Or An Intricate Intertwining of Threads
Many months ago, while investigating – if investigating is not too diligent-sounding a term for my somewhat directionless wanderings on the track of some mythological creature or other across the marches of cultural history – those wonderful places in time and geography where ancient cultures meet and exchange the greatest gift: the transference of elements of their beliefs from one to another, I stumbled across iconography all but identical from Persia and Hungary. I promptly sent a note to a friend and colleague from Budapest, asking if the tale of the Dream of Emese might ring a bell.
Yes, was the reply, a little, it just happens to be one of the founding myths of the Magyar people. (A parenthesis, here, if you will; as a child, I collected stamps, as most kids did at some point, and one of our neighbours would give me stamps he received from Eastern Europe, a land so far away it seemed mythological to me. Many were labeled “MAGYAR” in bold letters. I puzzled over them, a map of Europe before me, but such were atlases at the time, bereft of the names of nations’ own names for themselves, and the Magyars eluded me. Later, stamps lost their interest, but I’ve never forgotten that mysterious nation I could not find but nevertheless issued stamps.)
Like all founding myths, it is many things, and in many layers. We tend to read them as folklore, and catalogue them as anecdotal, so I’m grateful to Imola for her text; a reminder that there are always deeper meanings, should we care to look. Or follow the flight of birds against the sky.
Emese Álma — The Dream of Emese
“When the wife of Ugek lowered her head onto the cushions in her yurt, a bird of prey, a Turul, appeared in her dream and inseminated her. Upon this a stream of crystal-clear water started to flow from her groin, and swelling in its way, flooded extensive lands of rich pasture and lush forest. From her womb a host of kings arose, whose glory was unmatched over land and sea.”
“When the child was born, he was given the name Álmos, Dreamer, for his arrival was heralded by a dream. His own son, Árpád conquered the land that bred many a Holy King from the dynasty of Emese.”
The Hungarian origin myth, recorded around 1360 A.D., unifies ancient shamanistic beliefs and medieval Christianity in a state of peaceful co-existence. It attributes the Christian Holiness of Hungarian kings to a sacred totem belonging to the nomadic past of the Eurasian steppe. 400 years had passed since the birth of Álmos; the Hungarian tribes were a thing of the past, the nation was settled and baptized, the king had been brought up in the Western knightly tradition, and the administrative units of the country were based on the dioceses. Yet in the royal court, without a seeming disparity, the author of the Chronica Hungaroroum gave credence to the established kingdom in a shamanistic framework of pagan animal cult.
This cult was shared by many a Eurasian nation in the times when Magyars were still a semi-nomadic migrating tribe. Artisan artifacts offer the most convincing proof in this regard; fascinating similarities in the depictions of the same mythological scenes from the most remote West-Asian locations, thousands of miles apart. The scene on a golden jug found in an ancient Hungarian settlement distinctly parallels the decoration of a Persian plate, down to the smallest detail. The scene is of a naked woman held by a large bird: it illustrates Emese’s dream, without a doubt… or another one of a league of similar occurrences scattered across the Eurasian territories. The dream of the ancient mother, whose impregnation by a mighty bird of prey led the nation to prosperity and grandeur, is a dream that seems to link together nations that live half a word apart.
The mother of the Persian king, Cyrus the Great, saw just about the same dream as Emese. The stream flowing from her womb swelled into a great river that flew through entire Asia and into the sea. The Khazar origin myth features the same episode of insemination, except the bird is an owl in that instance, with twin brothers born to the human mother (a resonance, perhaps, with Romulus & Remus? Isn’t it fascinating that they were also nursed by an animal?). With some tribes, the belief still holds that the very first shaman was borne by a human mother, who, in turn, had been impregnated by an eagle.
On a personal level, it’s a special source of delight for me that these cultures seem to have had a degree of matriarchal thinking, equating the woman with the root of all things great and noble… and marking her as the source of the family, the smallest and most basic unit of these tribal cultures. (It merits a parenthesis that the word “source” can be taken word for word in this case: the fertility stream flowing from Emese’s groin is “source” translated into a literal image. Let’s not overlook the word “root” either: it hints at the world tree, the center of the shamanistic tradition. It is fascinating how much of these archetypal images we still carry in our culture and language, be it in an Anglo-Saxon or a Eurasian context.)
A. Golden jug, a piece of the famed Nagyszentmiklós treasure, unearthed in the 18th century. The Turul holding a naked woman in its claws is well discernible.
B. A Persian plate depicting what appears to be the same mythological motif—in the setting of a different culture.
C. Emese in a 20th century illustration by Gyula László, a well respected Historian. The accuracy of the representation is therefore granted.
D. A black and white illustration of the dream scene by the same historian. Notice the cameo of the golden jug in the background.
