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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Sacred Legendary “Sword of the Huns” and its Meaning

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The Huns are said to have worshipped a sacred sword. At Attila’s court the East Roman ambassadors were told the following story:

When a certain shepherd beheld one heifer of his flock limping and could find no cause of this wound, he anxiously followed the trail of blood and at length came to a sword it had unwittingly trampled while nibbling the grass. He dug it up and took it straight to Attila. The king rejoiced at this gift, and, being ambitious, thought he had been appointed ruler of the whole world, and that through the sword of Mars supremacy in all wars was assured to him.

Like the combination of a folktale

Jordanes read this story in Cassiodorus, whose source was Priscus. Cassiodorus shortened the passage but not as much as we have it now in the Constantinian excerpts. There it is compressed into a pale “discovered through the agency of an ox,” but the sword itself is more exactly described than in the Getica. It was “sacred and honored among the Scythian kings, dedicated to the overseer of wars. It had vanished in ancient times. All this sounds like the combination of a folktale, transferred on Attila, and Herodotus IV, : “The Scythians worship Ares in the form of an acinaces [a scimitar], set up on a platform of bundles of brushwood.” Herodotus’ statement, with slight variations, has often been repeated. It occurs in Eudoxius of Cnidos, Apollodorus, Mela, Lucian,Solinus, and, cited from secondhand sources, in the writings of Christian apologists.

What are the origins of the cult?

Occasionally newer tribes took the place of the Scythians. Hicesius ascribed the worship of the sacred sword to the Sauromatae, Dionysius to the Maeotians, and Ammianus, in a passage in which he is not above the suspicion of having followed the styli veleres, to the Alans (they “fix a naked sword in the ground and reverently worship it as Mars, the presiding deity of those lands over which they range”). If, however, Ammianus should actually have referred to the Alans of his time, it could be argued that the Huns had taken over an old Iranian cult. On the other hand, the Hsiung-nu of the Han period likewise worshipped a sword: The ching-lu was both a sword, tao, and a god, shen, to whom prisoners of war were sacrificed in the same way as to the Scythian Aresacinaces. Besides, at least three more “Altaic” peoples held the sword so sacred that they swore by it. The Avar kagan took an oath after the manner of his people on his drawn sword, the Bulgars swore on their swords, and Suleiman the Great, undoubtedly following an old Turkish custom, took an oath on his sword. But there were more, neither Iranian nor Altaic, peoples for whom the worship of the sword is attested. The Quadi, “drawing their swords, which they venerate as gods, swore that they would remain loyal.”The Franks swore by their swords.The warriors in ancient India worshipped their swords. In spite of the literary overtone, we may believe Priscus: Like so many peoples, from Mongolia to Gaul, the Huns worshipped the god of war in the form of a sword. The origin of the cult cannot be determined.


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