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The Hungarian ancient poetry is shrouded in the mists of the past. We know of no literary remains from this period. It was only later Latin texts which preserved some information for us. And there are some scraps and motifs of the Hungarian pagan poetry preserved on the lips of people.

The ancient poetry had oral traditions, the professional cultivators of poetry were the pagan priests, the shamans. The deeds of heroes were sung by the minstrels, who composed and performed their songs themselves. After adopting Christianity the sources called them joculators, that is minstrels. Their role was very important, since they preserved the ancient Hungarian epic tradition for centuries. They were in the service of the king and the noblemen. In their works, the learned chroniclers made use of many of their songs.

The ancestors of the Hungarians must have known the ancient genres of lyrics and epics. The ancient types of lyrics might have been ritual songs and working songs. The text of these may have been built - on the basis of a certain content-structure scheme, but freely - on improvisation. Fixed motifs could have been the onomatopoetic refrains, which might have strengthened the rhythm. We can read about working songs in the Saint Gerald legend.

We can read about the existence of shaman songs in the chronicles. During the 1061 pagan riot the people's magicians shouted sacrilegious poems and practised magic.

The oldest lyric genre is the dirge, which in its development probably reaches back to the Ob-Ugric times. Wailing over the dead helps the peace of the journey after death, thus ensuring the peace of the living. The song focuses on the bewailed person. It calls the world of the dead and the connection of the living with the dead.

From comparative folklore, it is possible that the ancient genres of epics were short prosaic works, tales, and legends.

The origin of tales dates back to the unknown past. Its oldest layer is from an early period of mankind, it can be found in every nation, its elements simultaneously showing traces of primitive religion and primitive epics. Typical motifs are: the man is equal with his name and clothes. A part represents the whole (for example, instead of the persecuted, a hair, a drop of blood answers the persecutor - animism); whereas in other cases the whole world is considered a unified soul - trees, plants, objects have souls and minds.

The hero of Hungarian tales is frequently the youngest son. This motif of the tale preserved an ancient customary law. The special right of the youngest son is to inherit the father's house. He chooses first from the distributed riches.

The hero of the tale is helped by the magic steed, who can speak and fly, too, and has supernatural power. The horse is the favourite animal of the ancestors of the Hungarians. They sacrificed white horses to their gods. The milk of the mare has magic power, it protects from sorcery. Among the Hungarians' relatives in the east people sprinkle the dead with mare's milk as a protection against spoiling. The fight of magic steeds has a very important role in the tales and beliefs of the Hungarians. It preserves the traces of shamanism from the age of the Conquest.

In Hungarian tales we can find the concept of a threefold partition of the world, which is an ancient motif, which can also be connected to the shamanism of the Ural-Altaic people. According to this, the sky is an enormous tent held up by a column, a world tree, a sky-high tree. On this world tree one can reach the upper world, as heroes and mythical figures can in the tales. In reality - according to their beliefs - the shaman made this symbolic journey. During the ritual he fell into a trance, while alone. He reached the uppermost regions, where he could contact the gods. Thus the world is multi-layered. According to the tales, upwards there is a heavenly door, downwards there is a hole to cross. Up there, there are gods and fairies, down there, there are dragons and devils. The world is bordered by crystal mountains, on the other side of which lies the other world.

The typical mythical figure of tales and legends is the dragon. It can be found in the myths of different people, it is a malevolent demon appearing in various forms. It either lives in the upper world or down there in the nether world, it can have one or more heads, and it can appear in the form of a snake or a human.

The characteristic feature of the genre of legend is that it mixes reality with mythical elements. Traces of legends are preserved in Latin chronicles from the Middle Ages. A work by Anonymus, entitled Gesta Hungarorum gives evidence that heroic deeds lived on the lips of people in the 12th century, and that minstrels also served as transmitters of traditions.

