Museum of Ethnography
H-1146, Budapest, Dózsa György út 35.
Phone: +36 1 474 2100
Text: Áron Bakos
Photo: Krisztina Sarnyai
Housed in the Museum of Ethnography’s Customs and Toys Collection is a letter—inventory number 72.69.1—claimed by its text to have been sent by Christ Jesus to the Archangel Saint Michael. While such a thing may seem strange to some, it is less so to those familiar with the genre. Known as a ‘heavenly letter,’ the piece belongs to a category of magical religious missives tasked with reminding their readers of the need to uphold various prescriptions, prohibitions, and devotional practices, offering them protection, power, and forgiveness, and, not unimportantly, urging the reproduction, preservation, and dissemination of the text itself. Messages in this genre share certain distinguishing features, including an introduction intended to establish authenticity and ‘prove’ the letter’s divine origin; elements of form and style taken from religious texts of various other genres; the use of formulaic prayers, curses, and blessings; and an array of admonitions mandating adherence to rules and practices related to pious living, in particular the need of keeping the Sabbath day holy.
Photo by Krisztina Sarnyai
Letter 72.69.1 came to the museum during the 1970s under rather unusual circumstances, having been found in a cast-off wallet on the street in the area of Budapest’s 18th District known as Szemeretelep. It was one of the museum’s employees who recognised the letter’s value and mediated its donation, after which it was inventoried by staff member Erzsébet Györgyi. Accordingly, little can be said regarding the letter’s original use, save that its owner likely followed the instruction to keep it safe and carry it with him. Additionally, its many misspellings, grammatical errors, lack of punctuation, and omissions all suggest that the person who penned it was one unused to writing and that its antecedent was not a printed work, but another hand-written document. At the same time, neither its hand-written character, nor its relatively late collection date are enough to qualify it as an ethnographic curiosity. Certainly, few ethnographers would be excited by its heavily deteriorated script or subpar condition, by the complete lack of context surrounding its use, by its relatively recent provenance, or by the suburban setting in which it was discovered.... What places the piece in a different light, therefore, is not its unusual story, but rather the history of the genre to which it belongs.
At first glance, it is not clear that even this aspect of the topic would suffice to pique a keen ethnographer’s interest. Like many other manifestations of folk literacy, the ‘heavenly letter’ derives from pulp publications, its dissemination owing much to the influence of German culture. The spread of the tradition during the 19th century received an enormous push from the rise of cheap, accessible printed materials, as well as from the gradual decline in analphabetism. The fact of German cultural mediation is evidenced by the transmission of the same tradition by German immigrants in the New World. Still, by the time such texts began appearing in print and, through that medium, in folk settings as well, they had already travelled a substantial historical path, one that spanned not only a considerable length of time—even where only the strictest definition of the genre is considered, the string of chain letters traces as far back as the sixth century—but also a great deal of geographic territory. Researchers of the topic note that for specimens dating to the early medieval period, for example, the range extended as far as Iceland in the north, Ethiopia in the south, Ireland in the west, and Syria in the east.
Thus, should there be any doubt as to whether the museum’s original weatherbeaten letter from Pestszentlőrinc were truly placed upon peak of Mount Michaelis by the Archangel Saint Michael, one may at least be sure of an entire brotherhood of similar letters in the Armenian, Syrian, Arabic, Karshuni, and Ethiopian languages.