Actions Connected with the World of Beliefs

The Hungarian peasants’ world of belief consisted not only of facts, prescriptions, prohibitions, and certain premonitory signs of predictions, but also of a series of differently motivated actions. Some of these are attempts to bring about certain goals, others are used for bewitching, and still others, for curing. There are also activities aimed at prevention and avoidance. Naturally, these actions were often related to one another, in which case we, too, shall introduce them together.

We know of numerous procedures to assure health and beauty. Thus before sunrise on Good Friday, girls brought water from the river or the well, because those who wash in this will be healthy all the year around. During the holy week before Easter, some people threw a red apple into the well and both man and beast drank of it in order to keep their health throughout the year. It was said that eating bread crust keeps you red-cheeked all year, while girls liked to eat lentils on Saturday so as to make themselves beautiful for Sunday. Lentil was also consumed in the food for New Year to help preserve health and good looks. Children rolled in the first snow to improve their health. Washing the face in March snow {685.} promised beauty for girls. Little girls stood outside in pouring rain and waited for their hair to grow with the following ditty:

Rain, raining rain,
Till tomorrow rain.
Thrive and thicken wheat,
Speed the crop of oat.
Let my head of hair be
Like the filly’s tail,
Nay a little longer,
Like the Danube’s length,
Nay a little longer,
Like the ocean’s breadth.

                      Csongrád (Csongrád County)

In the interest of increasing the yield of milk and butter, the Palotses fed the cow bloodgrass (sanguisorba), dried, crushed and mixed with salt. They tried, among the Hungarians of Nyitra County, to put a spell on the new churn so that it would curdle the greatest possible amount of cream to make butter. To do so they rinsed it with water dipped from three rivers, in which they had boiled pebbles collected on the river shore; others claimed that the juice of grass picked from nine boundaries or from a grave was the best charm. There is a legend about a woman who walked about the room or went to the crossroads with the churn on her back, and by the time she had returned, there was already butter inside. If milk was difficult to curdle, then it was urged with songs. One such was recorded in Zagyvarékas (Szolnok County):

Maiden girl, Saint Margaret,
Turn our milk and clot it;
Girl with child lives down the way
Wishes for some butt’ry whey.
Milk, curd, clotted cream,
Miska, wake up from your dream.
Curdle, curdle, churn it,
Into butter turn it!
Down the village lives a maid
Butter, milk is what she craves.
Curdle, curdle, churn it,
Into butter turn it!
Holy Philip, Holy Paul,
Come here straight,
Come and put in it some five or six
Like this little Tibi’s pate.

At such times they would weave into the song the name of a child who happened to be pottering about waiting for the buttermilk.

Among the agriculture tasks, people naturally tried to influence sowing (cf. pp. 203–5) not only with prohibitions but also by actions, in the interest of a better harvest. Thus, in Kalotaszeg, if there was a nursing mother in the house, she dribbled a few drops of her milk on the grain to be sown, so that it would be good and “milky”. Or a man mixed his {686.} fingernail trimmings with the grain and during sowing said the following words: “Nobody is to hurt you when I am not here,” that is to say, his nails were to act as a substitute for the presence of the farmer. On the night of the Day of the Blessed Virgin (September 8), in Göcsej, they spread out the grain to be sown, so that it would take the “blessing of the Lord” and yield a plentiful harvest. Along the Rába river they dribbled the millet through a hole on a wheel to assure the secrecy of the sowing and thus protect it from the birds.

Growing maize (cf. p. 217) became general in Hungary only from the 18th century on, and as we have seen above, numerous urgings are attached to its sowing. Around Pécs, they threw the first seeds under the hoe through a split in the skirt, so as to keep the gophers from finding them. They likewise held a corn seed under the tongue during sowing so that the mice should not find the sown seeds. In the Kiskunság they poured the left-over seeds back into the sack and tied the mouth of the sack so as to keep the crows from eating the sown seeds. The mouth of the sack was not opened until the corn had sprouted. In the Jászság, when the sack that hung on the neck of the sower was emptied, they threw it high up in the air so that the corn would grow high, then rolled on the ground so there would be an ear on every stalk.

