Under the spell of superstitions

Superstitions are present in our everyday lives imperceptibly, for example, many people knock something on wood to make sure it does not happen, even if they do not necessarily believe in it. However, our ancestors still attached great importance to superstitions and their associated rituals, which they used for gaining some control over sometimes rather unpredictable life events. 

ontoasszony_126757.jpgAccording to the Hungarian Ethnographic Dictionary, a superstition is a belief not recognised by religions or churches, and which is mainly a feature of European peasant cultures. It may have pagan or ecclesiastical origins, or it may arise spontaneously, for example as an explanation to natural phenomena. They can take the form of rules, prohibitions and regulations, and affect almost all fields of life, from birth through marriage or agricultural work to death, but a significant number of them are linked to holidays and festive days. 

vasarozasi_babona_126750.jpgPeople tried to influence major events in life – especially those that could not be influenced in any other rational way – by magical processes. Love magic, for example, was a common practice, using various methods to arouse attraction in the man or woman chosen as a lover. One such bizarre practice was the practice of 'feeding', when the ‘victim’ was fed unknowingly with a hair or even blood or sweat hidden in food or drink. A more discreet practice was the burning of foot-rags or underpants string, or the picking up of footprints, when the longing one in love obtained some dust of the footprints of the chosen one, and usually carried it with them or stuck it in the oven. The aim was to unite with the beloved one. These love spells were recurrent charges in witch trials. 

megrontott_tej_126771.jpgCertain members of the peasant community, such as the healer (or medicine man or quack) were endowed with supernatural properties. Until the middle of the 20th century, villages did not have medical care as we know it today, so people had to rely on healers for various health problems, who passed their knowledge down from generation to generation and were specialised in different kinds of problems. There were female healers, herb-sellers, bonesetters, tooth-pullers. Of course, they were also associated with beliefs, such as being born with teeth, like the shamans, or possessing miraculous powers, and besides healing they could even do harm by casting hexes. 

kopolyozo_foghuzo_452090.jpgFolk beliefs are an integral part of folk medicine - alongside rational, observation-based methods. These cures include therapies with herbs already mentioned above, usually in the form of tea, baths or epithems. Irrationality and superstition often appeared as explanations for the causes of illnesses - in the absence of scientific knowledge - supernatural beings were usually blamed for the ailments. Magical cures, based on absolute beliefs, such as incantation, or a series of movements or actions with miraculous powers or effects, were often used. In the latter case, casting was used, in which the caster woman immersed a molten liquid substance (wax, lead) in cold water and determined the cause of the illness from the shape of the formation, and cured the patient with the solidified substance. 

babtancoltato_betlehem_ordog_221956.jpgThere are also many beliefs about supernatural beings. Witches were the transition between the knowledge of healers and the mysticism of fictional beings, but the community mostly attributed negative, maleficent intentions to them and feared them. Their mystery was heightened by the fact that they often appeared in the form of various animals allegedly, mainly cats or frogs, but they could also become invisible. As we know from fairy tales, they usually rode on brooms, but sometimes they rode on the backs of saddled men transformed into horses (the expression “to make sy horse” is still used in Hungary today and is rooted in this belief). The returning dead were considered supernatural beings, and these superstitions were more important on All Saints' Day and the Day of the Dead, but the supernatural also included ghosts, wraiths, spirits or the devil. All of these bear some resemblance to the ideas of the afterlife of the Christian church.

About the wraiths:

"My father told me that when he was a lad, he would go from Sajópüspöki to a gal in Sajóvárkony. Once, he left the girl late to come home. There, one part of the road from Várkony to Bánszállás was called Lécik-ajja. And there was a rettery there. Then, he was pulled into that rettery, but he didn't see anyone. They dragged him there until the rooster crowed. When he came home, he was covered in mud and water. That's how he told me. /Barna Horváth, Bánréve/" - Mihály Molnár's ethnographic collection about knowledgeable people, wraiths, witches, 1981

About witches:

"Erzsu Füne did it with her good friends, asking at whom you wanted to drink good wine. When they told her, she said, "Come to my house at midnight, for we are leaving then.” When they were together, she said sitting on the broom:
“Behold! Let me be where I want to be!”
And there they were, in the cellar of the man they'd told. There they drank a lot. When the rooster crowed or the goose gaggled at dawn, she would sit on the broom again, and said:
“Behold! Let me be where I want to be!” And they were at home. /József Balázs, Járdánháza/" - Mihály Molnár's ethnographic collection about knowledgeable people, wraiths, witches, 1981

About the horseshoe bringing good luck:


"An unsearched horseshoe found with seven holes is also a long-remembered, lucky object (...). I have two pieces of seven-hole horseshoes in my possession and it was a superstitious tool used by old farming families, an object of tradition handed down from generation to generation. It was used at the time of the stock calving or for pigs, horses and bovines, and was also put in the poultry house on St. Lucia's day. It was also placed under the purse on New Year’s Day. Many people also put a horseshoe in front of the entrance, fixed in place. /Sándor Gelencsér, Nagyberki/" - Luck and its superstitions in Kaposmente, 1969

About cartomancy:

joslas_560572.jpg"Cartomancy was also used by many people in the old days to predict fortune and in the early days of the century, it was done by lonely women, defective girls, widows, gypsy women and men in rare cases, and it was done for money. The one who was expected to pay more was predicted to have the best luck (...) Today there is no such card and no one does such cartomancy anymore, because between the two wars it disappeared from the scene. /Sándor Gelencsér, Nagyberki/" - Luck and its superstitions in Kaposmente, 1969


Translated by Zita Aknai


Ortutay Gyula (főszerk.): Magyar Néprajzi Lexikon. Budapest. Akadémiai Kiadó, 1977. Magyar Elektronikus Könyvtár


More thematic virtual exhibitions