Folk-Lore/Volume 4/Szekely Tales, 1

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Folk-Lore/Volume 4
Number 3 (September)

Szekely Tales, I. Translated by Miss P. Gaye

SZÉKELY TALES.




THE south-eastern part of the Hungarian territory, better known as Transylvania, is inhabited by many a remnant of the old nationalities which played so important a rôle in the Middle Ages. The migration of the Turanian peoples from their homes in the East followed certain distinct routes by which one after the other invaded Europe. Two at least of these routes lead through the Carpathian mountains, one from the south and one from the north: the first through Wallachia (nowadays Roumania), the other through Moldavia.

As soon as one of those ancient tribes was dislodged from their seat by the tribes that attacked them, and they in their turn were also pushed westwards, they invariably took to one of those routes. These offered a double advantage: first they formed the easiest access to the rich countries behind, and, on the other hand, they formed "natural fortresses", easily to be defended against new invaders. Transylvania, a mountainous country, is also very rich in fastnesses, to which the dwellers of the plain could retreat when overwhelmed by the enemy. Such fastnesses exist in great numbers, and are almost impregnable. Hence the peculiar mixture of nationalities that are crowded into that small space of territory, and yet have been able to maintain their independence of character, language, and even religion.

One of the three recognised nationalities (at a Diet sitting in the sixteenth century) is the mysterious nationality of the Székelyek. The other two separate nations were the Hungarians, and the German Saxons, settled there as colonists in the thirteenth century. Of the unrecognised nationalities, I mention the Wallachians, who were afterwards reduced to serfs.

The Székelyek were therefore recognised as totally differing from the Hungarians, forming a nationality apart. They must have had a language of their own, as they had a distinct separate administration and organization.

Various theories have been advanced in order to solve the problem of the origin of the Székelyek. According to one theory they are identical with the Hungarians, and belong to the Finno-Altaic group; according to another they belong to the Turko-Tartar tribes of families. It is this latter which seems to be the more probable. I am inclined to see in them the remnants, not of the Avars (Huns is too collective a name to designate a special family), but of the Cumans and of the Hazars, both undoubtedly Turko-Tartar tribes. The Cumans had occupied Wallachia of to-day for many centuries, until the wave of new-comers swept them across the Carpathians. Cuman districts were known to exist in Hungary for a very long time, and only in the last century died the last man who spoke Cumanian. The Hazars were the next to follow, and these, as can be shown by documentary evidence, held very high positions among the Hungarians, whom they preceded in the invasion of Pannonia. Other minor elements, driven thither by the fury of the succeeding invasions, may have been absorbed into that new community that arose in the fastness of Transylvania. Out of these grew the Székelyek, who held their own for centuries, often waging war with the Saxons, Wallachians, and Turks. Nowadays they also have succumbed to the influence of the dominant race, and have become almost entirely Hungarians, considering themselves, and being considered too by others, as the aristocratic and racially pure representatives of the ancient Hungarians. Their folk-lore is, therefore, of the highest interest to the student of ethnopsychology. If the boast of the Székelyek be true, one ought to find in their traditions, customs, beliefs, etc., the old Hungarian or pre-Hungarian mythology.

Without prejudicing the case, it is, however, noteworthy that, as far as fairy tales are concerned, the stock of the Székely is almost the same as that which is known to exist among the other nationalities inhabiting Transylvania. True, they are all tinged with a national colouring, but the substance is the same.

This fact is prominently brought out by the fairy tales which are published here by Miss Gaye, who has translated them from the collection of Benedek. A number of Székely fairy tales are included in the valuable publications of Messrs. Jones and Kropf, of Magyar folk-tales. They are taken from Erdely's and Kriza's collections; whilst those published here for the first time in English translation are told by Benedek Elek, himself a Székely, like Kriza. In these the original form seems to have been better preserved than in those two collections named above. None of the heroes has any special modern name; they are either anonymous or bear popular names.

Some of Miss Gaye's collection are variants of the usual folk-tales, and it has been thought unnecessary to reproduce them here again; others are either totally different or vary in essential points. Of these the following have been selected for publication.

