Link Between the Huns and Vizsla Dogs Unravels an Ancient Enigma
The history of the Vizsla or Hungarian Pointer breed goes hand in hand with that of the Huns’ (later called Hungarians’ or Magyars’) and even the history of their language. Recent DNA analysis studies of both Hungarians and their pointers have helped to shed light on the origin of both.
Origins and Spread of the Huns
Huns are thought to have arrived from Central or South Asia, possibly from the Hindu Kush, and may be descendants of Attila’s or Arpad’s Huns. Both Arpad’s and Attila’s emblems were the falcon, a black bird of prey, or turul bird, supporting the theory that they belonged to the same dynasty. Huns introduced falconry to Europe and the history of falconry also includes that of the Vizsla.
Representation of a Hun on horseback with a falcon on his arm. ( Rawpixel.com / Adobe stock)
The Hungarians are believed to be descended from the second son of Japheth, Magog, who “in the fifty-eighth year after the flood” came to Evilah [Persia] and, with his wife Enee had two sons - Magot (from whom were named the Magyars) and Hunor (from whom were named the Huns). One of the sons of Noah, Japheth, possessed large regions including Scythia.
Scythia included regions that have become parts of modern South-Eastern Ukraine, South-Western and Southern Russia, Balkans, Eastern Poland, parts of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Eastern Iran, South-Western Pakistan, Northern Caucasus region, as well as parts of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Romania and Bulgaria. According to Sherbowitz-Wetzor, “the land of Scythia is said to be fertile. It is beautiful with groves, woods and pasture, and there is plenteous abundance of animals of different kinds.”
Huns stayed in Scythia until 373 AD. The Illuminated Chronicle (formerly known as Vienna Chronicle), an illustrated manuscript of the early codes and laws dating from the time of King Louis I (1342-1382) of Hungary, is believed to be the most complete record of medieval history of Hungary, going back to the eleventh century. According to it, it was in 373 AD, when the Huns made their entry into Pannonia. Pannonia (today is the part of Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Slovenia, and Austria) was under Roman Empire for more than four centuries. Around 430 AD, the whole of the Carpathian basin became part of the Huns’ empire. This is the period when the falconers are mentioned for the first time in The Illuminated Chronicle .
The grandson of Magor, Etele or Attila, became the King of Huns; he reigned from 434 to 453 AD. Attila’s shield carried a coat of arms, a black bird with a crowned head on a silver field. This black bird was a hawk identified as turul [falcon] and called Arpad “ Arpad of the Turul kindred ”, “stressing the continuity between the Huns and Hungarians”. By 1301 AD, twenty-eight Hungarian tribes declared they were derived from turul. Many kingdoms feared Attila and paid taxes to him.
Detail of Attila the Hun from ‘Attila and his Hordes Overrun Italy and the Arts’ (1847). (Eugène Delacroix / Public Domain )
Hunting Dogs Appear with the Huns
The first images of hunting with dogs in The Illuminated Chronicle as well as a description of hunting scenes appeared around 600-650 AD. One day the Huns went hunting with their dogs, got lost, and eventually found the place “suited for feeding herds”, the Meotis region near Persia. This land was near the sea, rich in grass and water, fish and birds. They stayed on this land for five years. During this period, Hungarians met Bulgarians and they dwelled together (around 600-650 AD). Hunor and Magor kidnapped the daughters of the Prince of the Alans and made them their wives, starting ethnic Huns, the Hungarians.
Huns in battle with the Alans. (Johann Nepomuk Geiger / Public Domain )
Sometime around 741 – 751 AD, the Huns left Scythia for the second time, and entered and settled in Pannonia for another six or seven years, before continuing their journey later on. In 896 AD, Magyars arrived for the second time in the Carpathian basin. On their way, the Huns passed the White Cumans, Suzdal, Kiev, crossed the Alps, Carpathian Mountains, and arrived in the Transylvanian German city Szeben (Hermammstadt, today Sibiu). The Russian Primary Chronicle dates the Hungarians passing Kiev to 898 AD.
