RELIGION, BELIEFS AND BURIAL RITE

Elements related to beliefs, such as the sacred animals of Germanic gods as well as floral motifs and mythical animals of Steppean nomadic origin appeared on women’s jewellery, personal articles and presumably also in the decorative motifs of now perished textiles. Women’s and children’s graves yield considerably more amulets and objects of apotropaic function than men’s. Based on the archaeological finds preserved to us it seems that beliefs, superstitions and religion played a more important role in women’s everyday lives. Christianity brought along a transformation in this respect also. Not only insignia, personal articles as well as food and beverage provisions for the afterlife did disappear from the graves of the members of Christian communities, but also elements referring to beliefs. Neither objects of earlier beliefs meant to bring good luck or fend off harm, nor symbols of the new teachings such as the cross nor relics were placed in women’s and men’s graves in the Carolingian Period.

PROTECTIVE INSECTS

Cicada brooches in the Hunnic Period

Cicada (leafhopper) shaped brooches are characteristic elements of the fashion introduced by the Huns in the western regions. Although certain forms – the slender, elongated types with pointed wings – were already present in the Carpathian Basin during the late Roman Period, they were rather common in the Hunnic Period. Cicadas not only appear in the form of brooches but also other objects, such as horse harness fittings. Among the Xiongnu in Asia, cicada shaped fittings were worn by warriors attached as insignia to their headgear. On the northern Black Sea coast and Caucasia their fashion of probably late Antique origin has spread among women during the 4th century. Moreover, Eastern peoples attributed protective, apotropaic qualities to these animals, which is the reason behind the great number of cicada brooches. In Europe they are known almost exclusively from women’s and children’s graves; they were used one by one or in pairs to secure the dress on the shoulders. The most exclusive pieces were made of fine gold or gold sheet bent over a silver/bronze core while a great number of simple, bronze pieces came to light related to common people.  

In the vicinity of Györköny a pair of splendid cicada brooches was found, made of gold sheet bent over a silver core and decorated with garnet inlays. A special feature of these jewels – besides being among the earliest find assemlages preserved in the Hungarian National Musuem – is the fact that they allow a glimpse into the cultural diversity of the first half of the 5th century. The lady was buried, according to the new fashion, in an Eastern style costume which signifyed her attachment to the Huns. However, she was laid to rest in a sarcophagus, following the tradition of the preceding Roman Period. The sarcophagus – although originally it was not made for this certain lady, only re-used – shows that the family did not abandon this deeply routed Antique tradition when arranging the burial of their deceased relative.

EAGLES, WILD BOARS AND INTERLACED DRAGONS

Germanic mythology in pictures

The colourful mythology of the Germanic peoples who established their autonomous realms – among others – in the Carpathian Basin after the collapse of the Hunnic Empire is also mirrored on their objects. The Langobards, who migrated from the lower section of the Elbe to Pannonia, maintained a quite powerful and widespread network of connections towards Western and Northern Europe. They were keeping up with Western European fashion and its transformations; related motifs appear in the decoration of their objects: fighting animals (predators – perhaps wolves, dragons, and serpents) transformed into interlaced ribbon ornament. From the knobs of the fibulae, the sacred boar of Frey, God of Light and Rain look at us watchfully. Wild boar tusks were also used to make amulets, similarly to the teeth and antler bases of deer (sacred animal of Odin, God of Wisdom and War).

Nevertheless, the European Germanic animal style does not appear in the goldsmith’s tradition of the Gepids, who established their kingdom in the eastern half of the Carpathian Basin. Animals do appear on the knobs of ornate Gepidic brooches, or the brooch or buckle itself displays animal figures, but among the geometric decorations birds of prey play a far more important role than wild boars.   

THYR, THE BRAVEST OF ALL GODS?

