Top: table of rovás letters; translation of sign accompanying the lead of this story; Center:gate of Kézdiszentlélek cemetery with rovás inscription:"Itt élned s meghalnod kell - a feltámadásig" (here you must live and die - until the resurrection); marker at border of Székelyderzs; Bottom:13th century inscription from Homoródkarácsony; Nemesgörzsöny: "Áldás a bejövőre" (Blessing on the one coming in), "Béke a kimenőre" (Peace on the one leaving)
Sixth century Chinese yearbooks mention the strange custom of the Huns – whom some consider the ancestors of the Hungarians - of ”making incisions in small wooden tablets when making agreeements”. Rovásírás (literally ”notched writing”) was originally carved on strips of wood, from right to left, for the simple reason that it was easier to carve that way, holding the strip in the left hand, while carving with the right. It was also easier to carve angular letters rather than curved ones. When agreements were made, the strip of wood was split in half lengthwise, each party to the agreement keeping one half.
When the Hungarians settled in the Carpathian Basin and converted to Christianity, the language of the Church was Latin, and they began using Latin letters. ”The myth that the Church ordered all rovásírás destroyed, as it was considered ’pagan’, is a 20th century urban legend, whose originator himself acknowledged the hoax” (Magyar News Online, January 2014).
Although pushed into the background, Hungarian rovásírás continued to be used, and was often used even by the clergy. (A majority of surviving samples have religious content.) It had a renaissance in the 15th century, at the time of King Mátyás when, known as Scythian writing, it became fashionable again. It spread especially in Transylvania, and was still taught in schools there in the 18th century. That is why it became more popularly known as székely rovásírás.
It could more accurately record the spoken language, and is therefore of special linguistic importance.
Members of the Order of St. Paul the Hermit (founded in 1250, the only monastic Order of Hungarian origin) used a variation of rovásírás – eventually named Pauline rovás after them. It differed from the regular rovás in two ways: it was written from left to right, and had more curved letters. Reason for this was that they were no longer carving their inscriptions on wood, since they were using the rovás alphabet in correspondence, and on the maps they created.
The Pauline Order was acceptable to both the Spanish and the Portuguese royal house, and Queen Isabella of Spain requested the Hungarian Superior of the Paulines ”to send workers into the Lord’s vineyard” of her South American colonies. By commission of Pope Alexander VI, several groups of Paulines were despatched to Guatemala, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay. They did not participate in the colonization efforts ; their mission was to explore the interior of these colonies and to convert the Indians they found there.
Having lived as hermits in caves in the Pilis Mountains in Hungary, many Paulines lived in caves in South America too. That is why some outstanding examples of Pauline rovás are found carved into the walls of Cerro Pólilla cave in Paraguay and in caves in Guatemala.
As late as the 19th century, Hungarian cattle records were kept on strips of wood, in rovás script. So were some tax assessments. But wood being perishable, these records disappeared.
In longer texts, rovásírás uses ligatures, that is, two or more letters are combined into one. This has made development of a computer unicode for rovás quite a challenge!
Today, rovás is spreading again, used most often on road signs at the entrance to certain villages. And this national treasure is also used among students as a kind of secret script.