Transylvania had seven counties/ tribes, for which seven captains were appointed. Almos’ son Arpad was one of these seven captains and he took possession of the Danube region. Arpad picked the land with “good and fertile land all around, and a good river flowing through rich meadows”, “sweet water”, and “excellent earth.” Arpad is believed to have purchased the land for a large horse, a golden saddle, and a golden bridle. This second entry of Pannonia by Hungarians led by Arpad, marks the establishment of the Principality of Hungary, later called the Kingdom of Hungary, in the Carpathian basin in 895 or 896 AD. Arpad (also known as the Duke or Prince Arpad) is believed to have been in power until his death in 907 AD.
The conversion to Christianity began around 975 AD, first by the prince Geza and then continued by his son Vajk who was given the name Stephen at his baptism. The Duke and later the king St. Stephen was therefore, a great-grandson of Prince Arpad. The date of coronation of King St. Stephen remains disputed and is believed to be on January 1 st, 1000, or on January 1 st, 1001, or on September 8 th, 1000 AD.
Miniature of the hunt of the White Stag, from the Illuminated Chronicle, with Hunor, Magor and dogs in the foreground. ( Public Domain)
So, The Illuminated Chronicle tells us Hungarians brought their dogs with them. The image from the manuscript’s chapter called Generatio Hunt et Paznan picturing the nobility holding a banner and tournament shield with a picture of the dog’s head on his shield. According to The Illuminated Chronicle , ‘Hunt’ is from ‘Hund’ meaning ‘dog’: “in those days there also came Hont and Razmany, who at the river Hron had girded King St. Stephen with sword…”
This time is identified as being in the early 11 th century (1001/1002). The first images of coats of arms (helmet crests) appeared around 1230s under King Bela IV. Coats of arms identify the important historical figures for a millennium and reflect the heraldry of the kingdom (e.g., silver on red in this instance). Scent hounds and Greyhounds were the only dogs that were found on the coats of arms. It is likely the dog was the Magyar Agar (also known as the Hungarian Greyhound or Hungarian Sighthound), the breed that the Huns brought with them to Europe.
King St. Stephen reigned for about four decades and died on August 15 th, 1038. It is under his leadership that Hungary was formed, and the kingdom of Hungary remained in high power for over five centuries. The kingdom of Hungary extended over the whole of the Carpathian basin, and it was three times larger than the present country of Hungary. Until 1918 AD, it also included present parts of Ukraine, Romania, Austria, Serbia, and Croatia.
In the 12 th century, Hungarians were called Pannons (or Pannonians) and Scythians. Every time Hungarians moved, they brought their horses, arms, and dogs with them. S ome of these dogs were closely resembling Vizslas, being brown-colored and with drooped ears. Hunting with hunting dogs is mentioned several times in The Illuminated Chronicle with the first descriptions appearing as early as in the 11 th century.
Hunting with falcons is captured in the scene describing Duke Almos hunting in the Bakony in 1106. “In the mountains of this desolate place is found crystal, gryphons make their nest, and the falcons which in Hungarians are called kerecset here bring forth their brood” (Sherbowitz-Wetzor). The manuscript’s chapter called De Constructione Ecclesie Demes includes an image of people mounted on horses observing a falcon, a dog, and a crow. The first image of a Vizsla-like dog to appear in Codex Albensis (Hungarian manuscript written in 12 th century) is dated 1100 AD; it is a pencil drawing believed to be of a Vizsla pointing at a rabbit sitting under a tree ( ninehungariandogs.org).
Partridge-dogs are in 13 th century literature, describing dogs “with falling ears, which know of beasts and birds by the scent, therefore they are useful for sporting” (Arkwright). Up to the end of 15 th century, the Hungarian kings spent most of their time hunting in the mountains on the royal hunting lands.
