The Hungarian nation is not Europe-born. They come from the west of the Ural mountains in what is now Russia, and settled in modern-day Hungary after slowly migrating across the Pontic Steppe.
Because of this, Hungarian mythology shares some deities and figures with their European neighbours, while others are more Eastern. Although you’ll find that much of world’s mythological figures share a striking resemblance. Their folk beliefs include some fascinating witches and gods, animal figures and spirits.
We’ve found the most interesting and culturally significant Hungarian folktales, as well as the creatures that made up the magical world of Hungarian folklore.
Creatures and characters in Hungarian folklore
Before we get into specific myths, let’s look at some of the creatures that you find in Hungarian myths. These always interact with the human heroes and characters of the stories, and are usually a negative force that challenges or destroys the humans.
Sometimes, though, they can aid them. Or simply be an ambiguous figure, neither harmful or helpful. Whatever they do, they’re certainly interesting.
Szélanya (Wind Mother)
Szélanya is both the wind, and the goddess who controls it. She guards the wind atop a high mountain, and releases it in her wrath when she is slighted.
She can be a benevolent character, releasing the winds of change when called on. But more frequently, she is a figure to be feared, bringing harsh crop-destroying storms and whirlwinds if you so something to anger her. The wind mirrors her mood though, so most of the time she’s a pretty relaxed character.
Garaboncias are magical humans born with all their teeth. In Hungarian mythology, these creatures go around carrying a book and begging for milk. If a household has but doesn’t give them, they may curse or threaten them. Strange, aren’t they?
Garaboncias are also the only creatures associated with dragons, and in some myths are capable of riding and controlling them.
The mythology of dragons stretches far back into the past, and has changed many times over even just in Hungary. You’ll see dragon motifs regularly in the country, on family crests and medieval artefacts – particularly ones found in Hungarian castles.
The main idea of the Hungarian dragon is one that lived in underground caves in the forest. It was scaly and serpentine – another name for them, Sárkánykígyó, translates to ‘dragon snake’. They were said to bring thunder and rain, striking the clouds as they fought in the heavens.
The dragons had multiple heads; the number of heads often had a significance in folk tales. In later depictions, the creature was always evil, and loved gold and wine. However, in older tales the same wasn’t always true. They could be ambivalent, able to aid the hero if a bit reluctantly, or simply help to bring about rain and save the crops.
Lüdérc or liderc
The lüdérc is a mythological creature with a sexual character, associated with the English terms incubus and succubus. It can be either depending on the human that becomes its lover.
There are various kinds of lüdérc. The chicken-lüdérc hatches from an egg, and feeds on the human’s blood in exchange for its affections. The devil-lover appears as a flame or firebird and becomes a human when it lands on the ground, often with a webbed goose foot to be recognised by.
It preys on lonely people or is summoned by them, taking on the form of a dead lover and giving its new partner nightmares or wasting them away in a slow death.
Fairies in Hungarian mythology are beautiful young females who usually appeared in groups, dancing and singing. Or the classic ‘bathing in a lake’. In myths, there are good fairies and bad ones.
The good fairies save men from evil and spend their time frolicking in nature. The evil ones lure and pull people into water, or curse them with disease. These are less common though – usually, they are simply young, beautiful, and good, and evil characteristics are given to the less attractive witches.
Tündér live in palaces as beautiful as they are, underwater, among the clouds or in the forests.
Bábák or boszorkány (witches)
The image of witches, as in many countries, may be the most damaging, as witchcraft could be scapegoated on women when crops were failing or something went wrong.
Hungarian witches were usually old women, wise and mischievous. They would put hexes on people and animals, dooming love and causing animals to go dry. In fact, many of their hexes were farm-related, as this would be a prime evil for Hungarian peasantry.
Witches would sometimes sit on their victims at night, applying pressure as an invisible force or a creature like a cat (those poor animals have been associated with witches the world over… very suspicious, cats).
Bábák could be scapegoated on people within the community – they were seldom considered some mysterious witch in the forest, but rather someone right at home ground, who could be blamed for the events taking place.
Hungarian dwarves aren’t the swarthy, mine-working beings we know from much of mythology. Rather, they’re foxy little beings who lived in the forests, and sometimes also underground. They’re mischievous and cunning, but little more is known of them, as the legends around them have all but disappeared.
Hungarian ghost stories are very popular even today, one of the main remaining folktales. You’ll even find ghost tours of many of its cities. They tend to be quite horrific, but in Hungarian folklore, ghosts only scared people but never harmed them.
Ghosts or wraiths have the ability to turn invisible and to fly, even taking on animal forms. They can lead humans astray, but they are supernatural beings and have little sway in the physical realm.
Other mythological creatures whose origin stories have faded
Other mythological creatures include Sellő (Mermaids) who as per tradition had the upper body of a woman and the lower half of a fish, and lured men into the water, much like the evil fairies. As well as Manók (goblins), and Óriások (giants) who live in the mountains and created some of the massive phenomena that made little sense otherwise.
