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Turkic Tribes IndexKutrigurs / Kotraks (Turks)

One of many steppe nomad groups of the Pontic-Caspian steppe in the fifth and sixth centuries AD, the origins of the Kutrigurs are obscure. They are generally accepted as being an Oguric-speaking Turkic group, like many other groups that could be found neighbouring them in later years. It has been suggested that they began as a unit of the Saragurs who had divided into two groups - them and the closely-related Utigurs. A later Utigur ruler named Sandlikh confirmed the close relationship by referring to them as 'our tribesmen who not only speak a language that is identical to ours, who are our neighbours, and who have the same dressing and manners of life, but who are also our relatives, even though subjected to other lords'.

As with the majority of the tribes that originally appeared either on the Kazakh steppe or further eastwards from the third century AD onwards, the Kutrigurs (Koutrigours or 'kwrtrgr') are generally accepted as being part of a vast wave of Turko-Mongoloid steppe-dwelling nomads (the Xionites among them). Various other influences can sometimes be detected in their early history, such as that of the Tocharians or Indo-Iranians (which is especially the case for another early group of Turks, the Göktürks).

The Kutrigurs were dragged westwards by the Huns and were subsumed within their empire along with a large number of other tribes and groups. The death of Attila in AD 453 led to his sons fighting each other for control, and the Hunnic confederation began to dissolve as a cohesive entity. The following year, the core Hunnic lands were conquered by the Gepids, scattering the empire's various nomadic groups, and within two years Attila's sons had been routed by the Ostrogoths. At least three main survivor branches emerged, the Altyn Ola horde, the Kutrigurs, and the Utigurs, but they may not have been formalised as such until the next generation of leaders succeeded Attila's sons. The initial Kutrigur leader is somewhat debatable, but it would seem to have been Dengisich, son of Attila, while his other surviving brother, Ernakh, commanded the Utigurs. However, these two divisions remained under the overall command of Dengisich during his lifetime as senior khan and then Ernakh afterwards. In essence they remained a combined unit that operated as Huns of a reduced empire. It seems that they only gained their Kutrigur and Utigur names when they were commanded by two of Ernakh's sons, which probably confirmed the final separation of these 'Huns' into two separate units. Either way, they quickly found themselves occupying territory to the west of the River Don.

The relationship between the Kutrigurs and Utigurs and the Onogurs and Bulgars who now lived in the same region is also unclear. The fact that the Kutrigurs seemed to disappear as the Avars temporarily took over the region, to be superseded by the Bulgar state of Great Bulgaria, has them linked with the Bulgars so that they are often known as Kutrigur Bulgars. In the seventh century their apparent remnants were referred to as Kotraks, although it cannot be conclusively proven that they were one and the same people. In all probability their worn-torn remnants were absorbed by the proto-Bulgars during the Great Bulgaria period and lost their individual identity.

Procopius provides support for the Kutrigurs and the very similar Utigurs being tribal unions within the Hunnic empire while that lasted, adding that they shared a common origin and that they occupied the Tanaitic-Maeotic steppe zone (now the region between the River Don and the Sea of Azov near the Crimea). The Kutrigurs occupied the western part of this region in the late fifth century and sixth century, and the Utigurs the east. The Kutrigur name appears as 'Kwrtrgr' in Pseudo-Zacharias Rhetor. In Eastern Roman sources (Agathias, Procopius, and Menanderas) it appears in various Greek forms and corruptions. Various meanings have been explored for the name, none of them conclusive or fully accepted. If they were indeed named after Ernakh's son, Kutrigur, then it would have been a renaming as alluded to above, seemingly up to a generation after the collapse of the Hunnic empire and following the deaths of his sons.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from An Introduction to the History of the Turkic Peoples, Peter B Golden (1992), from The Proto-Bulgarians North and West of the Black Sea, D Dimitrov (Varna, 1987), from The World of the Huns: Studies in Their History and Culture - Chapter IX. Language: 5. Iranian Names, Otto J Maenchen-Helfen (University of California Press, 1973), from Romans and Barbarians: The Decline of the Western Empire, E A Thompson (Wisconsin Studies in Classics, University of Wisconsin, 1982), from Avar Blitzkrieg, Slavic and Bulgar Raiders, and Roman Special Ops: mobile warriors in the 6th century Balkans, Florin Curta (Eurasia in the Middle Ages. Studies in Honour of Peter B Golden, Zimonyi István & Osman Karatay, Otto Harrassowitz, 2015), and from External Links: Gothica, Jordanes (full text available online at Archive.com), and Kroraina, Vassil Karloukovski.)