It was thanks to King Louis the Great (1342-1382) who ordered The Illuminated Chronicle to be written, to summarize Hungarian history until 1330 AD. Nobles cared about their dogs and King Louis was known by his passion for hunting and his devotion to dogs. He rebuilt several castles and palaces where he liked to hunt with his dogs.
The year 1358 is believed to be the first time when brown hounds are described in writing and colored images of a brown true-to-type Vizsla-like dog appeared in the books. The first true-to-type colored image of a Vizsla is found on one of the 14 th century Gothic panels in the Esztergom Christian Museum (Hungary).
14th century Gothic panel believed to be the first colored image of a Vizsla. (Keresztény Múzeum, Esztergom / Photograph by Attila Mudrák / provided by the author)
Gaston Phebus, the famous owner of more than fifteen hundred dogs collected from various European countries, who (in France) in 1387 AD had “smooth-haired”, “falcon-dogs ( chien d’oisel )” and some of those being “cinnamon color ( canele).” These dogs went “in front of birds willingly”, were used to hunt with “goshawk or falcon, lanner or tassel-hawk”, and were “good for taking partridges and quail with the net…” (Arkwright).
The St. Albans Press’ book (1487) describes the existence of fourteen different breeds in Europe. This suggests that people at that time had already started the selection process and breeding practices. The pointers were bred to specifically point their bodies towards the birds and freeze. At first, these bird dogs were used to hunt with hawks / falcons, then with nets (hunters dropped a net over both the birds – partridges and quails - and the dog), then with crossbows, and later, when firearms were developed, flintlock - in the mid-16 th century and muzzleloader rifles - in the late 17 th century.
The Illuminated Chronicle includes descriptions of scenes of hunting with dogs. One of the first manuscript’s chapters called Prima origo dilationis Hungarorum in oriente Scythie portrays a hunting scene with two groups of hunters dressed as 14 th century knights holding several hounds with at least one of them having close resemblance to a Vizsla, and a bear. Janos Gyulai in 1563 AD wrote (in Latin) to Kristof Batthyani: "we know that your Honor possesses smaller sized hawks. Don't leave us without one or two of them. And do send us please a bird chasing Vizsla too. (Sed et canem odoranium vulgo fyrejre valo Vizslath nobis dare velli)." (the Hungarian Vizsla Society’s archives).
The DNA Trail Reveals New Links
Human DNA Y-chromosome haplogroup analysis sheds additional light on the migration routes of Hungarian tribes and their dogs. The DNA haplogroup R1a (M420 mutation) is believed to be approximately 25,000 years old and tied to Northern India or Southern Russia. R1a believed crossed the Caucasus during the Neolithic time (which started 12,000 years ago and ended 3,500 BC). The R1a haplogroup distribution pattern suggests the Huns’ migration route was from the Northern India-Caucasus to Georgia-Southern Russia and then – to Ukraine, Slovakia and Poland, later on – to Hungary, Romania, Austria, Serbia, Germany, followed by Finland, Netherlands, Wales, and Portugal.
Simplified map of the migration routes of Hungarians and of their dogs. The migration routes include human R1a and R1a1a1 and canine DNA haplogrpoups, travel routes of people as well as of the Indo-European languages. Although these continued to spread North and West and later to other continents, these routes are not shown on this simplified map. The dog breed migration mirrors human migration. (provided by the author)
Of special importance though is R1a1a1 (M417) haplogroup as it is estimated to occur approximately 5,800 years ago and is tied to Europe. One half of Hungarian males carry R1a1a human paternal DNA haplogroup, believed to be an Indo-European marker that arrived from the Yamna Culture . Yamna Culture was originated between the lower Don River, the lower Volga river, and North Caucasus 3,300 – 2,700 BC. Nomads lived there from farming, fishing, and hunting.
Recently studied, King Bela III of Hungary’s (1148-1196 AD) paternal DNA was identified as R1a (Z93). Z93 is common in Asia and this mutation happened around 5,800 years ago, which is consistent with the legend of the king’s ancestral roots. King Bela III the Great was an important ruler who, while in power, consolidated Hungary’s dominance over Northern Balkans. He was the son of King Geza II and Queen Euphrosyne, the daughter of Great Prince of Kiev, Mstislav I.
