If we accept that the message of a tale cannot be treated independently of the world view underlying it, we may as well specify the particular world view in which Hungarian folk tales are rooted.

We have every reason to believe that based on their motifs, Hungarian folk tales can be traced back to an ancient shamanic tradition, and also that the ancient Hungarian religion contained shamanic elements too. This latter theory was first proposed by Vilmos Diószegi who said that “Most probably a shamanic world concept had been at the core of the world view of pagan Magyars [Hungarians]”.(1) Diószegi studied the system of Hungarian popular beliefs extensively, and he found an amazingly organic system of ideas. In this system, he says, “there is not a single detail that could not be found in the shamanic beliefs of peoples related to us, and vice versa, no element is lacking from it that would be an integral feature of the shamanic religion”.(2) According to Diószegi, throughout the centuries, oral tradition and ethnic folklore preserved the following elements of this shamanic world concept: the world tree with the sun on one side and the moon on the other; the world tree with a magic bird on top; beliefs relating to the lower world (the land of snakes, frogs and lizards); the election and initiation of the táltos [the shaman] (i.e., the climbing of the sky-high tree); the instrumental role of the drum; the use of a head-dress decorated with horns; assuming the form of a fighting bull; and communicating with animal- shaped helpers. In Diószegi’s view, the belief in the duality of the soul, that there is a separation between the life-soul and the free soul, also belongs here. The former stands for life, “life-breath” itself, the latter signifies the soul temporarily leaving the body. Géza Róheim agrees with Diószegi in that he sees a connection between the motifs of our flying táltos, their battles fought in the air, their supernatural powers and wonderful birth on the one hand, and shamanic attributes on the other. It is Róheim who calls attention to the antagonism between shamans and witches, to the practice of appealing to dead spirits in shamanic healing, and to the fact that the elected one “is able to see things hidden”.(3)

Hungarian folk tales preserved the motif of a tree without a top, or the sky-high tree, from shamanic rituals dating from before the Magyar conquest, which has to be climbed in order to get something with healing or rejuvenating powers. Climbing the sky-high tree symbolises the victory of life over death. The motif of the protagonist’s being cut into pieces over and over again, as well as the motif of his death and rebirth, go back to the same period, just as the trials in folk tales. In my view, these latter gauge the ability of a person to cross boundaries. The ancient motifs of spinning castles, the milky pond, the mountain of the world (the glass mountain), the water of life and death, and uniting with the magic steed are all recurring themes in Hungarian folk tales.

I must stress that what interests us here most is not the connection itself between the tale and certain events of the historic past, but the many ways in which we can use this connection today, preserved for us in our tales. In order to do this, we have to examine and understand each pattern of connection. Let us take for example the motif of the sky-high tree. According to János Berze Nagy, archaic man and tradition “were still aware of the seven celestial layers situated on the sky-high tree, and of the fact that each layer looked different from the other and was populated by different kinds of inhabitants. […] The protagonist of the tale climbs up to the fourth layer of the world tree, and then he is taken from there by three horses to the top, representing the seventh sky. These two types of climbing also figure in the shamanic ritual of the Altaic Tartars. When in the real world the shaman steps on a particular foot hole in the birch tree, representing the world tree and which has notches in it to allow climbing, in his imagination the spirit of the sacrificial horse rises simultaneously to the celestial stratum corresponding to the particular step. Representations of the climbing onto each celestial layer are the same in both folk tales and the shamanic ritual.”(4)

How does this translate in to our lives? In one variant of the sky-high tree story the hero sets off because the king falls seriously ill. During my lectures, I often ask members of the audience what they think about the significance of the king falling ill right at the beginning of the tale. What does the king symbolise in us? With a little help, they soon come up with answers: the king stands for order, moderation, measure, power, responsibility, truth, strength and harmony in us. If the tale says the king is ill, then these qualities are somehow ill within us. Either because we lack them or because we are unable to make them work. But reparation and setting into action sometimes require superhuman efforts. In our tale, the solution lies on a tree that reaches up to the sky. One has to climb this tree branch by branch, and when doing so, one has to focus not only on the vertical direction, but on the horizontal planes as well. In order to climb a level higher, one has to scope, and become familiar with, the worlds that open up horizontally. The protagonist – just like in any other tale – has to work hard to restore the order. If we want to experience this in our own lives, we will have to find what is “ill” in us, and we will also have to see where our sky-high tree stands: in us, or outside us? And where are we exactly on this tree? At the trunk? In the middle? On the top? If I ask people present to close their eyes and find this tree in themselves, they are startled to see the tree actually becoming visible, whose visualised image provides a fairly accurate account of their mental and physical state. Some people see a tree with a dense top and a thick trunk; others find themselves on a sickly, barren tree with decaying roots. It makes a difference whether the tree appears inside or outside us, just as it is significant whether we see ourselves standing in front of it or climbing it. Are we ready and willing to start, or, if we are already on the road, to reach “the sky”? The road and the horizontal planes will no doubt put our readiness and willingness to test. And even if we manage to reach the top, the question remains whether we are able or not to descend with the medicinal apple in our hand? In other words, are we able to transform everything we gained during the journey into knowledge? This question was dealt with in connection with another tale: that of the woman who, instead of climbing the sky-high tree for knowledge, went no higher than the “lower regions” to get it. But just as she had to mount the magic griffin to ascend from there, we also have to get down from the tree somehow. One can stay neither in the sky, nor in the lower regions; our time is necessarily limited there.