456 - 469

Dengisich / Dengizik / Dintzic / Tingiz

Son of Attila the Hun. Ruler of the Kutrigurs & Altyn Ola. Killed.

456 - 457

The Ostrogoths defeat and rout Attila's sons in their fight for independence. The central core of Huns apparently divides into the Kutrigurs and Utigurs (which can sometimes also be referred to as the 'Bulgarian Huns'). Dengisich may be king (khan) of the former, while his brother Ernakh could be king the latter. The two also apparently control the Altyn Ola horde during their lifetimes.

Most Huns drift back to 'Scythia' following the defeat, meaning the Pontic-Caspian steppe. They probably take elements of various subject groups including the Venedi with them, one of the latter of which seemingly reappears in 668, while others remain behind. One group of Huns and their subjects settles permanently in Dacia (the Szekelys). They find that the plains of Pannonia (essentially western Hungary, northern Croatia, Slovenia, and eastern Austria) to the west of Dacia, secured by the Carpathians, is a perfect place in which to maintain their nomadic lifestyle, with its wide open grazing lands.

Map of Eastern Europe AD 450-500
Soon after the middle of the fifth century AD the Hunnic empire crashed into extinction, starting with the death of Attila in 453. His son and successor, Ellac, was killed in battle in 454, and the Huns were defeated by the Ostrogoths in 456, ending Hunnic unity (click on map to view full sized)

c.467

Oguric-speaking tribes have recently been pushed out of the Kazakh steppe by the Sabirs due to population pressures from farther east and a domino effect of tribal movement in a westwards direction. Now they make their presence felt on the Pontic-Caspian steppe. The Saragurs attack the Akatirs and other tribes that had been part of the Hunnic union. Then, perhaps prompted by the Eastern Roman empire, the Ogurics raid Sassanid-held Transcaucasia, ravaging the Georgian kingdoms of Egrisi and Iberia and also Armenia while on their way southwards.

The Ogurics also appear in a listing of tribes in the supplement to the Syriac translation of 'Pseudo-' Zacharias Rhetor's Ecclesiastical History, composed around AD 555 based on an earlier text. The supplement (perhaps not fully reliable for the fifth century situation) mentions the tribes of Onogur, Ogur, Sabir, Burgar (Bulgar), Kutrigur, Abar, Kasar (this name is uncertain, possibly also being Kasir or Akatzir), Sarurgur (Sarugur/Saragur), Xwâlis, and Abdel (Hephthalites).

They are described in the clichéd phrases that are reserved for nomads in the ethnographic literature of the period. Beyond these scant notices, nothing is known of the later history of the Saragurs. They are probably incorporated into other more powerful tribal unions, their amalgamation being induced by the movements of other steppe peoples, perhaps the Sabirs, who enter the region by the late fifth and early sixth centuries.

469

With battles against the Ostrogoths and Eastern Romans seemingly ongoing for the past decade, Dengisich is now killed by Anagastes, the Roman general in Thrace, and his head is taken to Constantinople to be paraded through the city. His brother, Ernakh, is probably now the dominant Hunnic ruler on the Pontic-Caspian steppe via the Utigurs and Altyn Ola. His fate is unknown, suggesting a peaceful end for a ruler who is more content with the lands under his control than had been the case with his brother.

470s - 488

Labertam

Little more than a recorded name.

490s - 510s

Kutrigur / Kwrtrgr

Son of Ernakh. Possible 'founder' of the Kutrigurs.

