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Úr – Asszony – Katona
Úr – Asszony – Katona

A row of warriors on the Standard of Ur

A dear old friend has written me that of my themes, the public is mostly interested in the language similarities between Sumerian and Hungarian.  Let me publish one or two of the several thousand I keep in my boxes.

I have chosen three such Hungarian words of ancient origin.  Why these?  Because I like them, and feel that behind them lies the most distinguished world outlook, the highest art of living. Its late descendent is the Western spirit of knighthood.  I believe there will be among my readers those who will also regard these three words in the same way.

Let us take first the name of katona. It sounds peculiar, entirely different from the English soldier, the French soldat, and their relatives in other European languages.  But why?  The words katona and katonaság appear quite early in ancient handwritten (Hungarian) literary records. According to Bárczi Géza (who represents the official viewpoint of Hungarian linguistics), the origin of the first word is unknown, and the second is unexplained.  Bárczi does note the possibility of these Hungarian words having been derived from the Old Church Slavonic katund – ”camp” – or the Byzantine katuna – ”baggage” – (Magyar Szófejtő Szótár, Bp. 1941, Magyar Egyetemi Nyomda).

I leave it to the reader, who knows Hungarian history, to weigh what the chances are of the name of katona to have been borrowed from the disintegrating Byzantine empire, or especially from Old Church Slavonic...

If the Hungarian ancestors had taken over anything, they would have taken over one of the variants of the word soldato that was known throughout all of Europe.  They did too, in the form of zsoldos, except that our language expresses the vast difference between a zsoldos and a katona: the zsoldos fights for money, the katona does not.

So where shall we search for the origin of the word katona? There where, for the first time in the world, they depicted the regular fighting troops in a kötelék (an army formation).  On the mosaic work, the Standard of Ur – currently in the British Museum – which came to light from the royal tomb of the city of Ur, may be seen Sumerian soldiers marching in closed ranks, wearing leopardskin capes and with such blue eyes and hawk-noses as may sometimes still be found in Transylvania, and among more or less pure-blooded Hungarian families. They fought in army formation, for God and country, and did not loot individually, like robbers.

The exact equivalent of the Hungarian verb köt is the Sumerian verb kad.  Their meaning is identical.  The verb also has the form kat (A. Deimel, Sumerisch Akkadisches Glossar, Rome, the Papal Institute for Biblical Research, 1934, pp. 140 and 143): ”Binden, festfügen” (to bind, to attach tightly).  In the Sumerian language, the same symbol frequently expresses the verb as well as the related noun.  For example, the Hungarian equivalent of the lib symbol is not only lép (takes a step), but also láb (foot or leg). So it is probable that the Sumerian kat also meant army unit. To this may have been added the Sumerian word unu, which according to Gadd’s transliteration meant ”dwelling” (A Sumerian Reading Book, Oxford, 1924), so that katona may have derived from kat+unu, meaning ”abiding in army formation”.  Not a zsoldos, and not a robber!  A Hungarian katona.

We can believe that the Byzantines and Slavs borrowed words from the Sumerian, with many metatheses.  But the Hungarians did not learn from these; they received their concepts and words from the source, from the Sumerian, the world’s first known civilization.  

Of our word asszony, Bárczi writes that we borrowed it from the Alans, and quotes the Caucasian relatives of the Alans, the Ossetians, among whom achsin  means ”lady”.  But from where did the Ossetians get this honorific title?  They probably learned it from an older cultured people. The linguistic heritage of two great people may be involved here:  the Sumerians and the Elamites who were neighbors and influenced each other for a long time.  Among them we find two words that sound similar:  the Sumerian ”gasaan”, meaning ”queen”, and the Elamite ”usan”, meaning  ”goddess”. 