The Hungarian people's legend of origin, the legend of the mythical hind is known from Simon Kézai's work and the Képes Krónika (Illustrated Chronicle). The oldest layer of the legend is the motif of a stag chase. We can find the stag chase as a myth of origin in the Ugric age already, and it can also be found in Vogul, Ostyak, and Persian traditions. While chasing a hind, the sons of Eneh, Hunor and Magor, reach the Meotis region, which they find suitable for settlement (this region is on the northern coast of the Black Sea). The name Eneh means hind. The ancestors of the people are believed to originate from her (the hind's) and a stag's predatory nuptials. Hunor and Magor are the representatives of Onogur and Magyar (Hungarian) people's name. Thus the totemistic ancestress of the Hungarian people is the hind.

The other part of the legend is the motif of the abduction of women. The two heroes and their warriors got their wives by abducting the daughters of the Bulgarian prince, Belar. This defines the time of origin of the story, since the Hungarians lived together with the Bulgarians and Iranian Alans on the South-Russian steppes in the centuries before the Conquest.

We can read the Álmos legend in Anonymus's works and in the Képes Krónika (Illustrated Chronicle). This legend is also called "Emese's Dream" and it is the legend of origin of the Árpád clan. It tells the story how Álmos was born. He was the son of Ügyek and Emese. Emese had a dream, in which she saw a "turul bird" (the legendary bird of the Hungarians), which flew onto her, making her pregnant. This bird predicted a successful future for the clan. The Hungarian name Emese means sow, consequently we can see the elements of a totemistic wedding (of her and the bird) in this legend.

The Hungarians' most safely-preserved historic legend which remained perfectly preserved regarding its structure is the White Horse legend, which survived in the Képes Krónika (Illustrated Chronicle). In accordance with nomadic poetic traditions it explains the Conquest with a symbolic buying and selling, thus proving the lawfulness of Árpád's conquests. The Slav prince, Svatopluc believed that the white horse and harness sent him by the Hungarians as a present verified his own power. However, the Hungarians considered the grass, water, and soil, requested and received from Svatopluc as a symbol of surrender.

There are many heroic legends about the plundering raids, which describe the battle of nations as a fight between persons. Simon Kézai wrote down two legends in his chronicle between 1210 and 1280. According to the first one commander Lehel was captured after the defeat in the battle at Augsburg (955). Before his execution he cried "You are ahead of me and you will be my servant in heaven!" and he would strike the German emperor dead with his horn, but it was only a myth in the memory of people who wanted to embellish their heavy defeat.

The Botond legend is also mentioned by Anonymus in his chronicle. Hungarians on horseback marching against Byzantium finally arrived in Constantinople where Botond broke the golden gates of the capital with his battle-axe. Breaking the city gates was the contemporary traditional symbol of declaring war, after which the small Hungarian warrior showed his enormous strength: he fought with a Greek giant and defeated him.


In Hungarian literature, literacy starts with the adoption of Christianity. It did not mean Hungarian literacy, it was actually Latin. The influence of Latin literature and writing on the subsequent development of Hungarian literacy was very important in respect of contents, form, and genre.

The Hungarians encountered Christianity through the Byzantine empire. The first Hungarian episcopacy was founded according to orthodox Greek traditions, many dignitaries were baptized in accordance with Greek rituals. Géza, however, turned both to the Greek and the Roman Catholic church at the same time.

Writing was slow, clumsy work, and they wrote on expensive parchment, so handwritten books, the codices, were of great value. A copyist's work was highly respected. A monastery had a library and usually a scriptorium (a room where books were copied).

At its inception, Hungarian Latin literature tried to meet the demands of the state and the church. Its bigger part disappeared without trace, so we can only assume its existence. Through organising the state, legal and political literature comes into existence: diplomas and letters, acts and royal mirrors.

The Benedictine order had the most important role in organising the church and evangelisation. The first monastic community was established around 996 on mount St. Martin, later called Pannonhalma, which was followed by a number of other monasteries. During the reign of St. Stephen the structural frames of the development of medieval culture were taking shape, and in the 11th century forms of ecclesiastic art are coming into existence. Literate people came from the leading layer of the church. Priests from the lower clergy could only read at the very most.

Diplomas were written after Byzantine and western models. The first preserved remain - in a copy - is from 1002, a Letter of Foundation from Pannonhalma, which was given to St. Martin monastery by king St. Stephen. The letter - like the diploma - had to meet set formal requirements. It could have legal functions, too. Letters had an important role in the forming of the standard style.

