The Shaman and His Daughter / Legends and Healing: Changing Shamanic Practices from Eastern Hungary

by Ivan Szendro, Artist in Residence


 

Introduction

“The Shaman and his Daughter” 

Ivan Szendro, top, with his daughter Mera, left, presenting in a classroom in communist China.

   “IS IT COINCIDENCE THAT MY SHAMANIC MOTHER-MENTOR was Anna, a darling old lady in my village in Hungary? And she was the daughter of a well-known shaman of the village. He lived out in the woods, so people pilgrim to his hut if they needed his help. All that I know about shaman work, I can thank to Anna, as she passed on me whatever she remembered about her father, Ferenc Papo.

   And IS IT COINCIDENCE that with my dear Daughter, Mera, though she has a different journey than I, sometimes our orbits and destiny meet as well. When it happens I am inexpressibly happy.

   For example it was an unforgettable time when we went together to China in 2013, for the Conference of the International Society for Shamanic Research, and we presented our papers together, after each other on the stage.

I, in my essay I shared my lessons from: “The Shaman and his Daughter,” I told about Anna and Ferenc Papo, – and Mera in her work wrote about how we do together; Shamanic Community Building through Social Media, how we help reconnect today on a Facebook page (A Te Legendad) the descendants of my ruined village, by reminding them their shamanic heritage, the village’s ancient legend.

The Legends bring us together, not just in my village, but on the common pages of collective communication; like here in the Coreopsis, Magazine of Myth and Theater, where we were kindly invited to retell our experiences with the ruined, but not lost Village of Mythology.”

 

– Ivan Szendro’s Note to his Facebook Friends


 

Good morning. Today I would like to talk about how the practice of shamanism has changed in the culture of a village on the eastern border of Hungary. I have learned about these changes mostly through memory: I was privileged to learn through the memory of the daughter of a pioneering innovative shaman of the early twentieth century, and through her, I learned of the memories of her father, which reached back into the nineteenth century. This is a story of how we build on the foundations of those who have gone before us, and I am grateful to my two mentors, Anna Halasz, and her father, Ferenc Papo.  Without the knowledge I received from them, I could not have built my own shamanic healing practice in the United States.

After our Amsterdam Touch Time Festival invitation we visited Hungary, our land of origine, for, – as you see here, – “a little rest.”. (Mera was intrigued of my meditation.) Photo credit: Zoltan Komaromi Copyright: Ivan Szendro

Shamanism is an inseparable  part of the Hungarian culture. We are  learning  about shamans  (táltos in Hungarian)   through childhood fairy tales and through commonly used old magic expressions. I never thought that I will ever get close to a living- practicing shaman, or that later, I would be myself a practitioner of  this ancient craft, especially since I grow up in the city, Budapest.

When I became a young man I had reached a crisis point in my life and had withdrawn from a promising career as an actor. A generous friend invited me to stay with him in a village that was close to  another village, called  Nagygec, which while I was there had experienced a devastating flood that had destroyed Nagygec .  The first time I met this village, and its people when I went to help rescue workers during the flood. Most of the villagers had evacuated and started new lives elsewhere. In spite of this, some people had stubbornly refused to leave. They remained rooted in the place they had known their entire lives. They were, in effect, keepers of their culture. During the time of the flood, when I was helping the  inhabitants evacuate, I heard over and over again about a local  legend called the Judge of Blood. That legend drew me back to the ruined village some years later. During that time I got to know many  of the villagers of Nagygec,  some of whom had relocated to the  place where I was staying with my friend.

Ivan Szendro, Hungarian Shaman at the International Touch Time (Theater) Festival in Holland, 1992. Photo courtesy of Ivan Szendro, all rights reserved.

What can be a today’s shaman’s vehicle in his/her journey? A Horse? A Deer? or an Eagle? – Why not a bicycle as is mine that carries me still today into the realm, beyond conscious. (I and my magic myth-carrier bike.) Photo credit: Zoltan Komaromi Copyright: Ivan Szendro

One of the people I got to know during this period was Anna Halasz. She had moved to the village where I was staying and she was living in a small  hut on the property of some relatives. That is where I visited her many times and heard the stories she had to tell me about the culture and myths of the village and about her father’s  life as a village  shaman.

