Look to the East: The Cult of the Pagan Past in Hungarian Literature
Rivista di studi ungheresi, Vol.14 (1999)
Introduction: In September 1996 the International Association of Hungarian Studies held a conference at the University of Rome (“La Sapienza”) about Hungary’s attachment to Western Christianity. In the course of the rich program, hundreds of papers shed light on this crucial aspect of Hungarian history. While the survival of the young country under the reign of chief Géza and his son, King Stephen I, undoubtedly depended on the conversion of the Hungarians, in the sphere of unrealistic speculations, dreams and wishes – that is, a sphere that literature knows well – now and again we have to face the question: what if?
Interestingly, a number of alternatives never appear in Hungarian national ideology. Never was it contemplated whether Hungarians should have accepted the Byzantine offer to adopt Eastern Christianity. Nor did Hungarians ponder whether they should have turned Muslim as did the Albanians and Bosnians in the interest of their survival. On the other hand, a handful of people still seem to believe that Hungary could have kept her own pre-Christian faith of which we know so little. The more history puts people to the test, the more they may question the choice of their ancestors.
There is also a logical dimension. Any thesis is valid only if it has an antithesis. Goodness makes no sense without the existence of evil. God’s greatness cannot be grasped without the doubt and negation that Lucifer represents. The opposite of the Christian is the non-Christian. However, continued scrutiny of hypothetical opposites would not lead us much farther. Our axiom is that the Christianization of the country was the first historical event to which subsequent ones can be traced. Such logical maneuvers developed stereotypical (metaphysical) antitheses, as they usually do. The result was the contrapositioning of the pagan and Christian rulers of the Árpád dynasty, of Koppány and Stephen, or, according to Magda Szabó, even the holy king and his father. (This assumption is a literary invention, however.)