The Hun is at the gate!
The legacy of Attila, the Hun
Why do we need to spare a few words for King Attila, the Hun when talking about the Ottoman wars? I have just had a very saddening experience about it. I was told that if I were proud of Attila, then it is as if I were proud of Hitler because Attila was a mass-murderer who killed millions of people. I was shocked because so far this person had been friendly and supportive towards Hungarians but now, he added that he would reconsider his opinion about Hungarians. He said he would place Hungarians among those nations who were bullying the innocent locals with their aggression. Finally, he said that Hungarians have deserved the suffering that they got from the Ottomans. Because they just got what they had done to others.
Most sadly, his stereotypical statement marked the end of our friendship. With this simplified opinion, he seems to have joined those who think Hungarian (aka Magyar) people were barbarians who had oppressed the peaceful locals in the Carpathian Basin for a millennium. This incident has inspired me to devote a few words to Attila who is still a byword for barbarism and violence to some people and this preconception shapes their thinking accordingly. The harmful fruit of this thinking is debate and division.
In my opinion, the historical period of the Ottoman wars in Hungary between 1368-1699 was an age before modern nationalism, an age when Hungarians, Slavs, Wallachians, Germans were mostly fighting on the same side against the Ottoman Empire. Discussing these events is a perfect way to build up (or strengthen) a friendship between Hungarians and non-Hungarians. So I do think it is important to talk about Attila, the Hun as he was still respected by Germans, Croatians, and Hungarians alike during the 15th-17th centuries.
As for the Turks, let me recall that as far as I know there are two countries in Europe where the name “Attila” is widely used as a given name: it is Hungary and Turkey. Talking about Ottoman wars, please note that I regard them as dynastic wars, that is why I do not use the term “Turk wars”. Here I wrote about the Turks in more details:
It is almost impossible to fight against emotions and prejudice but the truth, (unlike horse-dung) is getting solid on historical facts and not on thin air. Also, if we view the past based on our modern and civilized point of view, it is not very wise to judge the events and norms of past ages. An apple cannot be compared to a pear.
Early portrayals of Attila, the Hun
While Hungarians pay respect to Attila and name streets and squares after him, in the west it is not so. Instead, lawnmowers and weed-killers wear his name: Attila has become a political product, the best example of how to create a monster based on xenophobia. It has its roots in Latin and Neo-Latin history writing.
Attila is a strong-handed ruler in Germanic legends and the invincible, mythical predecessor of the Magyar conquerors in Hungarian chronicles. These legends were still very effective in the Middle Ages and they were built into the thinking of the Early Modern Age. As for Turkey and Russia, he became the paragon of an ideal “Eurasian Emperor”.
For a crucial twenty years in the early 5th century AD, Attila held the fate of the Roman Empire and the future of Europe in his hands. In numerous raids and three major campaigns, he and his warriors earned an undying reputation for military valor, and his empire briefly rivaled that of Rome, reaching from the Rhine to the Black Sea, the Baltic to the Balkans. Few know, that the famous walls of Constantinople were built against the Huns, as was the Great Wall of China. Attila’s own people thought him semi-divine while educated Westerners were proud to serve him. From his base in the grasslands of Hungary, this “scourge of God” so very nearly dictated Europe’s future…
The Huns, too, were allies of the Roman Empire at first, attacking it only after probing its weaknesses. The weakest chain was Gaul, as always. It is no coincidence that his Gepid, Scirian (East German), Gothic, and Frank advisers persuaded Attila to attack Gaul. During the war, it turned out that the Huns were no more cruel than the Goths, Franks, or Vandals, but they were much more civilized than them.
According to Rector Priscus, the Romans fled to the Huns because life was better there than in the empire: they did not have to pay taxes and, in particular, did not need to lick feet so much. All in all, the Hun king and his court is radiating extraordinary strength and dignity in Priscus’s description.
The Hun Empire, i.e. the Germanic federation led by the Huns, thus had its own fans in the Roman Empire. Why, after all, did Attila, who spared Rome and Paris, become the epitome of barbarism in French and Italian public opinion, and not Fritigern, who slaughtered Emperor Valens, or Alarik, who sacked Rome, or Genterik who occupied Carthage?
