One of my earliest memories of school is from the first grade, when I was told a famous story about George Washington. This story involved a youthful Washington who loved to spend time outdoors on his family’s land. One day his father found a cherry tree in their orchard that had been chopped down. Washington’s father knew his son never went anywhere without his trusty hatchet. He suspected that young George may have cut down the valuable tree in an act of thoughtless mischief. When his father asked him if he had been responsible for chopping down the tree, Washington replied, “I cannot tell a lie. I chopped down the cherry tree.”
The point of the story was to always be honest and admit the truth. There were other valuable lessons to be gleaned from the tale, such as taking personal responsibility and the value of being accountable for one’s actions. I would later learn that the story is almost certainly mythical, but it focuses on a greater truth. The tale illustrates values that Americans should all hold dear. Whether it is Washington and the cherry tree or Rome’s creation as a byproduct of Romulus and Remus, mythical lore is central to how great nations, empires and peoples see themselves. This is just as true for Hungary and Hungarians as it is for my own country. Their early history and conquest of the Carpathian Basin is the stuff legends are made of, quite literally.
The Stuff Of Legend – Words & Deeds Of Hungarians
The importance of myth and legend in Hungarian history can be found at one of Budapest’s most visited attractions. In the City Park (Varosliget), a statue of a strange man sits alone on a concrete pedestal. His head is hung low and covered with a hood. In his right hand is a sharp instrument, not a blade, but a writing utensil. He seems to be either deep in thought or brooding, but no one really knows for sure. Who is this statue supposed to represent? There are no easy answers when it comes to the man known as Anonymous. His identity is vaguely known, unlike his writing which is the stuff of legend, both figuratively and literally. Anonymous casts a long shadow over the history of Hungary. As he should, since an even longer shadow hangs over exactly who he was.
Scholars believe that sometime in the mid to late 13th century a scribe for the King of Hungary wrote the chronicle that provides a narrative on the background, conquest and aftermath of the Hungarian arrival in the Carpathian Basin. The veracity of this chronicle known as the Gesta Hungarorum (The Deeds of the Hungarians) has been questioned. It relies on everything from heroic folk songs, myths and ballads to written sources both ancient and medieval to tell the early story of the Hungarians. Some claims by the author are totally outlandish, such as when he states that Hungarians fought the Romans. There is way more fiction than fact. Nonetheless, the chronicle has provided the Hungarians with many of their founding myths. It also serves as proof of that old cliché to never let a good story get in the way of the truth.
Teller Of Many Tales & Very Few Truths – “P who is called magister”
The Gesta was written three and a half centuries after many of the events it describes. This makes its historical account of events highly unlikely. Nevertheless, it provides a homegrown basis for the early history of the Magyars. Almost all other accounts come from foreign sources. Truth be told, the Gesta also relies quite heavily on works by foreigners as well as a plethora of dubious sources. The Gesta was written by a Hungarian, which explains much of its popularity. That is the main reason it has informed the Hungarian people’s beliefs concerning their early origins. It is considered a trusted, but extremely flawed source. So who was the anonymous author of this famous flawed work? A hint is given in the opening sentence.
The author is explicitly vague, calling himself, “P who is called magister, and sometime notary of the most glorious Bela, King of Hungary of fond memory.” The problem with identifying the author from this self-reference is that there were four different Kings of Hungary named Bela. A majority of scholars have concluded that it was written under the reign of King Bela III (1172 – 1196). The reason Anonymous wrote the work is less obscure. One of the more interesting statements made by Anonymous was that he had decided to write the history of Hungary’s kings and noblemen because no such work existed. Many of the tales he told did not exist, until he either made them up or repeated ones he had heard that were not grounded in historical fact. Anonymous was a man who loved good stories, no matter the truth. He did provide just enough factual material that some of what he said was taken seriously. It is this interweaving of truth and tale which created a work that has stood the test of time.
The Power Of Myth – A Universal Truth
It took five centuries before a translation of the Gesta appeared in Hungarian (the original was written in Latin). Its popularity soared along with Hungarian nationalism in the 19th century. At the time of the Millenary Celebrations of the Magyar conquest of the Carpathian Basin in 1896, the Gesta was promoted as a reputable source. As part of those celebrations, Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef donated funds for the sculpting of ten statues to be placed in public areas around Budapest. This was the impetus for the statue of Anonymous found in the City Park. Miklos Legeti, a native of Pest was commissioned to sculpt it. Legeti, was a rather obscure artist, best known for the realistic quality of his work. He completed the statue in 1903. It is now hailed as a masterpiece. Strangely enough, Legeti is all but unknown today with the exception of his statue of an unknown man. Ironically both of these men have not been forgotten, proving that the power of myth is timeless, as are their works.