I think that the most important connection between folk tales and shamanism does not lie in their similarity of structure and certain common elements, but in the evident purpose that is common in the paths of both the shaman and the tale hero. Both of them are elect and are able to enter places which are closed to others. But while the shaman keeps to himself the ritual of entering other worlds and reaching transcendence, the hero in the tale makes it available to all. Naturally, there is a link between some folk tale motifs and the shaman’s celestial journey. For instance, the hero climbing the sky-high tree has seven pairs of iron sandals and seven sets of buffalo skin dresses made for him, just like the shaman. And the shaman has to climb the shiny mountain during his journey, just as the hero of the tale has to cross over the glass mountain. Both of them have to rise up to the sun and the moon (or their mother, the symbol of female wisdom), or occasionally to the lower regions, for advice or magic gifts. One of the better-known elements of our system of táltos [shamanic] beliefs is that the táltos, when preparing for a fight, mistrusts his own power and asks his friends to help him. The hero of the tale does the same when he is unable to defeat his adversary, even after metamorphosing himself several times.

The vertical dimension – or the journey between the lower, upper and middle regions – has a very specific role in Hungarian folk tales. When a client becomes able to move on the vertical plane of the tale,it is a qualitative leap in therapy too. We can conceive of the hero’s journey through these penetrable worlds as a mythical map. In other words, we can interpret it as a set of obstacles and difficulties which await someone when he or she decides to go beyond the limits and cover the vertical dimension. The fairy tale hero is able to metamorphose himself (the shaman is capable of spiritual transformation) by trying to find and actually finding the ideal form for accomplishing an apparently impossible task. He speaks the language of the animals, he can revive the magic steed (who will save his life in return), and he remains good in all circumstances. Fairy tale heroes differ from other characters in that they pay attention to the tiniest details and are sensitive to subtler, more spiritual aspects of reality, that is, they notice things that others simply pass by. It is noteworthy that in the tale’s universe, objects that are valuable in this world are valueless; the hero is always forced to choose something that has no rational value. Ultimately, the hero is uninterested in the worldly, material level; he is attracted by the spiritual, which makes him akin to shamans.

We can see that Hungarian folk tales abound in features that are common in the shamanic tradition, but – as I already mentioned – it is not just the similarity of motifs that connects shamanism and folk tales. In my view, everything that a shaman represented and stood for lives on in fairy tale heroes. Their magical force and determination to realise their goals are a kin to those of shamans. I find Mihály Hoppál’s view interesting, who prefers the term “shamanhood” over shamanism, saying that “shamanhood is not a religion but a kind of world view, a certain approach to things, the world, the environment. It is not a practice of sacred dogmas but the practice of everyday life”.(5)

It is precisely the practice of everyday life that connects the shaman, the fairy tale hero and the fairy tale therapy client. The big question is how each of them willaddress the crucial problem they are facing, which may greatly influence the quality of their life. If any of them wants to solve it, he or she has only one option: to descend to the lower regions, or to ascend to the sky. To go down the hole of the earth, or to climb the sky-high tree. To dive into the subconscious, or to set the archaic mind into motion. And by doing so, all three of them aim to recover the happy existence of the beginnings of time, creating a life where they can happily live and die.


It would be a mistake to look for a step-by-step correspondence between different stages of the shamanic ritual and the structure of tales, although this approach is very tempting. We should instead stick to comparing characteristic features of shamanism (circumstances of birth, method of election, roles, etc.) to motifs of Hungarian folk tales. For the former, I use the monumental work of Mircea Eliade (6) and the afore- mentioned book by Vilmos Diószegi; for the latter, I draw on my own research.

According to Mircea Eliade, shamanism – which he considers to be a distinctly Siberian and Central Asian phenomenon – is at once mysticism, magic and religion. As opposed to any other religious calling, shamanic calling manifests itself in crisis, in the temporary upset of the future shaman’s emotional balance, with a single definite purpose: to radically separate the sacred from the profane.

When the shaman transcends the limits of physical laws, he sets an example of how to manifestly experience the transcending of profane human existence. He can freely travel between the three cosmic regions, the lower world, the earth and the sky, which means he can enter places where only the dead or the gods are allowed.

