Collective Myth, Personal Myth

When you read a nation’s mythology in books, for example, the Indian Mahabharata or the Finish Kalevala, it seems like everyone in the whole nation is singing the same song, telling the same story. But this isn’t how it works when you meet a community with a living myth. Everyone I talked to from Nagygec had their own unique version of the village’s myth. Each person’s understanding of the myth focused on the part that was relevant to their own joys and sorrows.

Kiskunfélegyháza, 1976

Here an actor in the wandering theatre and I enjoy a moment with one of the village elders. Kiskunfélegyháza, 1976. Many of the mythology tellers were women like this one.

What was the myth of the village? Its roots go back centuries and centuries, back to the times of the Siberian shamans (Hungarians originated in Siberia), but the version of the myth I heard, the Judge of Blood myth, was reincarnated by tragic events of the mid-nineteenth century. In 1848, as many European nations were revolting against oppressive rulers, Hungarians tried to free their nation from the Habsburg Empire of Austria. The revolution failed when Russia entered the war on the side of Austria. Austrian general Julius Jacob von Haynau was sent to Hungary to restore order. He promised thirteen rebel Hungarian generals that if they would surrender and turn themselves in, he would spare their lives. But instead, he held an immediate trial and had them hung. The trial and the executions took place in Arad, a bigger town in northern Transylvania not far from Nagygec.

This was seen as a beastly deed, not just in Hungary but around the world. It was a breach of military ethics, and Haynau became an embarrassment to the Hapsburg Empire. He was quickly sent into retirement from the military on a pension and sent out of Austria. With a broken heart (and probably a confused mind), he chose to relocate in a village in Hungary, the nation he had so bloodily oppressed. He moved to Nagygec. He bought an imposing castle in the village and tried to play the role of the progressive nobleman. He spent almost all his money on things that would improve agriculture on his lands, such as irrigation ditches. The entire village–all of Hungary, really–rejected him. He tried to enter elite society by visiting nearby noble families, but his overtures were rebuffed every time. He couldn’t even eat in local restaurants without being ridiculed and reviled. People saw him for the monster that he was, “The Hyena,” as they called him throughout Europe.

His appearance in Nagygec was a catalyst for the rebirth of the Judge of Blood myth, which is filled with shamanic elements. Haynau became a monstrous deity, the Judge of Blood in this story. (I’ll call him Hayno from this point, using the local pronunciation.) He supposedly had either a giant grinding mill or a room full of scythes in the cellar of his castle, where he kept his prisoners. He targeted rich people and participants in the revolution. After he forced them to sign their fortunes over to him, he would throw them into the mill or have them cut up with scythes. A river flowing under the castle would carry away the remains of his victims. (This is why the men on the levy immediately connected the flood with the Judge of Blood.) He was said to be a changeling who often became an enormous white dog, and people often talked about how he would stride across his estate followed by his dogs. Some people said that in the early mornings he would appear naked on his lands with a big stick, leaping across the irrigation ditches.

A central figure in the myth was Hayno’s daughter, Matilda, who the villagers referred to as the Hairy-Faced Girl. She is a mysterious figure. Supposedly she was hidden away in the castle, perhaps because of the hair on her face. In the myth Hayno forced her to reveal her face to his frightened victims just before he killed them–she was a tool of his torture in his murderous ceremony. “He kept her there as the advertisement of his power,” as one of the villagers said. But according to other storytellers, she was not hidden, she also walked the lands with the dogs. Some men even suggested that she lived with her dogs. In some versions I heard, she took one of her father’s captives, a captain, and escaped with him through underground tunnels on a horse, which he had shod with horseshoes put on backwards so they couldn’t be followed easily. In this version, they escaped successfully. In another version Hayno captured them and brought them back to the castle, where he locked the daughter up and hung the captain, Mihaly Gabor, just under her window. In my favorite version, the daughter, in a heroic and magical act, threw herself into the grinding mill and broke her father’s evil power.

As a young man, I was fascinated with Matilda. The Hairy-Faced Girl was someone everyone could identify with, both men and women. I identified with her too as an oppressed person. Her story became the center of the whole myth. She seemed to transcend the boundaries of gender, and even though she was a daughter of an upper-class family, the villagers felt compassion for her and empathized with her plight.