The importance of this similarity is by no means to be undervalued. It affords a powerful aid to the theory of migration of fairy tales. If fairy tales resemble one another among nations that are known to be totally different from one another, racially and historically, who have nothing in common with the other nations, neither language nor religion, who trace their descent from a source entirely remote from any of the other nations, nay, who may be the result of an amalgamation of various nationalities—how could these fairy tales be the heirlooms of a hoary antiquity or the residue of an ancient mythology?

In the notes which accompany these tales special reference is made to the fairy tales of the surrounding nations. Saxons, Roumanians, (Wallachians), Serbians or Bulgarians, Albanians and Greeks, represent as many distinct nationalities as names, and still the Székelys, otherwise totally differing from each of these, have the same tales in common. Only the theory that tales are borrowed from one nation and transmitted to another can explain this mysterious coincidence.

Herein lies the paramount value of the folk-lore of the Hungarian, Székely, and other similar nationalities. They throw a flood of light on the problems of ethno-psychology.

M. Gaster.



I.—The Genius.

There was once a king. This king had but one only son; but, the good God alone knows why, he was so furiously angry with him one day that he drove him out of the house to go where he liked—up or down! In vain the queen took his part, in vain she made the whole village weep for the dear child torn from her heart; there was no pardon; the little prince must go away.

The prince set out then very sadly; he went strolling on over hill and dale. As he goes, he hears someone, very much out of breath, running behind him, and calling out his name. He turns back, and sees a servant from the court. He has brought him a watch, sent after him by his dear mother. The prince took the watch, put it in his pocket, and then went on.

As he goes along he takes the watch out and opens the case, and then! some invisible being, or something, speaks, and says: "What are your commands, my soul, my dear good master?"

The prince was astonished at this, very much so; his astonishment was so great that he did not say a single word, but put the watch back in his pocket.

All at once the road branched off in two directions; the one leading to a huge great wood, the other to a large city. He considered which he should take. It would be well to go into the tow^n and pass the night there, but he had not a single stray kreuzer. He therefore went towards the wood, thinking that he can at least make a fire there, perhaps, too, he will be able to catch a bird, then he will gather strawberries and mushrooms, and have such a supper that the king himself can't do better.

He went into the wood, therefore, and there chose out a great tree, under which he sat down. He takes out his watch to see what o'clock it is, then that invisible being, or something, speaks again, and asks him, "What are your commands, my soul, my dear good master?"

Thus answered the prince: Well, if you want me to give commands, then make me something to eat, and out of the ground too."

Scarcely had the prince looked round when there before him stood a table spread with all sorts of good dainty dishes. The little prince fell to manfully; then he lay down in the soft grass, and did not get up till the sun shone on his stomach.

He started off again and went strolling on until he came to such a great high mountain that it was impossible to see either the end, or the length, or the top of it He looked right, he looked left, he looked up, he went round about, this way and that, but he could not find any means of getting over it in any way, it was so lofty and so steep. But he looked and looked about until he found a hole which led into the mountain. He entered this hole, but he had hardly gone the distance of a good gun-shot when he got into such intense darkness that he could not move either backwards or forwards. He puts his hand in his pocket to get a match, and while he was feeling for a match the watch touched his hand, and he took it out.

"What are your commands, my soul, my dear good master?" asked the genius again.

"I command you", said the prince, "to get me some light from somewhere."

As he gave the command, a lighted wax-taper was already in his hand, and by its light he strolled further on. He went deeper and deeper in, until all at once the passage began to widen out. There he found a house. He pushed the door open, and there finds an old dwarf. He greets him in a becoming manner.

"God give you good day, my dear Mr. father; pray how are you, how does your precious health serve you?"[1]

"Good day", answered the dwarf; "I am well; but who are you, and what sort of business are you upon that you come here, where not even a mouse comes?"

The prince told the story of his sad fate with very bitter lamentations, so that the dwarf's heart was sad for him. He encouraged and comforted him, telling him not to grieve at all, for he will procure him just such a place as the one he has left. Then he told him that beyond the mountain there was a powerful but good-hearted king; he, too, had had an only son, but he had been lost in the wars. Now, if he will go to this king, who will soon be killed by grief, and will say that he is his lost son, the king would grieve no more, and he would not be a world-wanderer.

