Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Mordvinians

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MORDVINIANS, more correctly Mordva or Mordvs, are a people numbering about one million, of Finnish origin, 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 Aorses (now Erzya), is mentioned by Ptolemy as dwelling between the Baltic Sea and the Ural mountains, whilst the Aorses of Asia occupied at the same time the country to the north-east of the Caspian between the Volga and the Jaxartes. Their king is said to have come with 200,000 horsemen to aid Mithradates in his wars. Strabo mentions also the Aorses as inhabitants of the country between the Don, the Caspian Sea, and the Caucasus. The name of Mordvs is mentioned for the first time by Jordanes, and they were known under the same name to the Russian annalist Nestor. The Russians made raids on the Mordvs in the 12th century, and after the fall of Kasan they rapidly invaded and colonized their abodes. The Mordvs now occupy the Russian provinces of Simbirsk, Penza, Samara, and Nijni-Novgorod, as well as those of Saratoff and Tamboff. But their villages are dispersed among those of the Russians, and they constitute only 10 to 12 per cent. of the population in the four first-named provinces, and from 5 to 6 per cent. in the last two. They are unequally distributed over this area in ethnographical islands, and constitute as much as 23 to 44 per cent. of the population of several districts of the governments of Tamboff, Simbirsk, Samara, and Saratoff, and only 2 or 3 per cent. in other districts of the same provinces. A small number of Mordvs are found also in the provinces of Ufa, Orenburg, Astrakhan, and even in Siberia as far east as the river Tom. They are divided into two great branches, the Erzya and the Moksha, differing in their ethnological features and in their language. The southern branch, or the Moksha, have a darker skin and darker eyes and hair than the northern. A third branch, the Karatays, is due to mixture with Tatars, whilst a fourth branch, mentioned by several authors, is, according to Mainoff, but a local name for pure Mordvs. Their language is considered by M. Ahlqvist as the third branch of the Western Finnish family, the two other branches being the Laponian and the Baltic Finnish, which last embodies now the languages of the Karelians, the Tavastes, the Wotes, the Wespes, the Esthes, and the Lives. The Mordvs are for the most part completely Russified,—even the Mokshas who consider themselves as the only pure Mordvs,—yet they have well maintained their ethnological features, and can be easily distinguished even when living completely as Russians. They have nearly quite forgotten their own language, only a few women remembering it among the Mokshas; but they have maintained a good deal of their old national dress, especially the women, whose profusely embroidered skirts, original hair-dress, large earrings 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. The cephalic index of the Mordvs 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 Kasan. At present they manufacture in their villages great quantities of wooden ware of various sorts. They are also great masters of apiculture, and the commonwealth of bees often appears in their poetry and religious beliefs. All explorers are unanimous in recognizing their honesty, morality, and sympathetic character; it is noticed also that they have remarkable linguistic capacities, and learn with great ease not only Russian but also several Finnish and Turkish dialects. Nearly all are Christians; they received baptism in the reign of Elizabeth; the Nonconformists have recently made many fervent proselytes among them. But they still preserve very much of their own rich mythology, which they have adapted to a certain extent to the Christian religion. 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 that devoted to the home-divinity Kardaz-serko can be seen in full force 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 very many houses. Their burial-customs are of a quite pagan character. 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, dressed in his dress, plays his part, and, coming from the grave, speaks in his name. The practice of animal sacrifice is still deep rooted among the Mokshas, who continue to drink the warm blood of immolated animals.

The Mordvs have always had a great attraction for Russian inquirers; Strahlenberg, Georgi, Pallas, and especially Lepekhin have written about them. Melnikoff has published in several Russian periodicals interesting sketches of their religious beliefs. A great number of smaller sketches have appeared in periodicals; these are enumerated by Mainoff in the Izvestia of the Russian Geographical Society for 1877. Entrusted by the Geographical Society with the study of this race, Mainoff has recently made extensive anthropological measurements and studies of their customs and common-law. The results are published, but not yet in full, in the Izestia of the Russian Geographical Society for 1878, and in the periodicals Slovo for 1879, and Old and New Russia for 1878. They were to appear in full in the Memoirs of the Society.