Hungary and Nepal appear to have little in common especially when one considers these cultures’ spiritual and religious beliefs. Hungary is a Christianized countrywith a strong presence of Judaism. The Kathmandu Valley of Nepal offers an intriguing blend of animist, Buddhist, Hindu, and Tantric beliefs and ritual practices. However, at closer look one finds the presence of shamanic female practitioner who display similar compelling characteristics despite their cultural differences: dancing, whirling, drumming, animal vehicles (or ‘power animals’), intense bodily shaking, oracles, summoning the weather, shape-shifting, healing and groupings of 7 female deities or women.
Since 1998 I have been studying the earth-based and shamanic roots and practices of various Goddesses such as the Matrikas, Durga, the dakinis, and a Tibetan shaman, Lhamo. I have been intrigued by the shamanic characteristics found within ritual expressions in the Valley, including possession and shamanic healing experiences. Recently when looking into my Hungarian ancestry, I discovered a Hungarian shamanic tradition of spiritual practitioners called taltos. A taltos is described as a special person with ‘strange’ characteristics and supernatural powers.  They share the above shamanic characteristics of dancing, whirling, shaking, stomping, and so on, with the deities I had researched in the South Asian Tantric traditions. I wanted to learn more about the compelling similarities I found between Hungarian taltoses,  the Hungarian Goddess Boldagasszony, and the Goddess Durga, the Matrikas and shamans in the Kathmandu Valley like Lhamo.
Female Shamanism and Tantra in Nepal
To understand female shamanism in Nepal, we must look to the Shakta Tantric traditions. Tantra is a path of transformation and having direct experience with the Divine. The Yoginis, Matrikas, and dakinis are categories of female deities, as well as living practitioners, who express spiritual authority and liberating and healing powers. They are all emanations of the Great Goddess Durga or Vajrayogini, as she is called by Her Buddhist devotees. Within the Shakta Tantra and Tantric Buddhist traditions, practitioners must embrace the paradoxes of life and confront adversity with courage and trust. Specifically in the Shakta tradition, working with the energies of the five senses and understanding the human body as a temple is essential. The goal of the Shakta Tantra tradition is not to transcend this physical reality and the body, but to engage directly with every experience and emotion.
Regardless of the different Tantric practices within Buddhist or Hindu traditions, we find a consistency in the female practitioner’s shamanic expression of her powers regarding healing, liberation, transformation and empowerment. Qualities such as voluntary or involuntary possession of a deity, performing pujas or rituals with intentions for healing or other desired outcomes, healing practices, oracular guidance, spiritual leadership and sometimes philosophical yet body-based instruction on life are domains of female experience. Female shamans and practitioners of Nepal also have certain ‘siddhis’ or powers depending on whether they fall into the categories of Yogini, Matrika, dakini, ajima (grandmother), witch, shaman or kumari (virgin).
Through ritual practice that incorporates shamanic elements such as possession, drumming, whirling, honoring the 5 elements, worshipping tree deities, ancestors, inducing healing, and so on, females in these different categories may experience special powers such as levitation, premonitions, the ability to become minute in size or as large as the universe, astral travel, strong healing abilities, and more. They may shape-shift into animal or bird forms or work with the energies of certain power animals. Female shamans and Goddesses of Nepal are fierce, yet compassionate and nurturing embodiments of the Mother Goddess who are summoned for protection around threshold experiences of consciousness: birth, pregnancy, sex, life, death, illness, and healing.
Hungarian Folk Belief
Hungarian Tree of Life The old, pre-Christian religion of Hungary is mostly unknown. Fragments of this tradition are evident in the Hungarians’ mentality, traditions, folk art and folk tales. Hungarian legends explore the universal quest for God and inquiry into humanity and life. Honoring the ancestors is also important. Exploring the understanding and expression of the Divine among cultures such as Sumer, the Indus-Sarasvati Valley, and Nepal is vital, as mythology and ritual practices can show evidence of common origin. Archaeology, contemporary rituals and existing fragments of belief can also help us to reconstruct the early belief systems and ritual practices.
The early roots of Hungarian folk beliefs and spiritual traditions are largely unknown and have long been debated. Some scholars assert a ‘predominantly European cultural heritage’ while others argue that the folklore and peasant practices have preserved remnants of an ancient Asian heritage. Similar to Tantra, old Hungarian folk belief indicates a belief in the complementary energies of the Universe. There is a belief in the soul and different levels of the soul perhaps similar to the different sheaths or koshas of the energy body in Tantra. In both cultures, shamanic practices help one navigate these energies and find balance.
