A Folklore Motif in Historical Consciousness


When it comes to interpreting certain historical legends or myths, folklorists who focus on oral traditions tend to adopt a stance not entirely identical with that of the historians. In this clash of approaches scholars of myths appear to start with a grave disadvantage, for historians work with so-called historical facts and data, while those engaged in comparative mythological research examine texts based “only” on oral traditions. One should not forget, however, that in particular early historical works relating the events of prehistory often rely heavily on citations drawn from myths. More specifically, the principal protagonists of these tales are themselves mythical, demigod-like heroes who for the most part came to be included in the early histories of a given people because of their superhuman strength, bravery and courage. Essentially it is my intention, in the following essay, to demonstrate that the facts of folklore are as much facts (in the philological sense) as the so-called historical facts, and indeed the earlier the date of the work in question, the more they resemble the facts related in myths, especially in a typological sense.

In the volume entitled Mifi Narodov Mira (Myths of the Peoples of the World) published at the beginning of the 1980s the renowned Russian scholar V. N. Toporov, linguist and philologist and the leading figure of the study of Slavic comparative mythology, wrote an excellent analysis on the relationships between records relating historical facts (historiography) and myths. In a comprehensive and lengthy entry Toporov drew attention to the manner in which early historical narratives are full of mythopoetic clichés that transform historical figures into almost mythical heroes. They resemble gods more than flesh and blood humans, especially in the accounts of their births and their deaths. According to the Russian scholar, in oral folklore traditions, in other words cultures devoid of written records, historical narrative memory spans roughly seven generations, which amounts to two or three centuries at best. According to more recent research, however, cultural memory can span a much longer period of time, as there are mythological motifs that emerge in places separated from one another by several thousand kilometres and thousands of years.

It has been a good three decades since Toporov, the eminent Moscovite philologist, semiotician and mythologist, suggested that the names of heroes from stories and myths (as well as names of locations and possibly objects of magical power, such as a sword) bear such significance that their mere mention suffices to prompt recollection of the entire story. Thus the names, with their original phonetic structures, conjure the mythic stories associated with them. The name of the mythical hero therefore functions as a kind of condensation of the text (a sort of micro-text or minimal-text), and it can offer occasion for a retelling of the story associated with it. This explains why fragments of legends can still be gathered even today, albeit in an admittedly deteriorated form. Even in these fairly fragmentary texts there are important motifs on the basis of which we can assign them to text clusters comprised of more complete versions.

At the beginning of the 20th century Gyula Sebestyén (presumably roused in part by the success of the Finnish Kalevala) published five books of Hungarian heroic legends on the basis of the fruits of his intensive work collecting folklore. Of these, the third concerns Attila. Sebestyén had a keen discernment of the relationship between oral tradition and written histories, a relationship his notes clearly illustrate:

We know that despite the alterations and transformations that have taken place in the meantime, the oral tradition, which was only later recorded and was a substitute for written history, was regarded as true history. The alterations and changes that take place in the process of bequeathing [elements of oral tradition], even in the poetic sense, must not shake the faith of the reader or listener in the evolving legends. Therefore if we restore old legend fragments and reconstruct them with the aid of analogies or, in our case, supplement them with historical material, we must be strictly attentive to ensure that every change is made in the spirit of the legend. It was thus that the Iliad and the Odyssey, which evolved out of the Greek epic memories of the Trojan War, were regarded by Aristotle not as depositories of legends containing historical cores, but as poetical works devoid of all historical bearing. If the Greek philosopher had only been able to imagine that a scholar, with a copy of the Iliad in his hands, would uncover – as Heinrich Schliemann has recently done1 – the archeological relics of the Trojan War, no doubt he would have found good reason to give credence to the poetical works as history and legend. It is a tribute to the glory of Hungarian epic poetry that János Arany2 was the first to proclaim this idea. He called it epic authenticity. Within the framework of Hungarian national epic poetry, Attila and Árpád3 are figures of similar legendary and world-historical greatness.

This essay was motivated by one additional consideration. Namely, it has been my observation that among philologists and historians “historical memory” does not seem to function terribly well. I am referring to a conference organized at the end of the 1970s entitled Myth and History, in which several interesting presentations were held, and later published. Of these, three texts are of particular importance from the point of view of understanding the place of Attila in the Hungarian oral history tradition.