People seem to disregard the legend attached to Pope Leo: when the Huns were getting near to Rome, the Pope was urged to flee from the barbarians. Instead of this, Pope Leo showed his men a hun-made gold bracelet and said, that those people who can create such pieces were not barbarians. Then, he set out and met Attila. The story had a happy ending, as he could persuade Attila to turn back and save the city.
Many bad stories sprang from the fact that simply the Huns were poorly known. The Huns left no written memory, they only threatened the Roman Empire for a short time, about 70 years, and most importantly, they did not merge into the Romans like the other Germanic peoples. With Attila’s death, the Hun Empire disintegrated like the morning mist.
The Christian authors
Rome’s last great historian, the Syrian Ammianus Marcellinus, though he had not personally met the Huns, portrayed them as terribly wild creatures. The explanation for their animal savagery is their diabolical origin: according to Orosius and Iordanes, the Huns were born from the marriage of Gothic sorceresses and demons in the desert.
However, Christian authors were not only interested in folk ethnogenesis, but they also wanted to know how the Huns fit into the peoples mentioned in the Bible: thus, according to the prophet Ezekiel and the evangelist St. John, the Huns will be the messengers of the end of the world, as they are the people of Satan, the “sons of Gog and Magog.”
Christian authors also force their readers to self-examine themselves when they state that the Huns appeared at the walls of Rome because of the sins of Christians. St. Jerome and St. Augustine, along with St. Isidore of Seville incorporate Attila into the plan of Divine Providence as the “whip of God” (flagellum Dei). Had Attila ever used this term for himself? This is impossible to find out. In fact, the stories about the saints’ lives depict the Great King of Huns like this.
One of the main characters of Gallic hagiography is Attila, and he appears in the biographies of St. Lupus of Troyes, St. Anian of Orléans, St. Germanus of Auxerre, and St. Genoveva of Paris. We can hardly read about these biographies in the Hungarian language but they are important parts of the Attila tradition. Paradoxically, Attila, who, in fact, used to be very polite to church leaders, became the greatest “saint maker” of late antique hagiography.
Weird enough, in the biographies of the bishops the Galloroman bishops appear as resisters. In truth, they were the informers of Attila who spied for him. The Christian authors also needed to change the fact that although Attila undoubtedly killed Christians in battles, no Christian died of “martyrdom” at the hands of Attila, even though there was a demand for it. The extremely popular legend of St. Ursula’s martyrdom was born from this need, just like the story of the eleven thousand virgins who were slaughtered.
Subsequent texts deviating from the martyr stereotype portray the Huns as “vengeful Jews”. According to the 11th-century list of bishops in Liège, the Huns are descended from Jews who were expelled from Rome by Emperor Claudius. The Hungarians were told to be their descendants, who allegedly boasted of their Jewish origin. This also goes back to the first-century A.D. Jewish historian Josephus: he was the one who tied the nation of Magog to the story of Alexander the Great.
The whole story refers to the biblical story of Gog-Magog, for here we read that the Assyrian king exiled the ten tribes of the Jews to Media together with Gog and Magog, and then Alexander the Great (4th century B.C.) chased them behind the Caucasus.
According to Josephus, Magog, grandson of Noah, was the ancestor of the Scythians, a real horse nomad culture from the Eurasian steppes. Alexander built an iron gate southeast of the Caspian Sea in a passage between two mountains. This gate supposedly kept the Scythians from entering Persia, though Josephus gives two occasions when the gate was opened to let the Scythians (Magogites) through, with ghastly results.
It was later woven by Jean d’Outremeuse: Jews marched from the Caucasus to China under the leadership of King Felimur, whose great-grandson was called Judas, from whom came Hunnus, who ascended the throne in 238 AD. In his dream, Hunnus is called to conquer Germany and Gaul, so in 240 he boarded a ship in China, ravaged Pannonia and Italy, and then arrived in Cologne, just as the eleven thousand virgins were going to be killed…
The Hungarians’ myth
Here, I think it would be proper to insert the Hungarians’ origin myth that was commonly known among them in the 12th century. However, the stories are quite different from the before-mentioned:
„The two sons, Hunor and Magor of the giant called Ménrót (Nimrod) and Eneth’s, once started hunting among the swamps of Meotis (Meotis = Sea of Azov). While hunting, they wandered far into the great wilderness. Suddenly a beautiful red deer appeared in front of them. They chased him, but in vain. The deer disappeared from their sight as if swallowed by the earth. However, they really liked the swampy area with good pasture. They soon settled with their entourage and their animals on this land. They obtained a wife by abducting the women of neighboring peoples. Among the abductees, there were also two daughters of a prince. One was married by Hunor and the other by Magor. The Huns and Hungarians all come from these two couples.”