Commonalities are also found between the Hungarian language and Sanskrit. A connection was established between the R1a1a1 (M417) marker and the spread of Indo-European languages. Proto-Indo-European’s Proto-Slavic-speaking group believed to move from Indo-Pakistan to Central Europe and then, during the early Middle Ages , to the North-Eastern part of Europe. The official (written) language of Hungary until 1844 was Latin. There are believed to be the Avars who were like Huns nomadic horsemen breeding livestock. The generally accepted theory was that they spoke Onogurus (form of Turkic and also was the language of early Bulgarians). However, Pal Engal AA and Pal Engel suggest that this could have been Ongri and thus Hungarian, given the fact the ongri was early Slavonic name of Hungarians.
Genetic, archaeological, and historical records seem to support the theory that migrating Hungarians (or Huns, as per Chronica de Gestis Hungarorum e Codice Picto Saec,1358) were the ones who brought their dogs, the Vizsla ancestors, with them. Hunting was among the first desired traits during the dog domestication.
The evolution of wolf to domestic pet. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )
- The End of the Huns: The Death of Attila and the Fall of the Hunnic Empire
- Merciless Marauders or Fearsome Fighters? The Terror Tactics of the Huns
- In Jordan, Neolithic Hunters Used Domesticated Dogs as Small Prey Hunting Companions
Dog breed migration is known to mirror human migration followed by admixture with the native dog population in a new region. The Vizsla’s paternal haplogroup is A1a and the Embark, a pioneer company in the dog DNA studies, states that “all Vizslas come from this [A1a] lineage, suggesting that... all male Vizslas descend from this line.” Dogs “followed their humans from Asia to Europe…, eventually becoming the dogs that founded the Vizsla breed 1,000 years ago.” The common maternal haplotypes found in Vizslas are A234 and A315. The A315, originated in Central Asia 15,000 years ago and “found in ancient Bronze Age fossils in the Middle East and Southern Europe” (Embark), became common in Europe after the end of the Bronze Age.
Summarizing the Vizsla Breed Origins
The Hungarian tribes brought their dogs (possibly, the Magyar Agar) and mixed them with the ancient native Pannon (or Pannonia) hound. Huns made their first entry into Pannonia in 373 AD and then again – in 895 or 896 AD, and covered the entire Europe by the 9 th – 10 th centuries. Therefore, the mix of the Pannonia hound and the Magyar Agar potentially could have occurred as early as in the 4 th century or in the 9 th – 11 th century, at the latest.
Modern Vizsla. (Oksana Moshynska / provided by the author)
The separation of the Vizsla breed was completed by 12th-13 th century. The first written word “Vizsla” appeared in the 1300s. The first true-to-type colored image of the Vizsla appeared on a 14 th century Gothic panel. Historical manuscripts and human and canine DNA haplogroup analysis suggest the Vizsla breed is an ancient breed, and its history is closely tied to that of the Huns.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Ms. Diana Boggs for her devotion to the Vizsla breed, for pushing me further in my research and exploring, and to my peers, especially to Ms. Audrey Zatarian and Ms. Terina McLaren for providing their valuable comments and critique.
Top image: Hungarian Vizsla out hunting with a pheasant in its mouth. Source: oroszgy / Adobe stock
Arkwright, W. 1906. The Pointer and His Predecessors: An Illustrated History of the Pointing Dog from the Earliest Times. London, UK: Arthur Humphreys; 275p.
Baharian, S., Barakatt, M., Gignoux, CR., Shringarpure, S., Errington, J. & Blot, WJ. et al. 2016. The Great Migration and African-American Genomic Diversity . PLoS genetics. 12(5):e1006059.
