Csaba Kiss Gy.
Central European Myths of Conquest
“Neither the Germans, nor the French, nor the British, nor in fact the Mediterranean people celebrate the “conquest” of their respective homeland, or its millennium. Only we, Hungarians, have done that. But that makes the whole thing all the more wonderful, since in this way we have surprised the world with a unique phenomenon. I think this, too, contributed to our reputation as something of a curiosity in Europe.” The above lines appeared in the August 2, 1996 issue of the daily newspaper Magyar Nemzet, written by Pál Rédey. The thoughts expressed in them require some additional comments on two accounts. It is not too difficult to evoke the symbolic moments of “former glory” in our unique history, living on the borderline between East and West, dressing up the events of the past in festive garments, adding magnificent colours and mixing reality with beautiful illusions.
This was how the figures of Decebalus, the king of the Dacian tribes, and Tranianus, the Roman emperor who conquered Dacia, came to be formed in the historical memory of Romanians (encouraged by scholars and writers), with the struggle between them giving birth to the myth of origin of the Romanian people. And this was how 863 BC became a sacred year in Slovakian tradition, when Cyril and Methodius, the missionaries who founded Slav literacy, appeared in Great Moravia. The Hungarian Conquest has been present in historical memory as a similar myth of national origin ever since the Mediaeval chroniclers.
The other additional comment concerns the story of the Conquest itself. This event grown into a myth is, again, not unique in our civilization. I would only like to mention the best known parallel, the Jewry of the Old Testament. Their exodus to the land of Canaan was a genuine conquest. As the Lord promised to Abraham: “For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.” (Gen. 13:15) And the same land, the promised land, has to be re-possessed after the Jews’ exodus from Egypt at the cost of much suffering and vicissitude. The Lord spoke the following words to Moses: “And ye shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land, and dwell therein: for I have given you the land to possess it.” (Num. 33:53)
Therefore, the myth of the Hungarian Conquest shows a resemblance—and hardly a coincidental one—to that of the Jewry of the Old Testament, especially with regard to the element that both people had to take possession of the lands, had to conquer it. And similarly to the Jews, who have to re-conquer their old homeland, the land of Abraham, so did the Hungarian chroniclers argued that the conquering ancestors had in fact taken possession of their ancient heritage, the former land of Attila, King of the Huns.
Yet, the term ‘conquest’ is distinctly Hungarian. But only the term, as the myths related to the conquest of a national homeland are invariably found in the traditions of European nations. All nations have to answer the questions of who they are, and where they come from. In the age of the Enlightenment and Romanticism the national mythology organized into a body of ideas cannot leave the question unanswered. The origin of the nation is, in turn, closely related to the history of the conquest of the nation’s homeland. Therefore, it became necessary to present ancestors as ancient and as glorious as possible, in order to prove that these ancestors were the legitimate heirs to the land. The stories frequently reach back to the mythical dawns of history, abounding in mysterious and supernatural elements.
In the following, I would like to present briefly the myths of origin for a number of Central-European nations, underlying both the parallels and the dissimilarities. In the case of our neighbours, too, the Mediaeval legends provide the main sources of these stories. This can be explained by the chronicles’ appointed task of drawing the dynasties’ genealogy, so as to legitimize their rule, tracing its origins back to the prehistoric times. The chroniclers also had to find an explanation for the origin of the country’s population either by incorporating the oral tradition or by adding their own inventions; re-interpreting the written sources, selecting the ancestors from the characters of long-gone empires. The Old Testament and the traditions of ancient history offered a wealth of choices, giving rise to the myths of Scythian and Sarmatian origins for the Hungarian and the Polish ruling classes, respectively.
In the historical memory of each nation, the so-called myths of foundation have great significance. We only have to think of the story of Romulus and Remus, which has been emulated by several European nations. With some degree of simplification one might even say that the stories of conquest come in two types. The opening setup of one type is that the people concerned has lived in its homeland from the beginning of time, and therefore it is only natural that they should have kings and they should found a state in that land. According to the other category, the people is in search of a homeland, which they find after a certain amount of wandering.
The story of the three brothers setting out to find themselves a homeland was familiar and widespread among Slavic peoples. There is one version, in which Czech, Lech and Rus (i.e. the progenitors of the Czechs, the Poles and the Russians) are wandering together in search of a homeland, while in another version they are named Czech, Lech and Mech. In a Croatian version of the legend the entire Slavic tribe had once lived in Croatia, ruled by a prince named Croat who submitted to the Roman Empire. When he dies, he leaves behind three sons—Czech, Lech and Mech—and one daughter, Vilina. The boys want to shake off the Roman rule, but their sister betrays the plot to the Roman Procurator. When the boys find out about this, they wall her alive in the tower of Krapina Castle, named Vilina tower till this day. Next the brothers turn eastward and, after crossing three rivers, Czech founds the Czech kingdom, Lech the Polish kingdom, and Mech the Russian kingdom.