It is worth noting that the authors were not aware of one another’s research or conclusions. I offer here a reevaluation of these three essays, supplemented naturally with more recently published data. The necessity of this reevaluation stems from the fact that historians to this day regard this mythical tradition as far-fetched at best.

I intend to demonstrate that the folklore narrative can have and indeed does have a historical basis. Essentially I would like to do justice to the work of Ildikó Ecsedy.

European historiography on Attila

One should perhaps begin by mentioning that European historiography repeatedly refers to an acknowledged historiographer named Jordanes, whose work Getica was cited in discussions of the figure of Attila. Jordanes’ work was written approximately 100 years after the death of the Hun leader, and common understanding at the time described the great conqueror in fairly negative terms. Indeed the medieval chroniclers despised the pagan conqueror because of his victories. After all, Attila had forced even the Pope, who had appeared before the Hun leader attended by his bishops, to beg for mercy in order to save Rome. Presumably it was also not incidental that the Huns, like the Tartars after them, were portrayed with dogs’ heads and referred to as “dog-headed Tartars”, although they were in fact excellent horsemen, warriors who could shoot arrows backwards while mounted, and great battle tacticians.

It is a small miracle that Jordanes, the historiographer of the Goths, gave a relatively detailed account of Attila’s death on the basis of the narrative of the rhetorician Priskos, who allegedly had witnessed it.

Jordanes gives a brief summary of how, following Attila’s death, a troop of horsemen circled the deceased, who was laid in his tent. A funeral song was recited over his body and the mourners gashed their faces with knives and cut off their hair to express their grief. This description from the history of the Goths is frequently cited in support of the contention according to which the feast following Attila’s death was a mixture of mourning and rejoicing, after which the deceased was buried in great secrecy in the night. He was buried in three coffins, the first of which was made of gold, the second of silver, and the third of iron. Alongside the corpse numerous valuable objects were placed, including tableware, weapons, and food. Afterwards, as dreadful compensation for their work, the servants who had dug the grave were slaughtered and thus were made captives of the leader’s grave.

In the Assessment of Hungarian Historiography

Some Hungarian historians remain quite sceptical with regards to the Hun story, but even György Györffy acknowledges that there were noble families and clans among whom some kind of Attila-cult still existed at the beginning of the 14th century. According to him, the authenticity of the Hungarian Hun tradition cannot be proven, but the tradition concerning Attila, which exists to this day among the Székelys (a Hungarian speaking people in Eastern Transylvania), is not entirely the product of invention and deserves more extensive study.

Gyula Kristó offers one such inquiry in an essay entitled “Did the Hungarians have an ancient Hun tradition?”, which was written for the conference entitled Myth and History. In his introduction he noted that the belief had always had opponents (Pál Hunfalvy and Frigyes Riedl) and supporters, such as Bálint Hóman or Dezső Dümmerth, who hypothesized that the so-called Ősgeszta had contained mention of events related to Attila (a lost historical account dating from the end of the 11th century, the Ősgeszta was the first of a genre on the history of the Hungarians; it differed from the more traditional chronicles, bearing a closer resemblance to works of imaginative literature rather than history). As he had done in a previous study, he suggested that more recent research did not adequately emphasize the rigidity of the blood and lineage order among the peoples of the Steppes, the basis of which was the veneration of ancestors. “These strict principles of lawfulness were the reason that in the Steppes generally only men from ruling families were able to bear the title of grand duke and to form an empire… furthermore, there is nothing implausible about the notion that in the 9th century Álmos [the father of Árpád] and his family also reckoned with their ancestor, Attila, who was known all over the world and had not been forgotten. Considering the strict principles of lawfulness of the Steppe cultures, it is evident that intertwined with the myth of the Turul bird4 the lineage from Attila contributed to the choice of Álmos as reigning prince, as a sacred ruler.”

