Szuszékokra Rótt Üzenet


Sándor Makoldi (1945-2017) approached ethnography as a painter. In it, he recognized the ancient legacy of the Hungarians. Being a Hungarian painter, a college teacher and a gradu-ate ethnographer, he was excited by the forms used in folk art. Folk art was the art that pre-served most of the character of the nation, its communal form (intelligibility), and its uni-versal message compressed into pictographic scripts.

In the county of Gömör, half-detached from today’s Hungary, he came to know one of the oldest types of Hungarian furniture: carpentry-style chests that survived to the 20th century. Here, in Upper Hungary, the most ornate are the now forgotten dowry chests (ex-pelled to the attics and larders), the symbols of which amazed him. As it turned out, the interpretation of the abstract – mostly geometric – symbols of these furniture items of na-tionwide fame received only little coverage from the historians. As an artist, he knew that these patterns could not be plain ornaments, so he wanted to understand their usage – es-pecially – on dowry chests that were presented at the culmination of human life, at the feast of marriage. He deciphered the important content related to the festive occasion by using analogies, as he did with similar symbols on woodworking objects connected to the pivotal points of human life – coffins and cradles.

The origins of these chests were not properly researched by socialist historiography, as it dealt only with the European tradition and their ancient antecedents. However, the map made by researcher Klára K. Csilléry revealed that these chests were used almost ex-clusively in the Carpathian Basin. These chests were known in Western Europe only sporadi-cally. The aforementioned map contains data related to territories as far as the Caucasus, following the path that of the Hungarians. However, recent (available) archaeological data already provide evidence that the history of these chests – in terms of space and time – dates back to the Tarim Basin. It can also be proven that among the Hungarians, these also have a continuity in the Carpathian Basin, from the aforementioned eastern ancestors through the Avars, the tribes conquering the Carpathian Basin and medieval Hungarians to present-day examples.

It is a typical feature of these chests (with minor differences) that their side and bot-tom boards are split and worked with an axe from hardwood and the top board, pivoting on pins, are held together by 4 corner pillars/legs, joined with wooden wedges. Therefore, they can be easily (dis)assembled and transported, even by nomads, and a mere axe sufficed to make them.

In addition to their woodworking characteristics, the structural solutions not follow-ing from the function also drew attention to their content connected to faith – this was duly justified by the signs used on the chests. The use of a roof form on these carpentry-style chests, which can also be found on antique sarcophagi, may be justified also by the fact the chest is the house of the items stored in it, as is the coffin – a similar chest – the “house” of the deceased person. Since this roof type – the gable roof – is called a “saddle-roof” (nyeregtető) in Hungarian – both in terms of houses and chests – this is also a hint to the fact that they are related to the ancient táltos faith (táltos horse, táltos shaman, táltos worldview). Thus, the information-bearing symbols imposed on (carved into) them should also have some similar cosmical, magical content, related to the bride’s fertility, as these dowry chests played a major role at wedding ceremonies. (For a long time, such a chest was the only – or main – furniture item that a woman took with her – an ornate chest containing all her dowry.)

In larger but simpler chests, they kept grain (synonymous to “life” in Hungarian). In the parts of the then Kingdom of Hungary, rich in wheat, such as the southern part of the Great Hungarian Plain or in Slavonia, people built a separate small wooden “house” for in-door grain storage purposes. Further north, on the Great Hungarian Plain, the grain storage was built into the house or grain was kept in huge carpentry-style crates called hombárs. These were usually flat-topped. Only the decorated dowry chests (cabinets, szuszék chests) of various sizes (the largest ones originating from the former territory of Upper Hungary) had a saddle-like, i.e. gable roof.

Ornate dowry chests, being valued furniture items, used to occupy the dominant po-sition in the house. Later, the joiner-style furniture items (coffers or chests of drawers) took their place, though in peasants’ houses, images of saints, sacred (and other valuable) ob-jects were also kept on the chest of drawers located in the dominant position in the house, opposite to the entrance of the room – this tradition survived until the 20th century. These furnishings served almost the role of home altars. The same may be found in the East in the interior design of yurts: the chest used to stand opposite to the entrance, in a dominant po-sition. On (or in) the chest, idols used to be kept – it used to be the sacred place where the ancestors, the house spirits lived.

