queen maria theresa

The Holy Right Hand of St. Stephen, King of Hungary

The Holy Right Hand is housed in the St. Stephen Basilica in Budapest and once a year, on August 20, it is carried in the Holy Right Hand ( Szent Jobb) procession.

The Basilica’s website tells a straightforward story that accepts without qualification that the mummified right hand once belonged to King Stephen, the first Hungarian king (1000-1038).

Here is their story in a nutshell. Stephen was buried in Székesfehérvár on August 15, 1038, in a sarcophagus that is  more or less intact although empty. The body was later reburied in the lower underground catacomb out of fear of possible disturbances of the grave. It was at that time that the hand was removed from the rest of the body because of its alleged miraculous properties. It was taken to the treasury of the basilica from where the man who was in charge of guarding the treasury stole it and hid it on his estate in the County of Bihar/Bihor, today Romania.

St stpehen's sarcophagus

During the reign of King László I the Right Hand was discovered, but the king forgave the thief and in fact erected a monastery on the spot. The village today is called Szentjobb/Siniob. It was here that pilgrims came to pray in front of the king’s Right Hand, which was allegedly capable of performing miracles.

It was only in the fifteenth century that the Right Hand was moved  from Szentjobb/Siniob back to Székesfehérvár. During the Turkish occupation, however, around 1590, it ended up in Ragusa (Dubrovnik) and was held by Dominican friars. The official church story doesn’t divulge any details of its mysterious reappearance in Ragusa. As for the rest of the Hand’s history, I outlined it yesterday–that is, the purchase of the Right Hand by Queen Maria Theresa and her gift of it to her Hungarian subjects.

Today I would like tell the story that the Catholic Church ignored.

There are two chronicles that mention the burial and subsequent reburial of the body. Both report that the Right Hand was removed to the County of Bihor where it was found by King László on May 30, 1084. According to the chronicler Hartvik, bishop of Győr (1116), at that time the Hand had St. Stephen’s ring on it which definitely identified it as belonging to the saintly king.  The alleged Right Hand today has no ring on it or any sign that there ever was a ring it that was later removed.

szent jobbThere is another problem. All contemporary pictures show Stephen buried lying on his back, his hands alongside his body with open fists. Today’s Right Hand, as you can see on the picture, is tight-fisted. But that is not all. The official coat-of-arms of the town of Szentjobb/Siniob shows not just the hand but the whole arm bent at the elbow. Since the town came into being as a result of the presence of the Holy Right Hand, one must assume that the coat-of-arms is an accurate depiction of the actual state of the relic at the time.

And with that missing arm we come to Stephen’s body parts wandering around in central Europe and the Balkans. It is assumed that the upper arm was removed in 1370 when Louis the Great (Nagy Lajos) also became the King of Poland. It was customary to send important relics as symbols of steadfast friendship and devotion to men, country, or cause. The Franciscans of the city of Lviv (Lvov, Lemberg) hold that at one time they were the ones who were entrusted with guarding the holy relic of St. Stephen’s upper arm for which King Jan Kazimierz II ordered a jeweled case.

The lower arm was sent by King Sigismund (Zsigmond)  to Albert V at the time of his daughter’s marriage to the Prince (1411), sealing a personal union between Hungary and the Holy Roman Empire. For a while it was held in the St. Stephen Basilica in Vienna, named after St. Stephen the Martyr, and later was moved to the Schatzkammer of the Hofburg. But there is a bit of a problem with this lower arm. When the bone was sent to Hungary for the millennial celebrations in 2000 and was put on display, it was discovered that it is not part of an arm. Rather, it is the fibula of a right leg.

In addition, there are several small pieces of Stephen’s skull cap (calvarium) that are held in various places, including Székesfehérvár. No one has ever tried to find out whether these pieces of Stephen’s skeleton belong to the same man or not. Since the 1950s the Right Hand was examined three times but not scientifically. The first time the Right Hand seemed to have developed mildew which needed to be removed. The physician who attended to it added some conserving material to the rest of the hand and that was all.  In 1988 another physician examined it, but the only thing he came up with was that there was no sign of metal ever touching the hand because otherwise there should have been some observable discoloration. He also noticed that it was a relatively small hand. The third time it was Miklós Réthelyi, professor of anatomy and later minister in the second Orbán government, who took a look at it, but he came up with nothing new. A DNA examination would only make sense if we could find a descendant of Stephen, but even if that were possible I doubt that either the Hungarian Catholic Church or the current Hungarian government would be too keen on such a scientific investigation.