In the course of the preparatory period and the initiation, the shaman acquires a set of abilities that distinguish him from other members of the tribe or clan. Some of these abilities attest to his discipline, self-control and concentration: he is able to command fire and other elements, as well as his own body and his spirits. He is able to penetrate matter: he has the ability to magically fly and transform himself, and he can ascend to the sky just as he is able to descend to the lower regions. He understands the language of animals and can communicate with them in a variety of ways. He has extreme stamina and perfect flexibility, and is characterised by sharp intelligence, apparently unlimited energy and inner strength. As is evident from the above, he possesses the mystery of how to travel between different levels of being. He endures cold and can generate “spiritual heat” any time, he is able to regenerate himself after being cut into pieces, and he is able to become invisible. He has different roles, like providing magical protection, giving spiritual guidance, guiding the spirits, performing a horse sacrifice, curing the ill, and communicating with transcendence and the realm of shadows. The shaman is a great expert of the human soul: he sees the soul because he knows its form and destiny. The shaman is needed wherever the immediate destiny of the soul is at stake; wherever there is illness, death, affliction, or some kind of sacrifice.

From the point of view of our tales, another important feature is his vitality, which he is able to increase by ecstatico-magical techniques. Through ecstasy, he is able to communicate with transcendental powers, and by his magic, he can master certain things, including his own nature. To achieve an altered state of consciousness, he uses a drum. Hungarians call the shamanic drum the “shaman’s horse”. They believe that when the shaman is beating his drum, he rides to the sky on his horse; in other words, the drum in this case is a symbol of ascension. Before the shaman starts beating his drum, he wakes it up, or performs the ritual of reviving the drum. The ritual of reviving the shamanic drum is accompanied by a cultic sprinkling (with milk and water), and then the drum is heated over fire (“they feed it with hot cinders”).

A ritual element of the ceremony of shamanic initiation is the climbing of a tree. Each shaman has his own “sky-high tree”, which he will use later on to rise to the sky.

The shamanic dress also reveals cosmic symbols and metaphysical paths. The sacred dress of the shaman consists of a hat, a belt, a cloak, a breast-plate, a stick, a whip, an iron ring, a hammer, a sword, a lance, ribbons symbolising snakes, feathers, a bird dress (the last two are essential for flying to the world beyond), a bow and arrows (also symbols of magic flight), brass mirrors (to catch the shadow- souls), mountain crystals (they also bestow the ability to rise to the sky), and the drum mentioned above.

The function of female figures in fairy tales may become clearer if we consider the fact that the shaman had to get a woman from the world of spirits, a “celestial wife”, who after their meeting would impart female qualities to him, and would also function as a female protecting spirit. The hero also sets off to find a princess. In tales, the princess is a symbol of female wisdom and of the seven beauties. According to tale heroes, a woman is worth going through so many trials for only if she has the qualities of tenderness, beauty, support, creation, acceptance, recipience (the quality of being receptive), wisdom and the strength to hold together – qualities that every tale hero (not just women) is in great need of.


Do Hungarian folk tales have very special features that we would not find in other peoples’ tales? And consequently, could they be considered as direct manifestations of “the soul of the Hungarian people”? Are there specifically “homegrown” Hungarian folk tales, and if there are, what is their characteristic form and what are their specific motifs or themes? These questions have been asked by Hungarian tale specialists since the first decades of fairy tale studies. If we want to make this distinction on the basis of the world view underlying the tales, we will not succeed, because the world view that can be reconstructed from our tales resembles that of the Altaic and Ugrian peoples in many respects. Already, the notion of “the middle of the world” is such a common feature: this is where the axis connecting the navels of heaven and earth goes through, or where the world column, or world mountain supporting the skies stands; the milky pond or the water of life are also situated on its top. The world tree has three or seven superimposed layers, each one inhabited by a different being. Another set of strata can be found in the descending direction as well, also populated by mythical beings. Other elements of this world view are not specifically Hungarian either.

If we approach the question from the perspective of belief systems, it is still hopeless to try to separate elements of European belief systems according to national characteristics. Conceptions of death, the world beyond or a multi- layered world have been common to all of Europe (and the world), and being aware of the malefic and healing practices of supernatural beings is not a uniquely Hungarian feature either.

