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Interestings History The Origins of the Magyars

The Origins of the Magyars

Much has been written pro and contra about the Magyars, their racial and geographic origin, language, etc. – some  believable, some less so. However, one thing is certain: whenever and wherever they happened to roam the Asian steppes, they must have formed part of the Scythian, Parthian, Hun, Sabir, and Avar empires, Finno-Ugric theories notwithstanding.

The nation we now call Magyar, is a conglomerate of seven different tribes, which needed a “Blood Covenant” (Vérszerződés) to unite them into a single tribal federation – which took place in Etelköz, in today’s Moldavia, sometime in the 9th c. AD. The leading tribe was the Megyer, which supposedly gave the newly forged federation its name, as was the custom among the Asian peoples. However, there is some doubt about that too. We know the name of the tribes (Nyék, Megyer, Kürt-Gyarmat, Tarján, Jenő, Kér, Keszi) and that of their leaders (Árpád [Álmos], Előd, Ond, Kont, Tas, Huba, Töhötöm). Where the different tribes originated from or what language(s) they spoke, we don’t know for certain, we can only offer an educated guess.

The Finno-Ugric “Obi-Ugor” Origin versus a Trans-Caucasian Origin  – The Finno-Ugric “Obi-Ugor” origin theory, established in the mid-19th century, is based solely on linguistic considerations, disregarding all others, i.e. archaeology, folk traditions and legends, music, burial customs, racial origin, etc. To base racial or national origins solely on language is dangerous, because large groups of people can change language due to foreign occupation – e.g., in Mexico, Central and South America, Africa, etc.; or, conversely, an occupying minority can adopt the language of the conquered majority – as it happened in the case of the Bulgarians, who switched from their original Turkic language to that of the native Slav population.

Then there is the problem of proof: how can the proto-languages of the Magyars, Finns, Estonians, Lapps, Voguls (a.k.a. Mansi), Ostiaks (a.k.a. Hanti), and diverse smaller tribes of the Upper Volga region (reaching back 8000 [eight-thousand!] years, according to Finno-Ugric theory) be compared, when the earliest extant, so-called Finno-Ugric texts: the Hungarian “Funeral Oration and Prayer” (Halotti beszéd és könyörgés, ca.1192-1195) and the “Ancient Hungarian Lament of the Virgin Mary” (Ómagyar Mária siralom, c. 1270) are barely 800 years old? The earliest extant Finnish text dates from the late 16th century AD. Other Finno-Ugric texts date from even later – if there are any at all.

In all probability, some time in the distant past these small, northern nomadic tribes came under the rule of a group of people – probably the Scythians, as suggested by the Scythian ice graves recently excavated in Siberia – who may have spoken a proto-Hungarian language. Interestingly, whichever territory or peoples the Scythians (Skuthia [Σkuθία] in Greek) and the Huns occupied, there are vestiges of Hungarian words and geographic names. For instance, between the Black and Caspian Seas one can find the following settlement names: Arpa, Bajan, Bako, Balasha, Balta, Barda, Bogos, Desh-Magar, Emleki, Garash, Hit, Jarash-Mardj, Kaba, Kishjaki, Kosha, Lek, Maku (Makó), Oltu River (In Anonymus: Oltu = Olt), Poti (in Anonymus: Potu = Pata) Sardob, Sava, Sirak, Ur. In parts of India that came under Scythian (Saka, or Indo-Scythian), and later White-Hun (Hephthalite) rule, there are geographic names, such as Kativar, Tista River, and the most well known, the State of Bihar. In Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province there is Hab River and a town named Bela. There are grammatical as well as lexical similarities between the Hungarian and the Urdu-Hindustani language, such as: dzseb=zseb; rakhná=rakni; intézán=intézni; thál=tál; halk=halk: ghát=gát, etc. (see Baktay: India). One must also keep in mind that these huge empires stretching from China in the east, to Mesopotamia in the south, and all the way to Western Europe, must have had a lingua franca with which to administer this vast territory. This lingua franca could have been a proto-Hungarian language, or a variant thereof.