As for the  multiplication of St. Stephen relics. As late as 2004, a piece of Stephen’s upper arm that ended up in Poland was given by Franciszek Cardinal Macharski, Archbishop of Cracow, to the Hungarian chapel of the Divine Mercy Sanctuary in Cracow. In 2009 Balázs Bábel, Archbishop of Kalocsa, gave a golden reliquary to Robert Bezák, Archbishop of Nagyszombat/Trnava, in which there is a very small bone of the Right Hand.  In the same year a small piece of St. Stephen’s skull was sent to a church in the Subcarpathian part of Ukraine.  In 2006, Cardinal Péter Erdő, the head of the Hungarian Catholic Church, gave a piece from St. Stephen’s rib to Alojz Tkáč.

What can we say state with certainty about the Holy Right Hand? “It is sure that it is the hand of a man,” to quote the title of a piece in 444.hu.

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In this summary I relied on Piroska Rácz’s article in Rubicon (2013/6) in addition to “The history of the Holy Right Hand” on the website of the St. Stephen Basilica in Budapest and on “Szent Jobb” in the Hungarian version of wikipedia.

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Two Hungarian national holidays: August 20 and March 15

On the eve of one of Hungary’s three national holidays it is perhaps appropriate to say a few words about the history of August 20, the “name day” of Steven (István).

Name days evolved from the Catholic custom of devoting one day of the year to a particular saint. Saints are ranked. Some deserve special days that are observed everywhere while others must be satisfied with local fame. For a while St. Stephen’s day made the short list after Pope Innocent XI in 1686 elevated it to universal status. It seems that August 20 was already occupied because, according to the liturgical calendar, St. Stephen’s day was to be celebrated on August 16. But then came Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) who thought that there were far too many saints’ days, whereupon Hungary’s St. Stephen was relegated to the list of saints celebrated only by the Hungarian Catholic Church. Besides Stephen only three saints–Stephen’s son Imre (d. 1031), King László (1046-1085), and Margaret (1242-1270) of Margaret Island fame (where in fact she died)–get special notice from the Hungarian Catholic Church. All the rest of the “Hungarian saints and blessed ones” must share one day, November 13.

It was at the time of Queen Maria Theresa (1717-1780) that the veneration of St. Stephen was revived. Maria Theresa was grateful to the members of the Hungarian Diet who didn’t object to her accession to the throne. She showed her gratitude in many ways. For instance, she was the one who managed to secure a mummified right hand from Ragusa (today Dubrovnik) which allegedly belonged to the saintly king. The Holy Right Hand was brought to Buda in 1771, and from that time forward it was the highlight of the religious procession held first in Buda and later in Pest on every August 20th. At least until 1947.

The Holy Right Procession, August 20, 2012 MTI / Photo Zsolt Szigetváry

The Holy Right Hand Procession, August 20, 2012
MTI / Photo Zsolt Szigetváry

During the period between 1945 and 1990 two new holidays were added to the old ones of March 15 and August 20: April 4, the day when allegedly the last Hungarian village was liberated by the Soviet troops (the date turned out to be incorrect), and November 7, the anniversary of the Great October Revolution. March 15, celebrating the Hungarian revolution of 1848, was relegated to a school holiday while August 20th became Constitution Day because it was on August 20, 1949 that the Stalinist constitution was promulgated.

Clearly something had to be done about the Hungarian holidays after the change of regime in 1989-1990. There was no question that November 7th and April 4th had to go. There was also no question that March 15th’s former importance must be restored. Moreover, August 20th could not remain as either Constitution Day or, as it was sometimes called, the day of the new bread. Adding October 23 to March 15th and August 20th was also a given. The only debate centered around which of the three should be primus inter pares.

SZDSZ, Fidesz, and MSZP opted for March 15th, arguing first that it was a secular holiday, not one with religious overtones, and second that 1848 signified the turning point when Hungary left feudalism behind and embarked on the road to a  modern form of parliamentary democracy.  There was a practical argument as well. On the chief national holiday embassies usually hold a reception where members of the government of the host country and representatives of other embassies are invited. August is not exactly the best time to hold such a reception. But the right-of-center government parties that were in the majority won and August 20 became “the” national holiday. Similar arguments developed around the question of the Hungarian coat-of-arms and again the conservative right voted for the crown as opposed to the coat-of-arms used after the dethronement of the Habsburgs in 1849.