According to a legend known from the Hungarian chronicles, a part of Attila’s Huns survived in Transylvania. They were the Székelys who were allegedly greeting the conquering Magyar tribes in the 9th century. Some people say they are the descendants of the late-Avars who were a Hungarian-speaking population in the 7th century, according to Professor László Gyula. However, the Hungarian Székelys of Transylvania have their own origin myth about the Huns:
„After the death of Attila, their enemies attacked the Huns. The army of the Huns was led by Attila’s son, Prince Csaba. The fight lasted for two weeks. Eventually, Csaba’s Huns were defeated and scattered. Only a few remained. After the battle, Csaba fled east (to Scythia) with fifteen thousand Hun knights. There were only three thousand Huns left in Attila’s land, who were so afraid of the revenge of their enemies that from now on they did not dare to pronounce the name „Hun”, but called themselves Székelys.
Time passed, the grandchildren of Csaba’s warriors grew already up when the neighboring peoples attacked the Székelys with a large army. The fight lasted until late at night, and the Székelys were almost lost when a miracle happened.
A group of cavalry appeared on the bright Milky Way in the sky. At the head of the team was Prince Csaba, who led the spirits of the old Hun knights into a new battle. The magnificent army swept away the enemy and then returned to the sky through the Milky Way.”
If you want to read more about the Székelys, here is my article:
(Please, note that I use always the Eastern name order for Hungarians where family names come first.)
Italian additions to Attila’s reputation
We should mention the myth of the founding of Venice, it was allegedly built on the water against the Huns. Later, Attila’s story in the 14th-16th century Italian city-states is a basic theme, the embodiment of Muslim danger. He is even portrayed as a “saracen”.
In Niccolò da Casola’s work “La guerra d’Attila” and Sebastiano Erizzo’s epic, the Huns and their kings depicted as dog-headed and dog-moral Muslims. Also, we can see that Dante confused Attila and Alarik and he made Attila occupy Florence. The medieval Italian legend about the Huns also influenced the judgment of the Hungarians during the campaigns of the Hungarian King Louis the Great in Naples, while depicting the Italians as the hammer of the Mohammedan Huns.
King Gilius / Ianusius, lord of Concordia and then Padua, leader of the Christian defense against the Huns, was said to have cut Attila’s head after a game of chess. This episode may have been borrowed from the letters of the 5th-century Gallic bishop poet Sidonius Apollinaris, who played chess with Visigoth leaders in hopes of reducing tax. Finally, in the 19th century, in Verdi’s work, the struggle of Aetius and Attila are clearly standing for Italian freedom and the struggle of the oppressive Habsburgs.
Attila in the German tradition
The Germanic tradition preserves a completely different picture of Attila. In the Nibelung Song, Attila is the ideal ruler: an invincible hero of battles, but also a powerful, noble, hospitable king. His court is that of a knight king, where dueling is replaced by worship of God, and the standard of entertainment is raised by singers and grifters: instead of Eastern barbarism, Eastern splendor reigns.
However, the Germanic, Icelandic, and Ancient Norwegian sagas, also speak of a greedy and cruel Attila to create the background for Krimhild / Ildikó’s revenge. (She was the one who allegedly killed him.)
Among the Germanic legends, it is also worth referring to Ekkehard of Saint Gallen’s epic work called “The Strong-handed Walter”, drawn from legends of the Avar period, in which the inclusion of Attila indicates that the Avars also legitimized their rule with Attila.
In 1189, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and his crusader army thought they had found Etzilburg, the city of Attila, at Óbuda when they crossed Hungary on the way to the Holy Land. In the Nibelung Song, completed by the 12th century, Attila’s country is already the same as the contemporary Hungarian Kingdom, with the capitals of Moson, Buda, and Esztergom.
During the heydays of Germany’s unification in the 19th century, the Nibelung Song gained a central role in the developing German national feeling. No wonder, that the Huns were mentioned by the French in a negative context again in the disastrous German-French war in 1870.