The Croatian legend associated with a concrete place, Zagorje (Krapina), has two elements of particular interest for us. One is that it identifies Croat, the father of the three boys, as the ancestral prince of the Slavic people; and the second is that the ancestral land was supposed to be Croatia: in other words, only the Czech, the Poles and the Russians had to find a new homeland, not the Croatians. Leaving aside any apparent historical nonsense for the moment, we should concentrate only on the message of the story in the context of modern national mythology. It was hardly a coincidence that the Panslav ideology, which emphasized the unity and the common origin of Slavic peoples, found numerous advocates and followers mainly among the smaller Slavic peoples, for at the beginning of the nineteenth century any notions of a modern, sovereign national state for the Croats, the Slovaks or the Slovenes must have seemed rather farfetched.
Although the stories of conquests featured in the chronicles, historical treatises and literary works of the Humanist and Renaissance authors, and later also of the Baroque scholars, they acquired an entirely new function in an age the Slavic tradition calls national resurrection—not without good reason: in the age of Enlightenment and Romanticism. That was the time that the contents and symbols of modern national identity—naturally, not independently of tradition—came to be reinforced and propagated in broad circles by literary works first, and later by public schools and those strata of society, which were committed to the national goals: the nobles, the bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia, both ecclesiastical and lay. The national myths and the stories about a people’s origin, ancient land and former glory came to play an important part in childhood socialization. These were published, again and again, in the form of popular books, and quite often eminent writers and scholars undertook the task of narrating the stories preserved in Mediaeval chronicles and later historiography. One cannot emphasize enough the role of literature in this, as the information about the historical past is primarily transmitted by media other than scholarly writings: our first encounters with historical events are through the works of writers and poets.
The myths about the Czech and the Polish conquest are also meant to explain the choice of names for the respective nations. This was why both stories began with the three brothers’ wanderings. It was Alois Jirásek, the popular Czech prose writer of the last two decades of the nineteenth century, who collected the historical legends. They were first published in 1894 under the title “Old Czech Legends” (Staré povesti ceské—the Hungarian translation was published in 1984, Európa-Madách), enchanting many generations of readers: “Gather up and listen to the legends of the old times! Listen to the legend about our progenitor and ancestors, how they reached the land of our country, how they settled along the Elba and Moldau, as well as other rivers of the earth,” the author writes in the introduction. (My italicization—Cs. K.Gy.)
The first story is about Prince Czech. “Beyond the Tatra Mountains, on the plains along the River Vistula, laid since time immemorial the Croat homeland, part of the Slavs’ huge ancestral territory,” Jirásek starts his legend. True, beyond the Carpathians, in the territory of former Eastern Galicia, today Western Ukraine, there was White Croatia in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. But a multitude of peoples lived in that land, the author continues, and bloody fighting broke out among them. “In those days the two brothers, Czech and Lech, both being the sons of powerful ancestors and both princes, decided to leave behind their unhappy homeland devasted by war: Let’s find a new country for ourselves, where our kinfolk can live and work in peace.” We learn the precise route of their migration: after crossing the rivers Oder first, and the Elba next, they found villages where people spoke their language. When they crossed the third huge river, the Moldau, Prince Czech pointed to a high mountain, declaring: we shall rest at the feet of that mountain. At sunrise the Prince set out to climb to the top all by himself. In the middle of the plateau, on top of Rip, he looked around and saw that it was a blessed country, and was suitable for settling down his people. “This is the land that you have been looking for. You have often heard tales about it, he says when they are all there on the mountain top, and I promised to lead you here. Look, this is the promised land, abounding in game and wildfoul and flowing with honey. (...) Here, this is a land to your liking!” Now all that remained for them to do was to name the place thus occupied. At the proposal of one of the elders, and with the agreement of the people, they named the land after their leader.
In Jirásek’s account, the Czechs’ conquest was consummated through working the land: clearing the woods, building houses, raising livestock and keeping bees. According to the story, the Rip mountain stood at the geographical center of the land in question, not far from the point where the Moldau flew into the Elbe. It is at the middle of the Czech Basin, some twenty or thirty kilometers away from Prague. Looking around from the peak of the mountain, no higher than our own Somlóhegy, we see a plain, the heart of the Czech land. A noteworthy element of the story is that the conquest is equated with the arrival at the promised land, the discovery of the Czech homeland being told with references to the Canaan.
