Dialectical Anthropology

, Volume 21, Issue 3–4, pp 381–398 | Cite as

The importance of historical myths for the ethnic consciousness of Romanians and ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania

  • Greet Van de Vyver


The ethnic Hungarians and the Romanians share a number of myths about their ancestors and about their homeland, Transylvania. I fully agree with Anthony D. Smith, who states that the core of ethnic identity is made up of a “myth-symbol complex,” consisting of myths, symbols, historical memory and key values. According to Smith, myths and symbols guarantee the preservation and the passing down to future generations of ethnic identity.25 The main problem with the ethnic Hungarians and the Romanians of Transylvania is that their convictions are not compatible, they are even contradictory. In the ethnic Hungarians' view, Transylvania is in fact Hungarian, but it was taken from them by Romania in 1920. According to the Romanians, Transylvania is Romanian but for centuries mistakenly considered as Hungarian by the Hungarians. The historical myths are part of the Hungarian as well as the Romanian collective consciousness. They strengthen cohesion within these groups but, as the convictions are incompatible, they widen the gap between them. In my view, these contradictory views are an additional cause of the current mutual oversensitivity, the mutual suspicion and mutual ignorance which characterize the relation between the two ethnic groups. I think that the success of the Romanian nationalist parties such as the PUNR and România Mare26 among the Romanian villagers of Transylvania 27is partly due to their exploitation of these contradictory myths.

However, the differing oral traditions in the villages do not cause open conflicts. That everyone in his own group passes on his own version helps to explain this. In mixed villages like Dumbrava and Mànàstireni, the sensitive issues are not discussed in ethnically mixed groups. Virtually everything to do with history is suppressed in the day-to-day life of the village. Nevertheless, that does not stop one ethnic group from gossiping about the other. Thus, mutual distrust persists. Such a sense of fear is a dangerous breeding-ground because it can easily be exploited by nationalist parties. When anything occurs in politics which appeals to these feelings of fear and distrust, two fronts are lined up in no time. This actually happened as a result of the controversy about the archaeological excavations in Cluj.

Fortunately, there is a sufficiently large number of people who realize that this is pointless and who see through the extremist nationalist party leaders' malice. Bearing in mind the tragic example of the former Yugoslavia, they advocate understanding and peaceful interethnic co-existence.

I have touched on only one of several conditions for ethnic survival and revival: the shared historical myths. Research in this field is essential if we are to begin to understand, and, thus, perhaps to alleviate, the many social and political problems in this area.


Ethnic Group Ethnic Identity Mixed Group Sensitive Issue Oral Tradition 
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© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1996

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  • Greet Van de Vyver

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