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Fairy Lore in Hungarian Folk Tales

2009.05.21

Dalma H. Brunauer

POB 5151

Potsdam NY 13676 USA

 

Fairy Lore in Hungarian Folk Tales

 

Re-reading Elek Benedek's collection of folk-tales Világszép Nádszál Kisasszony 1 (Budapest 1960) I was struck by both the similarities and differences between English and Hungarian fairies. The similarities are fairly obvious and to be expected: supernatural beings, with quite exceptional powers. But instead of the sheer playfulness of the fairies we are used to in English contexts, Hungarian good fairies appear usually as a result of some good deed performed by a human being, rewarding that person extravagantly. Another context in which fairies appear in Hungarian tales is some desperate situation in which a fairy takes pity on a deserving person.

I should like to present one such story here.

 

"Szegfűhajú János," literally "Johnny with the Carnation Hair," begins in Hungarian fairy-country: "There was, there was not, beyond seven times seven countries, even beyond the Mountains of Glass..." Even as a young student of folklore, I sometimes wondered when hearing such an opening, how it was possible for the magyars'

denizens of a small, flat country, to encompass in their imaginations such a vast landscape, such fantastic mountains. But there was another such fairy country: "even beyond the Ocean Sea." In my childhood, after World War I, Hungary was a landlocked county, cut off from its patrimony on the Adriatic, and even further away from any

ocean. Yet, the personae of the Hungarian fairy tales lived in a

country "beyond the Ocean Sea" and "beyond the Mountains of Glass,"

 

So, Johnny with the Carnation Hair (a term never explained in the text, except to say that his hair was a mark of exceptional beauty,) was born to a poor widow woman, so poor that she could not even find a godmother for her baby boy.        In her sorrow, she wandered away till she reached "the Sea." There she was startled by an ugly toad which jumped into her path. The widow screamed and tried to run away, but the toad turned into a beautiful woman who cried to her

"Stop poor woman, don't be afraid of me!"

Reassured, the widow told her predicament to the other woman who offered to become the boy's godmother. Seeing the child's great beauty, the Fairy Godmother, for obviously that's who it was, begged the widow to give the boy to her. After much protestation, the mother agreed, on the condition that she would be able to see her boy "almost daily," The fairy even provided for the mother's needs before leaviog with the boy. Then we learn,

"The beautiful lady left. As she reached the seashore, she touched the sea with her golden wand.         The sea parted into two, and she walked into the center of it, that's where she had her palace, with a solid gold roof, diamond walls. Listen what she did when she

got home. She cut the child into small pieces, threw all her bones, pieces, limbs, joints into a large tub. For three days she didn't even look at him; then she applied a wonder-ointment to his every tiny piece and--behold the wonder!--he became a big boy, bigger than a ten-year old!"

Behind the conventional "wondrous" elements of all that gold and those diamonds, we come up here to the stark archetype of the shamanistic world-view:  ritual dismemberment. Familiar already frow such diverse traditions as the cutting up of Osiris and his healing/resurrection by the loving devotion of Isis; the dismemberment of the rogue-hero of the Finnish Kalevala Lemminkainen, and his healing/resurrection through the agency of his loving old mother, we face one of the most fundamental tenets of shamanism: the price of attaining the new life bestowed by the Fairy Godmother is ritual death.

Strong medicine indeed. It is sufficient to send the researcher to the Hungarian etymological dictionary; under the variant spellings and meanings of the word "szegfű or "szekfű" a number of different plants may be discovered: not only the common modern referent, "carnation" but also the clove, the chamomille, and one called "betonica," which, "when freshly broken, cements wounds together.”2 (Magyar Nyelvtörténeti Szótár, Budapest 1893, Vol,      III, 115)

Now follows a sequence of four parallel episodes. Johnny, upon awakening, exclaims: "O dear godmother, why did you waken me? I was in such a beautiful country!" The four countries were, in order: copper, silver, gold, diamonds. Each time, the godmother assures him that he will see even more wondrous things and learn even more. Each time, she chops him up and reassembles him; each time, he becomes more mature and more accomplished in telepathy.          Incidentally, the name by which he addresses his godmother is the very affectionate term, "lelkem," which literally means "my soul." Each time he also senses when his mother is yearning for him; with his godmother's blessing and assistance, he either goes to the mother or brings her to himself. With the fairy's help, he builds a wondrous palace, dazzles the king of the country he happens to be in; inevitably, the king's daughter falls in love with him and furthers his progress. But he knows telepathically that his destined true love in the last one of the four princesses: the daughter of the Diamond King.

