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Jellinek’s “Shoe Book”

After publishing two book reviews in Hungarian, Jellinek wrote a book entitled A saru eredete (The origin of shoes) in 1917. With its 59 pages, this work is longer than an essay but shorter than a book, meant to elaborate on his presentation at the Ethnography Society in November, 1916. The book is dedicated to his ethnographer friend, Géza Róheim, who later came to work with Jellinek at the Worcester State Hospital.

Contrary to what the title promises, the main topic is not the origin of shoes, but their various appearances in traditions, folk customs, religions, and cults all over the world. Jellinek’s novel approach involves a psychological angle, i.e., tying the object to its uses and functions, instead of merely focusing on describing the object itself as an ethnographer would do.

In chapter 1, Jellinek argues that comparing myths has already yielded to psychological explanations of ethnographic facts, not necessarily presented by ethnographers or ethnologists. He mentions fire as an example, related to sexual acts, as suggested by Kuhn, Abraham, and Jung (in separate articles) from a psychoanalytical angle. In a footnote, he also credits Róheim as the only scholar who adopted this approach.

Chapter 2 starts with a fairly lengthy summary of the “revenge expedition,” a ritual reprisal against those suspected of evil magic, citing The native tribes of Central Australia by Spencer and Gillen. Shoes (or rather “saru,” which in Hungarian refers to a specific style of sandals) are used to hide their footprints or as a decoy to mislead the enemy. After presenting examples from various cultures, he concludes that across a large geographical area, shoes were not used to protect the foot, but to hide one’s footprints.

Chapter 3 presents more examples in which shoes are used to hide or alter footprints or have acquired a sacral function. He lists examples from various areas of study, sources, and cultures, ranging from small, isolated Hungarian villages to African, American, and Asian mythology and folklore. Besides the function of shoes in wars and combat, other examples include magical–mystical uses, witches and superstitions, brides and pregnant women, and so on. Jellinek’s shoe narrative ends with the author’s suggested questions for further research: how did actual shoes develop from their primitive form of sandals? He suggests that protecting the foot might come into consideration at that point.

The Hungarian text, written by a young scholar still in search of his own style, is an enigmatic read. Some Jellinekian traits are definitely noticeable, such as the tendency to find new connections, approach questions globally and from a fresh perspective, quote in four different languages, and provide evidence of a wealth of knowledge in several fields.

Jellinek’s book was cited by Géza Róheim in his book, Mirror Magic (1919, p. 68), and mentioned in the bibliography “Collective review: Ethnology and folk-psychology” compiled for a review article in The International Journal of Psycho-analysis (Róheim, 1922, p. 190). It has not been translated into English yet, and it will be a great challenge to decipher Jellinek’s tortuous prose. Published here are excerpts of a draft translation by Judit Hajnal Ward, with the assistance of William Bejarano and Nicholas A. Allred in June 2015.


  • Jellinek, M. (1917). A saru eredete. [The origin of shoes. In Hungarian.] Budapest: Dick Manó.
  • Róheim, G. (1919). Spiegelzauber [Mirror Magic. In German]. Leipzig; Wien: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag.
  • Róheim, G. (1922). Collective review: Ethnology and folk-psychology. International Journal of Psycho-analysis, 2, 189-222.
  • Spencer, B., & Gillen, F. J. (1899 ). The native tribes of Central Australia. London: Macmillan.

The origin of shoes

Chapter 1

About the tasks of ergology

The object of our analysis was taken from the field of material culture. Ergology, the science focusing on the material culture of mankind, diverges from the usual procedures of folk psychology in its methods, but even more in its goals. However, if we are looking for salvation in an entirely different direction throughout our analysis, ignoring the traditional methods of objective folklore, the justification of this method lies in the goals we set for ourselves rather than in the topic. Since our goal separates us from the objective ethnographers, our paper aims not to abandon the usual methods, but instead, to raise points which, while not new, have hitherto been given less attention, and to blaze the paths to these points. Objective ethnography researches mostly the evolution and history of material culture, and attempts to construe the relationships between peoples from them. Material, forms, and technique are the components that serve this purpose. We do not possess any better methods to accomplish these important tasks than the tried and true.

By contrast, in ethnology, the science of the collective mental life, the focus of the analysis has shifted in a particular aspect. Although ethnology researches the relationships between peoples based on myths, rites, and social forms, its final goal and synthesis of all problems can be found in discovering the psychic roots of collective phenomena.

Since the objects of material culture, including weapons, tools, and clothing, etc., should be considered human, that is, intellectual products, just like myths and the forms of religion and society, the issue of psychic origin is just as justified and important in relation to the former as to the latter. It is obvious that this goal cannot be achieved by merely comparing forms and analyzing material. We will also use these methods sometimes, but only as auxiliary methods, because we will focus on factors that in objective ethnography are considered quantité négligable [sic]. If we want to find out the significance of a particular object, we will not avoid the detailed analysis of symbolic systems, in which the particular object is included as part. We will cover the customs and concepts related to the use of the object, and perhaps the folk tales related to the object. We believe that this route will bring us closer to the actual origin than would traditional methods. […]

Chapter 2


[…] If we review the material discussed so far, we can claim that various tribes across a large area invented shoes not to protect the foot, but to make the footprint unrecognizable. But only one instance of this function has been discovered, and we found that its sacral nature prevented use in ordinary life. Since we encountered this in Central Australia, among the most primitive people of mankind, it can be hypothesized that these are the initial motives for the development of sandals or shoes in general. We will confirm this view only if we can find at least rudimentary traces of this origin in other cultures.

We have to investigate whether sandals are used elsewhere to alter footprints and whether the sacral nature of sandals or shoes can be shown at least in a rudimentary form.

Chapter 3

Shoes and footprints in magic

The footprint has a double role in many cultures’ way of thinking: first as a telltale clue, second as the object of magic. Accordingly, activities to cover up traces can be detected everywhere, not only among primitive peoples, but also in advanced cultures. Lao-Tze, the classical Chinese philosopher who analyzes the most complex problems of life, revisits this ancient and primitive problem when he says ‘Skillful travelers leave no tracks.

One wishes to distort or hide footprints not only from the enemy, but from demons as well. The former can be seen in the folklore of advanced cultures, because tracking footprints is hardly of interest to them any more, and they consider the skill of recognizing them demonic. Altering footprints is common particularly in war or after murders in primitive cultures. The Masai people of East Africa put their shoes on backwards before going to war in order to mislead the enemy about the direction of their maneuvers. North American Indian tribes prepare moccasins of various cuts, so that the footprints left behind can identify the tribe; hence, when the Osage Indians go to war, they walk barefoot. […]

Morton Jellinek, Budapest, 1917

Published in the Jellinek Special Anniversary issue of the CAS Information Services Newsletter in 2015.