The Holy Hand, Tiny Blades of Grass and A Raven


Fifth in a series

August 19, Budapest — On the eve of St. Stephen’s Day, our Tauck tour group viewed “the holy hand.” Stephen, the first Hungarian King, reigned from 1000-1038. His severed hand rests in a small gilt-edged box in a chapel of the huge basilica built in his honor.

The basilica at night

The basilica at night

The mummified appendage somehow became separated from the body when the corpse was buried and later reburied to protect it. A man who was in charge of guarding it secreted away to what is now Romania; when it was later found, a monastery was erected on the spot and pilgrims began to ascribe miracles to it. So it went for centuries, with the hand lost and found over and over. Supposedly Queen Maria eventually purchased the holy hand and gave it to her Hungarian subjects.

The Internet abounds with conspiracy theories about the hand. One says that Stephen’s hands were documented after his death with open fists, but the blackened hand today is tight-fisted. “But that is not all” the website exclaims. Apparently there was an entire holy arm, not just a hand, when it was rediscovered in Romania. And Stephen’s hand was known to have borne a ring at his death, but “scientific studies” in the 50s detected no sign of contact with metal. And the appendage thought to be the holy arm turned out to be a fibula. Some say, too, that the hand looks too small to be Stephen’s. This seemed to be the Hungarian version of, “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

Holy or no, St. Stephen is a big deal in Budapest. He’s credited with bringing Christianity to the country, which once controlled many times the territory that it does now. King Stephen invited a Venetian Jesuit to evangelize. Unfortunately, after the king’s death, things didn’t go so well for Bishop Gellért. He was either: a) stoned, pierced with a lance and thrown off a cliff into the Danube; b) hauled in a cart up what is now Gallért Hill, released down hill and when determined to still be alive at the base, beaten to death; or c) rolled down Gallért Hill in a spiked barrel during a pagan uprising. This last version is the one in circulation among tour guides. Christianity, Catholicism in particular, has fared better; today, something like 80 percent of the populace belongs to the Church.

As our tour continued, the bus travelled down Andrassy ut, the grand boulevard on the Pest side, past the Terror Museum (devoted to the Holocaust and other atrocities), past modern sculptures that were erected when Communist statues were pulled down during the two week uprising in 1956, and past the Jewish synagogue and former site of the Jewish Ghetto. Seventy percent of the buildings in Budapest were destroyed in WWII bombings; through the work of the Emmanuel Foundation and Tony Curtis (whose family name was Americanized), the synagogue has been rebuilt.

How many Jews live in Budapest today? No one is certain. Hungarian Jews are suspicious of the census, with good reason. Ninety-five percent of the city’s Jews were deported during the war. Some say there are 100,000 Jews here now; others estimate 220,000.

Though we’d only been in Budapest for 48 hours, I’d begun to notice something. In the parks, young people were doing what they do everywhere: hanging out on the grass with friends, skateboarding, studying their smart phones. But when we walked around town and smiled at people, they usually didn’t smile back. No head nod. Their faces remained closed.

Hanging out in Erzsébet (Elizabeth) Square

Hanging out in Erzsébet (Elizabeth) Square

The Huns, who put the “Hun” in Hungarian, conquered the region around 895 A.D., succeeded by the Mongols in the 13th century (who killed or enslaved half the population), who were in turn defeated by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century, who were replaced by the Hapsburgs. In World War I, Hungary sided with Germany and sacrificed hundreds of thousands to the bloody conflict. The country sided with Germany again during WWII, then tried to switch sides. Before the war ended, hundreds of thousands more died or were deported to concentration camps. And then came Soviet control. We heard this at least three different times — that Hungary repeatedly ended up on the losing side. What does that do to a culture?

The bus dropped us off near Parliament, a building with Neo-Gothic, Neo-Baroque and Neo-Renaissance architectural elements. Brings to mind a bad pun: “What’s neo? The Budapest Parliament.” (Groan.) The white monolith dominates the scene along the Danube. (If interested in touring in English, arrive in the morning; English tours had sold out by 11:00 a.m..)