The name of the Poles’ legendary progenitor, Lech, first appeared in the work of a Czech chronicler, Dalemil, in the 13th century. Shortly after that the so-called chronicle of Greater Poland (Kronika Wielkopolska) also described the wanderings of the two brothers, Czech and Lech. Before outlining the legend of the Polish conquest, I would like to say a few words about the name Lech, since at first glance this differs from the forms (Polak, Polonus, Polonais, Pole) the Poles call themselves and are referred to in other languages. At the same time we should point out that the Hungarian word for Polish is a Slavic loan word, even preserving the nasal in it, as did the Lithuanian word for Polish: Lenkas. The original name, which was used by our Eastern neighbours was Lach-Lech, and can probably be linked to the name of the progenitor featuring in the legend.
In the age of Romanticism, the preservation of historical memory was especially important for the Poles, who no longer had a sovereign state by that time. In the first decades of the 19th century, in accordance with the spirit of the times, they, too, embarked on a systematic search for folk tales and legends. One of the most famous collections was published in 1837 by Kazimierz Wladyslaw Wójcic. With the help of a host of literary works, the material of these historical legends were made popular later. Through them, newer and newer generations learned to appreciate the Polish past. No writer of Jirásek’s stature has compiled a collection of the Polish historical legends, and so the public can learn about these from various selections. The Hungarian audience can read these in “Alvó lovagok (Lengyel regék és mondák)” (Sleeping Knights. Polish Legends and Myths. Móra Kiadó, Budapest 1988).
Polish statehood and Polish Christian culture germinated in two cradles: in the so-called Great Poland, along the river Warta, in the region of Poznan and Gniezno; and in the so-called Little Poland, around Cracow near the upper reaches of the Vistula. The two separate regions gave rise to two more or less distinct circles of legends. The legend of the establishment of Poland is associated with Great Poland, the territory where the Polish state was born around the end of the 10th century, and where the first ruling family of Poland, the Piastok Dynasty, originated from.
The story about the eagle’s nest describes how Prince Lech found a homeland. After leaving their ancestral land, the armies of the Slavic tribes marched in unison, led by the three princes, Lech, Czech and Rus. It is interesting to see how the legend describes the three rulers, as they all represented their respective nation. “Although each was a dashing man in his own way, they were distinctly different with regard to complexion and temperament: Lech had an open and cheerful disposition, Rus was taciturn and aloof, and Czech was restless, alert and agile.”
Suddenly, the travelers reached a geographically precisely identifiable place in Great Poland: “At noon the army crossed a smaller river, stringing the beans of tiny lakes on a silver ribbon. (...) The view of a spacious, beautiful valley unfolded before the eyes of the migrants. Hills surrounded by lakes appeared in the distance. On top of the highest hill there was a giant, old oak tree. This gentle countryside cheered Lech, making him laugh even with his eyes.” Then came the magic moment: an eagle of silver feathers took wing in front of them. Rus reaches for his bow, but Lech restrains him, saying: “You see, the mightiest of the gods, the Lord of lighting, the world-viewer Swiatowid himself has sent an obvious sign to us. He ordains that this sign be the emblem of my nation, and I shall build my princely castle by this oak tree, which I shall name Gniezno after the eagle’s nest. (gniezno means nest in Polish).” The castle was completed, and it became the first royal seat for the first Polish kings, Mieszko and Boleslaw. The legend of the conquest is also the legend of the foundation of the first capital, at the same time providing an explanation for the emblem of the first dynasty, which later came to be incorporated in the country’s coat of arms.
So the motif of hunting appears in the Polish myth of origin, too, with the royal bird seen for a moment as a quarry. It reminds us of the myths of conquest, in which people stumble on their new homeland while pursuing a game. The first legend to come to mind is the legend of the miraculous stag, best known from János Arany’s epic poem. Then there is the legend of the foundation of Moldavia. Moldavia’s coat of arms features a bison’s head. The scholarly Prince Dimitrie Cantemir completed the presentation of his country in Latin in 1716 (Descriptio Moldaviae). In this he tells the history of Voivode Dragos, the country’s founding father. He describes the move of Dragos and his army from Maramures to Moldavia, as if it was a returning to the ancestral land. They set out on their eastward journey on the pretext of hunting, and by chance they met a wild bison on the way. They started pursuing it, until they reached a river at the bottom of a mountain. “As Dragos’s favourite dog named Moldovo fell on the animal with increasing ferocity, the bison, covered in foam, jumped into the rapids, where it was killed with arrows; however, the swiftly running water also swept away the dog. In memory of this incident, Dragos named the river Moldovo; and the place where all this happened, he named Roman after his people, choosing the bison’s head as the emblem of the new principality.” The first ruler of the Moldavia, a voivodeship established during the reign of Louis the Great, was, indeed, Dragos, who came from Maramures. The story, which can be regarded as a myth of conquest, gives an explanation for the country’s coat of arms, while also shedding light on the meaning of a Modavian town’s name with the help of folk etymology, reinforcing the Roman origin.