Based on what I learned from her, I have identified three stages in the recent development of shamanism.  The first one comes from  pre-industrial times in the last half of the nineteenth century. The second one took place during the agricultural revolution of Hungary, when village life began to change. The third one is the one I know and have developed in the postindustrial time of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

In the late nineteenth century, villages in Hungary were largely homogeneous. On the eastern border of the country  people tended to share one religious tradition, a Protestant Christian one. Another cultural resource they shared was the ancient shamanic myths that everyone knew. These collective myths became story-vehicles that shamanic practitioners in the villages used in their work. Myths carried the healers and patients together beyond their consciousness, where they could receive answers for unsolved problems, for both spiritual and physical illnesses. As I heard it from Anna, who heard it from her father, the person needing help would visit the healer and the shaman, or as he or she was called  by the local inhabitants, the seer, (látó in Hungarian) would chant a legend that was familiar to both of them. This activity triggered a deep emotional response, heating up the soul and creating conditions for healing. During this time, the myths the healers used were often blended with Christian symbolism that was accessible to everyone. This practice introduced elements of change in shamanic practice in this part of Hungary.

Ivan Szendro, Hungarian Shaman, at the International Touch Time (Theater) Festival in Holland, 1992. Photo courtesy of Ivan Szendro, all rights reserved.

My daughters might saw me like a funny guy, or sometimes a distant being, but I hope today they feel being richer by growing up on the side of a shaman. (Julia is hiding, which is the same word in Hungarian for doing shamanic things.) Photo credit: Zoltan Komaromi Copyright: Ivan Szendro

By the early twentieth century, when Anna’s father was a practicing shaman, village life had begun to change. For one thing, there was religious diversity. Ferenc Papo and his family illustrate this diversity; they were Catholics who came from western Hungary. Most of their neighbors were Protestants. This diversity persisted throughout the twentieth century. Also, because industrialization had begun, people were more mobile. This meant that even in a remote rural village, the residents had a variety of worldviews and belief systems. For the most part, people got along by politely avoiding religious issues and other areas of cultural conflict.

This presented a problem for a shaman who was  working in the way  I have just described . Blending religious symbols and ancient myths  in healing that drew on common collective myths would no longer work: people had different religious beliefs and came from different cultural and ethnic traditions. Anna’s father, Ferenc Papo, was an innovative pioneer in his solution to this problem. He found a way to serve the entire village that transcended the cultural and religious differences. He uncovered a modern mode of healing, just about in the decades when C.G. Jung came up with his similar idea of personal mythology,  that is still incredibly effective 100 years later.

Let us take a closer look at Ferenc Papo’s innovation. He created a system of personal mythology. The mythology  he spoke of comes from an individual person’s own life story. In this way, he was able to overcome the problem of different cultures and different belief systems. Here is how he worked.

First, he lived apart from the village in a hut in the woods. So when people needed his help, they had to make a pilgrimage to the woods to see him. When a person came to him, he would begin the session by telling them his own personal shamanic initiation myth instead of working with a collective myth. He would tell the person about the Celestial Army that came to him during his initiation on a field while he was guarding the sheep. They gave him the knowledge of “seeing,” but they took one of his ribs in exchange.

Let’s hear what C.G. Jung says about his “initiation”, echoing Ferenc Papo’s personal quest to attain authenticity to heal.               

“The whole thing came upon me like a landslide that cannot be stopped. I had to admit that I was not living with a myth, or even in a myth, but rather in an uncertain cloud of theoretical possibilities which I was beginning to regard with increasing distrust . . . it struck me what it  means to live with a myth, and what it means to live without one. . . . The psyche is not of today; its ancestry goes back many millions of years. Individual consciousness is only the flower and the fruit of a season, sprung from the perennial rhizome beneath the earth. . . . For the root matter is the mother of all things. . . . I was driven to ask myself in all seriousness: “What is the myth you are living?”

Ivan Szendro, Hungarian Shaman, with his wife Anna and daughters Julia and Mera, at the International Touch Time (Theater) Festival in Holland, 1992. Photo courtesy of Ivan Szendro, all rights reserved.