The prince resolved upon this, and the dwarf carefully instructed him what he was to say to the king. "Say that you are called Paul, that you left home seven years ago, and did not write because you were taken prisoner, and kept in such grievous captivity that you were unable either to write a letter or send a message. Then ask this, too, whether the three little sisters whom you left alive at the time of your departure are still living."

The prince thanked him much for his good advice, took leave of the dwarf, and with that set off out of the mountain. When he got out he took out his watch and gave this command to the genius: "Take me to the other side of this mountain, to the king whose only son was lost while soldiering."

"Good, my soul, my dear good master", said the genius, "only shut your eyes."

The prince shut his eyes, and felt that his feet did not touch the ground, and that he was flying as quick as thought. But this did not last long; again his feet touched the ground, and then the genius said:

"Now open your eyes!"

The prince opened them and looked round; and then—behold a wonder!—he was standing before the gateway of a palace, which was even more splendid than his father's. When he had taken a good look round at the palace and its environs, he pushed the gate open and went at once to the king. He did not trouble himself much, to be sure, but fell upon the king's neck at once, embraced him and kissed him, saying, "My precious dear good father, my illustrious father, my lord, I have not seen you for just seven years, and I began to think I should never see you again in this life!"

The king was amazed and astounded, looked at the boy from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot, before, behind, and every way, but still he could not exactly recognise him as his own dear son. However, he answered all questions in such a way that the king distrusted him no longer, and in his great joy he made such a feast that even the Wallachian parson had wine instead of brandy with his puliszka[2] and even the lame began to dance.

All three princesses were living, and the prince thought it would be a good thing to present his "sisters" with some handsome gift. He took out his watch and ordered the genius to bring the three girls three bouquets of golden flowers, such as human eye had never seen. Not an hour had passed, when all three golden bouquets were there. He sent them to the rooms of the three young ladies as secretly as possible, so that one knew nothing about the other.

Well, time waxes and wanes. One evening there was a great ball at the royal palace, and the youngest princess placed the beautiful golden bouquet in her bosom. Then, all at once, there was such a brilliant light that they might just as well have put out the wax candles. The elder princesses did not bring their bouquets, and each thought that their sister had stolen hers. They set upon her to make her give back their flowers.

"I shall certainly not give them up!" said the little princess. "If you have any too, fetch them out; they are sure to be where you put them."

At this both the girls run away, and come back each with a golden bouquet. And then there was such a flood of light that not even the sun could have shone more brightly.

News of this went through the whole land; everyone talked of nothing but the wonderful golden bouquets. The king could not praise his son enough for having thought of his sisters even in his captivity, and for having managed to be so economical as to be able to buy three golden bouquets. But the major-domo shook his head, and said to the king:

"Now, my illustrious king, don't be angry, but there is some diablerie in this, and I wager that if your Majesty commands that a golden bridge shall be built from your Majesty's palace to my palace by to-morrow morning, the duke will do this, too."

The king laughed the major-domo to scorn, but the latter persisted, until at last he promised to put his son to the test.

The king had his son up, and told him of his desire. He was an old man, but he liked what was fine, and he thought that, as a person who had seen the world, he would perhaps know some possible way of building a golden bridge.

The prince told him just to wait till the morning, as he could not say anything until then. Then, when they had separated, the prince took out his watch, and told the genius of the king's wish.

"It is no matter, my soul, my dear good master", said the spirit; "the bridge will be there by morning."

And so it was! But it was so beautiful, so glittering, that when the king got up and looked out of window he almost fell backwards in his great astonishment. He had his son called at once, and said to him, "Well, you have done this well, my son; but if you can do so much, then you can do more also. If you don't build a palace of pure, fine gold, seven storeys high, by to-morrow morning, and if this palace does not stand upon a slender diamond foot, I will have your head cut off!"