There is data from the 11th century suggesting that King Andrew I of the Árpád Dynasty had the so-called “sword of Attila” in his possession. Later King Béla IV was the guardian of “Attila’s treasures”, while King Géza II is mentioned in a letter by his sister as the “king of the Huns”. The chronicle of Simon Kézai relates how Attila’s shield was adorned with the crowned Turul bird, a motif which later appeared on the coat of arms of the early rulers of the Árpád Dynasty. This was one of the many details of the sources that made the Attila myth palatable for the romantic approach to Hungarian history when attempting to offer the totem-ancestor myth of the Turul as the explanation for the legend of Álmos; in other words the myth presumably existed as an oral tradition and as a dynastic ancestral legend – the returning ancestor is the guardian bird of the clan, the Turul, whose strength created the extraordinary successors.

The dubious historians were joined by many archaeologists who remained sceptical with regards to Attila’s grave. In an interview István Bóna claimed that as a grade school student he too had read the works of Mór Jókai and Géza Gárdonyi.5 In particular The Invisible Man, a novel by Gárdonyi that was mandatory reading, contributed to the formation of the legend. In his view, “to compete against the wondrous myth-creating stories is a thankless, almost hopeless cause. If asked to decide, readers would rather accept the mysteriously and enigmatically beautiful stories than the concrete reality, seen as a dry, grey and disenchanting mass of facts presented by archeologists and historians”.

In his view, the story of the burial in three coffins is mere folklore, a legend the origin of which lies in “a wider familiarity with the 6th century story of the Huns in Jordanes’s work”.

One should take a moment to consider what this notion of familiarity in a wider circle means. Historians, literary historians and Hungarian folklorists unambiguously believed that the text of the medieval Latin chronicle made its way into popular knowledge through Hungarian chronicles and almanacs, and eventually through 19th century literary adaptations. The process is worth tracing.

In 1925 influential Hungarian historian Bálint Hóman called attention to how “oral tradition (…) retains the name of a hero and the most important events associated with him for a very long time, for centuries, and passes it on from generation to generation”. In connection with medieval minstrels Bence Szabolcsi hypothesized that the so-called “great memory” in former centuries was the collective property of a nation, and it was thus that “Anonymous6 had heard from minstrels the legends of the original Conquest (this constitutes a distance of about 300 years), Miklós Istvánffy had had the opportunity to hear a bard’s song about Felicián Zách, and two and a half centuries later Mátyás Bél knew of songs about Toldi”.7

Notwithstanding it is worthwhile to quote here the assertion of György Györffy that he made in the introduction of the volume entitled Napkelet fölfedezése [The Discovery of the Orient]:

Hungarians prior to the Conquest belonged to the Turkic empire of Inner Asia and its successive state the Khazar Empire, in fact it is possible that the Hungarian’s ruler of “divine origin” was the descendent of the Kagan Ištemi [in Hungarian the word “divine” is “isteni”]. Hence the Inner Asian origin of the social structure of the conquering Hungarians. The Byzantines referred to the Hungarian people as “Turks”, the Hungarians venerated the highest celestial ruler with the name “Isten”, and the Hungarian runic script can be traced back to the Turkic runic script.

Today it is considered a proven fact that Hungarian ethno-genesis has many important ties, both through material and spiritual relics, to the Proto-Bulgarians of the Volga, and thus indirectly to the Hun tradition, which thrived for some time among the Bulgarians.

Following the Latin language chronicles of the Middle Ages, Gáspár Heltai published his Chronica in 1575, followed shortly thereafter by numerous other versions. One such historical song is the work entitled Az régi magyaroknak első bejövésekről (The First Conquest of the Ancient Hungarians, 1579), which tells the story of Attila and the Huns and which is attributed to a little-known author by the name of Mátyás Gosánvári. Although it represents little more than a relatively unsuccessful transcription in verse, it loyally follows the work of Heltai, except that it unambivalently identifies the “Huns” with the Hungarians. It is furthermore a good example of how in the 16th century the cult surrounding Attila was widespread.

The almanacs that were published in numerous copies a good two centuries later also recount these events from the pre-Conquest era, entitling the tale “Attila, the first prince among the Hungarians” and basing the narratives on Heltai’s work. The version that was printed in an almanac of 1796 deviates from that of Heltai, however, as it not only recounts the death of the leader on his wedding night (caused by a nose bleed), but also includes the motif of the burial in three coffins, a motif absent from the Kolozsvár edition of Heltai’s work.