However, we may even consider theories of the origins of Hungarian shamanism in Scythian and Sumerian cultures as a compelling link between Hungarian female taltoses and the strong Amazon warrior women that Vicki Noble discusses in The Double Goddess. Furthermore, Noble describes Enheduanna, priestess to Inanna in Sumer, and the earliest poet we have written record of, as a shaman priestess. It is interesting to note the shared significance of the number 7 with the gates Inanna must descend in Her initiation into full power, the 7 Beautiful Dancing Women in Hungarian Mythology and the 7 Matrikas in Nepal, as well as the etymological connections between ancient Sumerian and Hungarian languages that reference similar energies in Nepal.
There are many compelling connections between Sumerian and Hungarian mythologies. I am referencing Sumer as a connecting point between Hungary and Nepal because Sumerian mythology, certain religious symbols and Goddesses also share connections and similarities with Nepalese Goddesses like Durga, the Matrikas, Yoginis and dakinis. Both Sumer and the Tantric traditions of Nepal share an association with the Indus-Sarasvati Valley and female-centered worship of the Divine Mother as Source of Birth, Life, and Death. In Nepal She is Durga, in Sumer, Inanna Ereshkigal or her earlier form, Bau, in Hungary Boldogasszony. Inanna and Erehskigal are Queens of Heaven and Earth, and the Underworld, Durga and Boldogasszony both are worshiped as Goddess of the Harvest and are associated with Life, Healing, Protection, and Death. In all 3 cultures’ mythologies, we find references with these Goddesses to 7 women/mothers/sisters (or gates in the Inanna myth), which connects them to the symbol of 7 females on the bottom of an Indus-Sarasvati Valley seal (3500 BCE) who stand under a Banyan Tree. Inside the Banyan tree is a Goddess and a horned priestess kneels before her. Bau, Durga, the Matrikas and Boldogasszony are all worshiped as Tree. We will return to the significance of the tree later.
In Hungarian mythology there are a group of beings called the turul. They appear as hawk like birds, who fly from the skies and can navigate and connect the worlds. They reside on the tree of life brooding over the spirits of unborn children. They serve as divine messengers just like the flying dakinis in Nepal who can also take form as birds. Dakinis are also considered divine messengers, who bring their messages for awakening and liberation through their terma (hidden treasures) or otherwise. Shamans are generally described as having this ability to shape shift and fly. Scholars on the Hargita Hungarian Taltos website compare the turul to their Sumerian equivalents, ‘emesh’, meaning ‘female’, ‘woman’, ‘mother’. They point out that this word resembles the Hungarian word ‘emse’ (emshe, older form ‘emeth’) meaning sow today. Emeshe is the Source of Fertility; She is Fertility itself. Recalling a possible connection with Anatolia, an etymologically related word, emme, in the Turkic language, means ‘baby sucking the breast of the mother.’ This word is also related to the mother and to the Hungarian word ‘emlő’, which means female breast. For the ancient Hungarians, as for the Sumerians and Nepalese, the Source of Fertility and Nurturance was a Divine Mother.
According to the Hargita site, the emesh are emanations of the Hungarian Beauty Woman, ‘Boldogasszony’, the Great Goddess in Hungarian mythology. Today the Hungarian word ‘boldog’ means ‘happy’; however, originally it meant‘rich’, similar to the Turkish word ‘bollug’, which means ‘richness; having plenty of all things, what you need, most importantly food’. The original meaning of the Hungarian word is richness and plenty. Boldogasszony is Goddess of Life and Abundance. She shares powers like Her pre-Inanna Sumerian counterpart, Bau, who wore a crown of three pairs of branches, holding branches in her arms, and carrying a pot full of the water of life – symbols of abundance one also finds with Goddess Durga. In Sumer one of the most common titles for Bau was ‘gasan’, meaning ‘rich’, ‘wonderful’ and ‘mighty’.
Etymologically Bau Gasan and Boldogasszony are connected and as Goddesses of Life share other expressions as well. Bau Gasan has seven daughters in Assyrian mythology who are associated with helping, healing, fertilizing, and bringing abundance. Boldogasszony is connected to the 7 beauty women in old Hungarian mythology. They are her daughters, the youngest of whom, is called Beautiful and is mischievous. She is said to resemble Inanna. The 7 daughters of Boldogasszony rule over the 7 days of the week. They are connected to the 7 planets and are associated with plants and animals. They bring fertility and offer healing. They have a special role of protection for women especially around childbirth. Boldogasszony’s main day of worship is Tuesday. Durga’s day of worship is Tuesday as well.
