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The Ancient Magyar World

The daily life of the newcomers to the Carpathian Basin was governed by ancient customs. Curiously enough, the main source of information about their way of life is their grave-sites. Recent archaeological discoveries of Hungarian cemeteries reveal that the Magyars arrived not as nomads, but as settlers journeying to their new homeland with dogs, sheep, cattle, special breeds of fowl, pigs and. of course, horses.

The tools of agriculture, found in the early graves in abundance, show the land being put to seed almost immediately. Spades and sickles were found only in the graves of women, indicating that they did the harvesting. Other objects reveal a surprisingly developed artistry and craftsmanship in working with metals, leather, bone, textiles, and wood. Armorers, goldsmiths and silversmiths, saddle and bow makers were the most esteemed craftsmen.

In contrast with Asian customs, Magyar women were not secluded from the men, but played important roles in the family and the community. The ancient Magyars practiced strict monogamy. Excavated grave-sites in Transylvania studied by Professor Gyula László, a renowned authority in the field, also provide insights into the family hierarchy of that age.

He found that graves were arranged in a single row in smaller communities and in multiple rows in larger ones, following a strict order of placement. The central position in each row belonged to the man with the highest rank, who was buried with his belt ornamented with silver, the symbol of a free man of high standing. (Some prominent women also wore such belts and the saddlery they used was more ornate than that of the men.) Next to him were placed his sword, sabre-tache, and bow and quiver containing eight arrows. To his left were interred all other men with their arrows and accoutrements in decreasing order. To his right were the women, buried in a similar way.

It took some time to conclude that these graves served as burial places for the Hungarian nagy család (clan), which included two to three generations who lived and worked together according to a code governing the activities of each individual. All the bodies were buried in an east-west direction with their heads toward the East.

It became clear that the arrow in that ancient society was not only a weapon but also a sign of rank. The greater the number of arrows a person possessed, the higher was his standing. The king's rank was symbolized by twenty-five arrows. Strangely enough. the weapons placed in the dead warrior's hands were in a position opposite to normal use. But this corresponds to the Asian myth that in the after-world everything is reversed, a belief followed even in the burial of husbands and wives. In earthly life, a woman's place was on the left side, white in the cemetery she was buried on the right.

The Ancient Magyar Religion

He pagan religion of the Magyars was a blend of ancestor worship and paganism. This cult of the dead had existed when the Hungarians lived together with the kindred peoples of Finno-Ugric origin. They believed in life after death and buried their dead with provisions for a long journey. Since at one time the home of the Hungarians was in the North, where decomposition takes at least a year, the first part of the afterlife., the time during which he could haunt his former home, was thought to be about a year. The tradition of one year of mourning persists in Hungary to this day.

Pananimism attributes living souls to animals and to the elements. The ancient Hungarians were convinced that the air was peopled with good and evil spirits. There arose a class of men endowed with unusual powers of suggestion who, by their mere presence, were believed capable of warding off evil spirits. They became the permanent go-betweens of men and the spirit world. These were known as shamans, or the táltosok, who further affected the religion of the ancient Magyars.

Shamanism endowed every manifestation of Nature with a soul, and it was believed that these souls were able to leave the matter in which they were confined in the same way that a man's soul could leave his body while he slept. The shaman, believed capable of averting misfortune, became an influential member of the tribe.

His many functions included an interesting kind of name-giving. The shaman would hold the newborn infant in his arms murmuring different names. When the child gave a sudden kick or began to cry, the last name spoken by the shaman was chosen. His most


spectacular ceremony involved the sacrifice of a white horse, usually for important political or military reasons.

The sun, the moon, the stars and the clouds were believed to have guiding spirits which could help protect mankind against the evil spirits. According to ancient Hungarian tradition, the sky had once been as flat as the earth, but had been pushed up by growing trees.

The most beautiful part of their creed was the belief that the stars were holes in the sky, through which one could see a little of the brilliant spirit world that lay beyond. The powerful world-spirits that lived in eternal light formed one great family, whose father was the Ancient God. He watched the earth through the star-openings.

In the strict sense of the word, theirs was not a pagan or heathen religion, but in that age all non-Christians were regarded as "pagans."

(The second part of this chapter is based on an essay titled "Primitive Religion" by Alexander Sólymossy, which appeared in the Hungarian Quarterly, 1937, No. 3.)


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