The Hu

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Matt Geiger

Sometime around 1162 AD, a child named Temuchin was born near Lake Baikal in what is now Mongolia. When he was 14, he stalked his older half-brother brother and killed him with an arrow, for which he was, I love the way one text puts it, “scolded” by his mother. Times were different, I suspect.

Later in life, he would go by a different name which has many spellings. They are Chinggis, Chingis, Jenghiz, Jinghis and Genghis. Genghis Khan. 

We were just listening to a song about him, nearly 1,000 years later, because my six-year-old daughter and I constantly listen to a Mongolian heavy metal band, called The Hu. They play heavily-amplified traditional instruments and sing ancient Mongolian war chants to the surging tempest of metal beats. It is legitimately some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard, full of throat singing, Morin Khuur (horsehead fiddle), Tsuur (Mongolian flute) and Tumur Khuur (Jew’s harp). It sounds very much like the melody of a thousand horses’ hooves thundering across the cold, windy steppe on their way to cut off your head, or enslave you, or hopefully just kill a few members of your tribe then leave you alone, as long as you pay your taxes in perpetuity. And yet somehow, the terror is full of great beauty.

The only bad thing about the band is the name, which means “Human,” but which is a homophone with “The Who.” We play most of our music verbally, by telling our allegedly intelligent “smart” speaker in the living room what we want to hear, and she can’t get it through her head that I don’t have any interest in a cheesy rock opera about a “deaf dumb and blind kid” who “sure plays a mean pinball.” I’m here for the 1,000-year old war cries, not the synthesizer-accompanied aural garbage. Obviously. The speaker should know this about me.

I once read part of a book about Genghis Khan. It was fascinating, in part because we know so much about him, his culture, and his impact on everything from free trade to food and music. Legend has it that the first of his ancestors was a gray wolf. Science has it that about eight percent of the male population in part of Asia–about 16 million people–descends from the great Khan himself. That is absolutely incredible. (By the way, how related to each other we are is a delightful rabbit hole down which to go. A Yale statistician named Dr. Joseph Chang wrote a paper postulating that all Europeans share a common ancestor who lived just 600 years ago. We don’t know that theoretical person’s name, or what they did with their life. But we know a lot about Genghis Khan.  

One of my favorite things about the ancient Mongolian empire is the language. Genghis Khan’s grandson established what was known as “The Golden Horde,” which conquered and ruled over a good portion of Russia. Those words roll off the tongue so well that just saying them makes you feel like you are in a grand adventure. Russians, not exactly a timid group of tribes themselves back them, were absolutely terrified of their Mongol rulers. In fact, fear of them played a vital role in galvanizing a rough collection of city states into what would become the largest nation on Earth. Some Russians referred to their Mongol conquerors as “Tatars.” Matthew Paris, a 13th Century writer, said the invaders “poured out like devils from Tartarus so that they are rightly called Tartars.” “Tartarus” is the classical Greek word for Hell, and the ancient tribal name “Tatar” referred to the nomads who swept across much of Asia and Europe in those days. According to Plato, Tartarus was a pit of despair where the dead went to receive divine punishment for their deeds. In life, punishment was often doled out by mounted archers on horseback.

The history of human beings is the history of tribes conquering each other, then being conquered themselves. The weapons may change (sticks, bronze axes, steel swords, bows, muskets, machine guns, drones, social media), but the cycle will play out again and again, until we are all in Tartarus or wherever we end up. People are animals, and animals, even incredibly intelligent and adaptable ones, are forever usurping and being usurped. As are plants. Did you know that sharks have lived on this planet for longer that trees have? Life requires death, just as death requires life. 

But with all the horror, there is also the matter of everyday life. People–the conquerors and the conquered alike–live their lives, love their spouses and their children, eating and sleeping and telling stories around the fire or the iPad, in their yurts and their drywall starter homes. We are all the children of millions of people, and all of them ate and drank and wondered what would happen next. All of them shared dinner together as the darkness came down around them. 

That is why, in addition to singing ancient warrior songs about slaughtering their foes and trampling their enemies, members of The Hu also recorded a YouTube series about cooking. It’s called “Hu’s in the Kitchen.” They grill mutton and fry breads and joke around, wearing t-shirts and flip-flops rather than the leather armor they don for their concerts and ancient imagery-laden music videos. 

It’s easy to focus on only the terror and loss of human history. It is, after all, 200,000 years filled with people who all ended up dead. Our current debates about culture and history always focus only on the bloodshed, because it is the gaudy part of the past, and the easiest to see. Saying, “People are mean to each other” requires absolutely no intellect or insight or effort. 

What we sometimes fail to recognize, is that all of the people who came before us, and all who come after, will spend most of their time engaged in the smaller aspects of living a life. Even those old warriors of the steppes, even the Golden Horde, spent most of the time riding to and from their battles, joking and eating and washing up and mending clothes and being around those in their small circle. They played with their children. They stubbed their toes. They bit their tongues and then couldn’t stop messing with it. 

It all ends for everyone, as noted before. Genghis Khan, perhaps the greatest warrior who ever lived, who mastered the art of equine warfare and seemed invincible, died by simply falling off his horse while hunting, according to the “Secret History of the Mongols.” And so, it will end for you and me one way or another. 

In the meantime, it’s nice to turn up the music, listen to the pounding war drums, and go on with our lives, aware of doom, but fully engaged in the small daily tasks that will always make up the majority of our lives.


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