{668.} The World of Hungarian Folk Beliefs


In speaking of the world of Hungarian folk beliefs we must first of all think of the age-old sense of unity it assumes between the supernatural on the one hand, and nature and man on the other. Without this, much would remain obscure for us in the system of folk beliefs. The Hungarian peasantry carry from the past not only certain motifs and remnants of memory but also many fundamental ideas from their archaic religious beliefs and their world view in general, all of which lies hidden in their world of beliefs.

The majority of researchers, confronted with the existence of various primitive and peasant beliefs, superstitious customs, and naive religious behaviour, have posed the question this way: How is the world of beliefs possible? On the basis of what logic? How could otherwise capable hunters, fishermen, stockmen, and peasants, who can find their way in the midst of the dangers and cares of practical life, believe in these misconceptions so obviously false to us? Various theories about the origin and history of the development of beliefs were conceived to answer this question. All these theories usually examine only the superstition itself and want to derive its meaning in and of itself. Needless to say, what these mean is a decisive and necessary question, but it still does not answer the problem posed above: Why did people hold for such a long time, and why do some still hold, these different beliefs?

We could give a complete and detailed answer to this query only if we took under observation the entire peasant culture and social structure from this point of view, throughout the course of its own development. If we consider, out of context, only the fact that the Hungarian peasantry believed in the evil eye (rontás), in the taking of cow’s milk, in the shaman (táltos), in incubi (lidérc), and in many other things, this can appear really nonsensical to us. However, it is even more nonsensical and unaccountable that to this day high European culture and, within that, city life is full of superstitious behaviour, gestures, and obedience to magic effects.

If we examine the history of Hungarian culture, we can see that peasant culture was not in organic but only in occasional contact with the developing intellectual awareness of the ruling classes. In general this differentiation was a European phenomenon, so that not only can we find it in Hungary, but the following remarks are applicable mutatis mutandis to the peasantry of other nations as well. The ethnic groups and social layers of the Hungarian peasantry could not develop together with either the nobility or the middle class of the cities. The situation of the peasant class, their being tied to the land, and the nature of peasant agricultural work prevented them equally from joining in the rhythm of European culture and intellectual awakening that has been rapidly developing since the Renaissance, and from taking over directly the {669.} results of European rationalism. Peasants were also influenced from the direction of the ruling classes, although these influences did not affect precisely the fundamental traits and characteristics of their thinking and culture but rather, for example, changed their customs, certain of their tales, and melodies. The peasantry’s opinion about the final affairs of the world, about life and death and their own place in the world, has continued in the same tracks through centuries.

Essentially, peasant culture and what we have called their world view were strongly self-sufficient, having to answer questions without an intermediary, just as the peasant on his little property had to be simultaneously the house building architect and the expert who knows about animal husbandry, farming, weather, singing, and many other things. Peasant life was involuntarily universalist, involuntarily all encompassing. Therefore, as we have said, the peasant largely had to find for himself the hopefully correct answers to his own final questions. This is why a different world view evolves from his beliefs, a view that in many cases resembles that ancient shamanistic perception from which it originates historically. In this perception, too, the supernatural powers, nature, and man are in the closest relationship, the ties are not to be severed. Besides, it is evident from these beliefs that the supernatural world and our earthly world have not yet clearly been separated from each other, that they interpenetrate, so that miracles can happen at any time. A piece of iron, a hatchet, can be at once a useful agricultural tool and a magical aid that prevents damage by the storm, prevents hail. Naturally, this connection, this interpretation is more easily recognizable and perceptible in the cults of the archaic tribal cultures and in the world of ancient beliefs than in peasant cultures.

The peasantry had to invent theories of explanation, or, more correctly, they had to cling, for lack of better ones, to those ancient theories of explanation with which they could interpret the phenomena of the world and thus help them do a good job in their affairs. This is why we are not to think that superstition and belief were just some kind of a subsidiary factor in the peasant world of old; it was one of the main factors and directors in their life; complicated customs and prohibitions followed them through life, from birth to death, and they had to cling to them. Magic and beliefs were woven into the activities even of economic life. Fertility and guidance magic, as well as beliefs connected with domestic stock and their products, milk and eggs, all show that every area of the peasants’ life was interwoven with these beliefs. According to the peasant view, superstitions in economic processes had just as important a role as the strictly economic working processes. Sowing beliefs are closely attached to sowing, and, by the terms of their faith, they could confidently attribute a good harvest to the carefully carried out ceremonies of fertility magic.

Nothing proves better how much peasant life was affected by this world of beliefs than the fact that for centuries it could live its own life among both Catholic and Protestant peasants. We know well that the peasantry throughout Europe was characterized by a peculiar mixture of peasant religiosity and intertwining of Christianity with the older world of beliefs. Christian customs and devotional exercises were mixed with {670.} pagan traditions, ancient memories, and later developed peasant superstitions. In the course of the centuries, peasant religiousness has grown into a really intricate system consisting of parts that contradict each other, so that the researcher faces a real task in trying to distinguish elements so diverse in origin. And he is not always successful, as certain beliefs have taken on a newer shape, have changed roles, have been transformed through the centuries. Often we cannot even decide for sure about some belief whether it is a pagan tradition, or has developed in Christian Europe, or is a rural development of recent times.

At any rate, beyond these historical strata, the decisive finding is the verification that for various historical, social, and cultural reasons the intellectual make-up and world view of the Hungarian peasantry remained such that superstitious forms of behaviour could, as in a revival, reawaken in it, that the beliefs had their beaten, almost preconditioned tracks, in which superstition could always appear, in a new situation, as the tool and interpretive theory for a solution.

The world of beliefs influenced the religious picture of the world as well as the social life, economic activities, and everyday customs of the Hungarian peasantry. It also enmeshed one of the most significant areas of peasant creation, the folk tales (cf. pp. 554–64). One of the richest, most complex areas of peasant creative talent could not have developed if the peasantry had not thought in terms of its system of beliefs. The spirit of wonder and of magic penetrates the atmosphere of folk epics; their credibility and the interest in transmitting them can occur only in a society cherishing a picture of the world that is not determined solely by rationalism and everyday reality but also by this luxuriant growth of a network of beliefs. In such a society, in such a cultural form, the fairystory was, through long centuries, a good and credible entertainer of the peasantry. The present fate and transformation of the folk tales can also verify this: with the destruction of the world of beliefs, tales that were full of miracles are the earliest to die, to wither away, whereas the anecdote and the local epic can maintain themselves longer, apparently because there is much in common in these forms of literature with the perceptible world.

The world of peasant beliefs–as we have said–encompassed every area of life. Therefore we cannot provide a full discussion but will instead just highlight a few characteristic and important questions. We have already referred to certain traits of belief in the course of discussing various areas of folk culture.