His body was buried with great pomp by the Hunns. The more noble Hunns, as proof of their sorrow, cut off their hair and gashed their faces and appeared in front of the deceased body on a mound and they made a trophy from their spoils. The Hunn poets honoured the deceased King’s memory with a new song, for the aforementioned trophy the more noble Hunns made a short run, and on the very mound they organized festivities and a feast. The following night they placed the body of the deceased in three coffins that fit into one another, one made out of gold, one out of silver and one out of iron, and together with other valuable royal signs, weapons and saddlery they lowered it into the grave in secrecy; the maker of the coffin, so that no one may reveal the location of the burial, was immediately killed.

According to the author of the essay presenting the image of the Conquest as portrayed in old almanacs, the texts contained numerous compilations, and the authors of texts from the end of the 18th century adopted popular clichés “at the presentation of leaders of the conquering Hungarians or Huns. For example: Attila was in any event inclined to lechery, he had two fawning maidens, Réka and Kréka. As for how the triple coffin made it into the Heltai excerpt: from other chroniclers or possibly from (noble) oral tradition, it would be hard to discern”.

The text which appeared in the 1797 volume also summarized the consequences of Attila’s death: the conflict between his sons Csaba and Aladár is narrated concisely and intertwined with a legend that does not figure in the Heltai Chronicle either:

Attila left behind two sons, namely Csaba and Aladár. These two, unable to agree among themselves, divided the people into two groups and took arms against each other. Csaba won the battle, in which nearly 15,000 were wounded. It is noteworthy that those who were wounded selected an herb that proved to be so powerful that the above-mentioned wounded all recovered. This herb was thus named Csaba-ire and to this day is called Csaba-ire by us.

As to how this subject ended up in the almanac, again we do not know whether it was oral tradition that nurtured it or it possibly had other written antecedents, no one will ever know for sure. In any event this is possibly the first written record of this historical legend.

It is certainly true that the oral tradition and folklore pertaining to Csaba-ire (Pimpinella saxifraga) are rich and indeed can be traced to all the way back to the ethno-botanical work of István Beythe of 1583. It is therefore not surprising that even in the last few decades legend-fragments about Attila have been collected from around the country. Thus in the collection of legends published on the occasion of the commemoration of the Conquest several texts related to Attila’s burial can be found.

Attila is buried in a triple coffin. First in one made out of gold, then in one made out of silver, and finally in one made out of iron. And so that no one may know, soldiers took him out in the middle of the night to bury him, but reputedly the Tisza River was first diverted a little in order to dig the grave and the following evening they took him out to be buried. Following this, the water was allowed to return to its natural bed, but the men were all executed so that no one would be able to reveal where the grave was. So that they would not tell, all of them were executed. (This excerpt was found in Dömös, a town just to the West of the Danube River, near the city of Esztergom.)

Then they prepared for the burial. Firstly they asked the shaman how Attila should be buried? In a ray of sunlight, in a ray of moonlight, and in the dark of night.

They crafted a coffin made of pure gold, a coffin made of pure silver, and a black coffin made of iron.

First they placed him in the golden coffin, then they placed the golden coffin inside the silver coffin, then the silver coffin inside the iron coffin. Three hundred of his best warriors were selected to accompany him. The leaders determined where they would bury him. The royal seat of Attila was here somewhere in what is today Hungary, somewhere around Szentes. Following the vision of the shaman, they diverted the water of the Tisza river and buried him in the river-bed. The three hundred warriors who had to stand beside the coffin were killed with arrows by the warriors standing in a larger circle, as were their wives, so that they would serve him in the other world. (This excerpt was found in Mohács, a city in Southern Hungary near the border with Serbia.)

When Attila died they asked the shaman how they should bury their father. He said:

In a ray of sunlight, in a ray of moonlight, and in the black night. Under water, under ground and no one shall know where Attila has been placed.

And thus it was so. The golden coffin became the ray of sunlight, the silver coffin the ray of moonlight, and the iron coffin became the black night.

And he said:

Under water, under ground.

Then they went to the place where in those times the Tisza forked into two branches. They cut off one of the branches and dug the grave at the bottom of the Tisza. They placed him there. They let the water flow back, but those who had buried him did not know what awaited them, another group had been placed aside to hide, and when they returned those in the second killed them with arrows. And thus no one was ever able to discover where Attila had been buried.

