Legends of Belief

The attention of Hungarian research has been directed to legends of belief (hiedelemmonda) most vigorously only during the last decades. Although several versions were known earlier, this group was not discussed separately from other genres. In consequence, collecting these could not have become systematic. The definition of the group, despite serious Hungarian and European research, cannot in every respect be looked upon as final. It is indisputable that we are dealing with an epic genre that surrounds one kern of belief, but not every belief becomes a legend, that is to say, the totality of the legends does not simultaneously provide all the material. Only those beliefs become legends that are connected to some action. Then again, not every kern of a legend of {589.} belief is part of the whole world of beliefs, so that for example, legends of belief about giants also occur within the Hungarian linguistic region, while at the same time they do not belong to the body of beliefs of the Hungarian folk. According to the most recent knowledge, the kern of belief and the action attached to it, the local story, characterize the genre of the legends of belief.

Legends of belief are partly national in character, partly international, so that they can be found both among the Hungarians and the European peoples.

A survey of these legends can be carried out only on the basis of the belief elements, according to which they are divided into two large groups: legends about men, beasts, plants, and objects possessing supernatural strength; and myths about supernatural beings. It is characteristic of the entirety of the Hungarian legends that the first group dominates, and legends of the second group occur in much smaller numbers than do those of the first group. In the treasury of similar European legends, the situation is exactly the opposite, and this lends a special significance to the Hungarian legends of belief.

First, let us discuss some human figures possessing supernatural power, since from a calculation supported by 3,000 legends, it is evident that these make up almost 60 per cent of the corpus of Hungarian beliefs. Significant among these is the group of shaman (táltos) legends, which undoubtedly contain shamanistic features. In spite of their long history, their numbers barely reach 3 per cent, and in many cases the story is mixed with the legend about the garabonciás, an occidental wandering student. Similarly, this group also makes up 3 per cent of the Hungarian legends of belief.

The essence of the táltos legends (cf. pp. 672–3) is a struggle for “knowledge”, the knowledge of magic power, the struggle fought by those who were born with teeth, or with six fingers, in the disguise of a bull or a fiery wheel. The following legend, recorded at Karcsa (former Zemplén county), tells about this:

Afterwards we went to the lower end of the village. We used to go there to talk with one of our neighbours. And during the talk such matters came up. Old Ferenc Nagy said that he too had heard from an old cattleherd that there was a boy, he came to a pasture. There was a big herd of cattle, and alongside of them a man between forty-five or fifty, a herdsman. He greeted him:

“God give you good day!”

He asks him, doesn’t he need a young herdsman.

“Indeed I do,” he says, “I used to have a young herdsman but he was no satisfactory, so now I need one who is. So son,” he says, “if you think that you can take care of the responsibilities, I’ll take you on.”

So he took him on as his young herdsman, but he was really more like a cattleherd. The days passed one after the other, but he didn’t admit to his gazda that he is a garabonciás.

Then time went on, and once it began thunder and lightning, and a great black cloud was coming. Well, this young herdsman knew what was going to happen, but the old herdsman didn’t know. It is enough to say that the herdsman spoke thus:

{590.} “Well son,” he says, “let us drive the cattle toward the fold, because we might have such a storm that we can’t handle the cattle.”

Then they drove the cattle into the corral, and afterwards the boy says to the gazda:

Well,” he says, “my gazda, let’s go to the hut, but take the best cudgel in hand. Furthermore,” he says, “you urge the two dogs when the time comes.”

“Well,” he says, “then I’ll go into the hut, and you on the other hand stay outside at the mouth of the hut. Then,” he says, “I am going to turn into a bull, and I have to fight it out with that bull. But if I don’t have any help he will be stronger than I am. So, my gazda, take the cudgel and beat the small toenail of the bull as hard as you possibly can. And urge the dog, both dogs, to rip the balls of that bull who comes down from the cloud. This way somehow I might be able to fight him.”

And so this is what happened. When the bull came down from the cloud, the boy also turned into a bull, jumped out of the hut, and they fell upon each other, that is how they fought. Then when the gazda saw that he was weakening, he began to beat the back small toenail on the other bull’s leg. And he urged the dogs to rip at his balls as much as they can.

Well, then the gazda saw that that one was weakening. And when the cloud descended as low to the ground as when he had come out of it, the bull climbed into the cloud and left. The other one then changed back into a man.

Then he told his gazda what this was all about.

“He came for me just now. If I don’t fight him now, if I don’t break him down, then they would take me away. But because I fought him, they will leave me now in peace, so now I am free.”

