Monday, December 6, 2010

Whitewashing Attila the Hun

So I'm watching this BBC docu-drama historical re-enactment show called Warriors (although it's originally called Heroes and Villains in Britain), and this particular episode chronicles the life of Attila the Hun, whose marauding armies laid waste to much of Europe in the 5th century BC. I'm a sucker for medieval military history so I watched it eagerly, but it's not all that great really.

Now, the series carries the claim that "it is based on the accounts of writers of the time. It has been written with the advice of modern historians."
But the most glaring feature of the program for me was how Attila and his Huns were portrayed - as a kind of generic medieval European warrior force. They could have been straight out of a Viking movie, or Lord of the Rings, or Braveheart (particularly as they sounded kinda Scottish when they spoke). Attila (played by Rory McCann) was depicted as the stereotypical alpha-male warrior leader in the Western tradition - tall and powerfully built, with long hair, a beard, and a big sword. His soldiers looked much the same.



Problem is, everything we know about Attila says that he looked nothing like that. He and his armies came not from Northern Europe but Central Asia, beyond the Volga River.

Roman writer Priscus describes Attila thusly:
"Short of stature, with a broad chest and a large head; his eyes were small, his beard thin and sprinkled with grey; and he had a flat nose and tanned skin, showing evidence of his origin."
Of the Huns, Gothic-Roman bureaucrat Jordanes wrote:
"They made their foes flee in horror because their swarthy aspect was fearful, and they had, if I may call it so, a sort of shapeless lump, not a head, with pin-holes rather than eyes. Their hardihood is evident in their wild appearance, and they are beings who are cruel to their children on the very day they are born. For they cut the cheeks of the males with a sword, so that before they receive the nourishment of milk they must learn to endure wounds. Hence they grow old beardless and their young men are without comeliness, because a face furrowed by the sword spoils by its scars the natural beauty of a beard. They are short in stature, quick in bodily movement, alert horsemen, broad shouldered, ready in the use of bow and arrow, and have firm-set necks which are ever erect in pride. Though they live in the form of men, they have the cruelty of wild beasts."
Clearly, the real Huns did not resemble Rory McCann. But descriptions of them are complicated by the likelihood that they were not a single homogeneous ethnic group. The Central Asian steppe from whence they came was gigantic inhabited by numerous tribes, and as they conquered more territory they would have absorbed more diverse populations. So among the Hun armies there might have been people who spoke Turkic, Uralic, Mongolic, Slavic and Iranic languages. As for Attila himself, he was probably not purely "East Asian" in phenotype (in the way that Genghis Khan would have been); rather, he likely resembled a modern day Uighur, Uzbek or Kazakh, or a Hazara from Afghanistan.

The Huns played an important role in shaping the history and genetics of Europe. Firstly, they were one of several nomadic groups to have introduced East Asian DNA into Eastern Europe. Secondly, their invasions displaced numerous other barbarian tribes, such as the Goths, who then in turn invaded Western Europe and precipitated the fall of the Roman Empire. It also pushed the Angles and Saxons out of Germany and into England.

So it's a shame that the folks at the BBC didn't see fit to acknowledge the Oriental origins of the Huns. The East-meets-West culture clash between the Huns and Rome would have made for a far more interesting program.

16 comments:

  1. Well Eurasian, I'm not going to generally comment too much here, but I just want to say that, you may be surprised, I completely agree.

    If there's one thing I like, it's historically authenticity.

    Therefore, white people should not be playing Asian or Central Asian historical or fictional characters, and likewise, non-whites should not be playing Shakespeare roles outside of Othello, or any roles in anything European related for that matter (to go back to your post on the casting of "The Hobbit").

    In other words, no more "The Last Airbender" type films or whites playing Genghis Khan, and in exchange, I don't want to see any more blacks playing King Lear.

    Sound like a fair deal?

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    1. Sounds fair..as long as white people quit trying to play Paraohs...and stop acting like Ancient Egypt was a white society..

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    2. Ancient Egypt was a mixed society with a white aristocracy.

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    3. Eurasian SensationJuly 11, 2015 at 10:24 AM

      Ancient Egypt, according to most reputable research, was a North African society not unlike it is today, and not unlike other North African countries. In other words, neither "white" nor "black", which are modern constructs. There would certainly have been the presence of Black African genetic contribution, but not to the point where it is fair to call ancient Egyptians "black". There were, at different times, a "white" (Greek) aristocracy and a "black" (Nubian) aristrocracy, along with the "brown" aristocracy of the native Egyptians.

