Hengist, Meet Cousin Genghis?
by Tim Baber
Hengist, Meet Cousin Genghis? Does the answer to a longstanding local place-name mystery lie in the ancient use of shamanistic “power names”?
Hengistbury’s name, whether by design or accident, echoes that of Hengist, legendary war leader whose conquests led to the founding of the English state sometime before 500 AD. Yet even after decades of study, everything about Hengist remains a mystery, right down to his name. Perhaps we need to step back and look at the symbolism of such ancient ‘power’ names as Hengist and its cousin, Genghis.
Such a prospective link may seem outlandish, due to the geographical distance involved. Yet we all have heard of the “six degrees of separation” – the idea anyone on the planet is linked to anyone else through six other individuals, whether kin or social contact. The basis of the common cultural links that exist between many of the world’s population in fact lies in the travels of an early nomadic people.
Using their early adoption of “horse power,” the Kurgan peoples migrated during the Bronze Age from a homeland on the steppe lands which run from the Ukraine east to Asia. Scholars have traced back the evolution of certain words in each language within the Indo-European language family to reveal a core vocabulary belonging to a nomadic pastoral people who used horses. Their language, classed as Proto-Indo European, travelled as far west as the British Isles and east across the Asian steppe, becoming the basis for languages as diverse as Sanskrit and Anglo-Saxon. The background was documented last year in anthropology professor David Anthony’s The Horse, The Wheel, And Language: How Bronze-Age Riders From The Eurasian Steppes Shaped The Modern World from Princeton University Press. In the earliest historical times, the Greeks called these easterners by the catch-all name Scythians. The people who spoke the language dialect closest to the original Kurgan parent language came to north-western Europe in early historical times. Sir Barry Cunliffe, Emeritus Professor Of European Archaeology at Oxford, interim chair of English Heritage, and author of the archaeological text Hengistbury Head, notes these far-reaching east-west links in his latest book, Europe Between The Oceans. As the Atlantic Monthly put it in their review article “Geography Is Destiny”:
By stressing historical continuity and adroitly employing a wide-ranging archaeological record to highlight mobility and interconnectedness, Cunliffe draws a startling picture. Europe, he demonstrates, was geographically and culturally merely “the western excrescence of the continent of Asia.” His archaeological and topographic analysis shows how for thousands of years the steppe lands linked central Asia to the Great Hungarian Plain, thus providing “easy access” from China to the Atlantic Ocean. Here was a corridor for trade and migration, starting with nomadic groups deep in prehistory and continuing through the preclassical, classical, medieval, and early modern eras with great hordes of Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans, Huns, Magyars, Bulgars, Moguls, and Tatars. …. Sarmatian horsemen, originally from central Asia, served in northern England as mercenaries in the Roman army.
The horsemen of this breakaway Scythian group, the Sarmatians, were offered land in Britain in exchange for Roman military service here. A contingent of over 5,000 Sarmatian heavy cavalry patrolled Hadrian’s Wall. The similarity of Scythian nart (knightly warrior) folklore to parts of the Arthurian legend has led some to theorize a Scythian-Sarmatian source of inspiration - the recent film King Arthur starring Clive Owen was based on this theory. Ironically, the Romans’ enemy, the Picts, were also said in old accounts to be originally from Scythia. Some historians now argue the Anglo-Saxons had been pushed westward by the advance across Germany of another nomadic group, the Huns, led by Attila. These were not Germans but an offshoot of the proto-Mongol Northern Huns who had migrated westward from Russia and China into Europe as the Roman Empire collapsed. A Roman historian of the time said the Huns ate, fought and even held their councils on horseback. Their only home was a felt tent, their goods transported by a train of wagons.
A key component in the spread of a language is often the spread of a dominant religion or cult, in this case based on the horse. The nomads of the steppe formed what are called horse clans, with horse
totems. The union of man and horse made for a formidable foe. HG Wells, in his Outline Of History, said it was from the early Mongols that Europeans got the idea of using the horse in war. The white stallion in particular became an almost magical symbol of power, a sacred, sometimes sacrificial, animal to early peoples like the Germans. The Old English for horse was blanca, which in other languages means white. The white horse became what today we would call an icon on banners of the English under Alfred, and white horses have been carved on hillsides pictured
across southern England from prehistoric times through the 19th Century (with a giant sculpture of one currently being erected on a hillside in Hengist's "home" county of Kent).
In Britain, after the Romans withdrew in the early 5th C. AD, the Romano-British government of the day brought in a Saxon contingent to drive away Pictish border raiders. The Saxons were led by two legendary figures, Hengist and his brother Horsa, who soon usurped the Romano-British regime. Hengist and Horsa became celebrated as the historic founders of Saxon England. But some historians argue these were either not actual names, just titles, or were even just mythical figures. The fact the names Hengist and Horsa mean ‘stallion’ and ‘horse’ has led to suggestions these are late relics of a horse-totem brotherhood.
The Scythians did not ride stallions, but kept them for stud, riding into battle on horses which were mares or geldings, these being easier to control. In this interpretation, Hengist and Horsa would thus have different roles, one the “father” of his totemic group, and one its troop commander. According the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, brother Horsa was killed fighting in battle. On the other hand, Hengist’s role seems reminiscent of that of the “Trickster” figure of mythology, gaining control by treachery.
The name Hengest or Hengist is a development of the old Saxon and now modern German word for stallion, hengst. It is a cousin of the Dutch hengst and Scandinavian hingst. Hengest is still used in German as a nickname for a dominant male, such as a military officer who is a successful womanizer. (Colloquial English similarly uses the term "stud".) Early variants of Hengest include Anschis or Ansehis. The father of Aeneas, the prince who sailed away from Troy westward to found Rome, has a similar name, Anchises.
There is also a Celtic hero with a similar name: Aengus or Oengus Og, a shape shifting god, a divine lover and hero with the strength of a horse.
Rome’s founding was attributed not just to Aeneas of Troy, but to two foundling boys suckled by a she-wolf, Romulus and Remus, and it’s been suggested Hengist and Horsa were similar ancient twin mythic figureheads. The idea is their emblems (perhaps in the form of horse-heads carried on poles) were carried by various warbands, led by now-forgotten pairs of warrior leaders. These local leaders would have been known by the symbolic titles of Hengist or Horsa. This is like modern Cub Scout leaders always being called ‘Akela’, after Romulus and Remus’s foster mother. (The legend is thought to result from a confused interpretation, as she-wolf was a figure of speech for a courtesan, in this case a Vestal Virgin who fell from grace. However the grotto where the two boys were supposedly suckled proved real enough as a shrine when it was finally located inside a Roman hill in 2007.)
By ‘historicising’ these deities, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle acquired names for the unknown leaders of the Saxon Conquest, and this also made these pagan deities acceptable to the Christian Church. It may be that just as the Romans’ forebears fancied themselves being raised by a she-wolf, the Scythians fancied they were raised by horses. Their favourite drink was mare’s milk – usually fermented. And there is an attested Indo-European mythic tradition of twin ‘horse brothers’ known as Aswins who led their people to victory riding aswas or magical horses. The people themselves were called in this myth the Asio, or Horse People, and here we may have an explanation for the mystery how the otherwise obscure name Asia came to describe the entire area east of Europe.
Read more at http://msbnews.co.uk/genghis/genghis.htm