The Sumerian Connection – This is the most contentious issue between the pro-Finno-Ugric and pro-Sumerian camps. The Sumerians appeared in Mesopotamia around 4500 BC. Based on archaeological evidence – pottery, burial customs, etc. – it has been suggested that they migrated southward from the northern regions of the so-called Fertile Crescent, a quarter-moon shaped area that originally stretched from the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, through Syria and southern Anatolia to present-day Iran. With the advent of the Sumerians it extended to the Persian Gulf, encompassing Mesopotamia, i.e. modern Iraq. The Sumerian empire lasted, with some interruptions, until 1500 BC; however, Sumerian remained in use in the region as a classical language until ca. 550 BC. Their cultural and linguistic influence radiated as far west as the Carpathian Basin, as evidenced by the clay tablets with pictograms, similar to that of the early Sumerian pictographic texts. These were excavated in Transylvania (Erdély) in 1875, by Zsófia Torma (1832-1899) at Tordos (Vinça-Tordos Culture, ca. 4500 BC) in Transylvania, who unearthed a cache of objects inscribed with previously unknown symbols. The importance of these findings lies in the fact that the oldest of them is dated around 4000 B.C., ca. a thousand years earlier than the proto-Sumerian pictographic script from Uruk (in modern Iraq), which is usually considered to be the oldest known writing. A more recent finding was in 1961, in Transylvania (now Romania) at Tatárlaka (Transylvanian Tartaria Tablets, dating to ca. 4,300 BC) where, in all probability, the proto-Sumerians established gold mining colonies (see Götz). They also excavated the clay model of a Sumerian-type four-wheeled cart in the Danube at Budakalász (Western Hungary), dating to ca. 3300 B.C. It proves that in the ancient past the Carpathian Basin was an important station in the diffusion of the Mesopotamian culture in Europe, among them the four-wheeled cart (the wheel was invented by the Sumerians). The Sumerians penetrated as far north as the Urals, as evidenced by a Sumerian sailboat excavated there in the early 1960s.

The Sumerian language and culture ruled Asia Minor for nearly 2000 years and influenced other languages and cultures far and wide, especially after the Semitic Akkadian takeover of the Sumerian City States, when the native population fled in all directions in large numbers. It’s conceivable that they settled among the ancestors of the proto-Hungarians and other so-called Finno-Ugric (Ural Altaic) peoples, from the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea regions all the way to the Urals. Their language was neither Semitic nor Arian (i.e. Indo-European), but agglutinative, as are the Finno-Ugric (Ural Altaic) languages. We know that the Scythians, the Parthians, the Huns, the Sabirs and the Avars also occupied approximately the same territory, so they must have come in contact with the descendants of the displaced Sumerians. Another group who must have received a good dose of Sumerian culture and language were the proto-Turkic tribes. The Hungarian and Turkic languages show the highest number of grammatical similarity with the Sumerian (see Gosztonyi). Professor Samuel Noah Kramer (1897-1990) of the University of Pennsylvania, the greatest authority on the Sumerian language, had this to say:
“Sumerian is an agglutinative tongue, not an inflected one like Indo-European or Semitic. Its roots, by and large, are invariable. Its basic grammatical unit is the word complex rather than the individual word. Its grammatical particles tend to retain their independent structure rather than become inextricably attached to the word roots. In structure, therefore, Sumerian resembles no little such agglutinative languages as Turkish, Hungarian, and some of the Caucasian languages. […]”
“The vowels were not sharply articulated and were frequently modified in accordance with a law of vowel harmony. […]”
“Sumerian roots are monosyllabic in large part, although there are a considerable number of polysyllabic words. Reduplication of roots is used to indicate plurality of objects [e.g..Hungarian sok-sok, fő-fő, túlon-túl, ici-pici]. The substantives have no grammatical gender. Instead, they are divided into two categories, animate and inanimate. Animals belong to the inanimate category, grammatically speaking. […]”
“The substantive complex may consist of a noun alone, or of a noun and its modifiers, such as adjectives, genitives, and possessive pronouns. The relationship particles always come at the end of the entire substantive complex and are therefore known as postpositions.”
“In addition to the main Sumerian dialect, which was probably known as Emegir, “the princely tongue,” there were several others, which were less important. One of these, the Emesal, was used primarily in speeches made by female deities, women, or eunuchs.” [There is the Hungarian female given name, Emese.  Also, in Hungarian, the female pig  - sow - was sometimes called “emse disznó”.]
The Sumerian-Hungarian linguistic connection did not originate with Hungarian linguists, but rather with foreign experts, such as the German-born Frenchman Jules Oppert (1825-1905); the English Orientalist Archibald H. Sayce (1846-1933); French archaeologist and Assyriologist François Lenormant (1837-1883); and French linguist Eduard Sayous (1812-1898), among others.

The Name “Magyar” – According to tradition, the leading Megyer tribe gave the name to the newly forged nation, as was the custom among the Asian tribes. However, there are some dissenting voices.
The name “Magyar” – or more precisely, numerous variations of it – have been cropping up in Babylonian, Egyptian, Assyrian, Chaldian-Hurri, Persian, Greek, Armenian, Roman, Byzantine and Arab sources from the 17th century BC to the 10th century AD. They all mention a people in the Trans-Caucasian region whose name starts with “M” followed by a strange-sounding consonant in the middle that cannot be reproduced within the phonetic structure of their language. They attempted to reproduce this mysterious consonant (“gy”) with “d”, “dz”, “tz”, “ts”, “s”, “z”, “dzs”, “gh” and “x”. Consequently they spelled the name in various forms: mada, madirra, mazar, mezori, madzar, madjyr, matcher, magog, magior, maghiar, mogher, mahar, madar, maxer and madzsar. (It is interesting to note that with two exceptions, none of these names contain the vowel “e”, as in “Megyer”.)

