On Hungarian Symbols

There are a number of symbols Hungarians consider characteristic of themselves besides the legally accepted official symbols. The symbols Hungarians felt characterized them, and those other peoples have characterized them with, have of course changed at various points of history. Some of them have no basis in reality today. The characterization of a people also preserves interesting traditions and is a part of the treasury of the community’s collective memory. From it we can observe how the nation’s image of itself has changed, which characteristics, lifestyles and sympathies have formed the community.

Obviously the Hungarian nation cannot be called a nation of horsemen today. However, for a long time good horsemanship was considered a definitive characteristic, as were the hussars, or light cavalry, which developed in Hungary and later spread throughout the world.

We have divided our brief overview of Hungarian symbols into the following categories: geographic national symbols, symbolic plants and animals, gastronomic specialties, elements of folk culture which have become national symbols, and a unique historical pantheon of historical figures preserved by collective memory and symbolic of Hungary’s past. The world of symbols is in constant change and hard to demarcate: region of inhabitance, age, occupation and education all have an effect on the content of a group of symbols, and perhaps taste also plays a role in choosing and categorizing each symbol.

In the area of geography there is no argument as to the definition of the Great Plains as a national landscape. The cult of the Great Plains was primarily formed by Petőfi’s poignant poetry on the topic. The fact that the Great Plains lies in the center of the country and that a large percentage of the population of the country inhabits it is also an important factor in its rise to the rank of national symbol. The region also experienced dynamic development in the first half of the 19th century.

‘Down in the ocean-flat miles of plain
is where I am home. That is my world.
From its prison my eagle-spirit soars
upon seeing its endless shores.’

(From: Sándor Petőfi The Great Plains)

In this approach the Great Plains is also a carrier of the Hungarians’ love of freedom.
The Tisza is the river of this landscape, which the writer Kálmán Mikszáth called the ‘Hungarian Nile’. In the 19th century it was considered a national river since both its source and the place it flows into the Danube were both within the country’s contemporary borders. The people living alongside the river were considered the descendants of the original Hungarian tribes while the Great Plains themselves, primarily the Hortobágy, were reminiscent of the landscape of the ancient homeland, the steppes. The prairie, the Great Plains and its river the Tisza became symbols which reinforced each other. Scores of poets and painters helped form the characteristic mythology of this landscape.

From among Hungary’s mountains the Carpathians, which protected the historical area of the country like a battlement, were the most revered in Hungarian culture. ‘Peaks of high Carpathian hills, once you gave our elders’ begins the second verse of the National Anthem (translation by Watson Kirkconnell and Earl Herrick). The Straight of Verecke in the Carpathian Mountains is the place where the conquest of the nation’s lands began, the place of arrival to the homeland.

National space, so to speak, needs a symbolic central point, a place which reminds the national community of its past, a place which has the power to forge links and emanates spiritual strength. ‘Magyars yet live; Buda stands,’ writes Károly Kisfaludy in his poem Mohács (translation by Watson Kirkconnell), raising the historic capital to a symbol of national continuity.

From among several plant and animal symbols perhaps the most characteristic are two animals which belong to the world of imagination and myth: the turul bird and the miracle stag. Both are elements of the Hungarian legend of origin. The word ‘turul’ is Turkic in origin, and is a hawk-like predator. The bird appears in a dream to Emese, the ancient mother of the Árpád dynasty, and according to totemistic belief impregnates her. Her son born of this union is Álmos, the first member of the glorious nation of Árpád. Two brothers of this nation, Hunor and Magor, then pursue the wild stag and eventually find wives for themselves. The name of the two brothers indicates the forefathers of the Huns and the Magyars. As the poet János Arany writes in The Legend of the Miraculous Hind (translation by Watson Kirkconnell, Anton N. Nyerges and Adam Makkai): ‘Brave Hunor’s branch become the Huns, and Magyar’s is the Magyar nation…’

Hungarian grey cattle is also worth a mention as a symbol from the animal kingdom, as are the old Hungarian dog types: the puli, the komondor and the Hungarian vizsla.

Hungary’s fertility was once legendary. Its two agricultural products famous all over the world were wheat and wine. Wine from the Tokay region had been considered the most famous for centuries, and as such proved to be worth mentioning in the National Anthem:

With your wings on Kúnság’s plain
You waved wheat a-plenty,
in the vineyards of Tokay
You poured your nectars amply.

(translation by Watson Kirkconnell)

Goulash is considered a national dish, and paprika a characteristically Hungarian spice. In searching for an explanation as to how this folk dish typical of the Great Plains region became a national symbol, especially in the eyes of foreigners, it is probable that in the strive to define the nation the folk environment and its products were considered authentic and ancient regardless of the fact that dishes using paprika do not have an ancient tradition, since the spice itself only came into use after the Turkish occupation.

In East-Central Europe folk culture traditionally played an important role in the creation of national symbols. Poets of the Age of Enlightenment and the Romantic Era turned to folksongs as a source. Elements of folk dress were used in the creation of a traditional national costume. The chardash is considered a Hungarian national dance. An individual couple dance, its name dates back to the Romantic Era, and only became widely used among the population much later. To this day Hungarian folk dress and dances have symbolic value to young Hungarians living outside the borders of present day Hungary.

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