My twirling stick is my shamanic antenna to the universal messages, Mera was just playing with it, but it might bring her some good news too. (Every child is a born shaman.) Photo credit: Zoltan Komaromi Copyright: Ivan Szendro

So in the most natural way, I took it upon myself to get to know “my” myth, and I regarded this as the task of tasks. . . . I simply had to know what unconscious or preconscious myth was forming me, from what rhizome I sprung.”(Jung, 1950, pp 4-5)

Ferenc Papo’s  healing concept transcended religious divisions in the village and was something everyone could relate to.  would interview his visitors in front of his hut  he would ask them some personal questions. After that he would retire for a deep sleep while he let the person  waiting outside, sometimes for days. Then he would come out from his “dream hut” and share with the visitors their personal healing legend, or as Anna described it, “how he saw them in the Other World.” Ferenc Papo unfolded people’s personal mythology based on the actual events, tragic or happy ones, of their lives, but Ferenc Papo reworked these details in a new, uplifting legend, with an upward tending synopsis, that pointed toward solutions and healing. I always played with the notion: what would have happened if Jung had met with Ferenc Papo. He would call Ferenc Papo’s therapeutic mode; Up-Conscious Method.  The basic mode of the Shaman of Nagygec’s healing still had its roots in the Hungarian-Siberian traditions of centuries past, but he found a new way to use this power to suit the changing context of the village around him. Like the ancient healers, he worked with his clients to bring them to an emotional and spiritual catharsis that would lead to healing, and like those who had gone before him, he drew on the power of myth to achieve that goal. He did it using language and ideas that would reach the citizens of a changing world.

After I had learned from Anna, I began to study Siberian-Hungarian shamanism thoroughly, and began my shamanic experiments, first choosing myself as a guinea pig to see how it works. Based on my new  knowledge, I developed a  mythic theatrical ritual based on an ancient collective legend of the village of Nagygec called “The Judge of Blood.” This was a  myth that all the villagers, indeed all Hungarians, could relate to in some way. This myth touched a deep vein in Hungarian history, and everywhere I presented  the legend-ritual in Hungary, it generated a deep and powerful response. It did not matter where I performed it, in cities or in rural areas. People understood what the legend was saying and it  touched them very deeply. And after a coincidental event in the village, when I went through my own initiation as a shaman, it became my legend too; The Legend of a Self-Made Shaman, who heals his whole nation afflicted by the dictatorship.

In the late 1980s, just as communism was ending in Hungary, I felt it was time to leave my country of origin. When I moved to the United States, I carried with me the precious knowledge Anna had so generously shared with me, and I wanted to use it, just as Ferenc Papo had done, as a healing tool. In this diverse culture I quickly noticed that collective legends were not triggering cathartic and healing emotions among the clients who came to me. The legend of the Judge of Blood that I had learned from Anna, one that all the villagers knew and one that was powerful for audiences wherever I went in Hungary, was not having the same effect in the United States. There were too many cultural differences. The people I met did not share the same history and culture.

Ivan Szendro, Hungarian Shaman, and his daughters Julia and Mera, at the International Touch Time (Theater) Festival in Holland, 1992. Photo courtesy of Ivan Szendro, all rights reserved.

To have a family taught me that the shaman is not only a dreamer, but a bread earner too, and I am proud that these girls grew up as strong independent thinking people. And if they also are a little bit proud about their shaman father, he is the happiest shaman on Earth. Photo credit: Zoltan Komaromi Copyright: Ivan Szendro

I remembered that Ferenc Papo had been bold enough to change the tools he used. Over time, I developed a mode of working with the idea of  the positive personal myths that he had introduced. The soul-searching I do with my clients to uncover their personal legendary past has proved especially effective. Together, the client and I search for mythological context from the events of his or her life. The personal mythology that we unveil is what I call “The Legend of You.” Sometimes the legend emerges from just one detail of a story; from a cathartic event of my clients’ life. Sometimes the life story resonates with an existing myth or legend. Oftentimes the problem the person presents holds the seeds of the solution. In each case, the person experiences an uplifting and healing power through  following the ascending direction of their personal   legend.

The innovation I learned through Anna from Ferenc Papo is twofold. I rarely use the symbols and tropes that  he developed to transcend the cultural and religious differences among the villagers. Instead, I find universal metaphors in the materials of the lives of the people who approach me for help. Also,  I do not have the luxury of withdrawing into the dream world for several days. I have too my dream hut, the oldest settlement house in Snedens Landing on the Hudson, in New York State .  I have developed a shamanic journeying method of  ascending with the people through the universal symbols of their own, personal stories  flying beyond the here and now, toward what I nicknamed, inspired by Ference Papo and C.G. Jung our “Up-Conscious.” This is where the stories of my visitor’s life come together for me in an uplifting legendary vision. When I share  this my with my clients, it triggers explosive changes in their metabolism and immune systems. They become highly resistant to ever prowling illness. I am not just talking about sicknesses that endanger our body; I am also talking about illness  that endanger our souls as well.

