The Peasant World View

The Hungarian peasant had a command of certain ideas and knowledge of the surrounding world, our earth and the Universe. By “world view” we mean the entirety of these ideas and knowledge, which are interwoven into every phase of life. We also include in this terminology experience acquired at school and from reading, or just learned from the teachings of religion. Beside the rational elements, irrational elements played an extraordinarily great role in developing this world view. {679.} There is a stratum that can be traced right back to the Finno-Ugric period, while other parts are survivals of ancient European cultures. Much was learned from the surrounding peoples; some of this knowledge originates from the literature of the Middle Ages, while other ideas were developed by the Hungarian peasantry itself on this multi-layered foundation. Naturally, all of these were more or less influenced by Christian perception. We cannot venture to do more than throw light on a few areas and illuminate certain characteristic parts of the picture.

According to folk belief, water surrounds the entire universe, and water holds up both earth and sky. Three worlds are nestled in this water, and mankind lives on the middle one. There is an upper world, with a lake of milk lying in it. Angels bathe in this and frequently visit heaven from there. The lower world can be reached through a hole. It is called Dragon Country (Sárkányország), or sometimes hell (pokol). The end of the world is located where these worlds come in contact. The concept of this layered universe is fairly widespread in the Hungarian world of beliefs, but in some places it is made up of even layers in people’s imagination.

The most important element of the system is the sun, which rises in the east, and in the evening sinks into the sea in the west. In the course of the night it wanders back to the east under the sea, so that at dawn it can re-emerge at the usual spot. This is precisely why the appearance and warming of the sun is connected in many ways to peasant life. In the spring, the children call the heath-giving sun this way:

Sun shine, pray,
Saint George Day!
Frisky lambkins
In yond meadow
Freeze all day!
Spread on ground your
Coat of leather,
May God give us
Best of weather!

                      Szőreg (former Torontál County)

Incantations to ward off illness and bring it to an end are most successful when recited at sunrise:

Even as the sun goes up,
Even as the sun goes down,
You should go away.
Neither sent for,
Nor awaited,
Whence you came, thither you should disappear.

                           Zagyvarékas (Szolnok County)

Even more beliefs are attached to the moon than to the sun, since it changes in size constantly. It is generally believed that St. David is sitting in the moon playing the violin or the harp:

{680.} In the moon Saint David sits,
Fiddles when his fancy bids.

                      Báránd (former Bihar County)

Fig. 233. Explanations of the spots on the moon.

Fig. 233. Explanations of the spots on the moon.
1. David making music. 2. Cicelle is dancing (or both together). 3. A man (David) chopping wood. 4. A man (David) carrying straw, hay, vineshoots or firewood. 5. A herdsman (David) drying his footrag. 6. A man ploughing with an ox.

So says a children’s ditty from the Sárrét about the moon. In other places they believe that the easily visible spots on the full moon are the footrags of St. David. They also attribute a special importance in agriculture to the new moon and to the full moon. We know of far-reaching traditions of this. Thus the pedagogue Comenius writes the following in the middle of the 17th century: “Cut down the trees after the full moon, so they will not become worm-eaten.” It is also generally believed that plants growing above ground need to be planted with the waxing moon, and plants growing underground with the waning moon, that is, at the time when the moon is “underground”. And the moon also has a significant role in weather prediction. If its halo is large, rain is expected. Longer-range weather may also be predicted from its position. It is believed in the Jászság that if the tip of the new moon is upright, there will be much rainfall during the month; if it is downwards, little rain can be expected.

Investigation of peasant knowledge about the starry sky has already elicited good results. The Kolozsvár calendar at the end of the 16th century acknowledged that comets cause wars and disasters. This belief is still general today, and naturally, not just in the Hungarian linguistic region. The three stars located next to each other in the Orion constellation are called Reaper (Kaszás) or Three Reapers (Három Kaszás). In the same connection Sirius is mentioned as the Lame Girl (Sánta Leány) or Lame Kate (Sánta Kata). It is thought that she carries dinner to the three {681.} reapers working out in the field. In Transylvania the name of Orion is St. Peter’s Rod (Szent Péter pálcája). The Hungarian names for the constellation Orion are rooted in European traditions, which also preserved the classical Greek and Roman antecedents. The most widely known constellation is the Big Dipper, which is considered to be an ox cart (göncölszekér), with four wheels and a pole. On beautiful summer nights even the young manservant can be seen by its central star, when the Milky Way also appears. Someone from Szőreg (former Torontál County) said about this: “The Big Dipper cart belonged to St. Peter. St. Peter went off to steal straw, and the field-guard caught him at it; he didn’t want to let him take the straw. Then, as St. Peter drove the oxen fast, he scattered the straw, and since that time the Milky Way has been seen in the sky.” This is again a belief connecting the Hungarians not only with Europe but also with the Near East.