A human figure on a buckle from Kölked

We have already mentioned the richest 7th century female grave in the Kölked cemetery when describing the high-born lady’s traditional Germanic costume. Her belt set, unprecedented in the Carpathian Basin with its oval belt buckle and square belt mount belonging to a wide leather strap, is a proof of close connections towards the West Franks. The scene visible in a shield shaped field at the base of the buckle’s prong is quite curious: it depicts a bearded, moustached man with a dagger in each hand, fighting a snake dragon wrapped around him. Similar buckles have already been known from the territory of today’s Germany, however their decoration, including only a human head, has been for a long time considered a depiction of Christ. The Kölked buckle was the first object on which the entirety of this rarely occuring scene deriving from Germanic pagan beliefs can be observed. The image, also known from strap ends and tombstones, echoes on the large, gold disc brooch of Kölked. However, here the figures are already transformed into an interlaced ribbon ornament. We do not know with certainty, who this male figure actually is. Only a small part of Germanic mythology has been put into writing, and also that was done in a relatively late time period; therefore not all the gods and heroes are known to us. Based on the written sources which have beene preserved, perhaps the figure represents Thyr, God of Thunder and War, the bravest of all gods. Only he had the courage to put his hand into the mouth of Fenrir, the mighty wolf who wanted to devour the world, while Thyr’s fellow gods tyed the beast up and thus rendered it harmless. During the process, Thyr lost his right arm in which he wielded his sword. Symbolically, this story explains the diminishing power of the previous major deity, as in later periods – already documented by written sources – it is Odin who receives the most attention.

A HUGE AXE AGAINST EVIL SPIRITS

A young girl’s grave in Kiskőrös

As usual in the early Middle Ages, a great number of amulets and apotropaic objects come to light from Avar Period children’s graves. These are mementos of the period’s high child mortality rate, as well as of parents’ anguish. In the late Avar Period, rattles were quite popular, but rabbit bones, miniature tools, eagles’ talons and crosses also occur. As the case of a 8-10-years-old girl buried in Kiskőrös suggests, other measures could also have been taken to ward off evil spirits. This child must have been a cherished member of her family; her ornate burial costume is unmatched, and not only in the Carpathian Basin. A similar piece to her jewel collier sewn with gems could have perhaps be mentioned from the Ravenna mosaic depicting the Empress Theodora. Garnets the size of walnuts were sewn to the dress embroidered in gold thread; certainly, the garment was brought (or looted) from Byzantium by an Avar warrior. The girl’s fine gold earrings are also first quality, Antique style goldsmith’s works; gilt silver bracelets and gold rings adorned her small hands and fingers. The little girl, who died too early, was laid to rest as a princess. Along her left side an axe was placed, so huge that most probably she would have been unable to lift it while she was still alive. Tools rarely occur in Avar graves, but of course the little girl from Kiskőrös did not receive the axe because she had had used it during her lifetime. The sharp iron tool served as protection against evil forces, so that the girl’s eternal rest may be undisturbed.

CHRISTIANITY IN THE CAROLINGIAN PERIOD

Relics of Christianity from Mosaburg

Charlemagne, King of the Franks and later Emperor of the Romans (768-800-814) entitled himself the defender of Christianity; his wars for new territories were accompanied by Christianization and ecclesiastical organization. The “benign, inviting and sweet” conversion of the pagan Avar and Slavic inhabitans of Pannonia started at the turn of the 8-9th century. The missionary and ecclesiastical organizational activity spread out from Salzburg, and – according to a written source from 870 (Conversio bagoariorum et carantanorum) – during the second half of the 9th century it resulted in the construction of more than thirty churches in Lower Pannonia, in and around Mosaburg. On the Vársziget in Zalavár a group of three churches were built including a baptismal church, a private church and a pilgrimage church. St. Hadrian’s church and cloister, located in the of centre of the Vársziget, was a 50 m long three-aisle basilica with a semicircular apse and a sunken ambulatory, so-called corridor crypt. The church was rich in stonemasonry, its windows were fitted with colourful as well as silver painted glass panes. The painted fragments depict saints and/or angels, however, it is not possible to identify the figures or the scene. Also, we can not say for sure if the figures, which can be reconstructed as approximately 30 cm high, represented male or female saints. In contemporary written sources and the preserved depictions women appear far less frequently than men, however, the legends of several early Christian female virgin martyrs as well as early Medieval women saints must have been well-known in the contemporaneous early Christian world… Among the patron saints of the western Transdanubian churches the Conversio mentions two women saints. Most certainly, one of them has been the most venerated Virgin Mary, Mother of God whom the private church of the noble court-house in Mosaburg/Zalavár, built in 850, was dedicated to. We have no knowledge of, though, the location of the settlement called Spizzun, where the church of the other aforementioned women saint, St. Margaret (perhaps identical to Margaret the Virgin, also known as St. Margaret of Antioch) was to be found. Her veneration in the western part of the Carolingian Empire commenced in the 8th century where she became the patron saint of women and pregnancy. The churches and monastery at the Vársziget, the closeby court-houses suitable to accomodate high-ranking clergyman, as well as the pilgrimages established a prospering intellectual and religious life.