A quick look into the migration routes of the Hungarian tribes reveals a possible explanation for these shared mythological images. As the semi-nomadic tribes wandered, they were frequently in contact with each other as well as other cultures that happened to be settled in their path. This led to occasional merging or temporary co-habitation of a certain area. Consequently, their belief systems and origin myths were exchanged and merged, too. The Hungarian tribes, slowly advancing from the Urals toward the Carpathian Basin, were deeply affected by Khazar, Persian, Bulgarian, and Turkic peoples especially. Totemic shamanism was the common backdrop against which their worldview was set.
This “pagan religion” was centered on animal totemism, the belief that each great family is descended from a wild animal, most often a bird. (It merits a second parenthesis that in this belief system the birds were viewed as yet-unborn spirits. It takes the metaphor another step further to envision these spirits perched on the branches of the world tree…) It seems, therefore, a completely reasonable justification for the leadership of Álmos (a historical figure) that he should be the offspring of the Turul, the hallmark bird of the ancient Magyar tradition.
The Turul, however, is not a figment of mythological imagination, but merely the sacred counterpart of a fantastically fast flying bird of prey, the saker falcon, Falco Cherrug, or kerecsensólyom. I believe the look of the word is justification enough for calling it rather “Turul”; but there is another reason, of course, to be found in the cultural enrichment of the Magyar tribes in the course of their slow migration.
A. A depiction of the Turul found on a small golden disk in Rakamaz, Hungary. The disk was used as hair decoration. This is a reproduction of the original damaged piece.
B. Turul, saker falcon, Falco Cherrug, or kerecsensólyom.
C. The Turul is a recurring and beloved architectural element in Hungary, here seen in the Royal Castle.
D. The Turul adorned the shield and banner of Árpád’s line of kings. This dynasty reigned till 1303. The illumination is taken from the Chronica Hungarorum.
“Turul” is a word of Turkish descent: the original version was “turgul,” another proof of the intermingling of the two cultures. It pops up in the stories of various ethnicities inhabiting the Eurasian steppe even today. Oftentimes they still erect protective pillars around their settlements, with a menacing Turul on top. (A third parenthesis is due: at least one wooden pillar had to be placed near the shaman’s tent. It is reminiscent, of course, of the world tree. Only those specially gifted individuals could become shamans who were able to climb the sky-reaching tree, which was recreated in the form of the aforementioned pillars or ladder-type constructions. Reaching its different heights corresponded to a foray into the underworld or the skies. If the young man was able to recover from this event of deep and high trance, he was fit to be a shaman, which was a position of substantial influence over matters of reigning. Climbing the world or life tree was also a sign of spiritual maturity and physical prowess in Hungarian folk tales, usually rewarded with a kingdom; but more on that at a later time, perhaps.)
A shamanic drum depicting the three spheres or realms of the world, centered on the world tree or (as the Magyars preferred to call it) the sky-reaching tree.
The Turul soars out of another central myth of the Hungarian people: the finding of the Promised Land. Árpád, son of Álmos, saw a dream of prophetic meaning in which the supernatural forces communicated with him. In the dream an army of eagles attacked the cattle and horses of the Magyar tribes. There was no way of keeping them at bay. At once a Turul appeared in the sky, and, darting toward the ground, killed one of the bulkiest eagles. Having seen that, the rest of them took flight and left the animals alone immediately. Then the Turul called out to Árpád and promised to show the land in which they might settle safely.
Soon an actual animal pestilence broke out in the camp and sure enough, the eagles landed on the carcasses and tore at them. A saker falcon appeared and fought off the largest eagle, in perfect consonance with the dream that Árpád suddenly recalled. He recognized the moment and ordered the people to dismantle their yurts: marching after the falcon, they reached the land that the Magyars would soon call their own.
And now comes the best part. The map below shows the areas where you may come across saker falcons. The yellow areas show the breeding territory. Blue is the wintering domain, and green is where they can be found all year round. What’s the biggest single unbroken territory where they live throughout the year? That’s right, the Carpathian Basin, exactly the site of Hungary. What might have happened in reality is that, inspired by the prophetic revelation, the Hungarian tribes (already on the move for centuries) followed a migrating group of falcons that actually led them to the territory where they normally nest. This was the final part of the westward movement; this is where they settled down and established a new country that came to be called Hungary.
Does this make the legend true? The details fit into the puzzle perfectly, right down to the element of the animal pestilence. Yet the real nucleus of the story is not its supposed veracity: it is the magnificent intertwining of truth and belief, myth and reality, coincidence and supernatural guidance, inferred facts and historical interpretation. An intertwining so tight, it is impossible to tell its threads apart, just like the woolen fibers of the felt yurt. Migration of tribes, flow of story and symbol, making of myth, writing of history; all under the fleeting shadow of a falcon’s pinions.
A map of Eurasia showing the range of the real Turul: the saker falcon. The area of Hungary is the only place in Europe where they can be found all year round (marked with green).
Text © Imola Unger, reproduced with permission.
Imola also has a most pertinent and occasionally impertinent and thought-provoking blog, which she herself qualifies as “sporadically updated”.
Today in Publishing.
The newsletter format being what it is, and Imola being in publishing, she has also redone her lovely article as a .pdf file, which you can download here.