However, if we study their mode of expression and style, we can find some differences between folk tales of European peoples. For instance, by comparing Nordic folk tales with southern ones, the Hungarian Soma Braun found in 1923 that their style was strikingly different. The mode of expression of Nordic people was much more disconnected, with a lot of breaks and omissions in the plot, with stories lacking colourful images and descriptions. Southern people in contrast “paint a background to products of their exuberant imagination with vivid colours. Their style is leisurely and lengthy and their ideas lack all measure and limit”. In his view, Hungarian folk tales are devoid of features found in Indian tales as well as of the special characteristics of Nordic folk tales. “Not that this creative imagination would be of lesser dimensions or that its ability to measure the cosmic universe, or the whole of nature would be smaller. The themes of animistic nature, magic humans and animals can be found in our tales just as much as in those of other peoples. The miraculous aspect is just as important in our tales too. What sets them apart, however, is their quasi-paradoxical feature which we may call the logic of imagination. The sober-minded Hungarian people follow logic even in their imaginations, where miracles go on parade. But they never completely spurn the ground of reality; reason always plays a part, no matter how small, in their inventiveness. […] The heroes and heroines of the stories move according to the laws of reason, they think judiciously and progress towards their goals consistently. And when they return from the world of miracles, from their adventures into the world of reality, they do it without any excitement or agitation, having the same intellectual responsibility with which they started out. The Hungarian tale is a very peculiar product of the simultaneous functioning of fantasy and reason. It does not seek measure in imagination; indeed, it effuses it lavishly, but relates reasonable actions in the atmosphere of miracles” [italics added].(7) I thought it important to emphasise these words because this feature of Hungarian folk tales possesses a certain organising power which I see at work in the therapy day by day. In my view, Hungarian folk tales are special not because of some characteristic motifs, but because of the spiritual praxis conveyed in them more than in folk tales of any other nation. I personally think that Hungarian folk tales help a lot in harmonising the function of the left and right cerebral hemispheres. And they are able to do so because neither the apparently fantastic or miraculous elements, nor the realistic motifs take dominance in these stories. Heroes are always able to use “miracles” to their benefit, they think they are normal, and they integrate them into their lives and strategies of solving problems. In the meantime, they are aware of rational explanations and use them too, although they are never completely satisfied with them. On the one hand, the harmonious combination of miraculous and rational elements makes it possible for the listener of the tale to achieve the desired equilibrium within him- or herself. On the other hand – and this is a characteristic feature of Hungarian folk tales – the language of the tale has an inner code system which connects its listeners to the completeness of life. Because according to Hungarian folk tales, everything around us has a soul, be it a stone, a tree, a blade of grass, a flower, a river, a human, an animal or a supernatural being. This means that if a person is looking for points of connection,he or she can find them wherever the soul is present. The tales teach us techniques of connecting and provide a pattern for entering into dialogue with life. This dialogue can take place in many ways, and although everything has to be addressed in its own language, there is at least one common ground between addressees and addressers. This common ground is the soul. Hungarian folk tales strive to connect their listeners to the completeness of life, to a functioning and cognisable cosmic law. This is very important, because in my view, Hungarian folk tales provide the “positive codes” – as opposed to the “negative codes” described by Hungarian psychiatrist Balázs Kézdi – in our culture which are able to turn those in a critical situation over to the side of life.Accordingtohis research, the extremely high number of suicides in Hungary is perpetuated by a vicious circle: culture itself transmits suicide as a solution technique through the Hungarian language from one generation to another. Thus there is a demonstrable correlation between the Hungarian language and culture on the one hand, and the phenomenon of suicide on the other.(8) Based on my own experience as a tale therapist, I think that Hungarian folk tales are suitable as regards both their content and their grammar, to overwrite these “negative codes” and transmit another model instead. It is because in Hungarian folk tales, the emphasis is on the power of acting and on magical acts, with a strong imperative aspect. Hungarian folk tales are unaware of outside redemption. They know one way only: that of individual salvation.

Translation by Orsolya Németh

(Translation of a chapter from Meseterápia (Fairy Tale Therapy), Magvető. Budapest, 2012.)

1   Diószegi, Vilmos: A pogány magyarok hitvilága [The belief system of pagan Hungarians]. 1987, p. 8.

2   Ibid., p. 135.

3   Róheim, Géza: Magyar néphit és népszokások [Hungarian popular beliefs and folk tradition]. 1990,

pp. 21–22.

4   Berze Nagy, János: Égig érő fa [The sky-high tree]. 1958, p. 191.

5   “A magyar sámánizmus és a honfoglalók hitvilága” [Hungarian shamanism and the belief system

of the conquering Magyars]. In: Éva, Pócs – Vilmos, Voigt (eds.): Ősök, táltosok, szentek [Ancestors, táltos, saints]. 1996, p. 67.

6   Mircea Eliade: Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton University Press, 2004.

7   Braun, Soma: A népmese [The folk tale]. 1923, p. 177.

8   Kézdi, Balázs: A negatív kód. Kultúra és öngyilkosság [The negative code. Culture and suicide]. 1994, and B. Erdős, Márta: A nyelvben élő kapcsolat [The linguistic connection]. 2006.

Most recent

Newsletter signup

Like it ? Share it !

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pocket
Share on email