We need to mention that matriarchal traditions still survived among the Elamites in historic times:  the throne was handed down through the female line.  It is certain that our word ”asszony” started out toward the West with great prestige and its meaning lost from its rank and narrowed in meaning due to local influence slowly, over the curse of difficult centuries, until by our times it merely means a married woman.  That this is not the essence at all may be seen from the fact that Hungarian convents had ”fejedelemasszonyok” (lady superiors), and in the St. Margit (of Hungary) legend a ”Holy Virgin Asszony Margit”.  The word ”kisasszony” never meant ”a small, married woman”, but a ”young domina”. 

Even our word úr, this many-layered, many-colored word of many meanings has also diminished, and been bequeathed to us with narrowed  meaning and prestige. 

Úr is a very ancient root word of ours.  It carries with it the concept of height, greatness, strength.  The older name of the large Mount Ararat was Urartu.  It meant a huge man, one who uses his strength for good.  The exact equivalent of the Sumerian ur is the Hungarian word őr (guard).    

This is made indisputable by the fact that the word was written in the earliest times with the dog’s head pictograph. The dog was the faithful ”little guard”. The lion too was an úr, ”the large guard”.  Royal palaces of ancient times were guarded by tamed lions, later by stone lions.  This is why the lion is a royal symbol: it is the great guard of the king and of the country.  The city of Ur, the great, ancient Mesopotamian center was also a guard post.  Its name was always written with the hieroglyph of the stylized dog’s head.

What does the úr guard?  Everything that is beautiful, good and holy, but is in need of protection.  First of all the goddess, her picture, her sanctuary, her temple, her city.  Ancient Sumerian king’s names were: Ur-Bau,

Ur-Gula, Ur-Nanan, Ur-Nanshe. Bau and the others were goddesses. By his chosen name, the king did not want to indicate that he wished to rule over the goddess, but that he was the protector of the goddess, her guardian, her army, her military strength. To be this, he had to be strong, powerful, he had to be an úr. ”Baba-mu,” this is how king Ur-Baba addresses his goddess in the memorial inscription in her temple,  ”My Baba, I have built up your sanctuary.” 

We hear a late echo of the ancient concept in the ancient Hungarian hymn about Szt. László: ”Chosen warrior of the Virgin Mary”.  We have to understand the ancient Sumerian way of thinking, so the many different, even contradictory concepts the word úr can express do not cause us difficulties. It can mean something lofty, the top of something – which is where the Hungarian word orom comes from.  At the same time, it can mean pedestal, foundation – the strength on which one can build.

The meaning of words is modified, changed over centuries. In ancient Hungarian texts we can read about ”a király urai” – the lords of the king.  These did not rule over the king, they were the king’s guards.  No one likes being deprived of freedom and having someone rule over him/her.  Nevertheless in Hungary, a country beaten by many storms, very often the zsoldos (mercenaries), condottieres and other unworthies lorded it over the people for a long time.   The slowly distorted concepts led people’s thinking astray, and disturbed even the pure beauty of the ancient custom when a Hungarian asszony would call her husband uram.  He is not her tyrant, and commander, but her life-long őr (guard), whom she respects and honors like the queen respects her general.  And he calls her Babám (my Baba), asszonyom (my asszony), goddess, queen.  This is what makes eary life beautiful, this is that high art of living which the Hungarians brought from very far, perhaps from the city of Ur, and preserved for a long time.  It is not entirely lost,  there will be those who carry it forward: katonák, urak and asszonyok.

(Originally published in the October 1979 issue of KRÓNIKA, Toronto, Canada)


Dr. Bobula Ida (1900-1981) was born in Budapest and obtained a doctorate in History, summa cum laude, from the Pázmány Péter Tudományegyetem in 1923.  She then came to America for post-graduate work at Bryn Mawr College and Western Reserve University.  She returned to Budapest in 1929,  becoming the first woman officer at the Ministry of Education, then first lady professor at Debrecen University, Director of Sarolta College, and Chief Librarian at the USIS Library in Budapest.  In 1947, she returned to the US., and soon worked at the Library of Congress. She then taught at a college in Maine, and finally in Gaffney, S.C.  Dr. Bobula published numerous articles in Hungarian, French and English, as well as  nine books on the Sumerian-Hungarian connection.

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