In Hungary, carpentry-style furniture has been present since the era of the Hungarian conquest, though wood-lined wells were made with a similar technique even before, in the Avar age. However, in Avar cemeteries, archaeologists also discovered traces of death beds. Mainly due to the losses of war and theft of values, Hungarian dowry chests appear in writ-ten sources only later. Their mass trading was reported in customs lists of fairs. However, they could only be traded en masse if they were transportable, easy to disassemble, so they had a carpentry-style structure.

Initially, the patterns were probably carved into the hardwood, but also painted: the earliest Gothic carpentry-style chests from Transylvania were usually painted. Later, the softwood – joiner-style – chests (tulip chests) separated from the hardwood – carpentry-style – chests (the szuszék) – the former were always painted. The symbol set also changed with the technique: the line drawings carved into hardwood were geometric, while the fur-niture made of sawn pine timber bore mostly freehand, multi-coloured paintings.

However, in the early days, both “styles” appeared on the chests, side by side – as hardwood allowed both methods. It is easier to deduce the age of the chests from freehand and figural paintings than from timeless geometric figure systems.

One may distinguish two styles on painted, carved chests: 1. one with tendrils and geometric elements; 2. a figural one (with human figures and mythical animals). Consider-ing the latter, we infer the Gothic age from the tondos and the clothes (garments) of the figures. Geometric symbols are timeless, but the tendrils are similar to the ornamentation inherited from the 10th-11th century – the era of the Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin. Moreover, they follow the symbolism of griffins and tendrils of the late Avar age – here, griffins appear in tondos. Griffins were also used by the Scythians, as Herodotus (B.C. 484-425) wrote: “the griffins guard the gold of the Scythians in the mountains” and their representations have survived on items made by the Scythian goldsmiths — so these first appeared in the beliefs of the Scythians. Nevertheless, they are also present and fit into in the faith and folk tales of the Hungarians.

In addition to the crowned or knight figures appearing on the legs of the figural chests, even antlered, drumming (?) Táltos figures appear – in a star-spangled (cosmic) en-vironment. How do the Saxons – who consider the 120 such chests found in the attic of an abandoned Saxon fortified church in Transylvania to be their own – refer to this issue? Do these items appear in the religion of the Saxon people in Germany – or only in Transylvania, which used to be a part of the then Kingdom of Hungary? Surely, King Andrew II of Hungary admitted the German Order of Knights, but – due to their behaviour – he soon expelled the order. (The remaining Saxons received autonomy from the king, though.)

The memory of the Táltos faith can be traced back to the Hungarians from before the conquest, similarly to the Siberian, far eastern shaman faith. It remained with the Hungari-ans even after the adoption of Christianity, merging with the latter. For example, the char-acteristics of the táltos appear among the properties of the canonized Hungarian kings of the Árpád dynasty, described in Hungarian legends. Hungarian legends, myths – and their depictions – also preserve oriental elements.

There are signs of this on the carved carpentry-style chests, in each region – even if these are not figurative. Because the natural laws governing the path of light, and thus even fertility, depend on the “benevolence of the heavens,” and the táltos shaman was the one who kept in touch with the heavens and could travel and mediate effectively beyond the human world. (As he understood the laws of nature, he had supernatural powers that he used for the benefit of people. Hungarian folk traditions kept only a positive image of them.)

The “decorative” patterns on the chests symbolize the laws of the world, the cosmos and people’s lives. This is why the medieval táltos shamans may be depicted on the legs of the chests, as a defence– be it either a king, a knight, or an antlered shaman leading a cer-emony. The protrusions of antlers, horns, feathers mark the spiritual radiance on his head, symbolizing the talent “received from above”, depicted using supporting animals (two-fold antler = deer, three-fold: feather = bird). Shamans acted to support life. This was indicated by the bright, white, vegetative (live) branches on the painted carpentry-style chests.