One interesting group of Hungarian legends of belief is connected with the person of the Clever Coachman (tudós kocsis) (cf. p. 676). His most frequently occurring characteristic trait is his power to bind, to stop man or beast so it cannot move. Parallels to this motif can be found equally in east and west. Less frequently it happens that he brings to life a horse skin stuffed with straw and travels great distances by rising into the air with this horse. These features point more in the direction of the Orient, and we can find their equivalents in the world of beliefs of those peoples who were related to the Magyars or were in contact with them at some time. This form of the legend of belief is known primarily in the eastern half of the linguistic region. The following was recorded in Tyukod (former Szatmár County):

“My father was an apprentice in Porcsalma, at the lord’s. There, he met this wise man. Terge had a coachman. It is he I want to tell a story about now. This Terge brought the horses from Transylvania, to sell them here. He had a coachman who knew about horses and also other things. Terge didn’t know about this. Once Terge got a letter from along the Tisza that there will be a wedding. He wanted to go there. He was supposed to be there by morning. Because he was going off, Terge told the coachman to be quick about his work. The coachman said nothing but just went to the tavern and paid no attention to the horses. He went home in the evening, and it was getting very late when he brought the cart out.”

“Well, we are going to be late because of you,” Terge said to him.

{591.} “Don’t you worry, we’ll be there by the time we have to. It isn’t far from here, only one stroke, two strokes, and we are already there,” answered the coachman.

When they got going, the coachman asked:

“How should we go: like the wind or like a thought?”

He only just answered, “Go like the wind. Then he suddenly saw that he was being lifted up because the wheels didn’t touch the ground. So they went over the tree tops, over the water on the Szamos [river]. It wasn’t yet dawn when they arrived. Only then did Terge realize who his coachman was. He could hardly wait to get there and discharged him immediately. But the horses were unable to budge. He got frightened again, but he finally found a coachman who was able to drive them. The other one also knew how to do it, that’s why.”

The figure of the Cunning Shepherd (tudós pásztor) (cf. p. 675) is related to the magic coachman. It makes up more than 4 per cent of the Hungarian legends of belief, and is mostly restricted to the eastern part of the country where the extensive keeping of animals, and along with that, the less tied-down life of the herdsmen, survived the longest. The herdsmen possessing supernatural knowledge and power excelled in healing, in the scattering of animals and herds, and in keeping them together under any circumstance. They send the stock, generally the bull, against their enemies, and at the same time they not only avert similar attempts against themselves but they even turn them around in the other direction. There are many legends of experiences among such stories, and legends heard firsthand, but there are also some among them the forms of which have solidified and are identical over a large area.

Most widely spread over the entire Hungarian linguistic region are the legends about witches (boszorkánymonda), which comprise over one-fourth of the known material (cf. pp. 673–4). These tell about the acquisition of magic, the spoiling of milk, the witch’s turning into some animal. The most general are still those recounting different versions of the one about being pressed by a witch. The following from Kishartyán (Nógrád County) is a version of such a myth:

This is what happened in Cserhátsurány to two brothers. They lay in the same bed every night, and the younger one was pressed every night. This went on for a whole year. Of course the boy didn’t dare tell anybody. One time his older brother told him:

“Younger brother, what is with you? You are getting skinnier each day.”

But he was secretive then and didn’t want to tell. His parents also questioned him the same way. They said “do tell us,” and his brother was questioning him,–he must be helped somehow. Finally the boy tells his older brother,

“I am being pressed every night, so much so that I almost die, since I cannot get any air at all.”

“Well, brother, it is a good thing that you finally told us about is. Now we are going to change places. I will wait for it.”

The older brother had a sleep already in the daytime, so that he would be alert at night. And the witch came around midnight. I heard when the door opened, I was not sleepy, but when she approached the bed sleep overcame me. I did notice the witch when she put her weight on me. But because he was awake, he didn’t lose consciousness and started to wrestle with the witch. They wrestled for a half {592.} an hour, but he could not overcome the witch. But while we were struggling there, her small finger was caught in my mouth. I held that with all my might and bit down on it. I made only one mistake, and that is when I spat out the piece of the finger onto the floor of the house. So the witch became obedient right away, left me in the bed, and took the piece of finger along. Then my mother said, now we must watch carefully whose hand is going to be bound up.

So the next day several of us met that certain woman who was otherwise a midwife. So he questioned her like this:

“Aunt Mari, what happened to your hand?”

“Oh, my dear son, I was chopping wood and cut my hand. I am going to the doctor–she said.

Meanwhile my mother also met her:

“Aunt Mari”, what is the matter with your hand?

“Oh,” she says, “I was chopping wood!

But she didn’t tell her that she had cut her finger, only that she cut her hand. Then the mother of the boy told her:

“Oh the plague should fall on you, Aunt Mari! Aren’t you ashamed of yourself for wrecking that poor boy for an entire year? Now, if it wasn’t for his brother changing place with him, you could have finished him off. You should be ashamed of yourself, you dirty old witch. Isn’t it enough that you sucked on every cow in the neighbourhood in the shape of a cat? It had already come to light at the neighbours’ that when they poured the milk into the pigs’ trough and beat the milk in the trough with a willow twig, even then you went there saying “don’t you hurt that milk!” It came to light, didn’t it, that as they beat the milk, you felt the pain, but they just kept beating the milk all the more. Isn’t it true that since then there has been no milk missing from a single cow? You dirty old witch, and on top of all this you think we need you as midwife? You should be kicked out of the village!” she says.

