The World of the Huns
O. Maenchen-Helfen


Few scholars would care to risk their reputation in taking on the monumental task of straightening out misconceptions about the Huns, and incidentally about the many peoples related to them, allied with them, or confused with them. At the foundation there are philological problems of mind-boggling proportions in languages ranging from Greek to Chinese; above that, an easy but solidly professional familiarity with primary sources for the history of both Eastern and Western civilizations in many periods is required; finally, a balanced imagination and a prudent sense of proportion are needed to cope with the improbabilities, contradictions, and prejudices prevailing in this field of study. The late Professor Otto Maenchen-Helfen worked on this immense field of research for many years, and at his death in 1969 left an unfinished manuscript. This is the source of the present book.

Maenchen-Helfen differed from other historians of Eurasia in his unique competence in philology, archaeology, and the history of art. The range of his interests is apparent from a glance at his publications, extending in subject from "Das Märchen von der Schwanenjungfrau in Japan" to "Le Cicogne di Aquileia," and from "Manichaeans in Siberia" to "Germanic and Hunnic Names of Iranian Origin." He did not need to guess the identities of tribes, populations, or cities. He knew the primary texts, whether in Greek or Russian or Persian or Chinese. This linguistic ability is particularly necessary in the study of the Huns and their nomadic cognates, since the name "Hun" has been applied to many peoples of different ethnic character, including Ostrogoths, Magyars, and Seljuks. Even ancient nomadic people north of China, the Hsiung-nu, not related to any of these, were called "Hu??n" by their Sogdian neighbors. Maenchen-Helfen knew the Chinese sources that tell of the Hsiung-nu, and thus could evaluate the relationship of these sources to European sources of Hunnic history.

His exceptional philological competence also enabled him to treat as human beings the men whose lives underlie the dusty textual fragments that allude



to them, and to describe their economy, social stratifications, modes of transportation and warfare, religions, folklore, and art. He could create a reliable account of the precursors of the Turks and Mongols, free of the usual Western prejudice and linguistic limitations.

Another special competence was his expertise in the history of Asian art, a subject that he taught for many years. He was familiar with the newest archaeological discoveries and knew how to correlate them with the available but often obscure philological evidence.

To define distinctive traits in the art of a people as elusive as the Huns requires familiarity with the disjointed array of archaeological materials from the Eurasian steppe and the ability to separate materials about the Huns from a comparable array of materials from neighboring civilizations. To cite only one example of his success in coping with such thorny problems, Maenchen-Helfen's description of technical and stylistic consistencies among metal articles from Hunnic tombs in widely separated localities dispels the myth of supposed Hunnic ignorance of metal-working skills.

Archaeological evidence also plays a critical role in the determination of the origin of the Huns and their geographical distribution in ancient and early medieval times, as well as the extent of Hunnic penetration into eastern Europe and their point of entry into the Hungarian plain. Maenchen-Helfen saw clearly how to interpret the data from graves and garbage heaps to yield hypotheses about the movements of peoples. "He believed in the spade, but his tool was the pen," he once said about another scholar — a characterization that perfectly fits Maenchen-Helfen himself. Burial practices of the Huns and their associates indicate that Hunnic weapons generally originated in the east and were transmitted westward, while the distribution of loop mirrors found in association with artificially deformed skulls — a Hunnic practice — gives proof of Hunnic penetration into Hungary from the northeast. (An unpublished find of a sword of the Altlussheim type recently discovered at Barnaul in the Altai region, east Kazakhstan SSR, now in the Hermitage Museum, is a forceful argument in favor of Maenchen-Helfen's assumption about the eastern connections of this weapon. See A. Urmanskiĭ, "Sovremennik groznogo Attily," Altaĭ 4 [23], Barnaul 1962, pp. 79-93.) His findings define and bring to life the civilization of one of the most shadowy peoples of early medieval times.

Maenchen-Helfen's account opens in medias res, with a tribute to that admirable Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, whose view of the Hunnic incursions was, despite his prejudices, in some respects clearer than that of Western historians. Abrupt as this beginning may seem, the author perhaps intended the final version of his book to begin with such a striking evaluation of a basic text. In so doing, he underlined the necessity for sharp


and well-reasoned criticism of the sources of the history of the Huns. From the beginning these people were denigrated and "demonized" (to use his own term) by European chroniclers and dismissed as avatars of the eternal but faceless barbarian hordes from the east, against whom vigilance was always necessary, but whose precise identity was of little importance. The bulk of the book discusses the history and civilization of the "Huns proper," those so familiar — and yet so unfamiliar — to Europeans. (Here we use the term "civilization" purposefully, since reports of this folk have tended to treat them as mere barbaric destroying agents — "vandals" spilling blood across the remnants of the declining Roman Empire. Maenchen-Helfen saw them with a clearer vision.)

The style is characteristically dense with realia. Maenchen-Helfen had no need to indulge in generalizations (read "unfounded guesses"). But he was not absorbed in details to the exclusion of a panoramic view. He saw, and presents to us here, the epic character of the great drama that took place on the Eurasian stage early in our era, the clash of armies and the interaction of civilizations. The book is a standard treatise not likely to be superseded in the predictable future.

Guitty Azarpay
Peter A. Boodberg
Edward H. Schafer

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