The White Huns were steppe nomads who grew to power in Central Asia, China (where they were called Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu), and northern India during the fourth and fifth centuries c.e. Different from the Huns organized under Attila, the White Huns were believed to have had white skin and elongated heads.
Although it is unknown what the White Huns called themselves; they may have assumed the name Hua or Huer. Other names attributed to them include Hephthalites, Hephthal, Ephthalites, Yanda, Urar, Avars, and Huna.
The most well known writing about the White Huns is by Procopius, a contemporary of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. Procopius recorded the remarks and observations from an ambassador who was traveling with the Persians who were warring with the White Huns.
He wrote that the White Huns "are the only ones among the Huns who have white bodies". The Mongolian Huns’ origins are unclear. For the White Huns to have white skin indicates the possibility of a different origin than the Huns of Attila.
The White Huns may not have been related to the Hunnish tribes at all. The White Huns are often considered unrelated, physically and culturally, to the Huns. The Huns belonged to a group of Central Asian and Eastern Caucasian steppe nomad warriors who also have murky origins.
Chinese records, along with linguistic research and archaeological finds, place the early Huns in present-day Mongolia. The Huns left very little written evidence but by the fourth century c.e. a large group of Huns near the Black Sea forced Germanic Goth tribes into the Roman Empire.
The Hun Empire and Attila The Hun
The organization of the Huns by the fifth century c.e. resulted in the creation of the Hun empire. Their appearance marks one of the first well-documented migrations on horseback. The last leader of the Hun empire, Attila the Hun, led with military success, due in part to weapons such as the Hun bow and financial gains that retained a large number of loyal Hunnish tribes and European peoples such as the Alans, Gepids, Slavs, and Gothic tribes.
Attila the Hun was born c. 406 c.e. As part of a peace treaty with Rome, the 12-year-old Attila was fostered as a child, and in exchange the Huns fostered the Roman Flavius Aetius. This hostage exchange was enforced in hopes that each child would bring back to his home nation an appreciation of the other’s traditions and culture.
Attila studied the foreign policies and internal workings of the Romans in order to favor the Huns. Secretly listening to meetings with foreign diplomats, Attila learned about court protocol and leadership tactics.
In 432 the Huns were united, and by 434 Attila’s uncle Ruga left the empire to him and his brother Bleda. The Huns gathered and invaded the Persian Empire, but a defeat in Armenia caused a cessation of attacks for several years. By the mid-fifth century the Huns began attacking the border merchants of Persia.
In addition, the two brothers threatened war with Rome, citing treaty failures and claiming the Romans had desecrated royal Hunnish graves on the Danube River. Crossing the river, the Huns invaded nearby Illyrian cities and forts. In 441 they invaded present-day Belgrade and Sirnium.
Within a few years the Huns invaded along the Danube River, using battering rams and siege towers. They successfully invaded cities along the Danube and then the Nišava River to sack the present-day Sofia (Bulgaria). The Huns moved toward Constantinople.
Finding and then defeating the Roman armies outside the city, the Huns found they could not topple the city’s thick walls but were in the process of gathering stronger battering rams. Theodosius I admitted defeat instead of allowing the Huns to continue to batter the city’s walls.
After this victory the Huns retreated into the safety of their empire. According to classic literature, Attila killed his brother. The Hun empire was his alone. Attila, who would be called the "Scourge of God", was an aggressive and ambitious leader.
Stories emerged claiming he owned the sword of Mars or that no one could look at him directly in the eyes without flinching. Attila and his Huns attacked eastern Europe, laying waste to cities along the way. He defeated city after city on his way though Austria and Germany.
Attila attacked Gaul before turning to Italy, crushing several Lombard citie on his way to Ravenna, the Roman capital at the time. Attila did not attack Ravenna; some scholars believe that Attila stopped short of sacking the capital of the Roman Empire at the request of Pope Leo the Great. Another theory is that Attila wanted to return back to his own lands before the onset of a harsh winter.
