Hun Religion

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HUN RELIGION . Over the centuries, the name Hun has been widely and indiscriminately applied to a multiplicity of Inner Asian nomad peoples. In this article only the "genuine" Huns will be considered, those who in the second half of the fourth century ce took possession of the North Pontic steppes (the steppes to the north of the Black Sea) and for about eighty yearsparticularly under the rule of Attila (433?453)played a major role in the history of Europe. I shall also take into account those Huns who, following the disintegration of Attila's empire, established and maintained in the northern Caucasus a kingdom that lasted to the end of the seventh century.

By the standards of Inner Asian historiography, the history of the Huns is reasonably well documented, mainly by written sources, among which the (alas!) fragmentary text of Priscus's eyewitness account of daily life in Attila's entourage is particularly valuable. Archaeology contributes next to nothing to the picture; so far it has not been possible to isolate more than a few finds incontestably Hun. Among these, some typical bronze caldrons have, on occasion, been considered sacral vessels, but there is no evidence in support of such an opinion.

The statement by the fourth-century historian Ammianus Marcellinus (31.2.11) that the Huns were not "bound by any reverence for religion or superstition" is contradicted by other, contemporary sources. These do give some clues about Hun religious beliefs, although, with one exception, none attempts to give a systematic description thereof. This exception is to be found in the Armenian chronicle attributed to Moses Daskhuranci, who does give some interesting, trustworthy data on the Caucasian Huns of the second half of the seventh century. He speaks of their "satanically deluded tree-worshipping errors" and mentions that they use horses as burnt offerings in the worship of "some gigantic savage monster whom they invoke as the god Tʾangri Khan, called Aspandiat by the Persians." In the first of these names it is easy to recognize the Turco-Mongol deity Tengri ("sky" or "heaven"), whose cult is first attested among the Hsiung-nu in Mongolia in the centuries just before and after the beginning of the common era. The Huns also "made sacrifices to fire and water and to certain gods of the roads, and to the moon and to all creatures considered in their eyes to be in some way remarkable."

Moses pays special attention to the funeral rites of the Huns who, "possessing completely anarchical minds," so he says, "stumble into every sort of error, beating drums and whistling over corpses, inflicting bloody saber and dagger cuts on the cheek and limbs, and engaging naked in sword fightsO hellish sightat the graves, man against man and troop against troop." Although, to my knowledge, sword fights between groups are not noted elsewhere in such a context, the self-inflicted wounds and the laceration of the mourners' faces were a widespread custom among medieval Turkic peoples, described in classical as well as in Chinese sources, and also represented on wall paintings preserved in Chinese Turkistan. Fragment 23 of Priscus relates that at the death of Attila, the Huns, "as is the custom of that race, cut off part of their hair and disfigured their faces horribly with deep wounds so that the distinguished warrior might be bewailed, not with feminine lamentations and tears, but with manly blood." Before burying their dead the Huns were wont to lay out the body and, at least in cases in which the deceased had been a man of importance, the mourners would ride around the bier at full gallop "as in the circus games." The body was put in a coffin and a funeral feast preceded the burial. Priscus gives the Hun word for this repast, strava, a term for which no acceptable etymology has been proposed. If not due to a scribal error, the initial consonant cluster excludes the possibility that the word is Turkic or Mongol.

It was customary to place valuable objects in the tombs. Attila was interred by night, in great secrecy, and those who buried him were slaughtered so thatin Priscus's opinionthey should not be able to divulge the location of the tomb. It could be that a human sacrifice was performed. Analogies to this case can be found among the early (sixth-century) Türk. Captives were said to have been sacrificed "to victory" by the Huns upon their arrival on the Pontic steppes, but Jordanes' sixth-century account of this period contains many fictional elements.

There is evidence to show that the services of diviners were appreciated. According to Jordanes, Attila "sought counsel of omens in all warfare." He reports that the method used by the soothsayers consisted in the examination of the entrails of cattle and of "certain streaks in bones that had been scraped." The remark refers probably to scapulimancy, widely practiced in Inner Asia. The sources provide no evidence of the very likely use of shamans.

The practice of worshiping a sacred sword, often referred to in the secondary literature, cannot be established. At best, such references can be traced to a remark by Attila who, so it would appear, once declared that a sword that had been accidentally unearthed by a shepherd and brought to him would ensure his supremacy over the whole world.

In the Caucasus, in the Asian or European provinces of Byzantium, in Italy, and in their campaigns through Germanic lands, the Huns were in constant touch, friendly or inimical, with Christians. It can be taken for granted that many of the Huns were converted, a fact that allowed Jerome to write to Laeta in 403 that "the Huns are learning the psalter, the frosts of Scythia are warmed by the fire of faith" (107.2). Perhaps Jerome's, as it turned out unjustified, optimism was motivated by the news of the missionary efforts of John Chrysostom and others. Success came only to the Albanian bishop Israel who in 681 and 682 stayed with the Huns of the Caucasus, converted their leaders, destroyed their idols, and burned their sacred trees. The Hun prince Alp Ilteber promised, in the words of Moses Daskhuranci, to "burn the sorcerers and wizards who will not adopt the faith, and [to] put to the sword any person who acts like a pagan." Thus, Western civilization arrived among the Huns of the epigone kingdom, putting an end to the religious tolerance so typical of Inner Asian states, including that of the Huns, those "unreasoning beasts" (to quote Ammianus Marcellinus), "utterly ignorant of the difference between right and wrong."

See Also

Inner Asian Religions; Tengri.


Two good overviews are J. Otto Maenchen-Helfen's The World of the Huns, edited by Max Knight (Berkeley, Calif., 1973), and E. A. Thompson's A History of Attila and the Huns (Oxford, 1948).

Moses Daskhuranci is quoted after The History of the Caucasian Albanians by Movses Dasxuranci, translated by C. J. F. Dowsett (London, 1961). Passages taken from Priscus are given in the translation of Colin Douglas Gordon, The Age of Attila: Fifth-Century Byzantium and the Barbarians (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1960); quotes from Jordanes are taken from The Gothic History of Jordanes, 2d ed., translated by Charles Christopher Mierow (Princeton, N.J., 1915). Ammianus Marcellinus is quoted from the translation of his writings by John C. Rolfe in "Loeb Classical Library," vol. 331 (Cambridge, Mass., 1971). The quotation from Jerome's letter is taken from Select Letters, "Loeb Classical Library," vol. 262 (Cambridge, Mass., 1933), pp. 342343.

Denis Sinor (1987)