According to folk belief, the rainbow is a sign that God will not destroy the world again by flood. They hold that where it reaches the ground is the end of the world, and if somebody points at it with a finger, they immediately make him bite it, so as not to cause calamity. People also predict the crop from it; if there is much yellow in the first rainbow of the spring, then there will be much corn, if the green stripe is wide, then the wheat harvest will be good, and much red promises a rich yield of wine.

Peasants predict wind a day in advance. If the sun goes down in a red cloud, there will be much wind the next day. They hold this to be true in case of sunrise also. The whirlwind was held to be the most dangerous among the winds, because a táltos, garabonciás or witch could travel in them from one place to another. Therefore a sickle, clods of earth, or other things were thrown into whirlwinds, but they had to be very careful that the one inside the whirlwind should not take revenge on them. Sometimes, they would grab a sieve, because by looking through it, the witch inside could be seen.

People tried to find satisfactory explanations for various natural phenomena which could not be explained rationally. Such explanations and beliefs not only took root but were also further developed. Similarly various metals were endowed with supernatural characteristics and power. Part of these beliefs derive from ancient times when various metals, because of their scarcity, represented a particular value. In the Hungarian language, the name of gold (arany), silver (ezüst), tin (ón), lead (ólom), and iron (vas) originate from the Finno-Ugric period, so it is likely that traditions of a long past adhere to them.

Beliefs connected with gold are often mixed with those referring to treasure in general. It is believed that gold gets purified every seven years, mostly on the night of St. George’s Day (April 24), when it burns with a blue flame that can be seen above the ground. At this time people throw a piece of rag or a footrag on the flame so that the treasure should not sink back into the depths again. However, they usually chide gold and other treasure with a curse to insure that it will be dug up only at the cost of some sacrifice, generally a chicken or a cock. A man could not utter a sound or curse while digging for treasure, because then it would disappear into the depths and no trace of it could be found for the next seven years.

{682.} The largest number of beliefs are attached to iron and to objects made from it. Some of these may originate from the period when iron, a new metal, eclipsed everything else in the making of articles of consumption. Beliefs connected with horseshoes are known even to this day. Horseshoes can be found in many places nailed to the threshold even of city apartments. If they are turned inward, so that their shanks face towards the apartment and their curvature outward, they ward off trouble coming from the outside; if they face in the opposite direction, that means that the horseshoe is not allowing good fortune to leave the house. Horseshoes were also held to be capable of counteracting the bewitching of milk and sickness of animals, and their power could be increased by making them red hot. But any kind of iron material is suitable for warding off troubles, such as storm or hail. During a hailstorm, they throw an ax into the yard, blade up. If the ax cuts a piece of ice in half, then the clouds part immediately. In other places a fork and knife are crossed on the table or a sickle is thrown in the direction of the storm during thunder and lightning. All this is connected with the belief that the storm was let loose by the garabonciás, or by witches, or evil spirits who have to be wounded and chased away by various kinds of iron objects.

Iron objects were considered to be suitable for preventing and warding off many forms of witchcraft. Here, again, we can speak only of the defence against bewitching spirits who were supposed to be afraid of iron and tools made out of iron. Thus a knife was put into the boot of the bridegroom to preserve him from illness, or a dismantled ax was hidden under the bed of a woman in childbirth to ease her labour. They bathed the child in water that was poured into the tub on the blade of a scythe. On the other hand, they took away all iron from the clothes and boots of the dead and from the hair of dead women, so that these would not cause difficulties for them in the other world. There must have been some idea in this that ghosts are afraid of iron, perhaps because they had once been defeated by iron implements. For the same reasons, a significant role was also attributed to iron objects in preventing the bewitching of animals. The following, dated 1731, was written during a witch trial: “He bid him drive his cattle to him; then, on driving them home, he pulled a chain through the gate and drove the cattle through it, so that no harm should ever come to them.” To counteract milk being bewitched, people stuck a knife or knocked an ax into the milk poured into the trough, or they milked onto a red-hot plough iron, sickle, or horseshoe, which made the witch who caused the trouble appear.

We have spoken about fire in regard to iron; purifying powers were generally attributed to fire. This is why people jump over a fire during certain customs (cf. p. 649), and that is why they heat iron with it. Fire is generally held to be good-natured because it warms, cooks, and bakes for people and carries out other useful activities. If wet food makes a “crying” sound there will be quarrelling in the house. To ward that off, people spit into the fire, but never pour water on it.

