apart from a very narrow wading place, it is enclosed by the sea everywhere. It has absolutely no streams, but it teems with grass, trees, fish, fowl, and game. Access to and exit from it is difficult. Thus settling in the Maeotian marshes, Hunor and Magor did not move from there for five years. In the sixth year they wandered out, and by chance they came upon the wives and children of Belár's sons, who stayed at home without their menfolk. Quickly galloping off with them and their belongings, they carried them off into the Maeotian marshes. It so happened that among the children they also seized the two daughters of Dula, the Prince of the Alans. Hunor married one and Magor the other. All the Huns descend from these women."

How did the stag turn into hind? The theft of women and possessions into a romantic love story? Why are there no separate Hungarians in this version, why only Huns? It is not worth spending any time on these questions now. Instead, let us mention that, according to another myth about the origin of the Hungarians, which also provides a year (819), Chief Álmos, the ancestor of the House of Árpád, was born under wondrous signs: "... in his pregnant mother's dream a divine apparition appeared in the shape of a turul and, so to say, got her with child." According to some, the turul is an eagle or a hawk; however, it is most probably a falcon -the totem animal of the Árpád clan.

What interests us in the first tale of our origin is the place -the vicinity of Persia- and the mention of the warring lifestyle of the nomads. The chief's two sons search for good grazing lands, and without hindrance they wrest away the wives, children, and cattle from the men of another people who are apparently away at war. In the other tale, the mythical animal ancestor emerges directly. But whereas, for example, in Italy the female wolf only nurses Romulus and Remus, our turul himself impregnates the ancestral mother (similar to the way Leda falls in love with the swan, or rather Zeus in the shape of a swan in Greek mythology).

Let us point out that both tales of our origin take us to the East. Following their mythical references, we come across Iranian and Turkish kinship. In Kézai's chronicle, the stag occupies a prominent place in the frequently repeated eponyms of Scythia, in Scythian mythology; in the world of the Turkish peoples, the most common totem animals are the winged masters of the hunt, the birds of prey. (In Mongolia and among the peoples of the Steppes generally, these birds are all, to this very day, inviolable and taboo.)

Later on, a lasting and unyielding ideology was founded on this legacy of eastern mythology. Among Hungarian leading circles, an awareness of some kind of "Scythian origin" lived on vividly, and those who proclaimed themselves the descendants of ancients bearing bows and sabers and mounted on horses seemed to hold hunting, in addition to fighting, to be the sole pastime of a gentleman. Rooting their class privileges in the mythical past, they cited ancient rights paid in advance in war by shedding their ancient blood to the point of extinction. This attitude experienced a renascence in the nineteenth century; it peaked in the millennium of the Conquest (1896), in the fever of national celebrations occurring at that time. It flared up once again between the two world wars, littering the country with the totem animal, with throngs of smaller and larger statues of the turul. (The largest of them rises above Tatabánya, barely a couple of kilometers from the site of the "Samuel" of ancient Europe. From the distance it is an awe-inspiring spectacle, up close it is a frightening monstrosity.)

Today, it is quite difficult to picture the indignation two astronomers studying linguistics as a hobby created in their time. In 1768, Miksa Hell and János Sajnovics, Hungarian Jesuit priests, traveled to the island of Vardö, in Norway, to observe the passage of Venus across the sun. Since the observation of the planet left them with ample time on their hands, Sajnovics, prompted by Hell, began to study the language of the Lapps, many elements of which sounded suspiciously familiar to his Hungarian ear. On his return home, Sajnovics wrote a treatise on the similarities between the Lapp and Hungarian languages. With this, the Hungarian people entered a section of the extensive northern Finno-Ugrian (Uralic) family of mankind on the basis of its language in a single stroke.

The public outcry was tremendous. Those proud of their connections with eastern lineage bitterly denied that we could possibly have anything in common with some poor northern relatives. The company of the Finns and Estonians could not compensate for the Lapps and for those still hardly known at the time, the little Finno-Ugrian peoples, who seemed to live at the level of the Neolithic Age, somewhere in the massive prison for human beings in czarist Russia.

Meanwhile, however, the large bronze turuls perched in rows on the tops of monuments, the pillars of bridges, and the facades of public buildings in Hungary. In the aftermath of Sajnovics and his followers, linguistics indisputably ascertained, within a century and a half, where, given its determinant percentage of Finno-Ugrian vocabulary and grammatical forms, the Hungarian language with its basically Finno-Ugrian character is to be placed exactly in this family of languages, designating the Ostyak (Khanti) and the Vogul (Manshi) languages of the Ugrian group as its closest relatives.

This group of smaller Ugrian peoples is also called the "people of the water fowl". The reason for this is that in their myths swimming and wading birds filled a role similar to that of birds of prey among the Turks. Indeed, in their world of marshes, fishing and gleaning were the important activities; animal husbandry or agriculture could expand only slightly for natural geographical reasons.

Which won out in the end? The warring falcon, the turul, or the gentle wild duck? Actually, neither did. The question is open, its threads are so snarled that, unable to unite it in a proper way, we must deal with it like the Gordian knot: we must cut it with a sword.

