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Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Huns: The Origin

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Throughout history, the nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppe have played a key role

in the rise and fall of empires, from the Seljuk Turks of Alp Arslan to the great Mongol

host of Genghis Khan. Unique military tactics and a stunning series of victories against

the settled civilisations have immortalized the people of the steppe in the minds of many,

but one steppe people in particular are well known to us. The Huns pushed west during the

mid-fourth century, causing a series of domino effects which would eventually help bring

down the Roman Empire in the west. Under their leader - Attila, the Huns became a byword

for ferocity and ruthlessness for millennia afterwards, but where did this enigmatic people

come from and how did they live their lives? What gods did they worship and what was their

culture? Welcome to our video on the mighty Huns.

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The Romans had popular but ultimately incorrect ideas about where the mysterious Huns came

from, shown in such sources as those left to us by Sozomen, Zosimus, Jordanes and Procopius.

According to the standard tale, the Huns and the Germanic Goths lived side by side with

one another for centuries without even knowing it, separated by the Straits of Kerch. Each

nation believed there was no land over the horizon, until one day. At this point the

story diverges into two forms, but the general message is clear. One version relates how

a cow belonging to a Hun herdsman was stung by a gadfly and fled through the marshy water

to the opposite shore. The herdsman followed his animal in hopes of retrieving it, and

instead found land to the west where he believed none existed before. After retrieving his

wayward cattle, the man returned to Hunnic lands and told his countrymen. The other account

states that a Hunnic hunter in pursuit of a stag was led across the straits by their

fleeing prey and was amazed by the mild climate and fertile soil in the land he encountered.

Whatever the case, the Huns soon crossed the straits after discovering the landmass

existence and barrelled into the Gothic inhabitants of the Crimean Peninsula.

Where the Huns truly came from originally is a controversial question, and to examine

it properly we must travel far to the east, to the borders of China - centuries before

Atilla ascended to the role of chieftain. In the 18th century a Jesuit priest named

Joseph de Deguignes came up with the idea that the European Huns which devastated Rome

in the fifth century were the same people as the even more ancient Xiongnu - who had

fought titanic wars with the Han Chinese centuries before. Since this first proposition, the

debate has raged for centuries, and by using recent scholarship we can almost conclusively

state the relationship between the two peoples. Various sources from the ancient Chinese region,

authored by people from diverse origins as Sogdian merchants and buddhists monks, have

dubbed the Xiongnu as translations of Huns, or Huna. Therefore, it has been concluded

that there must be a connection of some kind between the two, but the nature of this connection

is perhaps even more interesting than we previously thought.

The implication for centuries has been that the Huns are blood related, but the established

link between the names does not definitively prove this. Steppe confederations such as

the Huns are almost always multilingual and multi-ethnic, which means that attempting

to determine blood relation is a difficult task. In the early empire of Genghis Khan

for example, the 90,000 troops he led into China consisted of a primarily mongol high

command, and a myriad of other steppe tribes, such as Merkits, Keraites, Naimans and many

more. What is more noteworthy is that the later European Huns of Attila chose to use

the name of the Imperial Xiongnu as their own name, much like the Holy Roman Empire

dubbed themselves Roman to inherit the greatness of the old Empire. This is clearly an indication

that the Huns valued this link with the old eastern steppe, and this political and cultural

heritage of the Huns is key to understanding the connections between them and the Xiongnu

of old, rather than direct descent.

The fragmentation of the once powerful Xiongnu Empire by combined pressure from the Han Chinese

and other rival nomadic groups such as the Xianbei might have knocked them down from

their formerly lofty status, but it did not finish them off. Far from being finished,

the Xiongnu Huns survived in the vicinity of the Altai mountains, away from mainstream

Chinese and Greco-Roman sources. Though they had survived destruction, the Xiongnu were

in a desperate situation during the first and second centuries, surrounded as they were

by hostile powers all around their home in the Altai mountains. To the west and south,

Kangju, Dingling and Wusun tribes, in addition to the Kushan Empire exerted pressure. To

the east, the Xianbei and Han dynasty were driving the Xiongnu out of their former eastern

lands. This situation changed during the third century, when the strong powers who hemmed

them in began to decline. The Han descended into their three kingdoms period, the various

other nomadic tribes began to fragment and the Kushans started to disintegrate. It was

this weakness in their neighbors which allowed the Xiongnu Huns to expand both into Central

Asia and eventually and more famously into Europe, where they would come into contact

with the Roman Empire. Archaeological evidence from the Ural mountains shows us that by the

early 4th century at the latest, the Huns had expanded that far west, implying that

all the states and tribes between the Altai and the Urals were subject to the resurgent

Xiongnu, who should now be considered the European Huns of popular imagination. By the

370s, the Huns first emerge on the horizons of Greco-Roman sources, when they famously

defeated the Alans, as well as the Greuthungi and Thervingi Goths.

Instead of going over the better known aspects of Hunnic history, we will diverge to some

of the less well known aspects of the Huns themselves, beginning with the predominant

religion among their people. Roman soldier and historian Ammianus Marcellinus stated

that the Huns had no religion, but this seems incredibly unlikely. What the Huns exactly

believed and how exactly they worshipped is unknown, but it can be inferred that they

were animists. They were likely reverent of the natural forces and elements of the world,

such as wind, snow, rain, thunder, lightning and others, and probably believed each possessed

a spirit. Like the infamous Mongols many centuries later, it is probable that the Huns perceived

the origins of these myriad forces in the sky, worshipping heaven above as the font

of all creation and using sacrifice and worship in an attempt to control their own destiny.

