Because the Huns were known for their ferocity the name “Hun” has been used as a slang term to signify someone who is barbaric and terrifying. The most common misuse of the term “Hun” is the labeling of German soldiers from World War I and II as “Huns”. Therefore this site is not about German soldiers but the original Hunnic people.

The Huns were horse warrior nomads of the Eurasian steppe and became well known for raiding in the 4th-6th centuries. The Huns were considered a barbarian, tribal people and their culture is discussed more in the “Hun Culture” section of this web site.

Of all the “barbarian” peoples to plague the Roman Empire, none were more feared than the Huns. They were considered demons- the forces of Gog and Magog, the scourge of God, signifying the end of the world. They were nightmares who could use magic in battle and appear out of nowhere. The psychological effects they had on their foes were terrifying. Chroniclers did not know who they were and so they made up stories of the Huns being the spawn of witches and the spirits of sand and wind. Jerome, a Roman scholar wrote of his experience with the Huns:

“Behold the Wolves, not of Arabia, but of the North, were let loose upon us from the far-off rocks of the Caucasus, and in a little while overran great provinces. How many monasteries were captured, how many streams were reddened with human blood!...Not even if I had a hundred tongues and a hundred mouths, and a voice of iron could I recount the name of every catastrophe...They filled the whole earth with slaughter and panic as they flitted hither and thither on their swift horses...They were at hand everywhere before they were expected: by their speed they outstripped rumor, and they took pity neither upon religion, nor rank nor age nor wailing childhood. Those who had just begun to live were compelled to die and, in ignorance of their plight, they would smile amid the drawn swords of the enemy...We ourselves were forced to make ships ready, to wait on the shore, to take precautions against the enemy’s arrival, to fear the barbarians more than shipwreck even though the winds were raging.”

But who were these people who inspired such fear into the powerful Roman Empire? The answer is more complex than bloodthirsty savages.

Very little is known about the origin of the Huns. The earliest literary source, Ammianus Marcellinus, claimed that they “dwelt beyond the Maeotic Sea near the frozen ocean”. The Maeotic Sea was the ancient name for the Sea of Azov. This places the Huns near the Black Sea in what is southern Russia today. Certainly there have been finds further east. The biggest controversy that has surrounded the topic of origin is if the Huns were descendants of the Hsiung-Nu from northern China. Since people have been arguing passionately back and forth on this subject for a couple hundred years, we do not intend to resolve it on this page. We will, however, discuss the evidence.

The controversy started when the 18th century scholar named de Guignes put forth the idea that the Huns were the descendants of the Hsiung-Nu, a “barbarian” people who lived on the border of the Chinese Empire for many centuries. His body of work was written in 1756-1758 and was intended to prove that all Eastern peoples (Turks, Mongols, Chinese, and Huns) were all descendants of Noah who had migrated east after the great flood. His argument was that the Hsiung-Nu seemed to disappear from the chronicles and a couple centuries later, the Huns seemed to appeared out of “nowhere”. Both peoples had names that started with an “H” and were nomad warrior tribes. His argument for the Huns being the Hsiung-Nu did not consider language, custom, ethnicity or any other criteria of comparison and so scholars have challenged his ideas ever since.

The good news is that although scholars argue either for or against the Hsiung-Nu hypothesis, they are unanimous about one thing. That is if the Huns were indeed the Hsiung-Nu; they changed a great deal in the two plus centuries that they were not on record. These changes include language, and customs. Granted, this is quite a lot of difference. Not to discount the Hsiung-Nu side: the time the Hsiung-Nu were “missing” (it is believed they were in Turkmenistan) they might have blended with the tribes that were already there to become what we know as the Huns today. Proponents of the Hsiung-Nu side of the argument state that this accounts for the differences.

Let us look at some of these differences:


Language:

Because of the centuries of historical records kept by the Chinese, we are lucky to have hundreds of words documented from the Hsiung-Nu language. The Hsiung-Nu language is mostly categorized as a Paleo-asiatic language that was either in the Yeniseyan family or closely related to it.
Only a few words have been recorded of the Huns, but linguists agree that they are not from the same language family at all. Most linguists agree that the Huns spoke a proto-Turkic language and classify it as being on the Ogur branch of the Turkic language family tree. In any case, the Huns and the Hsiung-Nu spoke unrelated languages.

Appearance:

Among the Huns, there was a practice of cranial deformation where the skull was bound in childhood and therefore grew with the forehead sloping back. Not all Huns would have this done, but enough that it was considered somewhat common. This practice was unknown among the Hsiung-Nu. It was also noted by both Ammianus and Jordanes at the time that the Huns had scant beards. They believed it was do to scaring their cheeks as infants so that their beard would not grow. Other scholars disagree with the reasoning for the cheek scarification and claim that it was done for reasons of mourning when a leader died. This practice was documented before by other steppe nomads. For whatever reason be it scarification or ethnicity, the Huns did not have heavy, full beards. By contrast, the Hsiung-Nu were documented as having full beards.

Images below: Hun showing artificial cranial deformation. Image (below left) also shows scarification of cheeks as a sign of mourning.


Argument for the Hsiung-nu theory:

Organizational Structure:

Again with the Hsiung-Nu we have a good amount of information about them due to their long time contact with China. The Hsiung-Nu were ruled by a Shan-yu and beneath him were many types of officials that were arranged in pairs (such as left and right princes and left and right governors, etc.) Within these pairs, as with the organization of the Chinese, the left always had precedence over the right official. These officials inherited their positions. This was common among imperial steppe empires and is seen with the Rouran and even the Mongols. A closer look at the Huns shows that they also followed this form of governing. As with previous empires, the “left” or eastern leader held authority over the right or western ruler.

It is also possible that tribes- not Hsiung-Nu per se- but tribes that were part of the Hsiung-Nu confederation went west. One strong piece of evidence for this argument is the similarity between the Hun and Hsiung-Nu cauldrons that have been found in both Hungary and in the Ordos. Another similarity is the practice of scapulimancy; which is a fortune divination technique that uses shoulder blades of animals (usually a sheep or steer). Jordanes, a Roman historian, recorded that the shamans of Atilla’s time practiced this form of divination. Reading the cracks in burned shoulder bones for divination was known in Asia but would not be known in Europe until centuries after Attila. One of the difficulties in making a direct connection between the Hsiung-Nu and the Huns is that the things they have in common are not markers of any one specific tribal group but are common among many nomads of the steppe.