520 - c.528

Grod / Grodas

Also Utigurs. Accepted Christianity. Became Roman puppet. Killed.

c.528 - 530

Mugel / Maugeris

Brother. Also ruled Utigurs. Replaced by Khinialon.

c.530

With Mugel being removed from command (forcibly or otherwise is not confirmed), the Kutrigurs and Utigurs formally separate into two factions, the former being led by Khinialon and the latter by Sandlikh. Both seem to be strong-willed leaders and, inevitably, they clash, leading their respective groups into what amounts to a destructive civil war. It would seem to be Khinialon who has previously served as khan of the Altyn Ola horde before giving way to his elder brother's son who would be seen as a leader with a better claim.

540s - 551

Khinialon / Chinialon / Chinialus

Fought the war against the Utigurs. Killed? Same as Sinnion?

550/551

The Gothic writer Jordanes, a bureaucrat in the Eastern Roman capital of Constantinople, completes his sixth century work at this time, entitled Getica. Among many other things, it provides an account of the people of the Acatziri who live to the south of the Goths (Tauric Goths). Beyond them, above the Pontic Sea (Black Sea), is the habitat of the 'Bulgari', seemingly neighbouring the Hunnic branches of the Altziagiri (possibly the Altyn Ola horde) and Saviri (probably Sabirs). However, the Bulgars temporarily disappear from the historical record around this point in time as the Kutrigurs come to the fore. All of the tribes are soon overwhelmed by the Avars.

Hunnic nomad warrior
This illustration shows a horse-borne Hun killing an Eastern Roman soldier although, even though they were direct successors of the Hunnic empire and were initially led by Huns, the Kutrigurs and Utigurs were more probably of Turkic descent

At the time of Jordanes' writing, the Kutrigurs are enlisted as allies by the Gepids, whose kingdom is under threat by the Langobards and Eastern Romans. They are ferried across the Danube either in 550 or 551 but Emperor Justinian immediately brings into action his own allies, the Utigurs, cousins of the Kutrigurs. The Utigurs request help of their own allies, the Tetraxite Ostrogoths of the Crimea. The latter invade the Kutrigur homeland, taking advantage of the absence of the main Kutrigur force of warriors, and the Kutrigurs are forced to abandon their mission and return to defend their homeland on the northern shore of the Black Sea.

551 - late 550s

Sinnion

Led 2000 Kutrigurs into Eastern Roman service in Thrace.

558

The Kutrigurs are causing a degree of agitation amongst their neighbours at the advance of the Avars, leading to them raiding into Eastern Roman territory. The result is that Emperor Justinian commands his Utigur allies to attack the Kutrigurs and the two groups virtually annihilate one another. A much reduced and weakened Kutrigur collective remains, but it soon becomes subjected to external control, firstly by the Avars and then by the nearby Bulgars.

Sinnion agrees a peace treaty with the Eastern Romans and is permitted to lead two thousand warriors and their families across the Danube to settle in Thrace as subjects who will provide military service to the empire. His name has been posited as being of Indo-Iranian origin. If this is accurate then it reveals a continuing influence by a people who had been part of the original ethnogenesis of the Turko-Mongoloid tribes. His successor bears an even more readily-identifiable Indo-Iranian name.

late 550s - c.582

Zabergan

Grandson of Djurash Masgut of Altyn Ola. Succeeded Sinnion.

582 - 584

Gostun

Seemingly the same as Gostun of the Unogonduri.

c.584 - 600s

The Altyn Ola are absorbed by the early Bulgars, probably immediately prior to the formation of Great Bulgaria. In time they lose any individual identity they may have and dissipate into the surrounding population or leave with the various Bulgar groups. However, the notion that Hun descendants or even their close affiliates may enter the Bulgarian gene pool seems to be highly controversial and open to strong objections. If it happens at all, the number of actual Huns rather than their many subject peoples who are not of Hunnic descent is likely to be a minute part of the population.

During the same period the Kutrigur remnants are also being absorbed by the Bulgars. In the seventh century the Kutrigurs are better known as the Kotraks, a corruption of the earlier name (if indeed they are one and the same). They lose their individual identity within Great Bulgaria. In fact, Gostun, above, would seem to be the same figure as the Unogonduri tribal leader who lead their growing confederation in c.630-632.