In geographic names it appears as: Maxer river in the South-Caspian region; Mazara settlement at the source of the Tiger and Euphrates rivers; the one-time town Madzsar by the Kuma river between the Black and Caspian Seas, the ruins of which were still visible in the 18th century (see Tardy); and there is the town Mazar-i-Sharif in present-day Afghanistan. (The Afghans claim they are descendants of the Scythians.)
It has been suggested that some of the tribes could have been Sabirs, who used to occupy present day Daghastan and were displaced by the Avars. Byzantine Emperor Constantinos Porphyrogenetos (Constantine VII, 908-959) writes in his Administrando imperio that he was told by a Hungarian delegation visiting his court in the 10th century that the Hungarians used to be called “sabartoi asphaloi”, i.e. “strong (?) Sabirs”, and still regularly send delegations to those who stayed behind in the Caucasus region near Persia. (There is still no consensus on the precise meaning of the Byzantine-Greek word “asphaloi”.)
The majority of the other tribes were by all accounts Onogurs (Ugors), remnants of the state of Onogoria between the Black and Caspian Seas that was devastated in 680 AD, probably by the Avars. Some of these Onogurs migrated north with the Turkic Bolgars to the Volga region (the later Bashkiria), where Brother Julianus found a Hungarian-speaking settlement in the middle of the 13th century, who knew of their earlier kinfolk who migrated west. Therefore the Onogurs must have been Hungarian-speaking. Distinguished archeologist, the late Gyula László, in his book “Two-phased Conquest” (Kettős honfoglalás) contended that the so-called late Avars (Onogurs), who arrived in the Carpathian Basin in the late 7th century AD, were Hungarian-speaking, judging from their burial customs, artefacts, as well as settlement names. To date, 30 to 40 thousand Avar graves were excavated in Hungary.

The three Khazar tribes, who also joined the Hungarians to the Carpathian Basin, probably spoke a Turkic dialect. Some claim that Árpád’s Magyars were bilingual Turkic-Hungarian. This is highly probable considering the large number of Turkish words in the Hungarian vocabulary. Besides, Turkish is also an agglutinative tongue. Our pentatonic folk music is similar as well, as Béla Bartók discovered on one of his folk music collecting trips in 1936 to southern Anatolia close to the Syrian border, where the Yürük tribe had folk songs identical to some Hungarian folk songs.

Then there is the question of the Huns: was there in fact a Hun connection? Very definitely, yes. However, in my opinion, the Hungarians are not direct descendants of the Huns as some claim, but merely Hungarian-speaking tribes who lived in close association with the Huns, probably under their rule as independent tribes. However, it’s highly probable that they also intermarried. After the break-up of the western Hun Empire following the death of Attila, these tribes forged alliances with the Avars, the Sabirs and the Onogurs (Bolgars).
Another hitherto unexplained connection is the Uyghurs – or Yugars – in present-day northwestern China, where they constitute an ethnic minority and live in the Xinjiang. Autonomous Province. According to Yugar folk tradition, some of their ancestors migrated west, while the rest stayed behind. Their folk songs, also pentatonic, show strong similarity to Hungarian folk songs. The same is true for some Chinese folk songs of northwestern China, a region once occupied by the Huns. It is also possible that the Yugars are descendants of the Huns (see Yaxiong Hu).

This leaves the Székelys [Seklers] of Transylvania, who claim descent from the Huns. According to our 13th century chronicler, Anonymus, they were already in the Carpathian Basin at the time of the Hungarian Conquest in the 9th century. We learn from him that the Hungarian-speaking Székelys were the ones who invited the Magyars in, there being a political vacuum at that time in the region. He also claims that the Magyars were the rightful inheritors of the land, as the Árpád dynasty descended from Attila through his youngest son, Irnik (the Csaba of the Székelys’).

This is the story in a nutshell. Everything recounted here runs in the face of Finno-Ugric theory. However, the foregoing is better documented than the Finno-Ugric version. With the exception of the Finns, there is no mention of any of the so-called Finno-Ugric peoples of Estonia, Latvia, Lapland; or of the northern Obi-Ugors – Vogul, Ostyak, and other primitive Siberian tribes – in any of the Byzantine, Arab, Roman or Western sources that would connect them to the Magyars. According to the latest DNA tests, the Hungarians are not racially related to the aforementioned Finno-Ugric peoples. The Hungarians have very little in common with their music, and nothing at all with their folk traditions, folk apparel, folklore, etc. Besides, many of these northern folks are Mongoloid. The only connection is the language. However, there is no common comprehension between the Finno-Ugric languages, as there is between some of the Indo-European – Germanic, Slavic and Neo-Latin (Romance)– language groups, as well as between the various Semitic tongues.

Éva Kossuth


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Published in the HUNGARIAN STUDIES REVIEW, 2005.

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