A little over a thousand years ago, before their arrival in Europe and conversion to Christianity, the Hungarians too were an Asian nomadic people, who followed the old shamanic ways.
In a region in transition between communism and capitalism, where many are dazed and confused by the rapid pace of change, a return to Hungary's original Asian roots is attractive for many. Shamans such as Zoltan Solyomfi-Nagy are reviving those lost traditions.
Budapest-born Solyomfi-Nagy, 36, studied shamanism with native Americans on reservations in South Dakota and Nebraska. He says: "Every morning I start the day with a simple ceremony that helps me clear my mind, heart and body. I light sweetgrass, and call on my spirit helpers, and sing a simple song. I light a smoke circle, which helps protect me, and I try to keep the essence of the smoke circle around me all day, as a guard."
DURING THE week, Solyomfi-Nagy works part-time as a teacher of art and physical education. Weekday mornings are reserved for shamanistic practice and rituals, sometimes involving healing.
With its emphasis on spirituality, shamanic healing is particularly helpful for treating depression, says Zoltan Solyomfi-Nagy. "Depression is the most important healing work. Depression means somebody's soul is not whole. Shamanistic work can bring back the parts of the soul, so that it becomes whole again, and the person's life improves. He can find the answer to the problems of his life and get on a better life path. Such things are not a miracle, they are very simple, very old."
Solyomfi-Nagy radiates the kind of inner peace that is rarely encountered in a modern urban society. "A shaman is a priest, a healer and leader of ceremonies," he says, "a keeper of wisdom who knows the old songs and dances. Shamanic culture respects all kinds of life, and says that everything has a life, trees, grass, the sun, the moon, light, rivers, and of course human beings. Everything also exists in a parallel spirit world, and a shaman can contact that world through his spirit helper. Everyone has a spirit helper; its equivalent in Christianity is a guardian angel."
AT WEEKENDS Solyomfi-Nagy can devote more time to this creed. As interest spreads in shamanism, he organises weekend retreats in the Pilis mountains, north-west of Budapest. One of the mountains has been recognised by the Dalai Lama as one of the world's holy places.
The highlight of the weekend is the "sweat lodge" ceremony, when the novitiates build a makeshift sauna from branches, and cover it with blankets and animal furs, while the ceremony leader places hot stones inside and sprays water on them. "The sweat lodge ceremony has existed for thousands of years. Herodotus records that many nations, such as the Scythians, hold the same ceremony. Everyone sits together, praying and singing. It is a purification ceremony, for physical, mental and psychic cleanliness. It's my favourite ceremony, when you feel that everybody becomes one," says Solyomfi-Nagy.
MANY SHAMANISTIC rituals involve entering a trance-like state, similar to that experienced by Sufi Muslims and Hasidic Jews, when, through repetition and chanting, they experience a feeling of "oneness" with God and the universe. For shamans, this is a spirit journey when they travel to the other world, using tools such as drums, rattles and smoke to ease their passage. "The drum is my spirit-horse, and its voice helps me enter the other reality. I don't use drugs or plants, only the drum's voice. The rattle helps me call my spirit helper, and the smoke, from sweetgrass, pine, juniper, cedar and sage, keeps me from spiritual danger, if there are unfriendly spirits. The most important things happen in what we call `non-ordinary reality'."
A THOUSAND years of Christianity, and 40 of Communism all but wiped out most traces of shamanism in Hungary. But the country's folk tales and folk songs still contain shamanistic themes and motifs. Even now, in villages, elderly women forecast the future by filling a sieve with stones, shaking it and analysing the patterns. "The Hungarian word for God is `Isten', but that is not a Christian term - it originally meant `the ancient one'. Today more and more people are returning to the old knowledge. The old messages become alive again, that we are all related, and that all life is a different aspect of one creature.
"The spiritual life is there for everybody, and we are all children of the earth. But I don't want to wave a big flag that I am a shaman and tell people to follow the shamanic way. Everyone who is interested can find it for themselves."Reuse content