Many parallels show up in the language and functions surrounding the 7 Hungarian Beauty Women and the 7 Matrikas in Nepal. The meaning of Matrikas is ‘little mothers’ and the Matrikas are expressions of female energies like the Hungarian emesh. Emesh means mother, woman, female and the Matrikas rule over pregnancy, sex, birth, menstruation and other altered states of consciousness. All of the Matrikas have fertilizing powers and as a collective form of the Great Mother are embodiments of Fertility and Creativity itself. They are also connected to the planets and different plants and animals. They are especially worshipped during the annual fall harvest festival to Durga celebrating the cyclical nature of existence. One of the Matrikas, Varahi has the face of a sow, perhaps connecting today’s meaning of emeshe as sow with the earlier female energy around fertility and power it conveyed.
What is a taltos? A taltos has been described as being generally male; however, this is a typical example of how even the word shaman has been mistakenly interpreted as a male practitioner exclusively. I have seen sources that mention female taltoses too. Much like we see in other shamanic traditions, becoming a taltos is passed down hereditarily or through some sort of vocation that especially shows itself through mental, physical, and/or emotional illness. The process includes typical stages, often an initial resistance to the calling and various symptoms of the ‘shamanic disease’, until the person ‘chosen by the gods finally accepts their role’.
In Social Constructions of the Native Faith: Mytho-historical Narratives and Identity – discourse in Hungarian Neo-paganism, Diószegi in Ádám Kolozsi describes the táltos as a specialist who performs rituals that induce controlled ecstasy (rejtezés) or altered state experiences. The souls of taltoses are thought to be able to travel between the three spheres (révülés) — similar to a shaman’s journey between three realms in other traditions, as well as the Matrikas’, dakinis’ and Yoginis’ abilities to navigate different worlds and realms of consciousness. Taltoses have the ability to contact spirits by specific rituals and praying. They serve as intermediaries between the human and spirit and ancestral realms, helping with soul retrievals, interpreting dreams, mediating between humans and spirits, curing and removing curses. Taltoses are also doctors and healers and their powers are believed to be the sign of a divine order. Similar to the rituals around the Matrikas, Yoginis and other fierce goddesses in Nepal, blood from animal sacrifice was offered. One of the initiation rituals is to offer blood to the ancestor ghosts.
Taltoses possess supernatural powers such as the ability to find hidden treasures. They are said to sometimes stomp in order to unearth the treasure. They also have the ability to shape shift and transform themselves into a bull or stallion in order to work their magic in changing the weather and bringing good health or fortune to a client. Rituals include dancing, singing, and drumming. In Hungarian, the battle drum is named ‘bull’ and as we have seen in classic works on shamanism, drums often take over the qualities of the shaman’s spirit helpers and animals. By the Middle Ages, taltoses in Hungary no longer used drums, but their magical powers were transferred to two kitchen instruments: the sieve and the switch. Both of these kitchen tools were also used for witchcraft, divination, fertility and other ritualistic practices, and were commonly found in agricultural households, serving specific functions around making bread. There is a ritualistic dance of the 7 Beauty women with kitchen utensils to invoke Boldagasszony’s blessing to keep the hearth fires burning.
There is an etymological connection between the drum and sieve. One of the Hungarian words for drum, dob, is phonetically identical with the verb, dob, (to throw). In its archaic usage it is also meant to give, to place, or even to give birth (literally ‘to drum up’ something). It is interesting to consider the magical uses of drumming—to invoke, cast a spell, give predictions, heal, induce trance states and summon powers to receive or birth new conditions. The sieve’s connection to flour and baking bread is also central to Goddess rituals in Hungary. In Hungary an ancient festival known as the Festival of the New Bread takes place on the 20th of August. Sandor and Aslan connect this festival to the Goddess Inanna and a ritual honoring the sun’s weakening light since the summer solstice. It represents the annual death of Inanna’s consort. A week of mourning is performed commemorating the dying light and symbolic god. Bread made of newly harvested wheat was offered to the Mother Goddess Bau, the Pre-Inanna, who, as we have seen, is linked to the Hungarian Boldagasszony. This old rite was kept in the Hungarian tradition, in the festival of Great Beauty Woman and her 7 dancing daughters.
