Every 7th of January I have to call four friends, all Attilas, to congratulate them on their name day. A Hungarian table calendar tells you whose name day it is and, just to make sure, every morning the radio announcer congratulates the day's celebrants. In addition, a little sign at the florist’s reminds of the name day, just in case you forgot. Though less in fashion than in earlier decades, name days are still a good excuse for boozing and fraternizing in this country. The paradox of the Attila name day is that originally name days were an Orthodox Christian tradition, but Attila the Hun was neither Christian nor Hungarian.
What’s his role in this column then? The short answer is: it’s a long story. Actually, two parallel stories. One is the real historical version, the other a colourful pool of legends and myths spiced with contemporary special effects. The latter is more interesting. Nevertheless, let’s stick first to history.
The real story starts with the nomadic Huns roaming from the steppes of Inner Asia and reaching the Carpathian basin in the early 5th century. They consolidated their power by making conquered tribes their loyal vassals. Like all nomadic invaders (including the Hungarian tribes arriving in the present territory in the 9th century) they had one sole objective: to maintain their superiority by raiding and looting, while keeping people in constant fear of their military skills through a style of fighting unknown to their enemies.
Born the child of Hun Chief Mundzuk in 406, Attila only came to power at the age of 28, when his father’s brother, King Ruga, died suddenly when struck by lightning. His elder brother Bleda inherited the title, but according to Hunnic tradition they shared power, at least until Bleda’s death in unknown circumstances in 445. Their eleven-year rule was a major blow for the Eastern Roman Empire. After rampaging in the Balkans, the Hunnic armies got as near as the fortified walls of Constantinople; there they negotiated three peace agreements that resulted in the Huns being well supplied with gold and riches.
The dual kingship ended with Bleda’s death, and for the next eight years Attila assumed sole power over the Huns and their subordinated peoples. Of the two brothers Attila was more the warrior type and more ambitious. Looking to further expand his empire he soon terminated the agreement made by his uncle Ruga with the Romans and started his long march to the western part of Europe, leaving no cities unharmed. At the peak of his rule, the short-lived Hunnic Empire extended from the Baltic as far as the Atlantic; the devastation he brought to the west created the basis for his mythical image as “the scourge of God”. Attila’s unexpected death by internal bleeding in 453 left the peoples of Europe in disarray; his three sons (Ellak, Denghizik and Ernak) were unable to hold the vast empire together, and in absence of a charismatic leader like Attila the vassal tribes soon seceded. Attila’s appearance on the 5th c. European scene represented a fatal blow to the Latin Roman Empire, whose inglorious end opened the way for the formation of western Christian nations.
This is the historians’ dry version of Attila’s life and the role he played. More important is his mythical rebirth. Since authentic sources about his life are so scarce, his character is ideal for the creation of legends and myths. Western (German, French and Italian) popular literature portrays Attila as the epitome of Eastern barbarism, gave him dog’s ears - he was a cruel, merciless warrior, the archenemy of anything civilized.
Hungarians, on the contrary, have their own story and it is deeply ingrained in our national consciousness via literature, and those who ardently oppose the Finno-Ugrian theory concerning the origin of the Hungarians. Since Hungarians are obsessed with their ethnic genealogy, especially the Asian links, there are innumerable camps of those who believe in various theories and it’s useless to argue with them. The circle of legends connected to the Huns and in particular to Attila is so widely taken for granted that it would be a betrayal of the nation to say that all these myths are just the products of the vivid imaginations of a few chroniclers. To name just a few, here is a short list of the most common beliefs attached to Attila and the Huns:
The Huns and the Hungarians are practically the same nation (never mind the 400 years between the 460s when the Huns disappeared and the year 896 when Hungarian tribes under Chief Árpád conquered the Carpathian Basin). Some believers of the theory claim that Árpád is a direct blood descendant of Attila. In Hungarian eyes Attila was a humane and wise ruler, sparing Rome from destruction at the request of Pope Leo I.
Attila, a popular first name, and other Hunnic characters also have domesticated Hungarian names, “Bleda” becoming “Buda” for example, the city being named after him.
The weirdest extreme you can reach in myth making is the case of Prince Csaba, who is claimed by the Székely people living in Transylvania to be Attila’s son. This would make the Székelys direct descendants of the Huns. It’s an ongoing national game to find Attila’s grave at the bottom of a river where he was buried in three coffins, one gold, one silver, and one iron.
No matter what historians and western image distorters say, Attila is great and he is ours, insofar as other peoples from the steppes have a claim on him too, and a lot of Turkish babies receive “Attila” as their first name as well. Nevertheless, myth-making on such a large scale has also a boomerang effect: people are punished for believing what the myth-makers produced, both in the West and the East. The figure of Attila will provide excellent ammunition for both second-rate Hollywood filmmakers and self-claimed researchers of our Asian roots for centuries to come.
Contributed by Miklós M. Molnár, founder of Fungarian, a company offering crash courses in Hungarian combined with interesting local tours for visitors to Budapest. You can read more of the series and learn more about Hungarian culture and language at the author’s website – www.fungarian.com in the FunBox Hungarian Histories section. First published in Time Out Budapest.