I heard from my father who had heard from his. And this passes from lip to lip. (This excerpt was gathered around Ásvány, a town in Eastern Hungary.)

The Székelys lived and continue to live in the belief that Attila is buried in the Tisza in a golden coffin, a silver coffin, and a copper coffin. According to the legend the Tisza river had been diverted and his grave was dug in the river bed, some of the guards killed all those present so that they could not tell where Attila’s grave was. And then they let the river back into its channel. (This account was gathered in the village of Csíkszépviz in Transylvania, also known simply as Szépvíz or in Romanian Frumoasa.)

Recently Zoltán Magyar published fragments of a legend concerning Attila from a collection that covered a large area:

Attila, king of the Huns did not avoid this place. He conquered it, placed his residence in the middle of a fortification on a hill above the Garam river. He lived in a tent. From an old willow tree along the bank of the Garam he had a wooden bowl and a spoon made. From this wooden bowl and with this wooden spoon he ate the best of meals. But he could not rejoice for long, as death met him here. The Huns placed their great king in a triple coffin. This was gold, silver and bronze. They buried him with great festivities. A large escort took him out, going around the Southern side of the outer fortification. The dam was at the bottom part of the castle, not far from this the Garam flowed in two branches. One of these branches was dammed up and in this bed the grave was dug. The clans were standing with their leaders on hilltops nearby. The hills were separated by a meandering creek. Alongside the creek was a downward path, the servants carried Attila’s corpse on this path and placed him in a sandy, clayey grave. Then they covered it with sand and let the water, which had swollen in the other branch, flow back.

History in the time of the Hungarians. Attila, the Scourge of God. And how … how was he buried. So that was… Ilonka, you know, right? – Not me. Oh, my Lord, had you come with me… – I went with you… – In three coffins: ray of moonlight, ray of sunlight, and black night. We learned a verse about it. How did it go, that in three coffins the king listens to the song and we also learned that those who buried him did not know where he was buried, for they were killed. Was this not how history went? That they didn’t even get his sword. And that had they gotten it the Hungarians would have won, but they did not get his sword. The coffin, it had a coating of gold, silver and iron. First one was the gold, then the silver, then the iron. And then they buried him in the river. I think there were twelve who carried him, if I remember correctly, but they were killed. People did not know where he had been buried.

Attila’s coffin was buried so that it would never be found. They dug out the Tisza and hid the king there in a gold and bronze coffin, and those who took his coffin there were all shot and killed. This was the order. They were all shot so that they would not remember. And then they let the water back in, the water of the Tisza.

Then here in Hungary… the Tisza or I don’t know what they call it forks into two branches somehow. They dammed the water up and buried him there in a golden coffin, a silver coffin and iron on the outside. There were some thirty of them, the gravediggers were well looked after, once everything was done they were executed. So that they would not let out the secret. It should be searched for now and the sword taken out.

These texts, however fragmentary, indicate that the legends continue to live in the popular consciousness. According to most folklorists this motif found its way to the broader public through school textbooks. In the chapter A magyarság néprajza (The Ethnography of the Hungarian People) that addresses historical legends, the author, borrowing an idea from a writing by Ferenc Móra entitled Búcsú Attilától (Farewell to Attila), implicates Arnold Ipolyi, a bishop and prominent historian and scholar of Hungarian myths and legends, with the popularization of tales concerning the burial of the Hun leader. As the facts listed above demonstrate, this is entirely false.

In his commentaries and parallels on the burial of Attila (or the relevant parts of Jordanes’ text), Ipolyi summarized the main features of the popular beliefs of Hungarians and the neighbouring peoples. These include the slaughter of the gravediggers and the burial of their bodies together with that of the king, as well as the burial in water. These are based on old sources, however, and Ipolyi cites not a single text from his own findings, from the examples of oral tradition he himself had collected.

More interesting is the compilation made by Ilona Dobos of texts that are obviously examples of how the Attila burial motif appeared in connection with the death of Sándor Petőfi, prominent Hungarian poet and an important figure and fallen hero of the Revolution of 1848 against the Habsburg House. Thus the legends of Petőfi’s burial are legacies of the Attila cycle of legends.

