The number of side-trips I have taken courtesy of the 18th century marvel known as “Gibbon” or History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is beginning to overwhelm the work itself. For months now I have been pursuing, on and off, the elusive Huns – Attila’s lot. There are reasons for this I’ll not go into as they would spoil the plot of the novel I’m trying to write. But readers may find the results of this detour interesting (or not. Just go off and read something else if you’re bored – one of my books, for example).
After doing a heap of wiki-ing and other online hooning about on Attila and his people, I broke down in the end and ordered a hard copy of Otto J Maenchen-Helfen’s World of the Huns. This had been reviewed as the best account of this mysterious people, and on and off since receiving it I’ve been getting through it. It’s a dense read, a kind of combination nachlass – he’d finished only part of it when he died – and festschrift, given that it was published despite numerous lacunae by admirers of his painstaking scholarship.
A name like Maenchen-Helfen sticks in the mind, and I had read something else associated with him, many years ago: he had translated a Russian account of the life of world-class bogeyman Karl Marx sub-titled Man and Fighter, published in Penguin. As it dealt with Marx’s political life rather than his writing and ideas, I gave it a read.
Maenchen-Helfen was Austrian and after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia went to that country to work, getting permission to do anthropological studies that included a visit to the very, very far east and a district called Tuva, where it seems no European had been for a very long time, if ever. Despairing for some reason of Stalin’s regime, he managed to get out of Soviet clutches and went to Berlin. With the coming of Nazism he did a runner from there too and after some more wandering ended up in the US, where he taught the history of art in California. His mind, however, was on the Huns, and he brought a great range of talents to the subject; archaeology, linguistics, history, art…
The World of the Huns sums up his life’s work..
Anyone wishing for the definitive line on Attila and the Huns he led to an empire should not read this book.
Anyone wishing for guidance on what the Huns did when they weren’t murdering, pillaging and raping their way through Europe should also look elsewhere.
Where they came from, what language they spoke, what religion they practised – give over! Carefully, item by item, thought by thought, rumour by rumour, tradition and legend not left out, Maenchen-Helfen demolishes them all. He takes issue with it seems all specialists in the field – including himself! Never one to avoid casting a doubt where a doubt could be flung, he turns Hun scholarship into nonsense.
Here is a vigorous sample. The Ural River in Russia had another name and its ancient rendering in Greek began with a delta (“d” to us) though it was said “Yayiq”. What this name might mean is not clear: “Turkologists and Altaists cannot agree,” Maenchen-Helfen tells us. “Marquart assumed that the delta renders palatised d; Pritsak thinks it stands for the fricative voiced dental; Menges takes it for the plosive voiced dental, and Poppe for the sibilant z; even the possibility that the delta transcribed y has been considered.”*
I had a good laugh. For this tiny corner of scholarship, think the whole of Hunnic lore.
Maenchen-Helfen suggests, without being definitive about it, that far from being “Asiatic” that at least some of the skulls unearthed in various grave sites that might be Hunnic were “Europoid”, and that they were also “multi-ethnic”, made up of members of various peoples. (He says Genghiz Khan was part European too). He reckons they might have spoken some sort of Turkish tongue, but he’s not sure. Examining the names of warriors – many who served in Roman armies – shows them to be derived from a range of cultures including Gothic, Armenian and Iranian. Their artwork is very primitive and as for their standards of utilitarian workmanship – please.
What they were good at was fighting, and what they made well were bows and arrows. They knew, he says, a lot about shooting arrows on horseback, and it gave them their superiority over nearly all comers. Of course once a skill like that is obvious to one’s enemies, they are likely to acquire it too, so perhaps it is not too surprising that their empire was short-lived, unravelling spectacularly after Attila’s death.
From that superiority we do know that Attila fashioned an impressively large empire. He terrorised and subjugated other so-called barbarian peoples and amassed a fabulous fortune for himself and his people through booty, extorting tribute from victims, including the Romans, and from ransoming or on-selling captives into fulltime slavery. Attila acted the part of an emperor, hiring literate secretaries to conduct negotiations through correspondence and formal treaty, and entertained ambassadors from Rome and elsewhere. One of these, a civil servant and diplomat named Priscus, wrote down his impressions, so we know at least that he was real.
World of the Huns is meant to be for those really interested, so-called specialists, and there is a postscript for dummies such as myself who don’t really care all that much whether the y in yayiq was plosive or explosive. Yet the author of the postscript faithfully recounted the story of Attila’s “engagement” with the sister of a Roman emperor: Maenchen-Helfen sniffily dismisses it as “Byzantine court gossip”.
Of course, for a novelist, who makes things up and who only doesn’t want to be embarrassed by alleging a fact that turns out not to be a fact, Maenchen-Helfen’s demolition job is a gift from the gods. Almost anything anyone might say about Attila and about the Huns might be true. Conceivably they could even be Erich von Daniken’s spacemen. There are so many good stories! A writer might agree with them, discount them, make up her or his own…and it’s all fine.
*It turns out that none of these experts was right. See pages 454-455.