According to the analyses, all this can be expressed with geometric, runic symbols. Considering all chests, one can state that the basic symbols of their symbol set are the fol-lowing: circle = perfection, completeness, unity; celestial body, star; when radiant: a rosette or a flower. Considering its role on earth: a seed, which will grow, concentrically, or with related semicircles, “ears” (in the cardinal directions). A split circle, horizontally spread apart, with separate celestial orbits, acts as a “double axe”, which has also been a symbol of power (of the rulers of natural forces), ever since the ancient times. But it also shows the beginning of creation, when one splits into two. Like a seed, it starts to develop – in plant form. If the semicircles are connected: it flows as a tendril, a stream of water or a wave of energy.
Concerning straight lines, the row of coniferous (evergreen) trees of life symbolizes life as such, just like the other plants and flowers on the chests. The “antlered” tulips or ro-settes (as symbols of the shining Sun) on the chests symbolize life. Life is again represented by waves, tendrils. The base unit, a section of a wave is an S-shaped line. Horizontally, it represents either a segment of life on Earth, or, if it is continuous, it also expresses the con-tinuity of life, supported by the sunlight. So, it is no coincidence that the apparent path of the Sun across the celestial sphere over the course of the year also results in an S-line. Ver-tically: in terms of plants, it is the symbol of the tree of life, reaching up to the sky; in terms of spirituality, up to the Lord in the Heavens, to God through Nature.

The world of faith is also related to the functions of the particular symbols. In the carpentry-style chests, they kept grain and seeds (in Hungarian, the equivalent of life is a synonym of wheat), and on the other hand, the items of a woman’s life, her dowry, was also kept in the chest. At the culmination of her life, at her wedding, the bride (the Hungarian term for bride is a compound word: “meny” [heaven] + “asszony” [woman] = “menyasszony” [bride]) is said to be “under the Sun” (i.e. in the centre of attention). The purpose of the wedding is to deliver children, to achieve the blessing received from above – that is why people do all things possible to influence fertility. The relevant symbols are pre-sent on the carved, carpentry-style chests, as are the helping táltos figures on the painted ones. Its gable roof type top may be a hint of the presence of the “helping animal.” In mar-riage, the woman keeps all her life, all her material belongings in her house-like chest – its symbols are there to provide spiritual help. In the times of old, people were buried in simi-lar, long chests, coffins – these were carved with similar symbols.

This applies to all the Hungarian-speaking territory. Although there are some subtle differences between the chest styles of the respective regions, the technique and the set of symbols are uniform, on thousands of old and recent items. This paper contains a descrip-tion of these types, slightly expanding the three territories (1. Transdanubia, 2. Upper Hun-gary + the Great Hungarian Plains, 3. Transylvania) set out by Klára K. Csilléry:

  1. The Southern Territories (Délvidék): the carpentry-style (“egret”) chests of Slavonian (now: Croatia) Hungarians;
  2. Transdanubia – mainly the szökröny chests from the region of Baranya;
  3. From Transylvania: – the szuszék or szekrény chests of Udvarhely and Erdővidék counties;
    – Carpentry-style chests of Moldova and Bukovina;
    – the carved szuszék chests, bearing geometric shapes, in the territory ranging from Csík to Bihar counties;
    – the wedding chests from Kalotaszeg;
    – Hungarian-Romanian-Ruthenian examples of the chests from the territory of Partium (and Transcarpathia).
  4. Analysis of the largely identical symbolism of the chests from the territory of Upper Hungary and the Great Hungarian Plain (mentioning also the differing Slovak exam-ples.)

In the latter, we focus on the analysis of the numerous dowry chests from the region Gömör. The lines are grooved into the hardwood – worked with an axe – with a special tool, similarly to the Hungarian rune symbols. The names of this tool include “iron pen” and “knife”. This is a hand tool: either separate or mounted on a compass – these allow cutting straight lines, curves, circles or a combination of these.

The set of geometric symbols is very rich. We examine this using the rich material from Upper Hungary (the Palóc and Gömör regions). (Although there are some “freehand” elements among these, they are ex-ceptions. Common are, though, the symbols providing protection to babies.)
Figurality is not achieved per se, but by combining circles, arcs, and straight lines. In ad-dition to the cosmic geometric symbols, such human and divine figures are very common in the group from Upper Hungary and the Great Hungarian Plains, as they have a common an-cestor. The former ones are related to the sacred role, the festive nature of the wedding (as well as the funeral) chests. In other regions, people used plant and floral elements to enrich the geometric ones, which also explain their meaning. Within the respective territorial chest group, there are always some more “figural” analogies proving these assumptions. Even though geometric symbols have not changed for ages, today, their meaning is unclear. Only the “recognizable” figures, sacred symbols help recognizing the contents and deciphering their message.