As for the language, this much is certain, that during the "living Hungarian" population's extended and long migration in historical time and geographical space, which produced connections and minglings with ever different peoples, Iranian, Turkish and then Slavic layers were abundantly deposited on its Finno-Ugrian (Uralic) foundations; but it is difficult to measure their weight precisely and to reconcile clearly the circumstances of language with the facts of history, way of life, migration, and other elements. In the end, however, the strength of the Finno-Ugrian link is hardly disputable with linguistic arguments. So much so, that in the middle of the century there was hardly anyone who did not seek the distant trails of Hungarian prehistory in maps determining the ancient settlements and migrations of the Finno-Ugrian peoples and tracing them back to the Neolithic Age, without denying that later, on paths leading into the Carpathian Basin, the early Hungarians came into frequent contact with Iranian and Turkish peoples, which influenced not only the language and style of life but also the ethnic group.

Recently, however, a new counterattack was launched. There are those who base their arguments on the gestes and ancient chronicles and on either the obscure mythical tales of origin or the eastern motifs in the art of the conquering Hungarians, their resemblance to those found in the steppes. Others call bones as witnesses from the burial grounds of the conquerors to those of people living today. There is no doubt that the anthropological standard establishes remarkably few Finn-Ugrian traits and many more of the Turks and others. And this is cause for reflection even when we know that the Finno-Ugrian component was minimal in the population that was found and then assimilated in the new land by Árpád's people and that, in addition to the Slavs, many of the people who had already settled there earlier were of Iranian and Turkish origin; moreover during the centuries following the Conquest, the eastern component, genetic stock, and anthropological character became stronger with the admission of the Pechenegs, Cumans, and Iazyges.

Thus, the conclusions of linguistic history and anthropology are today so greatly contradictory that this writer not only does not dare to suggest a solution; he does not even see a satisfactory middle road. Perhaps, we have an inadequate knowledge of the evolution of language usage, the paths of language exchange, and the interaction of ethnic and language factors.

A proposal has been made for cutting the Gordian knot; it maintains that we cannot speak of Hungarians as a people who have come from outside the Carpathian Basin, because they have evolved here. Namely, the people who came here under the leadership of Árpád comprised only a small fraction of the ancestors of today's total population; those they found here, those who made their way after them in the later stages of the great migrations, and those who later entered the Carpathian Basin and were settled here formed a very large proportion of the population.

This is a striking proposition. Still, I do not accept it. We shall see that the age of marauding raids following the Conquest and then the establishment of the kingdom presume that a sturdy core of people, full-fledged and prepared, existed outside this region by the time of the Conquest, a conclusion which demands and completely justifies our speaking of this people as Árpád's Hungarians. Nevertheless, the above proposal is useful in shortening the section of the road we must necessarily travel to trace the migration of this people, our ancestors, so extended in time and space, outside the Carpathian Basin. We shall not immerse ourselves in distinguishing between what we know and what we infer about the formation of the Hungarians living in parts of the Eurasian steppes.

Instead, let us take the hand of Julian us. Let us go as far as he penetrated. In 1235, Julian us, a Dominican friar, set out with three brethren to find Magna Hungaria. At that time, it was certainly common knowledge that the Hungarians had split in two before the Conquest, and that only the smaller group came west and the larger remained in the east, in the Great Ancestral Land.

The bold Julian us eventually reached on his own the people he was searching for. He actually came across Hungarians beyond the Volga, in the area of today's Soviet Bashkiria, whom he could clearly understand. From them he obtained knowledge about the approach of the Tatar (Mongolian) forces, and he immediately returned home with the news. In 1237, he took to the road again to "summon home" this very small, yet significant number of people in Magna Hungaria, to persuade them to relocate in the Carpathian Basin. But by the time he reached Suzdal he had learned that the Mongolians had already swept away these remaining relatives in the Volga region. His attempt to unify the separate groups failed.

Well, this is what we know about our direct ancestors. However, even today we can only guess as to when they split up at the Volga's bend in today's Kuibyshev area. Certainly not close to the time before the Conquest; we can put the date at any time between the fourth and the eighth century.

In this period the domino principle prevailed for centuries from one end of the vast Eurasian plains to the other. The leading ranks of various nomadic peoples acquired ever greater power; they crushed the neighboring and then the more distant, mostly related peoples. Because nomadism was not sufficiently conducive to agriculture, expansion, pillage, and occasional exacting of ransom or permanent taxation formed the basis for the existence of every powerful group. And wherever the military forces of such a "realm" extended, there--never without loss of blood or material--other peoples either allowed the flood to pass over their heads and tried, if possible, to hang on somehow or become allies or auxiliaries and split the spoils of war, or leaving their place, they avoided the armies' main routes to areas more protected and removed from the swiftly moving horsemen, or rather into the vicinity of groups more capable of opposition.