 

One of the greatest instruments of his success is a shaman-horse's colt. As I have shown elsewhere, the shaman-horse is one of the principal motifs of Hungarian folk-tales.In this story, too, it is the shaman-horse which delivers the hero from many a tight spot.         Not only can it fly "faster than the wind, as fast as Thought Itself," it can also read the hero's mind.

 

To sum up the Fairy Godmother's gifts: some are material. She provides sustenance for the birth mother after the fairy adoption; Johnny matures praeternaturally fast; he can travel supersonically; he can get out of the prisons of the frustrated Evil Queens who have selfish plans for him. But her greatest gifts are those of the mind:

Johnny can read the thoughts of others (telepathy);       he acquires clairvoyance

when he sees his mother in the distance; he can bring her to his presence by wishing it; he dreams the fact that his true bride will be the Diamond Princess rather than any of the others who pursue him and this proves to be real.

 

From beginning to end, this story could serve as an illustration of what Carmen Blacker, in her seminal study The Catalpa bow:  Shamanistic Practices in Japan 3,           (London: Unwin, 1975) describes as the initiation of the classical shaman. Exploring the double origin of Japanese shamanism from either the "vertical" tradition based on high-mountain lore or the "horizontal" tradition of the sea, the writes (in part):

“The Shaman is, first, a person who receives a supernatural gift from the spirit world. The gift is bestowed usually by a single spiritual being, who afterwards becomes his guardian and guide..." This is obviously the Fairy Godmother, the "beautiful lady" who shows sympathy to a fellow-woman in distress. She "commands him to abandon his former life and become a shaman." In our story, the Fairy Godmother nicely asks, begs the birth mother for the gift of the child. Once the mother agrees, the "child is...carried off to another realm of the cosmos, (in this case to the castle in the center of the Sea.) "There he undergoes the fearful experience of being killed and revived...in effect, he is remade, resuscitated as a new person ... From this terrifying but characteristically initiatory experience he emerges a changed character..." He acquires " new dignity and assurance of personality strengthened by special powers conferred by the guardian spirit who calls him to his new life ...Foremost among these powers is the ability to put himself at will into altered states of consciousness in which he can communicate directly with spiritual beings. He can fall into the state of trance, for example, in which his soul separates itself from his body and travels to realms of the cosmos inaccessible to the physical body ...he can acquire useful koowledge of hidden things ...The shaman does not carry out this

special work unaided.  He is given indispensable help in this task..," (24-25) The role of the horse is not mentioned by Professor Blacker, but, as I think I succeeded to show in my earlier paper, "Shamanism and the Art of Psychic Healing" 4 (The Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, XIII, 1 and 2, March 1992, 11-16,) it was demonstrably present in pre-historic Japanese shamanism.

 

I would like to conclude with the suggestion that whereas English and Hungarian fairy tales resemble each other only in postulating supernatural and largely benevolent figures, Hungarian fairy lore derives from ancient shamanistic beliefs and practices which show marked and multiple parallels to the Japanese tradition. It is my sincere belief that these parallels are worthy of further exploration.

 

 

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efragala@comcast.net

(liz stumps, 2012.02.27 02:42)

Hi Dalma - Are you back in NY? I thought you retired to Hungary? Pls contact me if you receive this!
Elizabeth Fragala aka Liz Stumps from Japan

Aranykor, Ballószög, Hungary

(Dalma H. Brunauer, 2010.08.09 18:07)

I as author, on reading this version as it appears
here, would like to commeent on its origins. It was
an INVITED paper, first delivered in Japan in 1993
on the occasion of the dedication of the Kimie Imura Lawlor Fairy Museum. Next, it was published
in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, in
English, and lastly, in my own translation into
Hungarian in the journal Kláris. See my List of
Publications.

Aranykor, Ballószög, Hungary

(Dalma H. Brunauer, 2010.08.09 18:06)

I as author, on reading this version as it appears
here, would like to commeent on its origins. It was
an INVITED paper, first delivered in Japan in 1993
on the occasion of the dedication of the Kimie Imura Lawlor Fairy Museum. Next, it was published
in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, in
English, and lastly, in my own translation into
Hungarian in the journal Kláris. See my List of
Publications.