I am profoundly indebted to Anna Halasz and to her father, Ferenc Papo. To Anna for carrying the memories of her father’s work and for her incredible generosity and kindness in sharing them with me, and to Ferenc Papo for his revolutionary innovations in shamanic practice. His pioneering contribution was to recognize that personal myths can guide us to the same rhizome of knowledge as the collective ones. I feel gratitude while I am following his footsteps, not just in my adoption of personal myths but also in the confidence he exhibited to find new solutions for new challenges.

 


Read Mera Szendro’s article next: Shamanic Community Building through Social Media


 

Reference

Jung, C. (1950). Symbols of transformation. (V. de Laszlo, Ed.) Princeton, NJ, USA: Princeton University Press.

 

Thanks to my friend and editor Kate Babbitt for her unforgettable help.


 

Ivan SzendroBiography: Ivan Szendro, a shaman of our time, lives in a tiny village, Sneden’s Landing, on the shores of the Hudson River. His knowledge and healing practice are enriched by his new recognition that each of us has a healing legend that he calls The Legend of You. He can be reached at thelegendofyou@yahoo.com. His website, thelegendofyou.com, provides more information about his healing practice. He is also active on his English-language Facebook site, The Legend of You, and a Hungarian-language site, A Te Legendád, where he and the former residents of the sister villages discuss their plans to rebuild.

12 Responses to “The Shaman and His Daughter / Legends and Healing: Changing Shamanic Practices from Eastern Hungary

  • Mike Seliger
    2 years ago

    Ivan,

    Both articles are impressive and I am grateful that you guided (invited) me towards them. I had never thought of use of social media as a way to recreate the culture of a community that was dispersed by tragic events, but it is clear from the writings that it is a powerful tool. Especially when managed with compassion and commitment without selfish motives.

    I was reminded of the Memory Books that were a tool for people from villages of various cultures, that had been destroyed or dispersed over time, from stetls in the Carpathian Mountains whose residents are more often found in Venice, California, to occupants of villages in Palestine uprooted in recent years, or victims of floods even in the ninth ward of New Orleans, trust and respect (and commitment) in the sharing of collective memory becomes a powerful and vital force.

    I Look forward to carrying this conversation forward, with our long overdue discussion, when I return from The Power of Words Conference that I am attending next week!

  • This is moving and powerful, especially because it’s a father-daughter duo. Congratulations on that and your publication Ivan!

  • Ralph Schable
    2 years ago

    That is the wonder of shamanism. It does indeed transcend religion and culture to promote healing and wellness in every way. Spiritual healing is often the first step in the journey. I have always had a soft spot in my soul for Jungian understanding of our collective human journey. Well done and on point. Thank you for sharing.

  • Oh I just loved this article!! So inspiring! thank you so much for sharing! I love learning more about shamanism!!

  • RIchard Calabro
    2 years ago

    Thank You for inviting me to have the honor of reading this thoughtful article. I was especially touched by the ways an individual (the shaman) found ways to join the community together without opening a can of worms religiously. When Spirit moves freely though us, great things happen.

  • The simplicity of the personal myth as common thread, and Up Consciousness are powerful assets for the shamanic community and client. Many modern shaman have no tradition because their situation has been infused,and their traditions have been lost. Yet they are here, aware and struggling to root themselves. Your article provides insight and offers powerful resources to stabilize and support a multi cultural /dimensional practice which allows shamanic life to adapt.

  • Ben Welsh
    2 years ago

    wonder article! Quite provocative! I am especially intrigued by the personal mythology piece.

  • Debbie Warila
    2 years ago

    Ivan, thank you for sharing this essay. You, my friend, are a true shaman and healer. I don’t feel that way very often, but I know this to be true. This is an awesome article!

  • Sue Wood
    2 years ago

    Thank you, Ivan, for inviting me to read your article. I found the subject and your presentation of it fascinating. Shamanism is an old and powerful healing method, and I am impressed with the ways you were able to adapt it to a wide diversity of people in these modern times. I thought it especially powerful that you, like Carl Jung, have found a way to help people discover their personal myths and to engage them in their myths in a way that enables them to find healing.

  • Dear Friends, your words fuel my shamanic vehicle to ascend on to our Up-Conscious, it is the biggest gift to me to feel that I am not alone in this wonderful, experimental journey. Thank you! Ivan

  • Astrid Linde
    2 years ago

    Thank you Ivan for inviting me to read your beautiful story. I was moved and inspired by it.

  • buzz ostrowsky
    2 years ago

    I hope that I continue to learn each day. Your article has brought new knowledge and inspired me to learn more about the healing and inspirations you portray.

Leave a Reply