The king thought, however, that his son would not be able to do this, and he was already rejoicing that he would be able to put him to death; for he was afraid that he would send him to hell with his diablerie. The prince himself did not believe that the genius would be able to build such a palace; nevertheless, he told him what the king wanted. Thereupon he went to bed, and in the morning he got up. And pray, was not the seven-storeyed palace standing before his window! He was almost killed with astonishment; and the king still more. They were obliged to sprinkle him with cold water, he was so faint with intense amazement.

But the king had still not had wonders enough. The next day a courtyard was wanted for the golden palace. When he had this, he wished for a garden, in which all, even to the smallest blade of grass, should be of gold and diamonds. For this he allowed three days.

"Good", thought the prince, "I will do this, too; but if he is not satisfied with this, I will leave him, as St. Paul did the Wallachians."

For he had only stayed till now for the sake of the little princess. But the major-domo proposed to the king that they should go out hunting until the turn came for the garden, and take the duke with them; for he remembered that before the war he was very fond of hunting. They at once determined that they would go hunting. But before they set out, the major-domo told the prince that it would be well for him to leave that beautiful watch of his at home, for it might easily be spoilt in the forest, and then there was no master-workman to mend it here, as there was abroad. The prince took his advice, and left the watch in his room. But they had scarcely reached the forest when the major-domo, who had watched the prince when he was talking to his watch one night, ran home, climbed up into the prince's room by the window, took the watch out, and opened it. The genius sprang out as usual, but he asked a different question. This is what he asked:

"What are your commands, you thief, my robber-master?"

"I command you to take me to a place where even the wind seldom goes, and no one but a mouse ever comes."

In an instant the major-domo was where he wished to be, and the prince's watch with him.

The prince comes home from hunting in the evening, goes straight to his room, and looks for his watch the first thing. He looks for it, but does not find it. He turns over and looks through everything, but in vain: his watch is gone! gone! gone! Oh, the prince is sad! For what is he to do without a watch? There will be an end to his life if he does not suddenly makes himself scarce. As quick as thought he ran out of the palace, and went straight ahead.[3]

For seven days and seven nights he went on and on without stopping, he made inquiries in all directions, but did not come upon any trace of the precious treasure. On the eighth day, just at sundown, he reached a little hut. He pushes the door open. And then he finds that the Sun himself lives there, and was just then about to go to bed. He wishes him good-evening properly, and begs pardon for disturbing him so late.

"Pray what is your business, my son?" the Sun asked him.

He tells him that he is looking for such and such a major-domo.

"Oh, my dear son", answered the Sun, "I travel round the world, but only from east to west, and he whom you seek does not go that way, or I should certainly have seen him. But see, not far from here lives the King of the Winds; his sons travel over all parts of the world, he will certainly know about your major-domo."

The prince thanked him for the good advice, wished the Sun a peaceful good-night, and with that he went to the King of the Winds. But he, too, only said that neither he nor his sons had seen any such major-domo, and he must certainly have crept into some place such as the wind itself very seldom wanders into. Perhaps the King of the Mice would be able to direct him.

He went to the King of the Mice. The King of the Mice immediately summoned all the mice there were, and inquired whether they had not seen such and such a major-domo.

"Might their eyes fall out if they had seen him," so answered they every one.

The prince was just going to turn back very sadly, when there hobbled forward a lame mouse. The King of the Mice asks him, too, whether he had not seen a major-domo.

"Why, to be sure I have seen him", answered the lame mouse; "I have just come from there; but he lives underground, in a stone cave, and in such a small hole that even I can scarcely get in."

The prince was delighted, and asked the mouse only to take him to the cave, and they will soon contrive something when they are there. They came to the cave, and there they began to consult what they were to do now. At last they determined that the mouse should creep into the hole, gnaw through the watch-chain while the major-domo was asleep, and bring the watch out to the prince.

When a good half-hour had passed, the mouse came with the watch; and in return the prince caused the genius to fetch so much corn that the mouse was able to live like a lord upon it all his life. The major-domo they left in the cave, where he neither lived nor died, and whence he would never escape by his own efforts.

The prince now went back to the court of his second father, and they were just then burying him! The kingdom he had left to his youngest daughter, for she was the cleverest. They had only just buried the king when the two elder girls married two kings' sons, and he asked the youngest. We must say, by the way, he confessed that he was not the princesses' brother, and had only given himself out as the king's son to comfort him, and by advice of the dwarf.