Petőfi died and his wife buried him. She wanted to give him a very nice burial. She buried him under sun, under moon, under ground and under water. She placed him in a quadruple coffin. Golden coffin, silver coffin, iron coffin and wood coffin. When he was buried they let the water over him. To this day no one knows where he lies.

Burial in water also appears in the legend of Áron Gábor, another fallen hero of the 1848 Revolution:

On the battlefield there was a large river, my grandfather had told me its name, but I have forgotten, above the river was a bridge; that is where the enemy crossed, that’s where they killed Petőfi. The soldiers then buried Petőfi in the river, that’s why no one can find him anywhere.

The following legend preserves the memory of the secret burial places of the leaders, versions of which also remained as part of folk tradition:

When Petőfi was killed in the battle, the enemy’s commander in chief ordered that his body be found and that it be buried very deep. When he was buried the commander in chief said that the dirt above his grave should be levelled so that there be no trace of where he lies. They leveled the dirt and no traces remained. But even this was not enough, and the commander in chief ordered an entire company of hussars to ride on horseback for a day on the battlefield so that the dirt be trampled down the same way everywhere. The hussars trampled down the dirt. Then the commander asked: Well, which of you knows where the grave of Sándor Petőfi lies? – Two hussars said they still knew. The two hussars were immediately shot so that no one would know where Sándor Petőfi lies. That is why they cannot find the grave, no one can show where it lies. The two that still knew were ordered to be shot by the commander in chief. The rest, even if they knew, said nothing, lest they too meet their end in the same way.

Most recently it was Gyula László who analyzed the two legend types. While he regards the latter – stamping down the grave – as a folk tradition, he considers the motif of burying him in water as a literary borrowing. In folklore scholarship this view, as a consequence of the writings of Ferenc Móra, has become dominant. But the collecting done as part of field work in the past ten years proves that the notion of burial in water – in connection with Attila or other heroes – is still widespread. Some versions were formed under the influence of novelists like Jókai or Gárdonyi: this however does not disprove that, independent of this, it survived in oral tradition as well. In fact this is all the more probable, for among the Slovenians – who fall outside of the influence of Hungarian authors – the “legend of lowering Attila’s coffin into water” is also known.

It is thus apparent how easily a motif becomes part of folklore when the original hero is replaced by another figure from another era. “Analogies have a great role in historical legends”, noted Dénes Lengyel when he cited a legend concerning the burial of Sándor Petőfi from the essay by Ilona Dobos.

It is clear that the most important elements of the burial of Attila appear here as well, not just the multiple coffins, but also the burial in water, which serves to keep the location of the grave a secret.

Much later this motif appeared in connection with the grave of Prime Minister Imre Nagy, a martyr of the 1956 revolution against Soviet forces in Hungary, when his grave was trampled over by police horses in order to conceal the location. The motif is ancient, and it has ties to the great leaders of Asia (such as Genghis Khan), although the horsemen who escorted the deceased were murdered at the end of the burial. It is worth taking a moment to consider the burial customs of leaders in cultures of the so-called Far East.


In 1978 Ildikó Ecsedy was the first to summarize the details of the Eastern origin of the Attila burial-tradition found in Hungary. She also contributed with her original views to the criticism of ideas presented in the lecture given at the Myth and History conference by Gyula Kristó, according to which Hungarians did not have an ancient Hun tradition. As a sinologist she quoted the description of the burial of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang (259–210 BC), who was responsible for creating the great unified Chinese Empire; her source is a well-known work of Chinese history.

Sima Qian (145–c. 85 BC), the “father of Chinese historiography”, writes in his “world history”, entitled Records of the Grand Historian, that the legendary tyrant, the First Emperor, who feared death so much that he sent expeditions across land and water to find elixirs or herbs of immortality, began to have his grave dug on a hidden crevice of the Li Mountain (Lisan, Senshi Province) around 212 BC; after his death his chief minister Li Si proceeded according to his will. More than seven hundred thousand men dug in the mountain-side until they came upon three springs; here they poured bronze as foundation for the “coffin-castle” and they filled this with officials, valuable tableware and treasures, and servants, then they ordered craftsmen to make bows and arrows (for the warriors who had been placed there), so that anyone who approached the coffin would be met by a deadly arrow, then from “liquid silver”, that is quicksilver, they created an enormous sea from a hundred river beds, rivers (Kiang: the Yangtze; Ho: the Hoangho), watering it and flooding it; “above” (the vault) depicted the starry sky, “below” the “earth (of the empire)” and from the blubber of a magical fish they lit a sanctuary lamp inside. Finally, they killed and buried the escorts and the craftsmen, so that they would not reveal the location of the grave; and the mound, so that it would remain unrecognizable, was planted with grass and trees.

