Folk Tales and Legends

The genres of narrative folklore are extraordinarily varied, and although they can be clearly separated from one another by their principal traits, we can still find numerous points of transition and interconnection. The Hungarian material, that is, the folk tale, different groups of sagas, legends, anecdotes, true stories, the increasingly popular short stories, memoirs, idioms, proverbs and riddles, can be mentioned here only in broad outline. Even among these, we must restrict ourselves to those genres that are most general and teach us the most about the subject.

{550.} Certain groups of place names infer that fairy tales and tales of belief have an extensive past. We can find these place names in documents and historical notations from the 11th century among the most diverse Hungarian ethnic groups and in different parts of the country. So far, research has paid little attention to such data. Let us quote a few examples: 1075/1217: Usque ad caput laci qui (ÖRDÖG SARA) (devil’s soil) uocatur (the numbers indicate the date of the document, or perhaps the date of its recopying); 1270: Quod quidem fossatum vulgariter ÖRDÖGBARÁZDÁJA (devil’s furrow) noncupatur.” We will not quote further sentences from documents but will introduce instead a few examples of place names that fit here and demonstrate that epic tales, local epic histories, and short stories of belief were very much alive. 1342: ördögkútja (devil’s well); 1344: ördög szántása (devil’s plough land); 1416: ördög-kő (devil’s stone); 1446: bába völgye (witch’s valley); ördögmaró völgye (devil’s grass valley, here the reference is to a magic grass); 1500–1580: ördög ereszkedője (devil’s slope); 1295/1403: ördöngös fő (devilish head). We find the following among proper names: Anthonio Ördögűző (Anthonio the Exorcist), 1454, Johanne Ördöngős (Devilish John), 1429, etc. Another group of place names includes: 1256/1270: Sárkány-hegy (dragon hill); 1262: Sárkány-fő (dragon head); 1391: Sárkány szigete (dragon’s island); 1418: Sárkánykő (dragon stone); 1462: Sárkány ároka (dragon’s ditch), etc.; also 1476: Bűbájos tó (enchanted lake). Similarly, we could list data from 1279 about, e.g. kígyókő (snake stone), kígyólyuk (snake hole). For example, a local document dated 1390 allows us to infer the existence of both a local legend and of a myth of origin: Iungit vnum magnum lapidem MEDVEKŐ (bear stone) nuncupatum.

These data on selected place names and proper names demonstrate that in oral tradition and in the circle of epic prose various stories of magic and belief must have existed; there were also local legends and myths of origin. We find references in documents which may refer to a fabulous content, but it is not possible to solve them; such is, e.g. the mention from 1578 of the “two fools’ plate”, which might be based on a true story associated with King Matthias. We could continue mentioning such problematical names, e.g. 1520: Demetriusz Babszem, meaning Bean, but being the equivalent of Tom Thumb, a name which would verify the suspicion that the family name of the hero of the folk tale “Babszem Jankó” (Johnny Bean) was not a new invention. However, the occurrence of Babszem is rare, and this tale probably came to the Hungarians later in the wake of the Grimm Tales; therefore we need not concern ourselves with listing data of this type. We think that for the time being, we can be satisfied with the evidence provided by documented material from as early as the first centuries after the Conquest, of the existence through oral tradition of epic prose and fabulous narratives.

Besides the testimony of documents, the history writers of the royal courts of the House of Árpád can also bear witness to the existence of oral tradition and of fabulous epics. These chroniclers tried to serve the consolidating central power of the kings, and the difference between the authenticity of their manuscripts and scorned oral tradition was further sharpened by the existence in oral tradition of an attitude opposed to the {551.} consolidating feudal state and regime. And yet, in spite of this, and despite the scorn of courtly chroniclers, the legends that existed in oral tradition and the mythical or fabulous stories that were connected with (or that interfered with) them seeped into the official historical narration. And it is interesting that despite Anonymus’ reproving and slighting comments, such fabulous histories of oral tradition not only were preserved but in the narration of Hungarian chroniclers written between the 12th to 14th centuries, but tale-type details increasingly proliferated. The Chronicle of Kézai (1280), among others, reports many legendary elements surviving in the wake of the lost 11th century ancient gestes, the sources of which can be found in Persian tales.

We can trace the fabulous and legendary elements to a great past. Thus for example, the legend of the chieftain Lél, (Lehel) belongs to the Salamon-legend cycle, widely known during the Middle Ages. The duel of Botond, the small-statured Hungarian common soldier, with six huge Byzantine soldiers recalls the fight of David and Goliath.

The chronicles and historical works of the 16th century both offered a great deal to oral tradition and also preserved much of it. Thus in 1559, in the work of István Benczédi Székely published in Cracow and entitled Chronicle of the Outstanding Things of the World, or in the work of Gáspár Heltai that appeared in 1575, entitled Chronicle of the Affairs of the Magyars, several more significant stories about King Matthias are included, which refer, furthermore, to the existence of these stories in oral folk tradition, a reference which is especially interesting because in another of his works Heltai simply abstracts his work in Latin from the Italian Bonfini.

All this means that after the passage of a century, oral folk tradition surrounding the figure of this great king had already begun to develop. For our purposes, this proves the power of oral tradition.

We will not trace all the way through the literature of chronicles. Among the examples that can be given perhaps these will serve to demonstrate that Hungarian historical writing between the 12th and 16th centuries preserved a number of elements of local legends and anecdotal stories taken over from the oral tradition of peasants and serfs, and through various transfers, from the legends of chronicle literature. More elements filtered in from oral tradition.

The various genres of religious literature, the effects of cloister literature between the 13th and 16th centuries (sermons, parables, meditations, biographies of saints, etc.) also have significant source value for us. Just as European folklore has taken notice of material from the Legenda Aurea, the Scala coeli, the various Speculums, the Catalogus de Sanctorum, so Hungarian prose folk poetry also drew from similar sources. But folk poetry in its turn also effected religious literature: the works of Pelbárt Temesvári (1435–1504) and Osvát Laskai (1450–1511), which appeared in many reprintings, contain legendary episodes, motifs, and anecdotal stories. In these the short story-like narrative method, the tone of adventurous, romantic story telling also appears from time to time. The mutual effect of written records and of oral tradition on each other, and their simultaneous development, can be demonstrated in this area also. We are not willing to suppose only a one-directional {552.} influence originating from literature, because effects of oral folk poetry in prose can also be found in religious literature.

Not only Catholic religious literature, but the religious literature of the Reformation also had a direct contact with narrative folklore. Its most outstanding example is one of the famous works of Péter Bornemisza (1535–1585), Ördögi kísértetek (Devilish Spectres), published in 1578. This collection of sermons dips generously into the European, especially Italian and German sources of short story and true story literature. Markalf and his colleagues were not the only ones appearing in its parables, nor were the most diversified stories of belief, devilish temptations, magical incantations; there were also such fabulous topics as understanding the talk of animals. Local legends and myths of creation, short story-type and magic tales, true stories, various groups of trials of wisdom, all can be found in this large artistic reservoir.

These religious works of different genre and character prove clearly–precisely because of the peculiar character of their transmission–that they generously handed over the epic treasure of this period to the people, and at the same time they also made use of the existing oral tradition, thus testifying to its existence.