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 so poorly documented that scholars have challenged his ideas ever since.

The very nature of the Hunnic Empire, (multi ethnic and multi-lingual) makes if difficult to force them into a specific category. Until recently, most scholars have sided against Guignes’s theory; but recently, new evidence supporting the Hsiung-Nu connection has come to light. Two texts from India and Tibet (the Tathagataguhya-sutra and the Lalitavistara) from 280 AD and 308 AD respectively, identify the Huns as Hsiung-Nu. A closer study of Central Asian empire histories that were either contemporary or predating the Hunnic Empire has also given insight to the subject. All of this new evidence is pointing towards the Huns and the Hsiung-Nu as either being one in the same or at least part of the Hsiung-Nu confederacy was an element in the new Hun Empire.


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 as the Hsiung-Nu. Most linguists agree that the main language of the Hunnic elite was Oghuric-Turkic.

Both empires were multi-ethnic and multi-lingual. The original Hsiung-Nu Empire was made up of Turkic, Mongolic, Iranian, Tungusic, and Yeniseian elements. The later Hunnic Empire maintained many of the former elements but also included Germanic, Slavic, Finno-Urgic, and even a Greco-Roman minority. Oghuric Turkic was the main language of the elites, however Gothic was an important language as well given that most of the western subjects of the Empire spoke this. In summary, due to the polyglot nature of the Empires, it can not be determined if there is a connection between the Hsiung-Nu and the Huns based on language alone.

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 to the Hsiung-Nu.

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


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. Both groups also engaged in a sword cult.