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    4. Ancient Egypt wasn't a brown Nation like how you describe a brown nation or a white nation but a black nation. Lets cut the all inclusive nonsense to satisfy white cultural appropriation. Greeks taking over Egypt doesn't make the Ancient Egyptians Greek it means Egypt was TAKEN OVER by Greeks.

      So unless they were responsible for either the culture or accomplishments of ancient Egyptians then they are non-Egyptians who invaded Egypt like white Europeans invaded America . So using the fact that today you have a lot of whites calling themselves Indian or Amerindian to say the Indians of the past who actually created the culture, were mixed is preposterous.

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    5. @ Prichard:
      It's ironic that you complain about white cultural appropriation... you could just as easily be accused of black cultural appropriation. Yes, the Nubians (sub-Saharan African) ruled Egypt for a while, they were outsiders who took over, just as the Greeks were.
      The location of Egypt, at the juncture of two continents, has meant that people of numerous racial types have moved through the area and become part of the population. Including "black" Africans at various times. Presumably the original Egyptians had some level of DNA that was sub-Saharan African, but predominantly they would have been Middle-Eastern/North African types. There was further black input with the Nubian conquest of Egypt, and then later with black slaves brought in during the Muslim era.
      While Afrocentrists such as yourself claim that they are fighting against the whitewashing of Egyptian history, they are merely substituting one lie for another - by blackwashing Egyptian history. Afrocentrists seem to care nothing for what actual Egyptians think about their own history.

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    6. Actually White Indo-Europeans CAME FROM EURASIA AND THE SIBERIAN TERRITORIES! And "East Asian DNA" was introduced to Europe, NOT by "East Asians", but by Indo-European migrants from Siberia and Central Asia as long ago during the Neolithic period in Europe, as well as by VARIOUS BLACK AFRICAN MIGRANTS TO EUROPE DURING THE LAST ICE AGE, WHO CARRIED THOSE GENETIC MARKERS.

      Blacks are the most genetically diverse people on Earth and contain all the genes of other races as well as the phenotypes and body types of them. And WHITES ARE NOT FROM EUROPE! THEY TOO ARE EURASIAN STEPPE TRANSPLANTS! They arrived to Europe in giant population waves starting from 2500 BC to the fall of the Roman empire from the Central Asian and Siberian steppes. BEFORE THAT, EUROPE WAS OCCUPIED BY BLACK SETTLERS FROM AFRICA AND THE MIDDLE EAST!


      Also, it's for a FACT that MODERN DAY NORTH AFRICANS HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH THE ACTUAL ORIGINAL NATIVE INDIGENOUS ANCIENT EGYPTIAN POPULATIONS! Modern North Africans and Egyptians, besides the Black ones living in the deserts area, are a heavily mongrelized people consisting of Turkic, Slavic, Gothic, Turkish, French, Italic, Ionian Greek, Eurasian white ancestries and admixtures; SUCH THAT THEY ARE TOO GENETICALLY DISTINCT AND REMOVED, TO HAVE ANY RELATION TO THE ORIGINAL ANCIENT EGYPTIAN POPULATION! Make no the mistake, THE ORIGINAL ANCIENT EGYPTIANS WERE BLACK AND THEY DEPICTED THEMSELVES THAT WAY! When outsider's FROM OUTSIDE OF EGYPT SHOWED UP IN ANCIENT EGYPT, the Ancient Egyptians SAW THEMSELVES CLOSER TO OTHER SURROUNDING BLACK GROUPS, like the Ethiopians, Nubians, Axumites etc etc THEN ASIATIC PEOPLE FROM THE NEAR-EAST OR ELSEWHERE! Black groups like the Dogons of Mali were tested and said to be more culturally closer to the cultures and peoples of the Ancient Egyptians, THEN ANY MODERN NORTHERN AFRICAN GROUP TODAY!

      So it is a FACT THAT THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS WERE BLACK!


      The so called Indo-Europeans were all illiterate eurasian barbaric horse nomads, who did not discover or independently invent basic farming agriculture and never created their own sophisticated independent civilizations, and never invented a single written alphabet or script of their own, previous to their contact w/ non-Indo-Europeans who had. It also a fact, that it was forbidden to practice mass literacy among early Indo-Europeans societies, and it was highly forbidden to record or write things down, record traditions and thoughts and ideas, in written form, as it was seen by them to have the potential to corrupt and pollute their oral based cultural knowledge transfer.


