Collecting Dirt: Sacrificing A Beanie in St Stephen’s Basilica

Collecting Dirt: Sacrificing A Beanie in St Stephen’s Basilica

Some of you may have noticed my absence (and the lack of new posts since the beginning of the year). I was away on a trip across Europe, which -apart from being great fun- gave me the opportunity to collect dirt from a few interesting places. Which was no small feat, considering the temperatures were very low and the ground was frozen.

St Stephen I, King of Hungary
St Stephen I, King of Hungary

One of those places, the Basilica of St Stephen of Hungary, is of particular interest to me. The reason lies buried deep in my childhood, when I visited Budapest for the first time and was shown the statue of Stephen (who was a King before becoming a saint) and my first thought was “wow, he’s good looking!” (I was a weird kid).

Childhood crushes aside though, I’ve always had an interesting and complicated relationship with Hungary and its people, ranging from “this is where I want to spend the rest of my life!” (which resulted in an unsuccessful attempt to learn the language, back when it wasn’t so easily to learn any language you wanted online) to “get me out of here now!” and everything in-between, depending on when the visit took place as well as why I was visiting (different reasons result to spending time with different kinds of people, which in turns results in very different experiences).

Having said that, the city spirit of Budapest always liked me (even during the times when the people didn’t, or when I didn’t like the people) and I always liked it too. I get the feeling that Budapest and I go way back and that the city recognizes past life versions of myself in me just as I recognize past versions of the city in the current city. Which is a positive thing here, though it isn’t always a positive thing in general (Many parts of Romania recognize me too for example and I recognize them, but our relationship ranges from “oh, it’s you again….” to “Ha! You’ll crash and burn now!”. Which is why I don’t particularly enjoy traveling there, even though it’s a very beautiful country and I like the people.)

Enough rambling about city spirits though and back to St Stephen and his Basilica.

WHO WAS ST STEPHEN OF HUNGARY?

St Stephen, otherwise known as King Stephen I (c. 975 – 15 August 1038 AD), was the last Grand Prince of the Hungarians and the first King of Hungary (from either 1000 or 1001; we aren’t sure exactly when his coronation took place). He was the first Christian Hungarian King. His parents were both baptized, but unlike them, he was a devout Christian. He basically united the kingdom and converted his nation into Christians. Until his death, that is. There’s a gap from his death until the next important Christian King, Laszlo, who spent 15 years on his horse, sword in hand, until there were no pagans left in the country (and is also a popular canonized Saint today). In-between Stephen’s and Laszlo’s reign there was a return to the old religion, featuring other historic events, like the unfortunate event of putting a bishop in a barrel and throwing him down a hill (the bishop became Saint Gellert after death, and the hill bears his name).

THE BASILICA OF ST STEPHEN IN BUDAPEST

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The Basilica of St Stephen is the largest church in Hungary. Building began in 1851, based on the classicist designs of József Hild. After Hild’s death though in 1868 the dome collapsed due to a bad foundation, and building was continued in Neo-Renaissance style by Miklós Ybl. Miklós Ybl however died too, so the basilica was finally completed by József Kauser in1905.

Holy Right Hand of St Stephen
This ornate gold reliquary is where the Hand of St Stephen is housed today.

Architecture and art aside, what is interesting about the Basilica of St Stephen is that it houses a holy relic: the mummified right hand of St Stephen. The Holy Hand has traveled a lot during the 1000 years since its owner’s death before ending up back in Hungary after WW II, when the priest of the American army brought the hand from Salzburg in Austria back to Budapest on August 20, 1945.

Beside being well-traveled, there’s a lot of controversy surrounding the Holy Hand. But that is completely irrelevant from a magical point of view. The Holy Right Hand is taken out once a year, on August 20, and carried in the Holy Right Hand (Szent Jobb) Procession.

 

Holy Right Hand of St Stephen closeup
The (pretty darn difficult to take a good picture of) Holy Right Hand of St Stephen.

We were scheduled to visit the church, so I intended to gather some dirt upon exit. Now I usually pay for the dirt I get from different places, and had full intention of doing so this time too. It seems though that either the saint or the church spirit had a very specific thing in mind that they wanted. During the tour of the church, I kept dropping my beret beanie (it was in my bag, and every time I opened my bag it fell out and I didn’t realize until someone handed it to me). At last, we entered the room where the Holy Right Hand is kept. The beanie was in my bag when I took out my camera. It wasn’t in my bag anymore though when I opened it to put the camera back inside. I have no idea what happened to it. It wasn’t on the floor; in fact it wasn’t anywhere I looked within the church. No one had found it this time. I saw no one holding my beanie (that was my favorite, and that I had bought during a trip to the Netherlands many years ago).

I went outside and collected some dirt while waiting for the rest of the group. The spirit of the land and church was unusually eager to allow me to collect some dirt. It said it didn’t want anything in return (though I did still give it something anyway) and that I should feel free to get whatever I need.

Was my beanie the sacrifice for the dirt? I have no idea! I like to think that St Stephen claimed it. He may not have a head anymore, but the church isn’t heated (it damages the artwork and the dome) and it was pretty effing cold inside! I do still wonder though if someone found and kept my beanie or if the church kept it. When I want a strong link with a place, I usually collect dirt from the place and leave something of mine in the place, so that the link goes both ways. Is this what happened here? Who knows! If I start dreaming of the Saint/King I fancied as a child I’ll let you know!

Cover photo (by Andrew Shiva, source): The Heroes’ Square, Budapest. King Stephen I of Hungary is the one on the very left (on the horse, above the circle of statues). On the column in the middle, overlooking everything, is archangel Gabriel. This particular column with Archangel Gabriel fascinated me as a child. I wanted to know what it feels like to be up there, watching over the whole city. So I feel obliged now to post a closeup photo of Gabriel on the column:
Archangel Gabriel in Heroes' Square, Budapest

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