Symbols have an uncanny ability to influence ideas of nationality. Standing not as reflections of a temporary political, social or cultural situation but rather as shorthand for an always vague idea of ‘Nation’, they allow for some grip on the slippery question of what it is to come from a particular place in the world by attempting to summarise, in an inevitably simplistic manner, the country.
It is perhaps unfair to select only one of the multitude of symbols used to encapsulate something of the Hungarian nation, however according to such confines the Turul, a mythical bird prominent in the origin myth of the Magyar people, seems the best placed for examination. As legend would have it, the bird performs the role of divine messenger, perching atop the tree of life and guarding the spirits of unborn children (in the form of birds). However The Turul realises actions beyond static vigil and plays a central role in the formation of the Hungarian nation. To give the best example, on one occasion, the leader of the Hungarian tribes had a dream in which eagles attacked their horses, before being chased off by the Turul. Convinced that this meant they had to migrate, he ordered an immediate evacuation of their homeland, with the way to a land that later became Hungary shown to them by the Turul.
The permanence of this imagery is evidenced by the use of the Turul on the coat of arms of the Army, Counter Terrorism Centre and Office of National Security and the presence of around 195 Turul statues in Hungary alone. A large component of the power of this symbol lies in its historical connotations, suggesting as it does ties with Attila and the legendary Huns. To this end, the Turul is often depicted with Attila’s Sword of God and, interestingly, Attila’s crown rather than that of Hungary.
Incidentally, a brief glance at the name’s etymology produces some results showcasing the global influence on the Hungarian language. ‘Turul’ is believed to be based on a Turkic word, ‘turgul’, meaning a medium to large bird of prey.
Perhaps more obviously, flags play a significant role in the visual construction of a nationality and in this context the Hungarian effort is no exception. In many ways, symbols allow us to trace a nation’s history, as is the case here, where changing flags are revealing about not only history but also the image that those in power wished to project at a given time.
This idea is clear in the interpretation of the modern-day flag, elucidated in the 2012 constitution, which claims it represents strength, fidelity and hope. Although ostensibly empty patriotic rhetoric, this actually ties in with traditional folkloric ideas associating the colours red, white and green to these three virtues respectively. In this way then we see a link between symbolism and authority, with the state using the flag to associate themselves with the heart of Hungarian history and culture in order to project an image of legitimacy rooted in tradition.
There are alternative interpretations of course, the most popular of which holds that red represents the blood spilled for the fatherland, white the freedom of the Hungarian people and green the land of Hungary.
Flag of Hungary (1867-1918). The tricolour element was implemented after the 1848 Hungarian Revolution to reflect both the ideals of, and nurture comparisons with, the French Revolution. The royal coat of arms and however reinforces the legitimacy of a king invested with a divine right to rule, as archangels supported the coat of arms. The red and white also serve to establish a historical continuum, vital for notions of legitimacy, with the first Hungarian state.
Flag of the Hungarian Soviet Republic (1919). This too is a fine illustration of the power of vexillology. The lack of any continuum with previous designs implies a clear break with a tradition considered unfair by the flag’s creators and instead an alliance with a single cause (red is the colour of revolution) which should form the basis of the new nation’s outlook.
Flag with Kossuth coat of arms (1946-1949 and 1956-1957). Once again here we see the importance of imagery for nationhood as, by using Lajos Kossuth’s coat of arms, the state not only equates his persona with that of that state, imbuing it with an atemporal transcendence, but also casts itself as heir to, and protector of, such a legacy.
Flag with Communist Rakosi coat of arms (1949-1956). In this case the historical continuum is left in place (the tricolour design) but the Soviet emblem is placed at the forefront, as the USSR attempted to craft a multi-ethnic, multi-national empire incorporating a multitude of histories and traditions, controlled by a single power.
The flag of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. This is another example of the link between symbols and ideas of nationhood. The traditional flag remains unchanged but with the Rakosi coat of arms cut out, leaving a clear implication: the nation survives after the expulsion of the tyrant.
Coats of Arms
Coats of arms perform a similar function to flags in terms of national identity, the following is a very brief look at the evolution of the Hungarian coat of arms.
9th-10th century – A common element of the coat of arms is the double cross, thought to derive from the Byzantine Empire, again showcasing the unique multiethnic and multinational influences on Hungary.
13th century – The white stripes are the symbol of the Arpads, the dynasty of the 1st Hungarian Kings. The lions, a common symbol of nobility, are used here to symbolise bravery, valour, strength and royalty, in line with the traditional customs of heraldry.
The coat of arms used today features elements already mentioned as well as the Hungarian crown, and first came to prominence around the 15th century, being featured on coins during the reign of Vladislaus I (1440-1444) but didn’t become regular until the 17th century and the reign of Maria Theresa .