Acts start with the two books of St. Stephen's decrees. The first book - at the beginning of his reign - contained criminal laws protecting private property (it appeared around 1001). The second book consisted of his orders referring to the church (written between 1030-1038). Its oldest form, which survived in a manuscript, was preserved in the codex of Admont from the 12th century, and contained St. Stephen's laws exclusively.

The most important remain of early Hungarian literature is entitled "King St. Stephen's exhortations to his son, prince Emeric (Imre)", a work on state affairs. A popular genre in the early Middle Ages was the royal mirror, which explains the science of governing and reigning in the form of moral exhortations. Following antique traditions, it is published as the highly respected ruler's own beliefs and teachings. The year of prince Emeric's death ascertains the time of its origin, so it must have been written before 1030, probably in the first half of the 1010s.

The writer of the "Exhortations" was a foreign learned clergyman, who adjusted the traditional features of the genre to the unique Hungarian conditions. He describes the duty of the ruler in ten chapters, half of which is about the duties toward the Christian faith and the church, and about practising religious virtues. The other part of the work relates to the governing of the state.

The legend, an important genre of the Hungarian Latin literature came into being in the second half of the 11th century. There were several legends about figures from the St. Stephen era, that were written on the occasion of the preparatory works on his canonization or after that.

The writer of the first legend originating from Hungary was Mór, a bishop from Pécs. It concerns the lives of Zoerard-Andrew and Benedict, and was written shortly after 1064. The figure of Mór appears in the St. Emeric legend, as well. He is the one who was rewarded with seven kisses from St. Emeric for his religious zeal during his priesthood at Pannonhalma. Mór was one of the prelates descended from Hungary. In the legend he describes the ascetic life of two hermits, shortly and briefly, with simple words and in an unbiased tone.

St. Stephen's great legend was written between 1077 and 1083 by an unknown Benedictine monk. The country is called Regnum Marianum (Mary's country) first here, suggesting that Hungary kept a distance from the papacy, as in heavenly hierarchy Mary is located higher than St. Peter, consequently Hungary cannot be part of "terra sancti Petri" (St. Peter's land).

St. Stephen's small legend came into being under the rule of king Coloman (1095-1116): it underlines Stephen's royal firmness and grammatical education - projecting his successor's, Coloman's virtues onto him.

The motif of the crown sent by the Pope appears first in the third St. Stephen legend, written by bishop Hartvic, which he considers as God's will, stressing the independence from the Pope.

The original text of bishop St. Gerald's great legend is from the 11-12th century, but all we know is an enlarged transcript from the 14th century. Its unknown author converts the bishop's life into a colourful story. It is almost a short story. We can find some features in it that remind us of folk tales. It is the most outstanding piece of literature from the age of Árpád. The other legend about him, (St. Gerald's small legend) might have been written for preaching purposes in the second half of the 12th century.

St. Emeric's legend was written after 1083, after his canonization. The prince believed that the main virtue was chastity, setting a good example for the clergymen in the age of definitions.

Historiography started with the organisation of ecclesiastical institutions. At first they took short notes.

According to the literary remains which survived, annales (annuals/year-books) were written beginning with 997, on mount St. Martin (Pannonhalma). We know this from the Annual of Pozsony, where the date of bishop St. Gerald's consecration (1030) is also mentioned.

In the 11th century the genre of chronicle came into vogue in Hungary. Anonymus's (magister P.) work called Gesta Hungarorum describes the past of the noble Hungarian people from the original home till the age of raids, focusing on the story of the Conquest and the founding of the state. His adventurous "gesta" is considered to be a literary work of art rather than a historic work.

Simon Kézai, king Ladislas IV's court priest, wrote his chronicle around 1283. His sources were earlier chronicles relating to Hungarian history, and other Italian, French, and German historic works. He examined the ancient history of the Hungarian people, and the idea of the Hun-Hungarian kinship plays an important role in it.

The Hungarians' most precious literary remain from the age of Árpád, the Képes Krónika (Illustrated Chronicle) survived from the 1360s. Its significance lies in the fact that it is a summary of works describing the history of the Hungarians, from the 11-14th centuries, so it is a basic source for the researchers of early Hungarian history.

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