The word for sieve turning in Hungary etymologically relates to dancing and whirling. It also etymologically relates to sowing seeds and a special dancing movement ‘women perform in front of their partners in couple dances’. Kurtis notes that all these related terms are of Finno-Ugric origin, a language family to which Hungarian and other Siberian tribal languages belong.
Taltoses are said to need to always keep moving and display a lot of antinomian behaviors such as yelling, moving erratically, insulting others. Sometimes their behavior is described as quarrelsome and this is one of the reasons they are so often on the move. M.A. Czaplicka says “saman” means one who is excited, moved, raised,” and that “women are more prone to emotional excitement than men.” Taltoses are said to be “wanderers from village to village, from settlement to settlement.”
In Hungarian folklore the ‘7 Beautiful Women’ spin and dance. It is a dance of the mother letting go of her daughter into marriage. Boldogasszony in her 7 forms is invoked for protection around fertility and motherhood. She brings birth and abundance. In this ritualistic dance to invoke protection around motherhood and birthing, Boldogasszony calls the 7 Women, who are expressions of Her, back into Herself just as Durga calls the 7 Matrikas back into her body while battling the demon in her epic myth to restore justice and peace to all the worlds. Boldogasszony is associated with various harvest festivals throughout the year, just as Durga is. Durga’s annual festival is also a reunion of mothers and daughters. The young women who have gotten married and had to leave their mothers’ homes return home each year during the fall Durga festival.
The 7 Matrikas in Nepal
In the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal, there is a group of 7 goddesses known as the Matrikas or Mother Goddesses. They are a collective form of the Great Mother Goddess Durga. In South Asia we encounter various legends about 7 sisters, 7 mother goddesses, 7 sacred rivers and other groupings of 7. The 7 mother goddesses can be traced back at least as far as a seal stone from the Indus-Sarasvati Valley Civilization (3500 BCE.) This seal stone depicts 7 female figures standing under a Banyan tree, inside of which a horned female figure resides. A devotee kneels before the tree, her arms outstretched. A bull or horned goat stands behind the devotee. Katherine Anne Harper, Asko Parpola and others have shown how the collective form of the goddesses we know as the Matrikas can be traced at least as far back as the Indus-Sarasvati Valley Civilization (today Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northern India). This seal is rich in symbolism shared in both cultures: a sacred tree, 7 women, a bull. In Deciphering the Indus Script, Parpola posits that the Sarasvati Valley peoples traded with Sumerians and possibly even Old Europeans. This would link the people of Nepal, Sumer and Magyars of ancient Hungary.
The Matrikas are invoked in Tantric rituals for prophecy, divination, protection, and healing. One of the collective, Indrani, is associated with the weather and rain clouds, perhaps recalling shamanistic weather-inducing characteristics of her earlier devotees. Another Matrika, Maheshvari is accompanied by a bull. If you recall, the Hungarian taltos shape shifts into a bull. All of the Matrikas have animal vehicles, except for Chamunda who rides a corpse. Each are also associated with different plant forms and planets.
The Matrikas are sometimes invoked through whirling and dancing. It is generally men who perform these rituals today. Altered states of consciousness are induced as they dance wildly in the main square of the medieval towns in an annual autumnal ritual for healing, protection, abundance, harvest, and transformation. Drums continue to be an integral way to induce trancelike states in participants and dancers alike.
After dancing for nine nights, the men embodying the Matrikas move out into the Valley and travel from village to town to village over the next nine to ten months. It is interesting to note the similarities between the Matrika dancers’ wandering movements and the taltoses, who whirl and wander as well. The Tibetan Buddhist dakinis or sky-dancing women, who are associated with whirling and finding terma or treasures, display similar shamanistic characteristics.
Aside from whirling, and needing to move about, shaking uncontrollably is also common to taltoses, Matrikas, and female shamanic healers like Lhamo of Nepal; all of them voluntarily or involuntarily become possessed by the Goddess in shamanic rituals. It is important to consider the fierce female deities who manifest in Nepalese Yoginis and shamans. Often these goddesses’ function is to heal, demarcate sacred space, prophesize, empower, and navigate between the seen and unseen realms— much like we find in other shamanic tradition across the globe. During such altered states people can very possibly possess supernatural powers of the Goddess.
