1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mordvinians

MORDVINIANS, otherwise called Mordva, Mordvs, or Mordvins, a people numbering about one million, belonging to the Ural-Altaic family, who inhabit the middle Volga provinces of Russia and spread in small detached communities to the south and east of these. Their settlement in the basin of the Volga is of high antiquity. One of the two great branches into which they are divided, the Erzya, is perhaps the same as the Aorses mentioned by Ptolemy as dwelling between the Baltic Sea and the Ural Mountains. Strabo mentions also the Aorses as inhabitants of the country between the Don, the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus. The Russians made raids on the Mordvins in the 12th century, and after the fall of Kazan rapidly invaded and colonized their country.

The Mordvins are now found in the governments of Simbirsk, Penza, Samara and Nizhniy-Novgorod, as well as Saratov and Tambov. But their villages are dispersed among those of the Russians, and they constitute only 10 to 12% of the population in the four first-named governments, and from 5 to 6% in the last two. They are unequally distributed over this area in ethnographical islands, and constitute as much as 23 to 44% of the population of several districts of the governments of Tambov, Simbirsk, Samara and Saratov, and only 2 or 3% in other districts of the same provinces. They are divided into two great branches, the Erzya (Erza, or Ersa) and the Moksha, differing somewhat in their physical features and language. The southern branch, or the Moksha, have a darker skin and darker eyes and hair than the northern. A third branch, the Karatays, found in Kazan, appears to be mixed with Tatars. The language is a branch of the Western Finnish family, and most nearly allied to the Cheremissian, though presenting many peculiarities (see Finno-Ugric). The Mordvins have largely abandoned their own language for Russian; but they have maintained a good deal of their old national dress, especially the women, whose profusely embroidered skirts, original hair-dress large ear-rings which sometimes are merely hare-tails, and numerous necklaces covering all the chest and consisting of all possible ornaments, easily distinguish them from Russian women. They have mostly dark hair, but blue eyes, generally small and rather narrow. Their cephalic index is very near to that of the Finns. They are brachycephalous or sub-brachycephalous, and a few are mesaticephalous. They are finely built, rather tall and strong, and broad-chested. Their chief occupation is agriculture; they work harder and (in the basin of the Moksha) are more prosperous than their Russian neighbours. Their capacities as carpenters were well known in Old Russia, and Ivan the Terrible used them to build bridges and clear forests during his advance on Kazan. They now manufacture wooden ware of various sorts. They are also masters of apiculture, and the commonwealth of bees often appears in their poetry and religious beliefs. They have a considerable literature of popular songs and legends, some of them recounting the doings of a king Tushtyan who lived in the time of Ivan the Terrible. Nearly all are Christians; they received baptism in the reign of Elizabeth, and the Nonconformists have made many proselytes among them. But they still preserve much of their own mythology, which they have adapted to the Christian religion. According to some authorities, they have preserved also, especially the less russified Moksha, the practice of kidnapping brides, with the usual battles between the party of the bridegroom and that of the family of the bride. The worship of trees, water (especially of the water-divinity which favours marriage), the sun or Shkay, who is the chief divinity, the moon, the thunder and the frost, and of the home-divinity Kardazserko still exists among them; and a small stone altar or flat stone covering a small pit to receive the blood of slaughtered animals can be found in many houses. Their burial customs seem founded on ancestor-worship. On the fortieth day after the death of a kinsman the dead is not only supposed to return home but a member of his household represents him, and, coming from the grave, speaks in his name.

The language is treated of in Ahlquist's Versuch einer Mokschamordwinischen Grammatik nebst Texten und Wörter-Verzeichniss (St. Petersburg, 1861), and their history, customs and religion by Smirnov (trans. by Boyer), “Les Populations finnoises de la Volga” (in Publications de l'école des langues orientales, vivantes, 1898). Much valuable information respecting customs, religion, language and folk-lore will be found in papers by Paasonen, Heikel, Ahlquist, Mainof and others printed in the Journal de la Société Finno-Ougrienne and the Finnisch-ugrische Forschungen. (C. El.)