The history of March 15 says a lot about Hungary’s history. In the wake of the 1848-49 revolution and war of independence the celebration of March 15 was outright forbidden. After the Compromise of 1867 Emperor-King Franz Joseph understandably wasn’t too happy about this reminder of the very difficult years of the empire. However, as long as celebrations were not too obvious they were tolerated. All was well until 1898 when Ferenc Kossuth, son of Lajos, who was invited to head the Party of Independence, suggested that March 15th should be an official national holiday. Such a move was too much for Franz Joseph as well as for the Hungarian government. A compromise was worked out. The national holiday, it was decided, would be on April 11, the day King Ferdinand V signed the so-called April Laws that transformed Hungary from a feudal state to parliamentary democracy. What followed was typically Hungarian. The Liberal Party celebrated on April 11 and the Party of Independence on March 15. Not much has changed in Hungary, it seems, in more than one hundred years.

The politicians of the Horthy period had an ambivalent attitude toward anything to do with revolutions and March 15th became an official holiday only in 1927. After all, they defined themselves as counter-revolutionaries, so it often happened that the official speeches were not so much about March 15 or even about April 11 as about the thirteen executed generals and about Világos (Arad County, Romania) where the Hungarians surrendered to the Russian General F. V. Ridiger on August 13, 1849. The official programs were held in those days on Szabadság tér amid irredentist statues reminding everybody of the lost territories. Later, as war was approaching, they moved the event to Heroes’ Square where again instead of celebrating parliamentary democracy the event focused on war efforts and regaining lost territories.

Immediately after the war the Hungarian Communist Party was super nationalistic and the 100th anniversary of the revolution was celebrated with great pomp and circumstance. By 1951, however, March 15 was demoted to be a non-holiday or at least an ordinary working day. It is hard to figure what motivated the Rákosi regime to abandon their tender feelings for 1848. Perhaps there were just too many holidays around March and April, including Mátyás Rákosi’s birthday. Or perhaps, as was the case later in the Kádár regime, they were afraid of the message of 1848: freedom, parliamentary democracy, independence.

This situation became even worse after 1956. Usually only a few hundred people dared to gather in front of the National Museum or at the statue of Sándor Petőfi. However, by 1969 János Kádár felt secure enough to organize a bigger celebration, but it wasn’t really about March 15 and what it meant.  Instead, the regime created a new holiday called Forradalmi Ifjúsági Napok (Days of the Revolutionary Youth). The Kommunista Ifjúsági Szövetség (KISZ) celebrated March 15, March 21 (the day of the Proclamation of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919), and April 4 (the Day of Liberation) in one neat package.

It happened first in 1973 that the police used nightsticks to disperse the young people who gathered to celebrate March 15. From there on such incidents occurred practically every year. The last police attack on the celebrants took place in 1988 in spite of the fact that the Politburo of MSZMP four months earlier, on December 15, had declared March 15 to be a full-fledged national holiday again.

Surely, the socialist regime feared March 15th much more than August 20th.  Yet today’s Hungarian right, which claims to be fiercely anti-communist, prefers the heritage of August 20th which has very little to do with the concerns of today: democracy, freedom, human rights, equality, freedom of the press, freedom of expression. Should we wonder why?

Official prizes for far-right neo-Nazis and members of the lunatic fringe in Hungary

I have been complaining for some time about the state’s meddling in artistic and intellectual life by awarding hundreds of decorations and prizes to “worthy” individuals. This practice began some time in the nineteenth century, albeit on a very limited basis. There was the Order of St. Stephen, established by Queen Maria Theresa, which ceased to exist after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. In 1930 Regent Miklós Horthy established the so-called Corvin Chain. From the list of recipients it is clear that ideological commitment was an important consideration in the selection process. Viktor Orbán already during his first stint in office worked to revive the spirit of the Horthy era and reinstated the Corvin Chain. After the lost elections, the socialist-liberal government scrapped it. I wrote about these old and new decorations in November 2011.

In any case, if it depended on me there would be no state prizes given out to writers, scientists, actors, and artists because it is becoming evident that these twice-a-year (March 15 and August 20) awards are for the most part payback for services rendered to the party and government. This is bad enough, but what happened this year is beyond the pale. The Orbán government, in addition to rewarding its political favorites, decided to decorate far-right extremists and charlatans.

Viva stupidityBelonging to the extremist category is Ferenc Szaniszló, a reporter for Echo TV, whose program Világ-Panoráma was considered unacceptable even by the Media Council; the station was fined for broadcasting Szaniszló’s antisemitic racism. And now he has received the highest honor a reporter or journalist can get, the Táncsics Prize.