By the second half of the century the burial customs have transformed. In ecclesiastical centre(s) and church sites, cemeteries including several hundred or even several thousand graves were established around the church buildings. The relatives of the deceased buried here followed the Christian rites when arranging for the funeral; instead of rich grave goods, donations to the church were supposed to serve the salvation of souls. The transformation can also be observed in the cemeteries of the villages for serving people around the centre. Although there were no church buildings here, the uniform West-East orientation of the graves can still be obsereved, the deceased were buried in coffins, complete or symbolic animal burials disappeared and the custom of food and beverage provisions for the afterlife was also mostly abandoned.

No difference can be detected between men’s and women’s graves regarding faith and religious life as well as related burial customs. Neither amulets of the old pagan beliefs, nor symbols of the new religious teachings appear in their burials. Only in the cemeteries of settlements lying further out from the centres as well as in the end of the 9th century do certain crescent shaped pendants, the so-called lunulas appear: these popular female symbols could have been related to fertility and were probably worn on necklaces by their owners.

SOME ELEMENTS OF CONQUEST PERIOD BELIEF SYSTEMS

Already at first glance, two curious phenomena can be observed on the skull of a 40-50 years old woman buried in one of the Conquest Period cemeteries of Tiszaeszlár: the metal plaques placed into the eye cavities and on the mouth were well as an artificial hole on the cranium. Let’s find out what kind of tale this seemingly unusual find can tell us! 

On rare occasions, Conquest Period graves yield square silver plates – or other metal fittings, coins – which were placed on the mouth and into the eye cavities. These were sewn on the burial shroud or sheet, which, in this case, was made of leather. The face was most probably covered to protect the deceased’s soul from evil spirits inhabiting the underworld or otherwise, to safeguard the community from the harmful look or revenge of the dead. This rite can mainly be observed in men’s graves, but as this example shows, it may also occur in women’s graves.

Another interesting detail of the find is the evidence of trepanation. Trepanations could be either surgical (actual, genuine) or symbolic. In the case of surgical trepanation – clearly observable on the skull from Tiszaeszlár – an actual hole was made on the cranium. A part of the cranial bone was removed, probably with the purpose to clean a wound caused by a blow or a cut, perhaps also to decrease intercranial pressure. In order to avoid an infection, the affected area has been covered with some kind of organic material or, in case of wealthy patients, with a silver plate. Greenish discoloration on some trepanned skulls may indicate this latter version. Based on the trepanned skulls which have been preserved, it can be stated the most of the patients who have undergone this type of surgery have survived the intervention. It is an interesting fact that this recovery rate could not be matched even by that of similar medical interventions performed in the mid-20th century.

The other type of trepanation is the so-called symbolic trepanation: in this case, the round, oval or almond-shaped depressions created on the skulls did not pierce the bone, that is, the cranial cavity was not actually opened. The reason behind the creation of these symbolic ’holes’ has more likely been a ritual one instead of medical, perhaps they were related to soul dualism (a kind of spiritual belief). It is however certain, that these interventions should be clearly distinguished from surgical trepanations.

Soul dualism is one of the most intresting aspects among pagan beliefs. According to it, humans – but some animals also – possess two souls. One of these is the ‘body soul’, the other is called the ‘free soul’ or ‘wandering soul’ which, under certain circumstances (fright, dream, illness), can leave the body. It is debated if this belief has actually been present at the time of the Hungarian Conquest. Certain researchers associate – among others – the symbolic trepanation with it. According to this theory the holes which were created by removing the upper layer of the cranial bone could serve as communication channels towards the otherworld. Through the symbolic opening, a lost ’free soul’ could return to its ’original place’, that is, inside the skull.

Both men and women have worn their hair in braids, men – according to the ‘pagan style’ also shaved the top of their head bald. Women often embellished their braids with ribbons which were fitted with various ornaments. One of the most beautifully preserved braid ornaments came to light in Tiszaeszlár. The – presumably leather – ribbons, plaited into the dead lady’s braids were decorated with a row of cow head shaped mounts, beads, a disc pair carved of shell as well as a cowrie shell. To the end of each braid a hair disc was attached. The gilt silver hair discs depict a mythical animal, probably a griffin. These exceptionally beautiful accessories come to light from women’s graves, they are usually found in pairs around the shoulders or the chest.

According to an opinion, the discs decorated with animal figures, worn by high-born women, had the same function as animal bones used as amulets. These small bones and teeth, worn usually on a necklace, were most probably ascribed an apotropaic feature. Those wearing such amulets believed that the spirit and power of a certain animal would aid them during their lifetime as well as after their death.

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