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  • Writer's picturepeter clings

Using symbols from a cultural appropriation

Updated: May 6, 2021

A debate has stirred up my interest on the Turkic mythological hawk called in the recently built Hungarian mythology as the Turul bird. Leaving aside the debatable phonetically more closeness of the Hungarian 'Turul' to the Romanian word 'Vulturul' (Eng. for 'the Vulture') than the Turkic ‘togrul/ tugrul’, there are issues with finding historical bases for the creation of that modern myth. I am presenting some highlights from the history of symbols used in the region to point to a possible cultural appropriation in the last couple of centuries that helped grossly distort the narrative in the region

The oldest surviving 'family' histories of the Hungarians, in the form of Gestas date from the second half for the 12th century but not later than 1220 AD. The Gesta, usually called 'Anonymi Gesta Hungarorum', contains a collection of stories about the origins and dead of the Hungarians up to that point. The modern myth of the 'Turul' is connected to a passage in that old narrative about birth of the Duke Almos, father of Chieftain Arpad who lead the Hungarian tribes into Pannonia in 894 AD. The fragment of text pertaining to that memory is


3. About Almos the first Prince

In the year of Our Lord's incarnation 819, Ugek, who, as we said above, being of the kindred of King Magog became a long time later a most notable prince of Scythia, took to wife in Dentumoger the daughter of Prince Eunedubelian, called Emese, from whom he begot a son, who was named Almos. But he is called Almos from a divine event, because when she was pregnant a divine vision appeared to his mother in a dream in the form of a falcon and seemed to come to her and impregnate her and made known to her that from her womb a torrent would come forth and from her loins glorious kings be generated, but that they would not multiply in their land. Because a dream is called alom in the Hungarian language and his birth was predicted in a dream, so he was called Almos. Or he was called Almos, that is holy, because holy kings and dukes were born of his line. What more?


Not even in the dream of a woman, the subject of this story, the name of the falcon is given at all, so how do we know that such a tradition existed in Medieval Hungary or it is a made up story?

It turns out that the story of dreams with falcons foretelling events is common to many culture in the Caucasus region and beyond not least the Ancient Persian Empire, the Scythic tribes that roamed the Eurasian Step of centuries during the ancient Roman times, the Goths, the Huns, the Avars etc. The symbol can be found on artifacts of large treasures too such as the one at Treasure of Nagyszentmiklós shown below which clearly depicts a different story from the Emese

But regardless of those myths, my question is whether that symbol actually survived in the 'living memory' by spoken word and tangible practices in the Medieval Hungary

Fortunately, a large collection of symbol bearing artifacts have been preserved from the early Hungarian Kingdom for coins and Royal seals to depictions in manuscripts. From the coinage that survived from up to 1300 there is little to no evidence of the persistence of the symbol of a Vulture or a Hawk during the Arpadian Dynasty

The name of the Turul bird does appear mentioned in the next important Hungarian Gesta, called by the name of its author Simon de Keza or Gesta Hunnorum et Hungarorum. The chronicler informs us about a story of the insignia worn by the early leaders, from book 1, chapter 6

The insignia of King Ethele, that he usually had on his shield, which the Hungarians called Turul, was like a bird with a crown on its head. This insignia the Huns always wear until they lived in a community, up to the time of the duke Geiche

The same chronicle mentions that the Arpadian Kings were from the 'de genere Turul'

There is also a beautiful manuscript from 1373 called Chronicon Pictum which contains sketches of the old kings as shown with the Turul shield as in the image below. Looking closely at those they all represent the symbol of a Raven not a Hawk or Vulture, for the bird is represented without claws, and also as having straight beaks

Arguably, the most important Hungarian King of all, Matthias had as personal symbol the Raven carrying a ring in its beak. The Raven must have been the traditional Hungarian symbol of power during the Arpadian Dynasty and even longer. One can conclude therefore that the Hungarian symbol with the highest importance in the Kigdom was the Raven (with or without a ring in its beak)

After the fall of the Medieval Hungarian Kingdom after the battle of Mohacs, Transylvania played the role of a surviving entity for the Hungarian Nobility. The symbols of power can be found on seals and coinage issued during those time.

The one for the time of John Zápolya does not yet have the Vulture on the coat of arms nor the Raven for that matter

This coin is from 1565. In this the symbols of the Sun and Moon appear on the seal too for the first time

As the 16th century came to an end a new power player from the south in the person of Michael the Brave came to be known. A few competing coat of arm for Transylvania came to be preserve too. All seem to agree on the adoption of the Wallachian symbols at that time. The Wallachian Vulture becomes part of the seal but only the upper half is retained on the Hulsius and Bathory coats of arms as seem below. The Sun and Moon appear only on the Michael the Brave and the Bathory seal

From 1600 on, the nobility vulture (the upper half of the Wallachian Vulture) appear regularly on all symbols of Transylvania without exception. Below is the coat of arms of Transylvania when it became a Grand Principality under the Austrian dominion in 1700. From that time we have the beautiful coat of arms depicted below

The Vulture at the top represents the nobility, the 7 towers represent the Saxons, and the Sun and Moon the Szeklers. The Romanians would be represented by the background colours (Blue, Red, and Yellow)

With the 19th century the symbol of the Vulture became more and more known by the Hungarian public until the time when they merged it with ' a dream in the form of a falcon ' form a story that dates back to 1200 to create a new national symbol

The above seems to be appropriated from the neighbouring Romanian which had the Vulture as a symbol from the very inception of Wallachia. The images of coinage below should prove that Medieval origin

Next was the coat of arms of Wallachia during the famous (infamous) Vlad Tepes

As one expects it to have happened, the Wallachian Vulture became part of the Transylvanian coat of arm at the time of Michael the Brave with the unifying seal depicted next

And the coat of arms of Romania today

In conclusion, it seems to me that the symbol of (vul) Turul is a cultural appropriation from Wallachia. The traditional symbol of the Royal Hungarian Raven was replaced with that of the Vulture for it seemed as a stronger one. As my investigation shows, that borrowing originates only from the 1600 century Transylvania. From that milieu, it was later adopted for the entire Hungarian culture after the Austrian compromise in 1867 when Transylvania was annexed into Hungary. Since then, an entire mythology has been constructed around that symbol piecing together unrelated fragments of medieval thought with a heavy borrowing from the neighbours. Hilarious

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