The Croatian conquest concentrates on the moment when the Croatian tribes reach the sea. They talk of the arrival of the Croats, rather than of a conquest. The source of this legend is provided by the Byzantine emperor and chronicler Constanine Porphyrogenitus’s famous work (De Administrando Imperio). The story, which was turned into a popular book, begins with the journey of a clan (five boys, one named Croat, and two girls) from White Croatia to Dalmatia. It must be pointed out that White Croatia—as evident from the place-names—was the name given to the territory across the Carpathians, as already revealed in the Czech myth of conquest. Therefore, the ancestors of the Croats must have arrived at the sea through the Carpathian Basin. At that time the region was under Avar rule, the legend claims. It took the Croats years to accomplish the conquest, and many of the Avars joined them. Historical painting in the nineteenth-century presented their arrival at the coast in monumental tableaux. The Croatian leaders are shown standing on the rocky shores with their arms raised high, and with the waves of the Adriatic Sea whipped into froth underneath. It is not by coincidence that the conquest is associated with the sea. The Croatian state was founded at the turn of the 8th and the 9th centuries by the sea.
Slavicists usually place the ancestral homeland of the Slavic peoples somewhere in the area between the Vistula and the Dnieper. The idea that the cradle of the Slavs was in fact in the Carpathians, or more precisely in the Tatra Mountains, originated from Slovakian tradition. This view was supported by the fact that the Slovakian language in some respect was at the midway between the Slavic languages: in other words, the Slovaks have the easiest job in understanding the other Slavic languages. The Tatra hence became in Romantic literature a symbol, which at the same time expresses the ancient roots and Slavic origin of the Slovaks. In consequence, the Slovaks had no need for any myths of conquest. If the Hungarians had to conquer their homeland, the Carpathian Basin, then the Slovaks had already been here when the Hungarians arrived; therefore, they are the natives, and the Hungarians are the newcomers.
In Slovakian tradition, two interpretations of the Hungarian conquest have emerged. We might say that it is about two different interpretations of the same historical fact, not forgetting, of course, that the Slovakian explanations are not independent of the Hungarian ones. The legacy of Hungarian patriotism required high esteem for the different inhabitants of the shared homeland and, therefore, it seemed only natural to Sámuel Timon, in his work Imago antiquae Hungariae ... (The Mirror of Old Hungary ... Kassa, 1733), to mention both the Great Moravia and the Hungarian conquest side by side, failing to see any inconsistencies in the two traditions. When, however, Mihály Bencsik disparagingly talked about the town of Trencsén in a pamphlet published in Latin, bringing up the story of Svatopluk selling his country for a white horse, Baltazár Magin replied to it by explaining that in the Slovakian language the name of the Slavs (Slovan) could be associated with both ‘word’ (slovo) and ‘glory’ (sláva), and therefore they were no lesser people than any other nationality of the country, as they had once possessed an enormous and glorious country. Later on, we could say—with some simplification—that the myth of vassalage and the myth of alliance existed side by side in the Slovakian tradition. In other words, there was one interpretation of the Hungarian conquest as a Slovakian—or in fact Slavic—tragedy. The fall of Great Moravia, and the subsequent one thousand years of servitude, were described in such tones. However, the other interpretation, whereby the Hungarians arriving in the Carpathian Basin made an alliance with the Slavic peoples living here, also frequently surfaced, implying that Hungary, the Hungarian Kingdom, was a shared homeland, entailing the same rights for Hungarians and Slovaks alike. The nine hundred, or one thousand, years meant struggles fought jointly, with the Slovaks shedding their blood for the land and for freedom the same way as the Hungarians did. This justifies their demands regarding the use of the Slovakian language and the territorial autonomy. In the first version the Hungarian conquerors are barbarian invaders who take away the Slovakian land, while in the second the Hungarians and the Slovaks are cooperating partners, the equal sons of the common country. I do not wish to elaborate on how the emphasis regarding the interpretation of this “encounter” was shifted in Slovakian and Hungarian historical memory, now favoring the first, now the second.
This sketchy and summary overview will perhaps suffice to convince the reader that every nation—our neighbours included—has its own legends of its historical origin and of its establishment in its homeland. To some degree, they can help in creating a better picture of our neighbours, since these stories reveal how they see themselves. Yet, there is also another lesson, which is possibly even more important: every nation searches the past for its ancestral land in a similar way, and the legends of conquest do not entitle one nation to more, than it does the other.