The Hungarian belief of origin shares a lot with Norse beliefs and Tengrism (after all, no belief system is formed in a vacuum). They believed in the Tree of Life, with the leaves of the tree forming the Upper World, where gods and deities lived. The trunk was the Middle World, where humans shared the world with fantastical creatures and lesser deities. And the Underworld, where bad souls and spirits went.
Most of the supernatural figures in Hungarian mythology were considered ambivalent, neither evil or good. There are a lot of gods in pre-Christianised Hungary, but these are a few of the most important deities.
In Hungarian, Isten literally translates to ‘god’. Isten is the father god, and controls and observes the Middle World, or earth. His other, possibly older, name is Arany Atyácska (Golden Father).
He can shape the fate of humans, and can threaten and warn humans with lightning. Imagine how terrifying, mysterious and formidable lightning must have been before we understood what it was? It’s certainly a cross-cultural reference to power, throughout much of history.
The mother god is Istenanya. Also known as Boldogasszony (Blessed One) or Hajnal Anyácska (Dawn Mother). She is goddess of the moon, fertility and childbirth, the perfect counterpart to Isten’s masculine but also benevolent virtues. She and Isten are the parents to all secondary gods.
Hadúr is the Hungarian god of war, as well as the blacksmith-god. He was the third son of Isten and Istenanya, and wears armour made from pure copper. The Magyars (early Hungarians) sacrificed white stallions, stags, and cattle to him before going to war.
The King of the Wind is the second son. He wears silver armour, and controls the winds, the rain, and the storms which were so important for crops.
The King of the Sun, Napkirály helped his parents create the earth when he was a child. He is the oldest of the three sons, and rides his silver-haired horse through the sky, watching the world pass below him.
Famous Hungarian Legends
Now we get to the actual Hungarian legends! These are founding-legends, which helped the early Hungarians make sense of the world and of where they came from.
Legend of the Wondrous Stag
The legend of the white stag, or even the wondrous hind, is one of the oldest in Hungary. It has many different versions, but the bare bones of the story stay the same. It is, after all, the legend of how the Magyar people began.
In a great and ancient land, the king Nimrod’s first wife bore twin sons. Named Hunnor and Magor, they became great hunters like their father. On a hunt, the father separated from his sons, and they came across a wondrous stag (or hind, in other versions). They gave chase, and the animal led them through meadows and glades, across rivers and forests, always heading west.
At dusk it disappeared, and they camped for the night. Then in the morning, it appeared again and the hunt continued. Across mountains and swamps, they flew. Finally, it led them to a beautiful and bountiful land, before jumping into the river and disappearing.
The two brothers were devastated at losing sight of the incredible stag, and went back to their father. They asked him to build a temple in that space to the stag, and spent 5 years in the temple. Clearly, they were rather affected by the encounter.
After 5 years, they had learnt how to be great kings, with a great deal of meditations and teachings. As they and their men were scouting nearby territories, they heard music and followed it to a forest clearing. Here they saw young women dancing around a fire, celebrating the stag. Two of them were particularly beautiful – the daughters of king Dula. The princes kidnapped these princesses, and married them according to their custom.
With their wives, Magor and Hunnor settled in the bountiful land. They prospered and multiplied, eventually growing two great nations – the Huns and the Magyar. And thus, both peoples were founded, and bound together through their founding legend.
The Sword of God
The Sword of God was, in some legends, created by Hadúr the blacksmith god. It was forged from a meteorite and given to the Scythian people to conquer the world, and won by the Magyars and Huns when together they defeated the Scythians. The story goes that the Huns wanted to go one way, and the Magyars another, so they gave the sword to a blind man to spin. Where it landed they would go. But a gust of wind took the sword out of site towards the west, and it was lost.
The sword is also known as the Sword of Attila, so clearly the legend doesn’t end there. Much later, a shepherd found it buried in the ground, after the tip nicked one his sheep, causing it to bleed. He could see it was powerful, and presented it to Attila, insisting that he was the only one worthy.
Attila used the sword in battle, despite Huns preferring bows and axes. And while he died before the sword’s magic could help him conquer the whole world, he certainly conquered a decent portion of it. The sword may or may not have been buried with him – but if you believe the legends, it must be buried with the king, as his empire soon fell.
Emese’s Dream and the Turul Bird
This ancient legend also binds the Magyars and the Huns together. The Magyar’s believed that the territory of the Huns was theirs to claim, as evidenced by the fact that the Turul bird was both their god-symbol, and the symbol of the Huns.
In this legend, Emese, the wife of Attila the Hun’s descendant Ügyek had a dream. In it, the Turul bird appeared to her, and a clear stream began to flow from her westward, before growing into a strong, flowing river. This symbolised an impregnation from the mythological bird (which symbolised the father god Isten) and meant that her lineage would be great and important rulers in the west.
Emese gave birth to Álmos, father of Arpad who is now known as the founder of Hungary. He was indeed a great leader of the Magyar people – so that bird was on to something.
Last thoughts on Hungarian myths
Hungarian mythology is rich and fascinating, with some figures that have clearly been adapted from other cultures, and others that are unique to the Magyar people.
Much of Hungarian myths and folklore has been lost over the millennia, and still more hasn’t been translated to English. If we’ve missed a story or a character, let us know! We’d love to expand the resource.