Near Parliament, bullet holes from the 1956 uprising with black markers

Near Parliament, bullet holes from the 1956 uprising with black markers

Outside Parliament is a large statue of poet Attila Jozsef, whom the tour guide said is little known outside Hungary.


Even in Hungary, his poetry wasn’t recognized until after he died in 1937, when he was only in his early 30s. What else could he have created had he lived?

I read this poem as the Sioux Nation was protesting against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Its mix of melancholia and appreciation for nature resonated:

Nem én kiáltok (No Shriek of Mine)

No shriek of mine, it is the earth that thunders.

Beware, beware, Satan has gone insane;
cling to the clean dim floors of the translucent springs,
melt yourself to the plate glass,
hide behind the diamond’s glittering,
beneath the stones, the beetle’s twittering,
O sink yourself within the smell of fresh-baked bread,
poor wretched one, poor wretch.
Ooze with the fresh showers into the rills of earth–
in vain you bathe your own face in your self,
it can be cleansed only in that of others.
Be the tiny blade upon the grass:
greater than the spindle of the whole world’s mass.
O you machines, birds, tree-branches, constellations!
Our barren mother cries out for a child.
My friend, you dear, you most beloved friend,
whether it comes in horror or in grandeur,
it is no shriek of mine, but the earth’s thunder.

I don’t know exactly what it means, but I know how it makes me feel. Attila calls us to melt, sink, ooze, be — not only to hear but to immerse ourselves in the earth’s thunder. I’m still thinking about this line, which is what poetry can do for you: “in vain you bathe your own face in your self/ it can be cleansed only in that of others.”

Back to the building. Construction of the Parliament began in 1885 and was completed in 1904, and it’s a fine building, with 42 KG of gold decorating the various pillars and arches. One of its attractions is the royal crown, which of course hasn’t been used in memory since there hasn’t been a monarch in centuries. During one of its many transfers during conflict (and there have been many of those), the cross on top was bent; it’s been left that way to represent what the country has been through.

Parliament interior

Parliament interior

And then there’s the raven. The raven with a ring. One appears in a decorative crest in the Parliament building, and there’s another suspended in the lane outside Buda Castle.


One legend holds that a ring was given as proof of royal bloodline at a particularly dark moment in the 16th century. Two foreign-born kings had died within seven years; Matthias (Matyas),15 years old, living in Prague, was next in line. His mother dispatched a raven with a ring in its beak to summon him home. The boy returned (to what was then Translyvania and part of the Hungarian empire) and was crowned; the image of the raven and the ring thus became part of the family crest. Matthias became the first Hungarian-descended King in more than 150 years. More importantly, he was a patron of the arts, shrewd military tactician, and benefactor of the poor, who dressed as a commoner to see how nobles treated his people.

That night, our group of 10 dined on our own at Zona, an easy walk from the hotel to the Pest side. Our waiter was excellent — had very strong ideas (solicited) about what we should eat and drink. We enjoyed a red blend from the Villany region — Kiss Gabor’s Enigma 2013, and Domaine Sainte Leocadie’s Eden Minervois.

Our merry band at Zona

Our merry band at Zona


Isn't she impressive? Stained glass image of Gizella, from the chapel of the holy hand.

Isn’t she impressive? Stained glass image of Gizella, from the chapel of the holy hand.

Next: Above Ground, a Party; Below Ground, a Memorial

2 thoughts on “The Holy Hand, Tiny Blades of Grass and A Raven

  1. “when we walked around town and smiled at people, they usually didn’t smile back. No head nod. Their faces remained closed.”

    I believe there are a number of cultures which consider “smiling at strangers” a weird American thing.

    • Definitely. It’s one of those subtle things I sometimes become aware of. Which is one of the things I love about traveling: noticing differences, recognizing my insular “American-ness.”

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