Of course, there are general, universal symbols, such as the aforementioned circle = in-finity, thus suitable for presenting perfect celestial connections or celestial bodies, to de-scribe their orbits. If they are combined with rays, they represent light. On the contrary, the lines of a square are finite, segmented, i.e. characterize terrestrial conditions. Multiplying this pattern, we get a grid. This may represent darkness or death; however, the lines carved into the planks treated with smoking and staining are brighter on these chests, making them actually glow, so these symbolize columns of light, creatures, etc. To explain a symbol, one has to know its context. Thus, it is not possible to compile a “dictionary” of these symbols; to understand and interpret them, one needs to know their functions and the uncover their associations. Also, the knowledge of the laws of nature (known to all cultures due to the movement of the Sun and changes of daylight, as these defined their lives) is necessary.

The circles may even be divided: the star formed from the intersection of semicircles is clearly a cosmic symbol, the splitting the forms into smaller parts by vertical lines may sym-bolize creation; multiple concentric circles may also symbolize multiplication but also radia-tion. Semicircles may refer to the horizon – if there are multiple smaller circles, these may refer to the orbits of the smaller circular celestial bodies. All this can be presented also by changes above the line of the horizon. This is the point where straight lines appear, just as the circles can be divided by straight lines, axes, crosses – which can still indicate the align-ment of celestial bodies. And the infinite concatenation of the circular arcs describes celes-tial processes with the sensation of wave motion.

The finite lines of the squares, on the other hand, correspond to the finite stages of life on earth. Circles (heads) on parallel and intersecting lines and triangles can form human figures. Straight lines are rather masculine, while curved lines are rather feminine in charac-ter; finally, they form figures. If we surround a centre point (of power), set out by intersect-ing lines, with a circle, this “embodies” the central (divine) power – because we are all made from the material of the cosmos and all people are children of God. On the chests found in Upper Hungary, these figures evolved into very complex ones, symbolizing divine laws and helpers or people representing the divine forces (the táltos). If plant ornaments are added, the figures represent deities of nature, responsible for fertility.

The symbol set is therefore geometric and simultaneously cosmic – expressing divinity, humanity, vegetation. It expresses the concepts of sacred space and time – all this in order to increase fertility (either considering vegetation or the bride). The mystical message is justified and proven in the figural symbols of the early Transylvanian painted chests, dis-cussed as the first separate group. On the legs of the painted chests dating back to the Mid-dle Ages, the protectors are royal and knightly figures, but there are also antlered and feathered táltos figures among the stars. And on the first boards along the orbit of circular celestial bodies, in dark and light tondos, complex, wonderful animals, the griffins guarding the gold of the Scythians, appear on these storage furniture items. However, in addition to this particularly interesting group, there was also another item, an alternate version of these chests: coffins, bearing geometric symbols. These ranged from the death beds of the Avars to the carved coffins of the former Háromszék county.

Eastern nations, today’s representatives of the former nomadic lifestyle of the Hungari-an tribes, also know this type of chest. Archaeologists have found them as coffins in plenty of locations, ranging from the Tarim Basin through the excavations in Fergana to the Greek chests found in Crimea, belonging to people who were in contact with the royal Scythians. Similar carpentry-style, wood-lined wells have survived in the Carpathian Basin from the Avar era and the era of the Hungarian Conquest – while chests and furniture did not. How-ever, knowing how they were made, these chests may have continuously existed – similarly, the paintings of the medieval painted chests later continued on softwood tulip chests (cof-fins).

Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the centre of the territory, where these carpentry-style chests appear today (i.e. until the World Wars of the last century) is in the Carpathian Basin, just as the scholars claim. The types of the symbols used on these chests are typical to the Hungarian people, matching the beliefs of the nation. All this is presented in this pa-per in detail, with the help of Hungarian archaeological and folk-art analogies. From this, we can learn about the unified and constantly existing wisdom of Hungarian culture, and the message for our future, carved on these beautiful chests.

This paper contains two examples of the effect of these chests on our current popula-tion. One of these is a work of the researcher and painter himself, while the other comes from a friend of his, living in the Palóc region. Using the symbols of carpentry-style chests on these paintings, they too seek the origins of life, conveying the message to present-day man, from the depths to the heights. of our culture.