Well, the youngest princess did not need much asking. They quickly took boards, made benches and tables, and held three such wedding-feasts all at once that, maybe, they have not come to an end yet.

Note.—"Szalmakirály," the Straw-king, in Erdélyi's A nép Kölészete, 2nd Part, is a longer version of this story of the "Genius". The prince is a gardener's son, he marries the princess, and both his wife and watch are carried off by the king's minister.


II.—The Lad who knew Everything.

There was once a poor lad. All the great efforts he made were to no purpose, he could not make anything of them, and he only became more of a beggar every day. The poor lad was much worried and very low-spirited to find that he was always unsuccessful in everything, whatever he attempted, and that he would have to remain a beggar all his life. Really he would not torment himself any more, he would put an end to this miserable life. All that he possessed was a rope, and with this he went into the wood, intending to hang himself.

While he was wandering sadly in the huge wood, he heard a sound of piteous lamentation; he goes towards it, and then he sees a little tiny snake writhing about on the top of a tree-trunk, which was on fire, but it was unable to escape, for it was surrounded by flames and red-hot embers, and it would be killed if it went near them.

"But", said the poor lad to himself, "I won't let this unreasoning animal die an innocent death, though I have determined to die myself." With that he went up to the burning trunk, stretched out a good firm bough, and lifted the little snakelet down on it.

Ha! how profusely the poor little snake thanked him! And it would not leave its life-preserver any peace until he accompanied it to its father's home, and allowed him also to thank him for his kindness.

"God bless you", thought the lad, "it will prolong my life a little, at all events."

For, words are words, but the poor lad was afraid of death. He therefore accompanied the little snakelet to his father's home. They went slowly on until they reached a large cave. It was here that the young snake's father lived, and he was the very King of the Snakes himself. Eh! behold a wonder! the King of the Snakes was just as big as a hay-fork, and in his head there shone such a large diamond that the poor lad almost lost the sight of his eyes when he stepped in. There lay the King of the Snakes in the middle of the cave, and when the lad stepped in he fixed his great eyes upon him.

"Well", thought the lad, "I shall have no need to hang myself, for this snake will gobble me up at once."

But when the aged king knew that the poor lad had preserved his son's life, his countenance changed at once, and he said to the lad: "God bless you, you poor boy, for saving my son's life. In return I will make you fortunate all your life, and your descendants fortunate too; only I warn you of this, not to tell anyone in the world of my gift, for the very moment you do, your life will come to an end."

Now the King of the Snakes whispered something in the lad's ear, and then the poor lad felt at once that from that moment he was not the same person that he had been before. All at once he knew everything, and he knew everything in such sort that he was equally well able to talk to human beings and animals, and he could even understand the humming of the flies besides.

He thanked the King of the Snakes over and over again for his valuable gift, and said: "I thank you, illustrious King of the Snakes, for your invisible gift. I saved your child's life, and you have saved mine, for I was resolved upon dying a horrible death!"

With that he took his leave, commending the King of the Snakes, with his entire family and all his people, to God, and then set out towards home. He went sauntering on through the wood, and all at once he hears the sparrows twittering in a tree overhead. The oldest sparrow was just then speaking and saying: "Ah! if this poor lad could know what I know, he certainly would not think of putting an end to his life, but he would grow so rich that he would not exchange even with the king."

"You don't say so!" said the other sparrows. "How would it be possible?"

"Why, this way, to be sure", said the other sparrow; "by digging up the pan of gold which is beneath the hollow willow-tree, and he would be rich all his life, even if he were to distribute half to the poor."

"Hem", thinks the poor lad to himself, "I will try, anyhow, whether the old sparrow speaks the truth."

He went home, procured a spade and hoe, and in the evening returned to the wood, to the hollow tree. He began to dig, and he dug until his spade clinked against the pan.

Hurrah! he hurriedly seized hold of the pan, and the sweat just dropped from his face while he lifted the pan full of gold out of the hole.