It may have been the Avars who dislodged the Hungarians from their original home in Bashkiria beyond the Volga, who then, keeping ahead of the Avars, reached the Carpathian Basin and placed the region under their rule permanently. This much can be taken for granted, that the group of Hungarians that Árpád's people sprang from had spent a long period of time around the middle of the first millennium A.D. some distance on this side of the Volga along the middle reaches of the Don, above the Sea of Azov. Here they stumbled upon an entirely new environment. They already knew how to till land with a plow in Magna Hungaria, but in the new place, named Levedia after one of the Hungarian chiefs, the Hungarians, who were still largely nomadic breeders of animals, encountered agriculturists using a more advanced, heavier plow with iron fittings, a rich horticulture and livestock, buildings and fortified towns indicating permanent residence among the Sarmatian Alans and the Onogurs and Volga Bulgarians belonging to the Turkish ethnic group living here. The Hungarians themselves acquired much from their agriculture and way of life.

Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, Emperor of Byzantium from 912 to 959, who was also a painstaking historian, put the stay of the Hungarians in Levedia at three years. But apparently he was mistaken. Linguistic, agricultural, and cultural interpenetrations allow us to conclude that the Alans, Bulgarians, and Hungarians lived together about three hundred years. (Let us remember Hunor and Magor, the double marriage with the kidnaped daughters of the Alan chief.) However, what was Levedia to us was, at the same time, the border area of the Turkish Khazars' state structure, the Khazar Kaganate, which varied in size and power but remained permanently important. Thus, with respect to power, the Hungarians were sometimes subjects of the Khazars, sometimes supporters of their adversaries.

The elements of Finno-Ugrian animism and shamanism and the veneration of totem animals by the peoples from the Steppes blended into the Hungarians' still completely pagan beliefs. However, in Levedia, they encountered three types of monotheism. Mohammedanism was widespread in the Khazar Kaganate, Eastern Christianity had a bishopric there, and its leading social class converted to the Jewish faith with great suddenness. (History hardly knows of another instance when non-Jewish ethnic groups converted to the Jewish faith not individually, as through marriage, but in such large numbers. The explanation of this exceptional case is that, in the absence of a Jewish core with powerful aspirations in the region, and both the Mohammedans and Christians having such a core, the Khazar nobles, by converting, counted on avoiding a situation in which the choice of belief would also call for a political and power alignment.)

Like every contemporaneous concentration of power--it is not accidental that we can hardly speak as yet of nations or states, particularly of nation states--the structure of the Khazar state too was unstable. At the close of the Hungarians' Levedian period, external and internal challenges rocked the Kaganate. The main problem was posed by a new Turkish people attacking from the east, the Pechenegs. Our own ancestors also began to move farther west, while a larger group of people, a small portion of them from the Khazar Empire, joined them and moved on with them half as allies and half as subject auxiliaries. Though, perhaps, they themselves formed and separated into three tribes, they would, under the name of Kabars, make up the eighth tribe of the Conquest, in addition to Árpád's seven Hungarian tribes; they were the "black" Hungarians beside the "white" Hungarians. Among them there were certainly Mohammedans and also Jews in all probability; and possibly a very small part of the Hungarians and Kabars may have been Christians.

We hardly know the exact time, but before the mid-ninth century, while Hungarian advance guards were already appearing at the Lower Danube -where they came across a familiar people, the Onogur Bulgars who had moved to that point- the future conquerors could be found in the Etelköz (köz = area between two rivers) directly in the foreground of the Carpathians, along the Dnieper, the Dniester, the Bug, and the Siret. Here they whiled away one and a half or two generations. Then perhaps another Pecheneg attack moved them onward again.

Their sacral leader was Chief Álmos, their military leader Árpád, the son of Álmos, whom--according to some of the chronicles--the other chiefs of the seven tribes, raising him on a shield, made the first among equals. We know a variation of this event, according to which --already in their new homeland inside the Carpathians--they sacrificed Álmos ceremonially in accordance with an ancient custom not unknown elsewhere. (Did this sacral murder of a leader "exact revenge", perhaps, for the fact that the forced abandonment of the former homeland, of the Etelköz, proved the weakness of the old leader?)

The migration of peoples continued; the unruly peoples of the Steppes, craving better land, rushed headlong with renewed strength from the east to the west. Facing them in the foreground of the Carpathians, unprotected from the east, made it impossible to withstand their onslaught. And the Etelköz Hungarians were very familiar with the shores of the Black Sea down to Byzantium, the Balkan Peninsula, the Carpathian Basin itself, and, indeed, all of Central Europe to the west. In alliance with Byzantium and in other alliances or on their own hook, they had already dashed along on journeys of many days. Only a part of them were staid farmers, the rest were an unruly nomadic military breed; they had a real need for the prizes they acquired through military plunder--slaves, gold, and silver- and the freer, warring life of wandering also became a passion with them. They were fond of home in the winter, of the splendidly--decorated yurts and the women they were accustomed to, the ones who raised their heirs faithfully, but, at the same time, they enjoyed the embraces of the new slave women they gained in battle.

<< 1: The Prehistory of the Region || 3: "From the Arrows of the Hungarians..." >>