Attila in the 20th century
By the beginning of the 20th century, Attila became the Triple Entente’s weapon of political propaganda against the Germans and the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.
It was Rudyard Kipling who urged Britain into war like this:
“For all we have and are
For all our children’s fate,
Stand up and take the war.
The Hun is at the gate!”
A bit later, Zamyatin, the Russian avant-garde author in his 1928 drama, kneads the figure of Attila, the Asian tyrant, using Lenin and Stalin. When Hungary was partitioned in 1918, another trend joined in. Very sadly, the newly founded states that were surrounding Hungary, tried to build up their nationalist propaganda by calling the Hungarians barbarians who had taken away their lands a millennium ago. Thus, the descendants of the blood-thirsty Huns deserve nothing but despise and it is natural that they deserved what they got from the Turks during the wars between 1368-1699.
Here you can read about the ethnic changes after the Ottoman wars:
It is sad to see how medieval entertainment literature and legitimacy ideology have eventually become a modern propaganda tool that has its effect even in the 21st century.
Attila in the Hungarian and Croatian tradition during the Ottoman wars
Until the 18th century, the Huns were considered the first conquerors of Hungary, it was unquestioned. The Huns and the Magyars were regarded as one nation until 1770 when the Finno-Ugric theory was created by Sajnovics János.
Thuróczy János (1435?-1489?), the historian of King Matthias Corvinus, also considered the Huns and the Hungarians to be one people in the wake of the earlier chronicler called Kézai Simon whose Chronicle was written around 1282. Even Thuróczy’s title of Chapter 4 in his Chronicle is “The origin of the Huns, ie the Hungarians”. Elsewhere, he writes of the Huns: “the Huns, that is, the Hungarians”.
He writes of Attila the next: “This man was also worthy of this dignity [i.e. kingdom], for he was the most excellent of all the Huns with all his sharp mind, spiritual strength, the endurance of fatigue, military discipline, diligence, and ambition; he was extremely clever and cunning in misleading and luring the enemy by setting a trap, he was muscular, brave, even reckless, ambitious in intent, very cunning in battle, excellent-looking man: broad chest and shoulders, dark, black, sullen-looking, he wore a long beard and, as they say, was very sensual in nature.” Thuróczy considered Attila’s death a great pain. In any case, he wanted to please King Matthias so he described what the king obviously liked.
During the Ottoman wars, Hungarians were in need of such kinship, regardless of its historical reality. They were able to draw strength and courage from the Hun-Hungarian relationship. It needed them badly when they were fighting against the mighty Ottoman Empire in such an unbalanced and long war.
The Hungarian-Croatian Zrínyi Milós aka Nikola Zrinski (1620-1664), like his contemporaries, paints a rather positive picture of Attila. In Zrínyi’s view, Attila is a conquering, powerful ruler whose contemporary (i.e. 17th century) descendants are quite distorted because they endure the Turkish rule over them. He wrote, if Attila had known that he would have such descendants, he would have remained in Scythia. “What was the thing that Attila never did, what could stop his bravery?” (In: “Vitéz Hadnagy” aka “Valiant Lieutenant”).
“Attila walked triumphantly from one end of the world to the other for a few years, and destroyed many nations, and built a kingdom for himself and his nation in Pannonia, which is still to this day.” (Reflections on the Life of King Matthias). However, he accuses him of one thing, it is the killing of his brother, Buda (Bléda).
So anyone who may have been educated in the West may have come across the above described negative view, or perhaps even embraced it. When this approach is being mixed with the stereotypical view about “barbarian Hungarians who were oppressing the peaceful inhabitants of the Carpathian Basin”, then the outcome can be destructive.
It is funny, that the “descendants of the Huns”, after embracing Christianity, proved to be quite effective to block the Eastern nomads just as well as the Ottomans. They may have preserved something from their nomadic warfare. I think we all should be rather grateful for this deed.
On the other hand, the image of bloodthirsty Huns who can only destroy is just as wrong as that of the chivalrous hero Attila, who has only positive traits. And we haven’t even begun the debate about the Hun-Hungarian versus Finno-Ugric-Hungarian theories, wisely knowing that it would be futile. Anyway, Hungarians, like other peoples, had several roots…But not for political use.
Sources: Sághy Marianne, John Man, Bozóky Edina, and Szibler Gábor
Fortunately, there are a few good interpretations available about Attila, here are two of them:
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