Lhamo: A Tibetan Shaman in Nepal
Lhamo is a Tibetan shaman in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal. Lhamo means Goddess in Tibetan. I first met her in 1998 a few months after the death of my beloved grandmother. In the small crowded living room of her Boudnanath apartment, locals and foreigners gathered waiting to witness and receive a healing. Lhamo began a series of incantations while shaking a rattle and drum. After a minute or two her body starting shaking wildly and she started shouting aggressively and whipping kernels of barley, corn and rice at us. Her screaming was often offensive, as the language of a taltos in ritual is said to be, and Lhamo also displayed antinomian behavior such as biting her clients and spitting into a bowl in her healing rituals. In an article on Lhamo in Shaman’s Drum magazine, Larry G. Peterson notes, “At times she turned violently aggressive—ranting, raving, throwing things and drinking alcohol excessively.” Taltoses in Hungary have been described similarly: “There is a woman in our village…she moves so much; her hands and legs move constantly, even her head moves; every part of her body moves, that’s how she walks on the street. Many times they tell her: “You are like a taltos.”
Like the Matrikas, Yoginis and Hungarian taltoses, Lhamo serves as an intermediary between worlds. She performs healings and psychic surgery. She clears negative entities and energies. The drum is an important tool for Lhamo, as it is for the taltoses. Not only does she use it in her opening invocation, “she did many barley divinations on the drum, a procedure that involves throwing barley on the face of the drum and reading how it falls.” Healer, oracle, communicator with the dead, these are some of the many shamanic roles of Lhamo, who, I later discovered, shares characteristics with Durga. Lhamo invokes the Tibetan Goddess, Dorje Yudronama, Goddess of Worldly Protection, who carries an arrow of divination. Dorje Yudornama also has a collective of 12 goddesses. Durga manifests as a collective form of 7 or 8 goddesses who heal afflictions of the mind and body and offer protection in sustaining the worlds, just as Lhamo was doing in her ritual.
Another symbol shared by both the taltoses and goddesses of Nepal is the connection to trees. Trees have long been worshiped and understood as divine in South Asia. As we have seen the tree is central to the beliefs of taltos shamanism in Hungary and there are different trees that serve during shamanic initiations. According to Hargita: The táltos gets shamanic knowledge at a young age, through shamanic journeys in days-long dreams, in which the main initiation goal is climbing the égig érő fa (‘sky-high tree’), also called életfa (‘tree of life’), világfa (‘world tree’) or tetejetlen fa (‘tree without a top.’) Hungarian mythology is centered on a tree of life. It is not clear what spirit a taltos possesses, but it is clear she draws power from her initiations with trees. One of the manifestations of the Goddess Boldogasszony in Old Hungarian mythology is a tree.
In Nepal the tree has been a central religious and spiritual motif since earliest times. Durga, the Matrikas, Yoginis and other elemental Goddesses are associated with the tree. Sometimes a tree is worshiped by the name of one of these Goddesses. Kumaris, young virgin Newar girls, are married to a tree for protection. The banyan tree, with its early reference to the Indus Fig Tree seal, continues to be worshiped as a Goddess or Grama Devata as has been done for over 5000 years. The Grama Devata or Village Goddess is also said to be an early category of female deities with similar protective functions around life, birth, pregnancy, children, illness, healing, sex, altered states of consciousness, and death. The Grama Devatas are an ancient expression of the Matrikas. There are numerous connections between these different categories of goddesses and female practitioners in Nepal and the taltoses in Hungary, 7 Beauty Women, and the tree as Goddess.
The horse is a prominent animal in both Tibetan and Hungarian traditions, so it is important to consider its significance. Sometimes Dorje Yudronama, the Goddess that Lhamo invokes, appears with four protector deities on horses. In Tibet there is a Goddess named Palden Lhamo who rides a horse. According to Vicki Noble, she brought the dharma to Tibet from Central Asia. In the shamanistic traditions of East and Central Asia, a windhorse is a symbol of the soul. The horse is one of four animals associated with the four directions in Tibetan Buddhism, and the Matrikas of the Shakta Tantra tradition each have an animal mount and are associated with the directions as well.The Matrikas and Yoginis, and the shamans who embody them, guide the soul through thresholds of consciousness and enforce the cyclical nature of Reality. In Hungary “a good running horse was called a taltos.” The horse or taltos has the power to go anywhere.” The horse and the taltos are honored for their strength and windlike movement, again recalling the windlike energy of the dakinis and similar qualities the Matrikas possess.