Approach of SPIRIT in Hungarian Folk Society

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By Timea Thomazy

(Hungarian version published in June 2009

The original meaning of Hungarian lélek (Eng. “spirit”) was “breath” (as soul, fume, breath, and based on historical data, the word lélek also meant “breath”), but the “spirit, ghost” meanings of the word might have developed from the concrete “breath” meaning already in the Finno-Ugric age, as it is mentioned in the Historical-Etymological Dictionary of Hungarian Language (TESz). This is based on the empirical evidence that as long as man lives, breathes – at death he “gives up the ghost”, “releases his spirit”, “spirit breaks away from him”. (Extract from Biography of Word ‘Spirit’)

According to the Encyclopedia of Hungarian Ethnography, the notion of SPIRIT is composed of several ideas of different ages → in the Hungarian folk beliefs.

Lélek is a Finno-Ugric word and the meaning of its equivalents in related languages is “breath”. The different spirit ideas, what not long ago still existed and are more or less distinguishable from one another, are the followings:

1. breath-spirit (as soul, fume, breath, and based on historical data, the word lélek was also used in the sense of “breath” – as respiratory function [editor’s note]). It is based on the empirical evidence that as long as man lives, breathes – at death he “gives up the ghost”, “releases his spirit”, “spirit breaks away from him”. This spirit is in close relationship with the body. If it leaves someone’s body, that person dies. The belief in the leave of the spirit with blood is sporadically known. Also this shows that the spirit was considered as a vital function and it supposedly came from the manners of death related to bleeding to death.

2. free-spirit (shadow-spirit, image-spirit): it can temporarily be independent from the body; the belief has it that it leaves the body during sleep and returns when awakening. It can transform into a bumble-bee or a white mouse when leaving. Its concept is known from sparse historical data (→witch hunts) and belief stories. However, these often partly funny stories – at least in the 20th century – don’t show living belief in the free-spirit. The term “the spirit goes into them only for sleep” (means “looks like a ghost”, “be on their last pins” in English) supposedly refers to this spirit idea. Neither its centre in the body nor its nature are known in the Hungarian folklore.

It is generally believed as the shadowy image of the body in those places where it is better known and it can reside in several parts of the body (head, face, forehead, back, etc.). It doesn’t have particular term in Hungarian (it was tried to connect the Vogul term of the concept to the Hungarian → íz [the word is not used anymore, but in curse, originally it referred to illness, most probably scorbut] –, but this relation is not adequately proven yet).

The free-spirit had a role in peoples with shaman faith)(→ shamanism). – The dualistic conception of spirit including these two approaches of spirit is very old and it can be found in a very vestigial form in current Europe and the breath-spirit conception of spirit dominates.

The teaching of the Church about the spirit didn’t influence the nature of the spirit ideas; however, the widespread belief that the foetus “gets its spirit” (or the “divine spark”) in halftime is supposedly related with it. The teaching of the Church about body-spirit dualism united with the body–breath-spirit dualism and supported it. (God blew his breath [spirit] into the first man.)

3. The belief, what is relative to the spirit of the dead and was widespread in whole Europe until recently, has no exact correlation with the above mentioned; it is the collective term of several coexisting, different aged concepts, some of which are related to the concept of breath-spirit or free-spirit. This belief is both the explanation of gestures and acts belonging to the traditional order of funeral habits, and part of the belief stories dealing with the returning dead or the reports of →mediums about afterlife. It is hard to decide which one of the certain elements had living belief background and were actual parts of the Hungarian folk beliefs.

These elements, appearing in different manifestation forms, are the following:

The explanation of opening the window when (→ death) occurs (giving way for the leaving spirit) refers to the approach of the spirit of the dead as breath-spirit, however, belief is general that the dead perceives the things around them a while after their death, moreover, a sparse data has it that they eat from the fumes of the food consumed around them during the (→ vigil)therefore the dead body lost only certain life functions. This and all forms of → feeding the dead which supply the dead with food and drink, who is still present and lying in state, proves the concept of the dead as a living dead body. This belief supposedly predated any concept of the spirit of the dead, but it lived on with more or less intensity together with the dead body-living spirit dualistic concept.

Perhaps the widespread belief, that the pregnant dead gives birth to her child in the coffin, is related to this approach. The origin of the custom of putting several objects next to the dead body  sin the coffin also comes from the concept of living dead, however, in current Europe it refers primarily to meeting → the otherworldly  needs of the dead; the concepts related to the other world refer clearly to the shadow-spirit of the dead staying there.

The widespread belief in whole Europe, that the spirit stays close to the dead body for a while after death, is also based on the concept of shadow-spirit. Various dates are known for the leaving to the other world of the spirit: the day of the funeral, following bereavement – it keeps guard at the cemetery gate till then –, 3 days, 1 week, 2 weeks, 6-7 weeks, 30 days, 40 day etc. Several deadlines are known in every part of Europe – even in Hungarian language area. Some of the funeral customs, correlating with the belief in the final leave of the spirit, are related to one of these dates; other times these are known only as traditional dates of the custom actions.

The following acts, regulations and prohibitions are related to these dates in the Hungarian language area: the belongings of the dead must be kept in order and not be used, sold nor given away before this period of time elapses. It is forbidden to pour water in front of the house because it would scald the spirit staying there. The medium can’t talk to the dead because it’s not in the other world yet. The presence of the spirit around the house is indicated by several ways, mainly by making noise. The period of → mourning and the custom of holding memorial feast (→ burial feast) what is unknown in Hungarian language area but widespread in Southeastern and Eastern Europe, are related to these dates.

It was a general belief that the dead might come back in this period (e.g. at first night after the funeral it comes back to give thanks for the accommodation, therefore the family has to prepare food for it). The belief in→ the returning dead existed even in the 20th century; it is a popular theme of belief stories as well. The most general ways and signs of returning are the following: appearance in dreams, making noise (clattering dishes on the shelf, rattle in the attic), moving objects (e.g. the bucket handle lifts); but in addition to these phenomena, that belong to the scope of concept of the shadow-spirit, the figure of dead, who appears in reality rising from its tomb, is known as well. In many places the time of the final leave means the final entertainment of the dead.

The belief background of customs that belong to the traditional order of funeral customs and tend to prevent the return of the dead(→taking out the dead from the house), apart from the fact of belief in returning, is not clear. It’s a general belief that the wishes of the dead, mediated by a medium or a dream, must be fulfilled in order to prevent and stop the return of the dead. These wishes are generally concerned with paying off outstanding debt of the dead or something the dead is missing (clothes, food, articles for personal use).

(→ more: animism, , → funeral customs,, → phantom,, → vampire)

Szendrey Ákos: A magyar lélekhit [The Hungarian Spirit Belief] (Ethn., 1946);
Paulson, Ivar: Die primitiven Seelenvorstellungen der nord-eurasischen Völker (Stockholm, 1958);
Lixfeld, Hannjost: A Guntram-monda Paulus Diaconusnál [The Guntram Legend in Paulus Diaconus](AT 1645A) (Ethn., 1970).

Sources: Encyclopaedia of Hungarian Ethnography; ; Biography of Word ‘Spirit’
Pictures: Dr János Vizúr
Translated by Viktoria Toth 2014