People watered the melon seed with sweet milk before sowing to assure the growth of sweet fruit. They jump up and hurry from one hill to the other at the time of sowing gourd, so that its tendrils should also run fast. At the conclusion of sowing, they touch their bottom to the ground so that the gourd should be equally large.

Some of the people who are said to possess supernatural power, witches especially, are supposed to bewitch people, animals, and plants equally. Small children had to be the most cared for, because if a witch only looked at them, they might become sick immediately, or cry until they died of it. The other group of victims of witchcraft comes from among lovers. If a girl wanted to charm a lover, she would bake his hair or its ashes into biscuits, thus binding the boy to her.

The curse is one of the most general forms of bewitching, and its concealed forms can be found in the vernacular to this day: e.g. “the devil get into him”, “confound him”, “a pox on him”. Curses called down on thieves were the most frequent, and we know the most about these. People tried to get hold of some article of clothing belonging to the suspected thief, and while burning it at a crossroads, they said: “I am not burning this clothing, I am burning your soul and bones, you should have no rest until you return it [the stolen article].” And he whose bees were stolen said this curse: “The one who stole my bees should not be able to die until he calls me to him.” The other big group of curses was attached to lovers. Thus the abandoned girl shaped a human form out of mud picked up from the footsteps of the young man, and spoke this curse: “You are not to have peace and rest until you return and marry me.” It was also common for the abandoned girl to utter curses in verse or song:

{687.} Love, it’s not my custom, still I curse you,
Wish your washing water blood may turn to,
May your drying towel scorch and burn you,
Till you die convulsions shake and jerk you,
Parch, dry, swell and go down, wither,
Where you sit now, darling, let you stick there.

                           (former Szatmár County)

If they wanted to take away somebody’s luck, they spoke this curse over his reversed footprint: “Let him lose his luck, let his arms and legs dry up.” There are also some curses that wish good luck to their teller in the first part, while cursing in their second part. Such a one, among others, is the magic ditty of the gazdasszony who is poking at the hens on Lucy’s Day (December 13):

Lay eggs, lay eggs, hatch ’em all,
Woman next door, ill you fall!

Witches could do evil (rontás; cf. p. 675) by pouring (öntés). Thus in the Székelyland a witch would cook beans and, when the cock crew at dawn, poured them on the spot where the person to be bewitched usually goes. If he walked over it, whatever evil the witch wished on him came true. Pouring the water which had been used to wash a dead person into someone else’s yard caused sickness. In other places witches were said to scatter money about and, if someone picked it up, blisters would appear on him. If the roots of belladonna were dug secretly under the threshold, the occupants of the house would be bewitched by it. In the Bodrogköz, it was said that if dolls had been dug into the road that led out of the village, these kept the stock from being driven out; the animals simply turned back.

Curing consists partly of rational procedures based on experience, partly on survivals of medieval medical procedures. A significant amount are irrational methods of curing human and animal illness. Such methods pervaded every type of curing and provided protection against curses and bewitching also by incantation (ráolvasás).

Incantations, as do curses, look back to an extremely distant past. Perhaps they were already present in the procedures of the pagan Magyars of the 11th century, who said the Christian prayers backwards in order to break their power and to reverse them. In Tiszaigar (Szolnok County) they expelled worms from a cow with these words:

’Tis you I say St. Ivan,
In this cow of Imre Csató,
In the speckled cow, the Pink,
Dwell nine maggots all.
Not nine, but eight.
Not eight, but seven,
Not seven, but six,
Not six, but five,
Not five, but four,
Not four, but three,
Not three, but two,
{688.} Not two, but one,
Not one, but none,
Get out of it, get out!

There is hardly any illness not connected with some kind of incantation. If somebody grew a sty, called árpa (barley) in Hungarian, on the eye, they chased it away with this saying: “Run away barley, or I will harvest you, thresh you, grind you, bake you, and eat you.” They said the following over a broken or sprained leg: “Mend bone to bone, blood to blood, flesh to flesh, and as it was, so be it now also.” They kept repeating this little ditty to put an end to toothache:

New moon, new king
I greet him with wormy teeth,
Praised be the name of Jesus!

In the Great Plain they tried to cure erysipelas with this poem:

Dry day, headache,
Leave this man’s head,
May its spell break,
Seek the greenwoods,
Live in tree roots,
Find you here no rest.
Jesus, my King,
Pray be listening:
Blessing is mine,
Healing is thine.

