Buso walking through Mohacs, Hungary — Image by Zsolt Turi
By Diane Dobry
Six-Day Festival in Southern Hungary
I was first introduced to the six-day festival known as Busójárás by my Hungarian friend, Gyuri, who grew up in Mohács, a town situated next to the Danube in southern Hungary near the Croatian border. When he first described the festival to me, I was perplexed. It involved masked men (Busó) walking through his hometown after arriving by boat on the Danube, a several-days-long festival of dancing and eating ending with a giant bonfire. Why were masked men walking through the town? What were they doing in boats on the river in cold, wintry February? When I first saw the actual masks they wore displayed at the Museum of Ethnography in Budapest in 2004, I began to understand the idea. They reminded me of the distorted “false faces” on masks worn by the Iroquois Indians of New York State.
Why Masked Men Come to Mohács
This festival, Busójárás, a UNESCO-recognized tradition, which dates back more than 150 years, translates to, “Busó walking around.” According to Gyuri, no one knows what the original trigger point was that established the custom, but there are two key underlying legends. Since the Turks occupied Hungary for 150 years almost 500 years ago, they are the legendary bad guys that much traditional folklore is based on. This tale of Busójárás reflects the story of the local population scheming to scare the Turks away. As Gyuri tells it, the locals decided to do this by wearing carved, distorted, animal-like masks with horns painted with pig’s blood and carry crafted wooden clackers. A similar legend is that a South Slavic ethnic group from Croatia—the Šokci—fled Mohács to escape the Ottoman soldiers. One man proposed that they intimidate the Ottomans with scary-looking masks and use rattles and other noisemakers to make loud, frightening sounds
More likely, Gyuri suspects, is that the festival is based on a pagan tradition, since Hungarians were originally a shamanic culture before adopting Christianity and the Catholic faith. It was a traditional custom for chasing away winter and welcoming the spring. At one time, the Busós went from house-to-house to extend good wishes and do magic tricks, and in return they were given food and drink.
Scary Costumes and Fertility Rites
Gyuri remembers that as a young man, he joined others in Mohács preparing and wearing their masks. “There is another type of being—not just Busó—that they call jankele,” he said. “They are considered the helpers for the Busó,” which was what the young people and others in town dressed up to be if they were not the Busó, he explained. Their outfits were made from old torn-up clothes, with women’s stockings and paint covering their faces so they would be unrecognizable. Women wore traditional folk costumes of the region or the traditional costumes worn by female Ottoman Turks.
Costumes worn by the Busó were quite expensive and were often handed down from generation to generation. They commonly included a well-made mask with horns, a tunic made of curly white sheepskin, and white leggings – or if the man’s legs were a little too thin, sacks on each leg stuffed with straw.
Another part of the festival was based on fertility rites, involving the strange custom of filling a sack with rags, feathers, and powder, to be thrown at someone. “Mostly the women,” Gyuri pointed out. Why women? “It is a pagan way of celebrating nature and fertility, to guarantee new life.”
Festivities Draw Crowds to Put Winter to Rest
The event draws thousands of people from all over Hungary, as well as Croatians, Russians, English, French and Germans. The week-long festival has a bazaar-like feel, with booths selling traditional festival foods, drinks, artisanal crafts, cheese, and toys. While the celebration once had fireworks, Gyuri remembered that a loud explosion for the festival came from a cannon that has been around for hundreds of years. Rags, rather than cannonballs, were used to create the boom. Several types of music play loudly all at once while a huge fire in the center town square burns daily. On the final day–always Tuesday–a coffin is placed atop the fire with the prior year’s date written on it, symbolizing the burning of the past year. Other sources say the coffin was tossed into the river. Due to the pandemic, Busójárás has not been celebrated for the past two years before this year, Gyuri said. I think it is safe to say that we all wanted to put 2020 and 2021 to rest, and this year’s Busójárás did that for us.