Bak, J. & Veszpémi, L. 2018. Chronica de Gestis Hungarorum e Codice Picto Saec. xiv. The Illuminated Chronicle. Chronicle of the Deeds of the Hungarians from the Fourteenth-Century Illuminated Codex. Central European University Press; 410p.
Embark [Available from: https://embarkvet.com/.
Engal, P. & Engel, P. 2001. The Realm of St Stephen. A history of Medieval Hungary, 895-1526. 1st Edition ed. London, New York: Tauris I.B. Publishers; 472p.
Geary, P. & G, Klaniczy. 2018. Studies on the Illuminated Chronicle. Hungary: Central European Press & National Szechenyi Library; 206p.
Gottkieb, G. 1991 The Hungarian Vizsla. Kathleen, England: Rais & Company; 320p.
Kaplan, W. 2004. The Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe and America: Design for the Modern World 1880-1920. 1st Edition ed: Thames & Hudson; 30p.
Boskovits, M. & Mucsi, A. 1965. Christian art in Hungary; collections from the Esztergom Christian Museum. Budapest: Publishing House of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences; 198p.
Mirabal, S., Regueiro, M., Cadenas, AM., Cavalli-Sforza, LL., Underhill, PA. & Verbenko, DA. et al. 2009. Y-chromosome distribution within the geo-linguistic landscape of northwestern Russia. Eur J Hum Genet17(10):1260-73.
Olasz, J., Seidenberg, V., Hummel, S., Szentirmay, Z., Szabados, G. & Melegh, B. et al. 2019. DNA profiling of Hungarian King Béla III and other skeletal remains originating from the Royal Basilica of Székesfehérvár. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences; 11(4):1345-57.
Parker, HG., Dreger, DL., Rimbault, M., Davis, BW., Mullen, AB. & Carpintero-Ramirez, G. et al. 2017. Genomic Analyses Reveal the Influence of Geographic Origin, Migration, and Hybridization on Modern Dog Breed Development. Cell Rep; 19(4):697-708.
Parra, D., Méndez, S., Cañón, J. & Dunner, S. 2008. Genetic differentiation in pointing dog breeds inferred from microsatellites and mitochondrial DNA sequence. Animal Genetics; 39(1):1-7.
Rogers, K. 2005. First Friend: A History of Dogs and Humans: iUniverse; 292p.
Sandor, F. 2015. Magyar Origins (Third Edition): A 21st century look at the Indo-Aryan origins of ancient Hungarians and other Uralic speakers. CreateSpace Publishing; 430p.
Shannon, LM., Boyko, RH., Castelhano, M., Corey, E., Hayward, JJ. & McLean, C. et al. 2015. Genetic structure in village dogs reveals a Central Asian domestication origin . Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; 112(44):13639-44.
Sherbowitz-Wetzor, OP. 1930 The Russian Primary Chronicle. Laurentian Text. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Mediaeval Academy of America; 325p.
Sinor, D. 1990. The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia. Cambridge University Press.
Underhill, PA., Poznik, GD., Rootsi, S., Järve, M., Lin, AA. & Wang, J. et al. 2015. The phylogenetic and geographic structure of Y-chromosome haplogroup R1a. European Journal of Human Genetics ; 23(1):124-31.
Unterländer, M., Palstra, F., Lazaridis, I., Pilipenko, A., Hofmanová, Z. & Groß, M. et al. 2017. Ancestry and demography and descendants of Iron Age nomads of the Eurasian Steppe. Nature communications; 8(1):14615.
Vass, A. 2018. Falconry, a Hungaricum. Hungary Today.
Wells, RS., Yuldasheva, N., Ruzibakiev, R., Underhill, PA., Evseeva, I. & Blue-Smith, J. et al. 2001. The Eurasian heartland: a continental perspective on Y-chromosome diversity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America; 98(18):10244-9.
Zerjal, T. et al. 1999. The use of Y-chromosomal DNA variation to investigate population history. Recent male spread in Asia and Europe. Genomic Diversity: 91-101.