Generally differentiation was made between illness that came from bewitching and illness coming from fright. The latter was cured by tin-pouring women who poured out hot tin, and the shape of the tin showed what or who had caused the illness. If, for example, a dog appeared, then by the mere ascertainment of the cause the sickness would depart.

Rabies (veszettség) was one of the most dangerous sicknesses for both man and animals; rabies’ doctors, famous far and wide dealt with curing it. Their knowledge was generally passed on within the family from father to son. They kept their procedure completely secret, because if it became known it lost its power and effectiveness. The most important component of their medicine was the powder of the cantharis, which was mostly administered with brandy. The cattle was driven through the smoke of such powder, and the animal which hesitated and would not go through had the sickness already hidden in it. They therefore separated that animal from the others and tried to cure it.

310. Smoking against the evil eye

310. Smoking against the evil eye
Tunyog, Szabolcs-Szatmár County

311. Spinning the sieve

311. Spinning the sieve
Beregújfalu, former Bereg County

Various methods were known to prevent bewitching. Among these smoking played an especially important role. A fire was made from nine corn cobs, three beans, three cloves of garlic, the skin of three potatoes, a handful of sugar, and a pinch of incense, lit with the help of a bundle of straw, and the bewitched child was held over it. To fend off the evil eye the child had to be bathed in milk before sunrise. If the child was a girl, they gave the milk it was bathed in to a female dog; if it was a boy, they gave it to a male dog. They bathed a sick person in juices boiled from the {690.} leaves of nine kinds of fruit trees, then poured the juice out backhandedly in the direction of the west.

Activities serving the warding off of bewitching, sickness, and trouble make up a significant part of the world of folk beliefs. To prevent bewitching, the bride-to-be put money in her shoe and walked on it. Pregnant women lay under a cobweb for the same reason. They tied a red ribbon on the small child’s arm to protect him from the Evil Eye. If someone was eating something for the first time that year, then he first said this little poem:

Take in novelty,
Pox on lords and royalty!

A few stalks of grain were left on the field after harvest to keep the birds from damaging the next year’s crop. To protect the new-born colt from witchcraft, they tied about its neck a few hairs from a mare’s tail.

312. Divination with beans on a sieve

312. Divination with beans on a sieve
Hajcsána, Moldavia (Egyházaskozár, Baranya County)

Prevention is an action or procedure carried out against an external {691.} force. Thus they put the baker’s shovel and the poker in front of the house to keep the lightning from striking. Even today, and in many settlements, the belief exists that ringing bells against the storm keeps destruction from the fields and from the village.

The world of folk beliefs, by losing its social and economic foundation, gave way to rational knowledge and has in large part disappeared. However, the survival of it still lives in everyday speech. If we cannot explain someone’s behaviour, we say that “the devil got into him”, or if someone does his work well and quickly that he “became táltos-like.” We could give a long list of such expressions, now detached from their original content. However, certain remnants of beliefs do exist to this day, not only among village dwellers but among city dwellers as well. Thus many people still show their money to the new moon with these words: “May your father and mother come here,” hoping that their money will grow in direct proportion with the moon. It is not customary to say “thank you” for medicine given as a present, because it will lose its efficacy. Pricking or cutting tools should not be given as presents, because they cut off friendship, or, if such a gift is given, then the giver pricks the finger of the new owner and in this way insures that there will not be any more trouble. Nobody spends money on Monday if possible. The first customer, because he brings luck, is valued even by the market women of the capital. However, meeting a woman first in the morning does not bring luck. Hunters and fishermen also believe in this. If someone has already stepped over the threshold, he should not come back, because then he will not have luck that day; on the other hand, clothes put on inside-out mean good luck, just as do spiders, which should not be killed. It is best not to praise someone too loud, because he’ll get spoiled easily; if someone sleeps in a new place where he never slept before, he ought to count the corners and then his dream will come true. If a black cat crosses the road in front of an automobile, many a driver still feels a sense of apprehension.

We have listed these few examples only in order to demonstrate how adamantly the world of beliefs of the past survives even among those who obviously know that these beliefs are mere superstition.