From then on the boy got livelier and better every day, and he was not pressed any more.

The legends about witches vary greatly in form and content. The majority are stories of experiences which coincide in content with the world of beliefs and can be looked upon as manifestations of it. Their construction is often loose, and only in the versions of certain story-tellers do these tales become more permanent as the result of frequent repetition. Although the second group maintains contact with the world of beliefs, still some tales become more entertaining in content and form, and their legendary traits wear off. At the same time the form of these legends crystallizes, and it becomes more and more apparent that they deal with wanderers of far-away lands.

Supernatural beings are not present in this category of Hungarian legends. So far it has not been possible to ascertain satisfactorily the reason for this. However, this is compensated for by the wealth of material relating to the figure of death, haunting spirits, ghosts, that is to say, everything that is connected to the still existing world of belief or to beliefs which had existed in the near past. Legends about the returning dead, whose desire was not fulfilled, are very frequent. The following comes from the Palots region and dates from the late 19th century:

{593.} All of a sudden some rumbling was heard from outdoors, like when the wind is bending the trees; I look over at the window and I see someone looking in and then disappears. At first I thought that somebody was just curious, but it came to the window for the second time and third time, so I went out of the house to see who it was, but there wasn’t a soul anywhere. Well, I thought to myself, I am not going back now. The hour was getting late, so I went on.

But I had hardly gone ten steps when somebody is coming exactly towards me in a white dress, boots on its feet, lace made of gold on its head, like the one young wives wear here, and it held a rosary in its hand. I saw it clearly in the moonlight. So the woman comes straight to me and tells me:

“Do not be afraid, my dear son. I am your godmother. Tell my daughter that I never rest in the other world. If my dotted skirt and two clean gangas (a pure white apron made from hemp linen) are in the chest she should sell them and pay for two masses for me.”

With that she became like a piece of smoke or fog and disappeared from in front of my eyes. And it is true, as God is guarding us in heaven; if I didn’t see it, I would not tell about it.

So I go next day to the daughter of my godmother and tell her about it. But the young woman just didn’t want to believe it, except when I mentioned the dotted skirt and two gangas. Then she said:

“Now, brother-in-law, I believe that you spoke to my mother, because in truth she left me nothing else but those. But if that is her wish I will sell those also, so that she won’t be lacking in the other world, as she always lacked in this one.

Hungarian legends are connected to the still existent or formerly existing world of belief. Belief in the existence of people possessing supernatural knowledge and ability (táltos, garabonciás, coachman, miller, ferryman, herdsman, etc.) has ceased almost entirely, yet the form of the legends has become solidified and polished in style. The other group of legends is attached to the still valid or dormant world of belief. Legends about witches, supernatural beings, and the haunting dead speak about certain experiences that justify the local world of belief and direct the listeners in their behaviour with supernatural beings. Their moral is at least as important in these as the aim of entertaining. Generally, the form has not yet solidified and is interwoven with a great deal of individual colour. Naturally, innumerable transitions are possible between the two groups, according to the desuetude of the religious base and the crystallization of form.

The experts and best relaters of legends of belief are generally former labourers on the large estates, or the peasant strata close to them socially (day labourers, share croppers, poor peasants). Yet social references are rare because of the character of the genre. We can still find some legends, especially those about magic coachmen or herdsmen, where in the narration people hit back for the many injuries they had suffered from their lord or his steward. It seems as if supernatural power and its qualities serve precisely this same purpose.

There are no traditional phrases for beginning these legends as there are for fairy tales. The action usually starts off with the precise designation of the locality, the time, and perhaps the participants. The style of the majority of legends, consisting mostly of one or two elements, is {594.} extremely simple. However, their content and form do influence their style to a significant degree. If the legend is similar to a tale, then its language and mode of performance also becomes similar. Still, the style is mainly determined by the desire to disclose some peculiar event in such a way that the audience should be able to learn from it, and not primarily by wanting to entertain. This is why its mode of delivery is objective: it does not move about the topic but proceeds directly towards the goal. Simple language completes the clear, translucent form, which even more underlines the clarity of the legend.

Those who relate legends of belief are mostly not identical with the standing story tellers. Generally they also know tales as well, but they value their own genre much more than fairy stories, saying that those stand much closer to everyday life. The occasions for story telling also conform in broad outline with those for reciting legends. The herdsmen, day labourers, and labourers on the large estates were glad to relate such stories when work provided an opportunity, and similar tales were also certainly told at wakes.