      Infact, the neolithic "civilization-less: lifestyle of Indo-European groups continued all the way to the fall of the Roman empire! There was no way, ABSOLUTELY NO WAY, that White Indo-Europeans had ANYTHING to do with the Ancient Egyptian civilization's, let alone construct or built it!

      The Indo-Europeans peoples, like the Slavs/Aryans, were the Huns and Mongols of the BC period and post AD period; and they formed large nomadic horse pastoral steppe confederations and empires, and they were barbaric and violent, and backwards, and brutish, and they had to pillage/take over/loot/attack/exchange or get in contact w/ non-Indo-Europeans w/ civilizations, to understand and get all the requirements of civilization.

      Previous to that, there is no evidence of Indo-Europeans creating or constructing their own independent civilizations, just like the Huns and Mongols and Turks! Infact the Hunnic, Mongol, and Turkic steppe confederations were based on the first and original Indo-European nomadic steppe confederations that existed in Central Asia and Siberia, and which had played a role in the civilization's surrounding Eurasia. They were nomadic barbarian pillagers and marauders, who were recorded to have no independent agriculture based civilizations, by actual independent recordings of people from actual civilizations who met them.

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    7. Would I be able to play that roll? I'm white, my name hunsicker originally hun seck means land of huns..

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  2. @ B.A.G.:

    That's fair, more or less.

    Regarding blacks playing King Lear or whatever: I don't necessarily see a problem with making an artistic interpretation of a story which has unorthodox castings - for example, Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo and Juliet" - I thought the two standout performances in that movie were by black Harold Perrineau as Mercutio and Hispanic John Leguizamo as Tybalt.

    But, if a program/film is going to make a claim to any kind of historical authenticity, then that sort of thing won't fly.

    Regarding whites playing Central Asian characters, it's really dependent on the context, Central Asia being a diverse place. If Attila the Hun was played by someone like Charles Bronson (who is "white" but has visible Tatar ancestry), I think that would be fine. But playing him as someone who looks obviously Nordic is just silly.

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  3. I'm all for artistic interpretations and unusual casting. I am. Artistic interpretations should not be limited in any way.

    However. Enough with witewashing films, already! Why is always (well, not always, but at least 9 times out of 10), "unusual casting" about whites playing people who didn't look like them? What is wrong in casting a non-white actor for a, well, role of a non-white character?

    And if they wanted unusual casting, why didn't they cast a black actor as Attila?

    It's all down to the good old, "white is universal" and "a norm". Some people even say that non-whites (such as black models) are "distracting" in a way their race takes people away from the story. And in this case, casting someone more appropriate would only ADD to the authenticity, so I really don't get it. Do white people need to be everywhere, even when they, well, weren't there?

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  4. Interesting commentary -- the problem is that your view of what Central Asians look like is a MODERN one. Is it not possible, even likely, that Central Asians 1500 years ago contained tribes with what we today think of "European" features, as well as more tribes with what we think of today as "Indian" features? Linguistic similarities tie Europe and India.

    Most genetic analyses suggest that Europe's "indigenous" homo sapiens population probably migrated from Central Asia and the Middle East. If "white" people were present in those areas 20,000 years ago, is it so difficult to imagine that "white" people may also have been present 1,500 years ago?

    Genetics suggest my own ancestry pulls heavily from the steppes, yet I don't look like a Mongol.

    Of course, if you go back far enough, we all are distant cousins from the rift valley of Africa.

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    1. Fair point. At the very least, I think it's very unrealistic for Attila to look Nordic like the actor Rory McCann. I think it's certainly possible that he was "Mediterranean" in appearance (ie. like an Iranian or Armenian) or Slavic-looking.
      The descriptions of him by the historians certainly suggest a degree of East Asian ancestry, although these are not conclusive.

      Regarding "white" people being present in Central Asia 20,000 years ago though... I'm doubtful they would have looked that much like modern "white" people.

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  5. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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  6. As a student of Hun origins, I am disappointed at the depiction of Attila in this way. There is ample records depicting his features, at least a Hungarian actor should have been used.

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  7. White people get over it. We know that the original people of history is black so in reality whites and all other comes from my people the original man. But as always whites want to claim something that isn't theirs. Where have. I heard this before. Humm lets see stealing the
    Native Americans land Stealing Parts of. Africa Stealing. Israel from the true Hebrews Isrealites. The. Blackman also you stole our history and try to claim it as your own. Should. I go on . I find you guilty of all thes crimes like the theif and devil that you are. Just look at history where ever you went you brought lies rape pilage diseases confussion war again must. I go on. I find you guilty once again. You are wicked and truly the beast the scripture speaks of . Your time is at hand.

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