The term Hephthalite derives from Greek, supposedly a rendering of "Hayathelite", the name used by Persian writers to refer to a 6th century empire on the northern and eastern periphery of their land.
In China they were known as 厌哒 or 厭達 (py Yanda) also written Ye-ti-i-li-do/Yeda/Yoptal but are documented as having called themselves Hua or Huer (滑), chroniclers recognising that the Chinese Yoptal terms came actually from the name of the Hua leaders. Peoples with similar ethnicons had been present in Central Eurasia for centuries. The chinese classic 梁 職貢圖 describes them as of the same origin as the Hua Country (滑國) in China. Yanda has been given various latinised renderings, such as "Yeda", although the Korean pronunciation "Yoptal" 엽달 is much more recognisable and is certainly a much more archaic fossilisation. Their later name Hephthal (which some sources indicate were originally one of the 5 Yuezhi or 月氏 families from Kushan) is supposed to have been a name drived from their ruling elite.
Throughout the 5th century, it was the Huer who managed to succeed to the Central Eurasian Hun heritage in a campaign which spread from Tienshan to Carpathy. After the failure of Xiong's Zhou County (352CE) the influence of the Huer dragon tribe started to expand. The influence of the northern deer-people (Elunchun) retreated north up the Yenisei as the Huer chased a western portion of the Choni into Uzbekistan (Late 4thC Alchoni) while the eastern branch founded the Xiong's last eastern dynasty Xia (407-431). By 460 the Huer had taken over much of Central Eurasia from Xinjiang to the Volga though very little is known about the area for the late 5th early 6th centuries.
Some sources (!?refs?!) indicate that one branch of the Juan Juan was called Uar or Var(?) (!?Characters?!), and they were placed at the head of the Uighurs after Juan Juan subjugation in 460. If the "Uar" people in question are the same 滑 then they must have joined the Juan Juan in 460CE after pushing the Choni into Uzbekistan and taken over Uighuristan, then heading for Europe left the Juan Juan controlled area to Hephthalites sovereignty before the 541-545 powershift.
Chinese sources mention a "King" called Ye-Tai-Yi-Li-Tuo (!?Characters?!) (perhaps rather the name of the dynasty than a single man) from 507CE indicating the Hephthal family had come to rule them in Xinjiang by this time. Sometime during Ye-Tai-Yi-Li-Tuo's reign (507-531) those Huer & Alchoni tribes who had become one unit under his direct rule sought to usurp control in Xinjiang from the Juan Juan. From this time on they came to be called Hephthalites but meanwhile the rest of the Huer & Alchoni under Sarosios's father strengthened their position in Khwarezmia to conquer the dregs of Attila's Hunnic empire in the west.
The Eastern Huer or Hephthalite control of Uighuristan was achieved between 541 & 545 during the reign of Ye-Tai-Yi-Li-Tuo's successor Toramana 2 which is why some scholars say Avar rule began in the area from this time. After Toramana 2, the Hephthalite seat of power was relocated to India.
References to eastern "Avars" in control of Uighuristan from 541-565CE concern them. This was during the reign of the Hephthal Toramana 2 though they had a presence in Xinjiang under his predecessor Ye-dai-yi-li-tuo (507-531) even during the Juan Juan rule there (460-545). It was apparently during the reign of Ye-dai-yi-li-tuo that there was a split resulting in the western portions of Huer & Alchoni relocating their interests in the Volga region of Europe as the Avars.
India knew the Hephthalites by the sanskrit name 'Huna' (perhaps used originally to refer to the Xiyonites?). Procopius called them "White Huns" while Simokattes calls them Uar (reminicient of their own self designation) and identifies them as the "real" Avars of the east and the true political force behind what he calls the "pseudo" Avars who eventually settled down in Transylvania. It has been said that their legendary ancestor was Afrasiabus in whose name we can perhaps see some kind of connection to the Avar ethnicon. Armenian sources also mention a White Hun origin for the Parthian Arsac. According to Simokattes, Alchoni were also a part of their composition having united under the Yoptal with the "vulturous" Uar around 460.
Different in spellings include "Ephthalite", "Epthalite", "Ephtalite", "Eptalite", "Hepthalite", "Hephtalite", and "Heptalite". It has been suggested that Oghur & Oghuz from which derives the Russian Yugor mean White Huns (Ak-Gunz or Aq-Guzz).
K. Enoki believed them to be an Iranian group while some of their practices remind us of Khwarezmia in which case they may have been slightly mongolian looking Indo-europeans like many of the modern Tadjiks. There were various theories about their origins documented by contemporary Chinese chroniclers as with Procopius.
- They were related in some way to the Visha (Indo-Europeans known to the Chinese as the "Yueh Chih"),
- They were a branch of the Kao-ch`e,
- They were descendants of the general Pahua,
- They were descendants of Kang Chu
- Their origins cannot be made clear at all.
Enoki, K. "The Liang shih-kung-t'u on the origin and migration of the Hua or Ephthalites," Journal of the Oriental Society of Australia 7:1-2 (December 1970):37-45