After Attila’s death in 453 the Hun empire collapsed. In legend, Attila died from a nosebleed on the night of his marriage to a seventh wife. Typically not a drinker, Attila supposedly passed out on his back and the nosebleed caused him to choke on his own blood.
Upon his death, his sons acquired the throne, however, they were not as aggressive as Attila and fought among themselves in power struggles. By the late fifth century the Hun empire had completely disintegrated. Attila’s legacy was his ability to organize the nomadic Huns and to collect wealth through attacks and extortion. In many cultures today Attila the Hun is viewed as a hero.
The Origin of The White Huns
Some scholars believe that the White Huns were of Turkish origin, while some place the White Huns’ origin near the Hindu Kush region. What little is known of White Hunnish culture favors an Iranian origin. A common custom for Iranians was also common for the White Huns—the practice of polyandry, having several husbands to one wife.
In addition, a White Hunnish woman wore a hat bearing the same number of horns as she had husbands, all of whom were probably brothers. Even if a man had no biological brothers, he would adopt men to be his brothers so he could marry. All the brothers and the wife agreed on sexual privileges. The paternity of children was assigned according to the age of the husband.
In this model the oldest husband claimed the first child and subsequent children were assigned to husbands of decreasing age. Polyandry has not been associated with any other Hun tribe. In fact, many Hun tribes practiced the reverse model, polygamy, in which one husband had many wives.
Scholars differ about the language spoken by the White Huns. Many believe that their language was similar to the language of Iranian peoples; others believe they spoke Mongolian tongues. The White Huns are thought to have worshipped fire and sun deities. Although this is not uncommon, worshipping both deities together is similar to Iranian and Persian peoples.
Such beliefs may have later produced in what would be known as Zoroastrianism in which women held important value in society, cleanliness and hard work were stressed, oppression of others is condemned, and the worship of fire and the Sun were key elements.
Some scholars believe the White Huns derive from a combination of the Tarim Basin peoples and the Yuezhi (Yueh-chih). The people of the Tarim Basin in presentday China flourished up until the second century c.e.
The Tarim Basin people were not of Asian origin at all but may have been tribes that migrated through central Eurasia to the land that later became known as the southern portion of the Silk Road.
Nomads who lived in northwest China, the Yuezhi were a fair-skinned people of Caucasian origin. It is thought they were part of a large migration of Indo-European peoples who then settled in northwestern China.
The White Huns may have practiced a form of cranial manipulation that caused an elongated skull. Burials of White Huns contained elongated skulls. When a child’s skull is still soft, it is possible to slowly shape the skull into this shape.
Conquests of The White Huns
In the first half of the fifth century the regions of Kushan and Gandhara were ruled by a local dynasty of unrelated Huns. The White Huns organized and overthrew the Kushan rulers, and the Gupta Empire was extinguished. The White Huns also attacked Buddhists and destroyed monasteries.
As the century progressed, the White Huns sacked the Bactrian region. With each success the White Huns moved closer to Persia. In 484 the White Huns defeated the armies at Khorasan, in present-day Iran, and the Sassanid king was killed.
With these successes the empire of the White Huns grew to the point where they were the superpower of Central Asia. They had destroyed the Iranian Sassanid Empire and founded their capital of Pendjikent.
Successfully stabilizing the borders and strengthening their foothold in Asia, the White Huns sent 13 embassies to China in order to help establish their influence. The White Huns ruled northwestern India for 30 more years. During the sixth century the Persian king Khosrow I made an alliance with the turks against the White Huns.
The new allies attacked the White Huns, killing their king and leaving them a broken tribe, who all but disappeared by the second half of the sixth century. Survivors assimilated into neighboring regions.
Their loss of power left a vacuum for a new group, the Turks. The appearance of the Gurjara clan in India around the time of the White Hun invasions suggest that perhaps the White Huns were involved genetically and politically in establishing several ruling dynasties in northern India. Another theory maintains that the White Huns remained in India as a separate group.