Myths of Hungarian plains

When we come to think of Hungary in geographical terms, our first association is with a lowland country. Over a half of its area are plains: the giant triangle of the Great Hungarian Plain, which stretches from the North-West to the South-East of Hungary and covers the whole land situated east of that diagonal line, and the Little Hungarian Plain, also called the Danubian Lowland, which lies in the North-West. Part of the latter is situated in Slovakia, and a small stretch is in Austria, while the former lies in present day Croatia, Serbia, Romania and reaches as far out as Ukraine and Slovakia.

So much for geography. Also Hungarian culture is mainly associated with plains. The puszta, goulash, herdsmen lashing horses with whips are living stereotypes of the nation. To what extent is the image true, and to what is it secondary? Let us search for an answer.

The Great Hungarian Plain is the westernmost part of the Euroasian steppe. Once it was the very heart of the historical Kingdom of Hungary. It was there, in the locality now known as Ópusztaszer, that the seven Hungarian tribes became blood brothers when their chiefs drank from the goblet into which they had spilt their blood. Did the Hungarians who had come to the Pannonian Plain over one thousand one hundred years ago decide that the land would replace the limitless Asian steppes for them? Nothing could be further from the truth: over one thousand one hundred years before, when Prince Arpad’s people were taking over the Pannonian Plain, the whole Hungarian Plain was thickly covered with oak forests. Today’s picture is a human creation. The majority of Hungarians, however, seem to ascribe such feelings to their ancestors. After all, they are familiar with the whole of Hungarian history and culture, and they know what poets and painters have had to say about the plain. Ever since the Middle Ages the Hungarian people have cherished the myth of the origin of the nation (the so called ethnogenetic myth) which claims that Magyars are brothers or even descendants of the valiant Huns. Before Ugro-Finnish philology was established, Hungarian scholars had claimed that their language was related to Turkish languages (now we know that Ugro-Finnish languages are indeed probably distantly related to Turkish, and belong to the so called Ural-Altaic language family); in the 19th century there emerged the concept of ‘Turania’ as the original common home of equestrian steppe peoples like Hungarians, Turks, Mongols, Huns, Avars and even the Japanese. Turanism played an important role in the rightist ideology of the interwar period, and is still popular in certain circles, just like contemporary forms of medieval and early modern ethnogenetic myths are still alive in all small countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

It may be added that the Hungarians themselves settled the nomadic Kuman and Iazyge peoples on the Great Plain and granted them numerous privileges.

In their past, the Hungarians experienced partitions similarly to the Poles: after the Turkish invasion the country remained divided into three parts from the mid-16th century to the end of the 17th century. The western and northern part – the so called Kingdom of Hungary – was in the spacious Habsburg Empire. The middle region, of which the greatest part was the Great Plain, was occupied by the Ottoman Empire, and Transylvania and eastern parts of the Plain (the so called Partium, or ‘Parts’) became a quasi-Hungarian principality suspended between Turkey and Austria, which in reality owed its existence to the sultan. Protestant culture flourished in Partium and it was here that the so called field towns, which dated back to the Middle Ages, survived, bridging the gap between the village and the town. Residents of these localities who lived in towns but earned their living from the land were later referred to as cívisek, a special and very conservative social class of its own.

After the expulsion of the Turks, the victorious Habsburgs repopulated the land ravaged by the Ottomans, mainly with Slovaks from the northern part of the then kingdom. The culture in many localities on the Great Plain is not as genuinely ‘flatland’ as it is commonly thought to be. Even the famous 19th century poet Sándor Petőfi was a pureblood Slovak by birth, not half-Serbian or half-Croatian, as it has been believed before; he would probably have spoken Slovak had his father, who aspired to assimilate among the Hungarians, not forbidden his wet nurse to speak to him in that language. We owe all that the Hungarians associate with the plains today to Petőfy – each Hungarian child reads his poems at school. The romantic soul found the boundlessness it needed in the plains where it could roam at will. Its imagination was nourished by the surrealist fata morgana, tales of legendary highwaymen and, most importantly, the people who were considered the source of authenticity and genuineness in the spirit of the time. Moreover, the indeed archaic shepherd culture was appealing due to both its exoticism and familiarity. The romanticism of the landscape and its inhabitants was then discovered by Nikolaus Lenau, eminent Austrian poet born and raised in Hungary, through whose influence the German-speaking part of Europe learned about the phenomenon of the Hungarian puszta. Interest was also stimulated by both Hungarian and German painters. The knowledge of that land that Western Europe now has is based on Romantic literature and art. Indeed even today the puszta visiting route in the Hortobágy National Park is designed in such a way that the visitor can see all attractions mentioned in poetry and depicted in paintings.

The plain rose to the status of the symbolic and authentic homeland landscape that the Polish Tatras and Podhale region had later. And yet the same land embodied and still embodies backwardness and …havoc. Petőfi himself started the trend in his poems, like Kutyakaparó (Dog’s Gravedigger – the name of a rundown csarda [inn]) or A puszta télen [The Puszta in Winter], which starts with the words, ‘Hey, the puszta is deserted now!’. Another great Hungarian poet, Endre Ady, transforms the landscape into a symbolic ‘Hungarian fallow’ (Ady felt uncomfortable in Velky Varadin and Debrecen). Naturalist Zsigmond Móricz shows the true (or other) face of the people. Native shepherds of the plains are Barbarians, taciturn and introverted but ready to maim or kill in cold blood. The Debrecen cívisek torment a peasant youth who attends a Calvinist college. The lowland, with its remote, uncivilised hamlets, is also a place of exile: a symbolic and actual exile after the communists had taken power, where aristocrats deprived of their possessions were deported.

Over the last decades these contradictory trends have co-existed in Hungarian consciousness and in works of art created by artists who seek to depict it and change it. Town dwellers have been moving to hamlets. The fashion for ecology has re-promoted mud-huts, i.e. the once despised little huts of the poor. On the other hand, living conditions of many people who live in the lowland countryside have deteriorated. The decline and demoralisation in small lowland localities are shown in works by László Krasznahorkaia and hypnotic, limitless’ films by his collaborator, Béla Tarr (the cult film Satan’s Tango lasts 7.5 hours!). Multiculturalism of the Great Plain is also being discovered: books by Pál Závada treat about the life of the local Slovak community.

In August two competing major ‘meetings of Hungarians’ were held in the puszta to uphold the ‘steppe tradition’ of the nation. Both events were very popular and hundreds of thousands of people attended. In the case of Western Slavs and Croats the creation of a large scale national myth and strengthening of imaginary, ‘ancient’ traditions connoted the rejection of Latin or European culture and led to the emergence of contemporary nationalist populism. It has also caused many tragedies. Will the Hungarians be threatened by the same fate? Will the present day individual who pretends to be a steppe nomad not become Endre Ady’s Stray Rider who trots across the plains which ‘are suddenly overgrown with forests and reeds’, misty and haunted by –
Only bleeding, only secrets,
Only embraces, only ancestors,
Only forests and rushes,
Only ancient lunatics?

Translated by Anna Mirosławska-Olszewska