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Erzya and Moksha Mordvins
Total population
843,350 (2002)[1]
Regions with significant populations
Erzya, Moksha, Russian, (Tatar spoken by the Qaratay sub group)
Predominantly Orthodox Christianity
(Russian Orthodox Church)
also Mordvin Native Religion
also Lutheranism, Molokans and Jumpers.[2]
Related ethnic groups
Mari; other Finnic peoples

The Mordvins also Mordva, Mordvinians, Mordovians (Erzya self name Erzya: эрзят/Erzyat, Moksha self name Moksha: мокшет/Mokshet, Tatar: мухшилар/Muhshilar, Russian name for Moksha and Erzya Russian: мордва/Mordva, for Qaratai Russian: каратаи/Karatayi) are the members of a people speaking a Mordvinic language of the Uralic language family and living mainly in Mordοvia republic and other parts of the middle Volga River region of Russia[3] One of larger indigenous peoples of Russia. The Mordvins identify themselves as separate ethnic groups:[3] the Erzya and Moksha, besides the smaller subgroups of the Qaratay, Teryukhan and Tengushev (or Shoksha) Mordvins who have become fully Russified or Turkified during the 19th to 20th centuries.

Less than one third of Mordvins live in the autonomous republic of Mordovia, Russian Federation, in the basin of the Volga River. The rest are scattered over the Russian oblasts of Samara, Penza, Orenburg and Nizhny Novgorod, as well as Tatarstan, Chuvashia, Bashkortostan, Central Asia, Siberia, Far East, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Armenia and the United States.

The Erzya Mordvins (Erzya: эрзят, Erzyat; also Erzia, Erza), who speak Erzya, and the Moksha Mordvins (Moksha: мокшет, Mokshet), who speak Moksha, are the two major groups. The Qaratay Mordvins live in the Kama Tamağı District of Tatarstan, and have shifted to speaking Tatar, albeit with a large proportion of Mordvin vocabulary (substratum). The Teryukhan, living in the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast of Russia, switched to Russian in the 19th century. The Teryukhans recognize the term Mordva as pertaining to themselves, whereas the Qaratay also call themselves Muksha. The Tengushev Mordvins live in southern Mordovia and are a transitional group between Moksha and Erzya.

The western Erzyans are also called Shoksha (or Shoksho). They are isolated from the bulk of the Erzyans, and their dialect/language has been influenced by the Mokshan dialects.


While Robert G. Latham (1854) had identified Mordva as a self-designation, identifying it as a variant of the name Mari,[4] Aleksey Shakhmatov in the early 20th century noted that Mordva was not used as a self-designation by the two Mordvinic tribes of the Erzya and Moksha. Nikolai Mokshin again states that the term has been used by the people as an internal self-defining term[dubious ] to constitute their common origin.[5] Professor Gábor Zaicz underlines that the Mordvins do not use the name 'Mordvins' as self-designation.[6] Professor Feoktistov wrote "So-called Tengushev Mordvins are Erzyans who speak Erzyan dialect with Mokshan substratum and in fact they are ethnography group of Erzyans usually referred to as Shokshas. That was Erzyans who historically referred to as Mordvins and Mokshas usually were mentioned separately as "Mokshas". There is no evidence Mokshas and Erzyas were an ethnic unity in prehistory".[7] Isabelle T. Keindler writes: "Gradually major differences developed in customs, language and even physical appearance (until their conversion to Christianity the Erzia and Moksha did not intermarry and even today intermarriage is rare.) The two subdivisions of Mordvinians share no folk heroes in common - their old folksongs sing only of local heroes. Neither language has a common term to designate either themselves or their language. When a speaker wishes to refer to Mordvinians as a whole, he must use the term "Erzia and Moksha"[8] The ethnonym Mordva is possibly attested in Jordanes' Getica in the form of Mordens who were among the subjects of the Crimean Gothic king Ermanaric.[9] A land called Mordia at a distance of ten days journey from the Petchenegs is mentioned in Constantine VII' De administrando imperio.[10] In medieval European sources the names Merdas, Merdinis, Merdium, Mordani, Mordua, Morduinos have appeared. In the Russian Primary Chronicle the ethnonyms Mordva and mordvichi first appear in the 11th century. After the Mongol invasion of Rus' the name Mordvin rarely gets mentioned in Russian annals and is only quoted after the Primary Chronicle up until the 15th-17th century.[11][12]