In another essay Ildikó Ecsedy argues that, given the historical connections between the ancient Chinese and the hsiung-nu, an ancient nomadic people of the Far East and according to some historians the forefathers of the Huns, it is entirely possible that knowledge of burial customs, more specifically the sacrificial “Scythian” burial custom of humans and animals, was passed on through oral tradition.

Among the parallels with cultures of the Far East, the fact that the motif of the triple coffin appears in a Mongolian folktale is at least as intriguing as its presence in written Chinese sources. In a Mongolian collection of folktales published in 1958 Lajos Bese found an interesting fragment in which two

siblings, after their brother had been killed, wrapped the body in silk and placed it “in a golden coffin. The gold coffin was placed inside a silver coffin and the silver coffin was placed inside an iron coffin”. This detail is particularly significant, for it would be rather hard to imagine that the presumably illiterate

Mongolian story-teller was familiar with medieval Latin sources. It is far more likely that he borrowed the triple coffin motif from local folklore, from living oral tradition. To put it simply, we are dealing with the incorporation into stories of a motif from the depths of mythical consciousness. This is a well-known motif, the use of which serves to indicate the high esteem and respect in which the deceased was held.

Genghis Khan died at the end of the summer of 1227, when he was about sixty years old. His corpse was brought back to Mongolia from Jinchuan, China, and as the members of the entourage bore the coffin to its final resting place they killed everyone with whom they met on the way. In addition, they also killed forty virgins and forty horses and buried them in the great khan’s grave so that he would find joy in them. The top of the grave was trampled on by several hundred horses so that it would never be found. Plano Carpini (in 1247) and Rubruk (in 1255) both offer accounts of this practice in their works concerning their travels among the Mongols.

One clearly discerns two principal mythological motifs. One is the widespread belief according to which the ruler must have enough servants in the other world, the other is the notion that the location of the grave must remain a secret, that the peace of the deceased not later be disturbed (in some cases they proved to be successful in this regard, as for instance in the case of Genghis Khan, whose grave has not been found to this day).


As is evident on the basis of historical facts and the fragments of folklore cited above, popular memory retains not only the names of historical figures (Attila, the Hun leader, in this case), but also mythical events and legendary motifs associated with them. This is not accidental, for as the comparative study of mythology suggests, it is only necessary to mention the name as a sort of condensed text (such as Adam and Eve, Jesus Christ, Attila).

In his lecture given at the conference Myth and History, Mihály Szegedy-Maszák asserted that “in the history of epic poetry verbal myth was replaced by the duality of historiography and fiction”. One might add that often historiography, far from limiting itself to the facts, constructed a world of assumptions and distortions and simultaneously tried to discredit myth. Yet myth always outlives the culture that created it, if for no other reason than because “myth is a language game that belongs to a community”, and as such it contains an incredible force, an ability to survive for centuries, even millennia. In other words myths are the long term memory of human communities. Historical consciousness functions as cultural memory, as the folklore motifs and Eastern parallels of the burial of Attila demonstrate.


1 Heinrich Schliemann, 1822–1890, was an amateur archaeologist and proponent of the idea that the works of Homer and Virgil were based on actual historical events, translator’s note

2 One of the most prominent Hungarian poets of the 19th century and himself the author of an epic trilogy about Miklós Toldi, a figure of medieval Hungarian history, translator’s note

3 The leader of the Hungarian tribes at the time of their arrival in the Carpathian Basin, translator’s note

4 The mythical eagle of the ancient Hungarians, translator’s note

5 Two prominent Hungarian novelists who wrote historical novels, among other things, translator’s note

6 A reference to the unknown author of the Gesta Hungarorum, a 12th century chronicle on Hungarian history, translator’s note

7 The term Conquest refers to the arrival of the Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin at the end of the 9th century, the date of which is often given in history books as 896, translator’s note

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