I watched a few of his programs and came to the conclusion that he is not only a political extremist, he most likely doesn’t have all his marbles. Because what can one conclude when Szaniszló stands in front of the camera saying that there was a Bulgarian fortune-teller whose prophecies have come true 80% of the time and who has foretold that in 2015 aliens will arrive from outer space who will seek out the Hungarians because they are the only ones who can solve the problem of communication between themselves and earthlings. The reason: Hungarian is an “ancient Ur-language.”

During the same tirade he goes on and on about the terrible liberals (he calls them “liberos” and the liberos are the Jews)  who wanted to destroy the country by insisting on a professional army whose members are mercenaries of globalization. Hungarian soldiers are sent far away from Hungary instead of being kept at home where they could fight “terrorism.” Here the word “terrorism” is a euphemism for “Gypsy crime.” So, Szaniszló, the democrat, would use the Hungarian army against the country’s citizens. Behind all this terrorism are the Jews who defend the Roma in order to destroy the Hungarians. In any case, the country is divided into three distinct groups: the Hungarians, the Gypsies, and the Jews.

Elsewhere Szaniszló talks about the garbage (szemét in Hungarian) that covers the entire country and plays fast and loose with the similarity in pronunciation between “szemét” and “szemita.” He is “anti-szemét” because it is the desire of these “szemetek” that everything should be theirs. But “we will clear them out of the country.”

It would take pages and pages to list all the nonsense this man can come up with. So, here is a video that will give those who speak Hungarian a glimpse into Szaniszló’s world.

Several earlier recipients of the Táncsics Prize renounced it in protest. Among them, Péter Németh (Népszava), György Bolgár (Klubrádió, ATV), Katalin Rangos (Klubrádió), Mátyás Vince, György Nej, Zoltán Horváth, to mention only a few.

But Szaniszló is not the only one whose contribution to Hungarian culture is questionable. Another awardee is Kornél Bakay, who claims to be an archaeologist. It is true that he was a student of Gyula László, a researcher into the early history of Hungarians, but eventually Bakay ended up in a far-right non-accredited “university” in Miskolc. According to him, runic writing is a variation of Sumerian; the Hungarians are the direct descendants of the Scythians and the Huns. He claims, very much like the “scientists” in Hitler’s Germany, that Jesus was not a Jew but a Parthian prince and that Jews in general were slave traders. He denies the very existence of ancient Israel. He even “proved” that the loss of Hungary to the Turks in Mohács (1526) was the work of Jews. Bakay’s knowledge of Hungarian history is so poor that even his facts are wrong. He goes so far as to suggest that ancient Greek culture is somehow connected to the Hungarians. In 2003 he organized an exhibition: “Soldiers of Horthy and Arrow Cross Men of Szálasi” that eventually was closed due to its obvious adulation of the Hungarian far right in the 1930s.

Varga Tibor, dr. szekelymagyar.huport.hu

The founder of the Szentkorona Szabadegyetem,  Tibor Varga, a legal historian / szekelymagyar.huport.hu

Another strange choice is Ajándok Eöry.  Apparently “Ajándok”  is an old Hungarian name that means “Gift of God,” the male form of Ajándék. It is a very rare name, and I have the suspicion that Eöry didn’t come into the world with it. If you want to be amused, you can listen to his lecture on YouTube about the fanciful theory that the Chinese learned acupuncture from the Hungarians. Proof? There is a slang expression in Hungarian “ennek lőttek,” meaning “that’s finished,” but its  literal  translation is “it was shot at.” Why? Because ancient Hungarians shot arrows into the dead lying in their graves in order to get “the evil spirit” out of them!

The lecture was delivered at the Szentkorona Szabadegyetem (Free University of the Holy Crown) whose founder is Tibor Varga, who calls himself a legal historian. It is worth taking a look at the website of Szentkorona országa (Country of the Holy Crown). According to the website, Hungary was at one time a country in the middle of which God lived!! All of the lectures that are listed are “way out,” and the speakers for the most part are charlatans who belong to the lunatic fringe. Even the qualifications of better ones, like László Bárdi of the University of Pécs, are questionable. He became a Chinese expert and began publishing on Chinese-Hungarian cultural relations via the Huns only in the 1990s. Prior to that he was a high school teacher and eventually a supervisor of teachers.

The guitar player János Petrás of Karpatia, a true neo-Nazi band, also received a decoration. Karpatia composed the official anthem of the Hungarian Guard.

What does Zoltán Balog, the minister who handed out these decorations and prizes, have to say to all this? He claims that he got the list from different committees and assumed that everything was all right. He didn’t check on any of the recipients’ credentials. He contends that he had never heard of Ferenc Szaniszló. Hard to believe. Instead, one must look upon this list of recipients as a gesture from the Orbán government toward Jobbik and the extreme right.