The name Mordva is thought to originate from an Iranian (Scythian) word mard meaning "man". The Mordvin word mirde denoting a husband or spouse is traced to the same origin. This word is also probably related to the final syllable of "Udmurt", and also in Komi: mort and perhaps even in Mari: marij.[13]

'Erzya' is thought to derive from the Persian: arshan‎ - man. The first written mention of Erzya is considered to be in a letter dated to 968 AD by Joseph the Khazar khaqan in the form of arisa, and sometimes thought to be in the works of Strabo and Ptolemy called as Aorsy and Arsiity respectively. Estakhri from the 10th century has recorded among the three groups of the Rus people the al-arsanija whose king lived in the town of Arsa. The people have sometimes identified by scholars as Erzya, sometimes as the aru people and also as Udmurts. It has been suggested by historians that the town Arsa may refer to either the modern Ryazan or Arsk[10] In the 14th century the name Erzya is considered to be mentioned in the form of ardzhani by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani,[14] and as rzjan by Jusuf, the Nogaj khan[15] In Russian sources the ethnonym Erza first appears in the 18th century.[16]

'Moksha' is thought to derive from the name of the Moksha River (an Iranian hydronym in origin, cognate to Sanskrit: moksha "releasing, causing to flow").[17] The earliest written mention of Moksha in the form of Moxel is considered to be in the works of a 13th-century Flemish traveler William of Rubruck and in the Persian chronicle Rashid-al-Din who reported the Golden Horde being in war with the Moksha and the Ardzhans (Erzia). In Russian sources 'Moksha' appears from the 17th century[18]

Ethnic structure

The Mordvins are divided into two ethnic subgroups[19][20] and three further subgroups[4][21]

Mokshin (1991) concludes that the above grouping does not represent subdivisions of equal ethnotaxonomic order, and discounts Shoksha, Karatai and Teryukhan as ethnonyms, identifying two Mordvin sub-ethnicities, the Erzya and the Moksha, and two "ethnographic groups", the Shoksha and the Karatai.[22]

Two further formerly Mordvinic groups have assimilated to (Slavic and Turkic) superstrate influence:

  • The Meshcheryaks are believed to be Mordvins who have converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity and have adopted the Russian language.
  • The Mishars are Mordvins who came under Tatar influence and adopted the language and the Sunni Muslim religion.[23]


The 1911 Britannica[24] noted that the Mordvins although they had largely abandoned their language, had "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."

Britannica (1911) described the Mordvins as having mostly dark hair and blue eyes, with a rather small and narrow build. The Moksha were described as having a darker skin and darker eyes than the Erzya, while the Qaratays were described as "mixed with Tatars".

Latham (1854) described the Mordvins as taller than the Mari, with thin beards, flat faces and brown or red hair, red hair being more frequent among the Ersad than the Mokshad.[4]

James Bryce (1876) described "the peculiar Finnish physiognomy" of the Mordvin diaspora in Armenia, "transplanted hither from the Middle Volga at their own wish", as characterised by "broad and smooth faces, long eyes, a rather flattish nose".[25]

Cultures, folklores and mythologies

According to Tatiana Deviatkina: although sharing some similarities no common Mordvin mythology has emerged and therefore the Erza and Moksha mythologies are defined separately.[26]

In the Erza mythology the superior deities were hatched from an egg. The mother of gods is called Ange Patiai, followed by the Sun God Chipaz who gave birth to Nishkepaz, to the earth god Mastoron kirdi and the wind god Varmanpaz. From the union of Chipaz and the Harvest Mother Norovava was born the god of the underworld Mastorpaz. The thunder god Pur’ginepaz was born from Niskende Teitert, the daughter of the mother of gods Ange Patiai. The creation of the Earth is followed by the creation of the Sun, the Moon, the humankind and the Erza. The man was created by god Chipaz who molded the humankind from clay while in another version of the legend the man is made from soil.

