God’s Chosen People?

The other day, reading a history of Spain by Juan Eslava Galán, I came across the following paragraph:

Spain had become the defender of the honour of God. Theologians and thinkers (not so many of these latter) became convinced that Spain and God were united in a pact. God promoted Spain to the rank of the chosen people, protected her and granted her riches and power (the Americas) in exchange for which Spain acted as his armed arm on Earth, champion of the true faith against the error of the Protestants and the Turks.

España se había erigido en defensora del honor de Dios. Teólogos y pensadores (de estos hubo menos) llegaron al convencimiento de que España y Dios estaban unidos por un pacto. Dios la había promocionado al rango de pueblo elegido, la protegía y le otorgaba riquezas y poder (las Américas) a cambio de que ella ejerciese como su brazo armado en la Tierra, paladín de la fe verdadera contra el error de protestantes y turcos.

This notion of the pact with God and the chosen people put me strongly in mind of the Hun-Hungarian legends which I read as a child.

The Huns of Attila, of whom you might have heard before, were a barbaric horde of nomadic horsemen out of the east who overran the Roman Empire and acquired a bad name in doing so. For a generation, they lived on what is now known as the Great Hungarian Plain in the Carpathian Basin in Central Europe and then disappeared from history forever. Some four hundred years and several other nomadic hordes later, another horde of barbaric horsemen, the Magyars, came out of the east, overran the west a là Attila and decided to live on – you’ve guessed – the Great Hungarian Plain. The year was 895 AD and these horse archers, wholeheartedly mistaken in the west for the descendants of Attila’s Huns, came to be known as the Hungarians.

Hungarian horse archer, wall fresco in Aquileia, Italy via Wikipedia [public domain]
Hungarian horse archer, wall fresco in Aquileia, Italy via Wikipedia [public domain]
In point of fact, the Huns were in no way related to the Hungarians but a thousand years ago nobody knew this, least of all the Hungarians themselves. After a brief period of glory as marauders and a couple of ringing military defeats, the Hungarians had the sense to settle down and learn Western ways, and unlike the Huns and all the other nomadic hordes before, they managed to survive – no mean feat in the Carpathian Basin, this crossroads of ancient trade routes, an eternal battlefield of empires and the graveyard of nations.

For nearly a thousand years Europe continued in the mistaken belief that the Hungarians were the descendants of the Huns, and the Hungarians, not having much history to call upon and eager to get a good¹ name for themselves, embraced the idea with some enthusiasm. The entirely mythical connection is preserved to this day in the folk tales known in Hungary as the Hun-Hungarian legends.

The legends recount that the twin brothers Hunor and Magyar made a pact with God: in exchange for permanent tenancy rights, the brothers signed up to protect the golden corner of the world – a magical land of talking grapes, smiling apples and bell-ringing peaches – from the Devil. (Needless to say, the Devil had entirely different ideas.) To cut a long story short, God had provided his chosen people with a sword that made them invincible (cue Attila, Scourge of God) and they set out for the promised land. After the various adventures of the brothers and their descendants, the Huns and the Magyars, the legends close with the Hungarians finding and conquering the magical land: the Carpathian Basin in Central Europe, the former lands of Attila the Hun.

Anything strikes you as familiar about the story?

Think the Promised Land of the Old Testament – because that’s exactly what you’ve got here. It’s not difficult to see how these legends must have been influenced by the Bible, which the Hungarians first came into contact with during their move towards the west while they served the Byzantine Empire in the capacity of mercenaries. When they embraced Christianity later, the scene was set for a whole-hearted adoption of the entire tale. The Spanish of course too were Christians and probably got their ideas from the exact same source.

At various eras in their history, the Jews, the Hungarians and the Spanish all suffered this delusion of being the chosen people. But there were others. An interesting offshoot of the same fundamental delusion was shared by the English empire builders of the 19th century who believed that it was their God-ordained duty to spread the three Cs – cricket, the classics and Christianity – among their ‘unenlightened’ subject nations. While it’s possible that all these nations were simply particularly arrogant, you might just want to ask yourself:

Is there a nation that at some point didn’t think it was God’s own?

Thought for the day.

¹ Hungary is the only country in the world where the name Attila remains a popular 'Christian' name for boys.

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