For indeed it was full of gold to the top; the old sparrow had not lied. He took the gold home too that same evening, and the next morning he began at the lower end of the village, and did not stop until he had distributed half among the poor.

He gained great esteem in the village, you may be sure! And then, moreover, when his neighbour's cow fell ill, and he knew from its lowing what was the matter with it, and was able to cure it besides, the whole village and the neighbourhood too, for a great distance round, came to him, bringing all their sick animals, and he cured them.

But when he had nothing else to do, he always wandered out in the woods and fields, and listened to what the birds were saying. One day, being very tired with wandering about so much, he sat down on the roots of a tree. While he was lying there idly, a raven overhead spoke and said, "Ah! if the person who is dozing under the tree knew what I know, he would be the king's son-in-law in a week!"

"If he knew what, then?" asked the other ravens.

"Why, this, that the king's daughter has lost her precious gold cross, and now she has bound herself not to marry anyone but the man who shall produce the gold cross, for it is a keepsake from her dear mother. Well, indeed, she will keep her párta[4] all her life, for the man who can find it is not yet born into this world. It is in a good place here, in the hollow of the tree. The old king, however, has had a proclamation made throughout the whole kingdom that he will give his daughter and half his kingdom to whoever produces the gold cross."

The lad laughed to himself, and thought, "You have spoken just at the right time, you chattering raven!"

He waited for them to fly away, and then he climbed up the tree, and actually found the gold cross in the hollow.

He hastened home immediately, but before he went to the king, he had such a palace built for him that there was not its fellow for a distance of seventh-seven lands; then he sent for a tailor, and ordered such a brilliant gunya[5] that he might even have been taken for a duke. When both the palace and his cloak were ready, and he had looked at himself repeatedly from head to foot in the pier-glass to see whether he looked like a gentleman (which he did, of course!), he took the gold cross and set out with it to the king's court. He went straight up into the princess's room, and told a great lie, saying that he had taken the cross away from twelve robbers.

Ah! the princess was so delighted, she could not think of anything in her great delight. Then, when she had had a good look at the lad, and saw that he was a handsome, knightly-looking youth, she certainly did not take back her word, but said: "Here is my hand, I am yours till death, till my coffin is closed!"

After that there was a wedding, but such a wedding that the whole country rang with it, and it was talked of besides more than seven times seven lands off. The young couple lived happily, only the wife was not pleased at her husband's always wandering in the woods and fields, nor at his constantly forgetting himself even when they went out together, and listening to the songs of all the birds. They often quarrelled about this, but then they made peace again.

One day they rode out on horseback into the wood. For a good while they kept close together, but then the mistress's horse lagged a little behind. The master's horse neighed back at it:

"I say, you, why are you lagging behind?"

"It is easy for you", answered the mistress's horse. "You have only one to go with besides yourself, and I have three."

On hearing this the master laughed very much.

"What are you laughing at so heartily?" asked his wife.

"That I can't tell you", answered her husband.

There was great wrath at this! "Her husband was laughing at her! who could tell what he did not think about her! But she would not leave him any peace until he told her."

"Very well", said her husband, "I will tell you, but, believe me, I shall die that same instant. Do you wish me to die?"

"Don't make game of me!" burst forth the lady. "You won't die just for telling a secret to your wife."

"Well then, I will tell you. If you desire my death, let it be as you wish."

The lady only laughed. She did not believe her husband.

However, he told her from beginning to end his adventure with the snake, and when he had come to the end of his story, that moment he fell from his horse and died suddenly.

Now, indeed, the lady believed that her husband was right, but it was too late. The wonder-working doctor who could raise her husband up was not yet born. She was never comforted, not entirely even when her beautiful little golden-haired son was born, and grew up into just such a gallant lad as his father had been. The one thing she taught her son was to keep any promise once made lest the same thing should happen to him as to his dear father.

So it was, that was the end, it was true. If anyone does not believe it, let him go and see.



  1. A usual expression, especially amongst the lower classes.
  2. Maize-porridge and curds.
  3. Lit., where his eyes saw.
  4. Snood, ribbon tying back the hair.
  5. Short, peasant's cloak.