What I quickly saw as I heard these tales was how each person used the myth as a way to work through issues in their own life. For example, women with a leaning toward romance would tell that the hairy girl escaped with her lover. Men were fascinated with her sexuality and her furry body and always mentioned her dogs. Was she a dog herself? It was very mysterious. A village woman who worked as a servant at the castle, which still existed in the early twentieth century, told me a version that emphasized the reprehensive nature of the owner of the castle (even though the owner was someone else by that time), thus giving herself self-esteem even though she was a servant.

Olga Zolcsák, 1986

The connections I made with myth-tellers were long-lasting. One of them was Olga Zolcsák, whom I visited with my wife and daughter in 1986, sixteen years after the flood. She had relocated to Csengersima, close to the ruined village where she had lived all her life.

The villagers finally had their revenge after World War II. They stormed the castle and took out everything that could be moved. Everything from the piano, the tables, the curtains, and chandeliers to window frames was taken out of the castle and found its way into the houses of the villagers. And memorably, the portrait of General Haynau was ravaged with pitchforks.

All of this is background to introduce you to the person who taught me the most about the myth. When I met her, she was in her late seventies. Over the course of my many visits she became my dear friend. Because of the intimate character of the details I’m about to share, and out of respect for her relatives, I would like to keep her name anonymous and refer to her as the person she meant to me, my mythological Mother. She was a regal figure who carried herself like a noblewoman. She was tall woman with a beautiful bony face. Her voice was a bit gravelly, and she spoke with authority. You would never know from how she comported herself that she was a widow who had lost her home in a flood and was living in a shack on the property of relatives. She was fiercely independent, she had unshakeable self-confidence, and she commanded respect.

I came to know her when I was living in a house on the same street as her. I had been so moved by my experience and so fascinated by the bits and bites of the myth I had heard on the levy during the flood that I wanted to keep close to the villagers from the ruined village. So I stayed near to them and did what I could to help after the flood. Sometimes I would help someone retrieve what belongings they could salvage from Nagygec and bring them to the new village in a cart. Sometimes I would chop wood. I lived in Csengersima off and on for three years, abandoning the theater. She was living in her tiny shack across the street from my hosting house, and gradually I got to know her. At first we would meet formally, at her request, on the bench outside her tiny house, but as her arthritis got worse and she became confined to bed, I was invited into her intimate domestic space. We would talk for hours about many things.

From her I learned the most about living through a myth. Like many other village women, she had worked as a servant in the castle in her younger years. During the Second World War, around the time the villagers routed the castle, she was a young wife with a baby. She wasn’t too happy in her marriage; her husband seemed to prefer drinking with his buddies to spending time with her, and she was lonely. She told me that one night as she was putting her baby to sleep, the Judge of Blood (Hayno) came to her. Now some other women in the village told stories of Hayno coming to them in the night. He would appear as a big white dog in their windows. Then he would disappear. Remember the window frames the villagers took from the castle? Those were the windows he appeared at–those were his windows. When his “visitation” happened for her, he prowled around the house as a dog, but this time according to her, he actually came into the house. As he stepped through the window he became a real man. She told me that his face was scarred in exactly the same places where the villagers’ pitchforks had torn through the portrait of the general in the castle.

He stepped into her kitchen and sat down at her table. He put a big pile of money on the table and said that he would give her all of it to her if she would be with him. He told her that he had just come back from America, where he had made a fortune working in the mines. On his way back to Nagygec, he had stayed at a luxurious hotel, where he had squandered half of his money on foolish things, like gallons of champagne to wash the marble floors. But he was willing to give her all of the money he had left if she would be with him.

But she refused him, and “with tears in her eyes like pearls” begged for her child’s peace until he disappeared. Her mythical experience with Hayno changed her. It transformed her from an unhappy, lonely wife into a woman of power. She could have been the mistress of the Judge of Blood. Of all the women in Nagygec, Hayno had chosen her, but she had turned down a fortune, which gave her strong self-esteem. She became the regal, confident woman I met in the early 1970s.

The Judge of Blood myth of Nagygec was very rich. Every villager had found a place in it. It had the power to transform lives, and it was a tool people used to work through problems and celebrate victories. For the people of Nagygec, this was normal. They were a community living through their myth. What I learned from my Mother of Mythology and the other villagers encouraged me to embrace and understand their myth as my own personal mythology. My next challenge was to find my place in that myth.