Naturally, many beliefs are attached to the person who works with iron and fire, to the smith in particular. He already enjoyed a great deal of respect among the conquering Magyars. Many distinguished families of {683.} the Conquest period claim their origin from smith ancestors. Besides working with iron, smiths were knowledgeable about curing illnesses. The best teeth pullers and removers of cataracts came from among them. They were also excellent animal doctors, mixing both rational and irrational elements in their curing work.

A great number of irrational beliefs are also attached to cultivated plants. Thus, for example, people believed that the wheat will be blighted if it is sown while the church bell rings, if they smoke a pipe or put a hat on the table during the time of sowing, or if bread is baked on the day of the sowing or on Friday. On the other hand, they thought that if peals of thunder can be heard in the sky before St. George’s Day, or if it rained on the way home from Christmas Mass, there was prospect for a good harvest. If poppy seeds are sown on Shrove Tuesday the crop will not be wormy, but in order to avoid this pest, it was prohibited to talk to anybody during the time of sowing, and the peasants did not accept even greetings then.

Many of the notions connected with plants that grow wild are related to St. George’s Day. The herdsmen went at this time to collect those grasses they used for smoking the pasture and the fold so that the stock could never break out from that circle. The women at this time collected nine kinds of herbs from nine fields, and the cow they fed it to was sure to give plenty of milk that year. They searched for a long time for vervain, because if someone held it in his hand he could open shackles and every lock with it, and some even believed that it could make its owner invisible.

A vast amount of knowledge of different origins adhered to domestic animals as well as to wild beasts. Thus it was held that birds speak to each other. Certain people were said to understand the speech of animals. The greatest number of beliefs was undoubtedly attached to the snake. Its name, kígyó, is one of the oldest words of Finno-Ugric origin and was known already in the Ural period. Still, in certain regions the word is not uttered even today, although everybody knows it; people prefer to call it csúszó (glider) after its characteristic movement. We find similar naming procedures, precisely in connection with animals, in fairly large numbers in the Hungarian language. It was believed that some snakes were related to dragons, and this kind was in most cases malicious and equally dangerous to man and beast. The house snake and the white snake mentioned in the various sources were considered to be good-natured. They wrote in 1805 about such a white snake: “All animals, wild creatures, birds, grass, and trees will be understood by the one who eats the flesh of the white snake or at least sucks on its bones; and the white snake lives at the root of such hazelnut trees on the top of which mistletoe grows.” It was believed that snakes climb into the sick man and clean out his insides. In the spring, the snakes gather in a large group and, led by the king of the snakes, blow stories. The serpentine (kígyókő) is, so they say, the size of a diamond and is guarded by the snake king. A man can acquire it by rolling a cart among them; when they disperse, the stone left behind will assure invisibility to the man.

In connection with bees, they believed that the farmer should not give out anything from the house until Joseph’s Day (March 19), because if he {684.} did, he would deliver the yield of the honey with it. If the queen bee is stolen, then the entire hive of bees dies of sorrow. But a hive which has been stolen collects and proliferates especially well, so that this kind of stealing was condemned less severely.

In regard to parts of the human body, right and left sides were differentiated. The former is the lucky side which is why people get off the bed on that side, just as the proverb says: “He got up with the left foot,” which is to say, someone is angry, ill-tempered. Furthermore, witches work with their left hand to carry out all activities that have some kind of supernatural connection. Important trips are started on the right foot; going off to work, to hunt, or to get married, etc. These superstitions are still alive in many areas even today.

Special magic qualities were attributed to hair. That is why a little was cut from the hair of infants and hidden under the threshold. Women collected the hair they daily combed out, and after their death it was put in their coffin, because those who burned it were not able to find it any more at Resurrection. Similarly, fingernails were cherished very carefully. The nails of infants were not cut until one year of age, but were chewed off instead. The cut off nails always had to be collected and burned or, even better, buried somewhere, because otherwise there would be no rest after death for the spirit continually coming back to collect its nails.

What has been said so far gives only a glimpse of the world of beliefs that extended to every area of life and naturally was equally tied to buildings, transportation, cleansing one’s body, washing, and every kind of housework, as it was also to certain occupations, to sicknesses, and to the great turning points of life.

This world of belief, living and lifeless things, were populated with good and bad spirits, whose characteristics had to be known exactly so that it would be possible to live with them, or rather to influence their power.