This sky-god has a name by which Turkish and Mongol tribes knew it, and which is also familiar

to many modern people - Tenger, or Tengri, a god which tribal shamans would placate with

their chants, drums and spirit guides. Evidence is very scarce for Hunnic religiosity, but

there are a few notable occurrences. In the year 439, just before a battle against a Visigothic

army, the Roman general decided to please his Hunnic auxiliaries by performing a ceremony

of divination, a traditionally Tengriist practice. This is the mostly accepted modern viewpoint

on the Hunnic religion, but it is not the only one. The most outlandish and exotic sounding

of all the possibilities is that the Huns worshipped a sacred sword. In this interpretation,

the worship of the sword is a sort of proxy for the true worship of a war god, the nomadic

equivalent of Ares or Mars in the Greco-Roman world. As a mark of this worship, many nomadic

and settled peoples alikeswore on their swordsas if it were witnessing the oath.

In an economic sense, the common perception of Hun-like steppe empires is that agriculture

is not practiced at all. However, new evidence has emerged which suggests that this might

not have been the case. Instead, the designationagro-pastoralisthas been placed on

the Hunnic Empire, as it possessed both a large pastoralist nomad population and sedentary

agriculturalists - that is, farmers. The nomads tended to alternate between summer pastures

and winter quarters depending on the time of year and climate, in order to partake in

the traditional steppe lifestyles such as animal husbandry, hunting and fishing. Jordanes

provides us with an example of this pastoralist lifestyle - the Hunnic Altziagiri tribe. They

pastured near Cherson in the Crimea in the summer, where their cattle could find plentiful

food, and migrated north of the Black Sea in winter, wherereedsapparently provided

good animal fodder. Though it is not mentioned in the sources, a key animal kept by Hunnic

nomads would have been the sheep, which is capable of providing milk, cheese and crucial


During their interactions with the Roman Empire, two mediterranean products in particular became

a crucial part of the Hun economy - silk and wine. The Huns would often obtain highly desired

Roman silk by raiding Imperial territory and exacting tribute, but they also traded goods

such as furs and steppe horses for it. While the Huns did not drink wine during their migration

west, this was probably because they did not have access to it, rather than any cultural

aversion to the drink. We know this because they took to the traditional Roman beverage

perhaps too much after they entered modern Hungary. At banquets organised between Huns

and Roman diplomats, wine would be liberally consumed after the first course and the second

course. After the Romans left, the Huns would keep on drinking late into the night. All

this meant that during the high-point of the Hunnic Empire under Attila, vast quantities

of wine was exported to their lands from Rome.

Now that we have discussed some of the aspects of Hunnic life during their time in Romes

vicinity, we shall discuss how the Huns transitioned into different forms after Attilas death.

That death triggered a bitter civil war between many of Attilas sons and other powerful

Hunnic nobles, who fought over the grand inheritance he had left behind. The nature of this civil

war is hazy, but it probably occurred between two coalitions - the Hunnic lands of the east

and west, the latter of which Attila had favoured during his reign. The western faction, with

its power base centred in the Carpathian basin, was led by the semi-Germanic Gepids. They

were only semi-Germanic because by the 450s, it is widely believed that the Gepid elite

was almost identical to the Hunnic elite due to intermarriage and other cultural blending.

The eastern coalition was headed by the Hunnic Akatziri tribe located in modern Ukraine,

who had been disempowered due to supporting Bleda against Attila before the latter killed

the former. The key battle in this civil war took place in 454AD at Nedao, where Ardaric

- king of the Gepids, defeated and killed Ellac - the eldest of Attilas sons and

the chief of the Akatziri. Though it is common to see this war as a Germanic revolt against

Hunnic overlordship, it seems instead that thoseGermanicleaders were in fact

Hun princes, who had been culturally hybridised to almost become something like Germano-Huns.

Interestingly, this might have been a conscious policy by the Hun aristocracy to ease integration

of the formerly independent Germanic tribal unions to their own rule, and Ardaric himself

was likely a member of the highest tier of Hun society.

Why did the Akatziri faction lose this battle, despite its greater military strength? During

the post-Attila period we can reconstruct what appears to have been an unintentional,

but deadly giant pincer which struck the eastern portion of the Hunnic Empire. The Gepid-led

faction hit from the west and a more threatening assault from a new nomadic group - the Oghurs,

came from the eastern steppe. The task of salvaging the eastern remnant was left to

Attilas youngest son, known as Ernakh, who eventually succeeded and founded the political

entity which would become associated with theBulgarHuns. Militarily this group

was still extremely formidable, and would be used as foederati and mercenaries in Eastern

Roman armies for almost a century after. During the Byzantine campaigns against the Vandalic

kingdom, 70 Hunnic horsemen reportedly defeated an entire Moorish army. In the conquest of

Italy, both Belisarius and Narses would use Hunnic mercenaries as elite shock troops,

and the Roman cavalry in the 6th and 7th centuries would try to copy the model of the legendary

mobile Hun armies. Victory or defeat in Byzantiums wars depended on the mood of Hun allies and

mercenaries. In 531 Emperor Justinian learned that the Huns had defected to join the Persians,

but managed to trick the Persians into thinking the Huns were instead marching against them

- and they fled in terror, indicating the awe with which the Romans and Persians held

the military power of the Huns almost a century after their greatest leader perished.

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The Description of Huns: The Origin