In Moksha mythology the Supreme God is called Viarde Skai. According to the legends the creation of the world went through several stages: first the Devil moistened the building material in his mouth and spat it out. The piece that was spat out grew into a plain, which was modeled uneven by creating chasms and the mountains. The first humans created by Viarde Skai could live for 700–800 years and were giants of 99 archinnes. The underworld in Mokshan mythology was ruled by Mastoratia.

Latham (1854) reported strong pagan elements surviving Christianization.[4] The 1911 Britannica noted how the Mordvins

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 Kardaz-scrko[dubious ] 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. [...]

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.



The Mordvins emerged from the common Volgaic group around the 1st century AD.[27]

A proof that the Mordvins have long been settled in the vicinity of the Volga is also found in the fact that they still call the river Rav, reflecting the Rha of Ptolemy.[28][29]

The Gorodets culture dating back to around 500 BC has been associated with these people. The north-western neighbours were the Muromians and Merians who spoke related Finno-Ugric languages. To the north of the Mordvins lived the Maris, to the south the Khazars and their eastern neighbors, possibly remnants of the Huns, became the Bolgars around 700 AD.

From the mid-1st century AD the ancestors of the Erzya and the Moksha have been distinguished by the different orientations of their burials and by elements of their costumes and the variety of bronze jewellery found by archaeologists in their ancient cemeteries. The Erzya graves from this era were oriented north-south, while the Moksha graves were found to be oriented south-north.[10]

The Mordvin language began to diverge into Moksha and Erzya over the course of the 1st millennium AD[30][31] Erzyans lived in the northern parts of the territory, close to where Nizhny Novgorod is situated nowadays. The Mokshans lived further south and west of present Mordovia, living closer to the neighbouring Iranian, Bolgar and Turkic tribes, and fell under their cultural influence.

The social organization of Moksha and Erzya was based on patriarchy, the tribes were headed by elders kuda-ti who selected a tekshtai, senior elders responsible for coordinating wider regions.

Early history

Around 800 AD two major empires emerged in the neighborhood: Kievan Rus in present day Ukraine adopted Orthodox Christianity, the Bolgar kingdom located at the confluence of Kama and Volga rivers adopted Islam, and some Moksha areas became tributaries to the latter until the 12th century.

Following the foundation of Nizhny Novgorod by Kievan Rus in 1221, the Mordvin territory increasingly fell under Russian domination, pushing the Mordvin populations southwards and eastwards beyond the Urals, and reducing their cohesion.

The Russian advance was halted by the Mongol Empire, and the Mordvins became subjects to Golden Horde until the beginning of 16th century.

Christianization of the Mordvin peoples took place during the 16th to 18th centuries, and most Mordvins today adhere to the Russian Orthodox Church all carrying Russian Orthodox names. In the 19th century Latham reported strong pagan elements surviving Christianization, the chief gods of the Erzyans and the Mokshas being called Paas and Shkai, respectively.

Modern history

In Tsarist Russia, the Mordvins were known as capable carpenters, and Ivan the Terrible used them to build bridges and clear forests during his advance on Kazan.[24]

Although the Mordvins were given an autonomous territory as a titular nation within the Soviet Union in 1928, Russification intensified during the 1930s, and knowledge of the Mordvin languages by the 1950s was in rapid decline.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Mordvins, like other indigenous peoples of Russia, experienced a rise of national consciousness. The Erzya national epic is called Mastorava, which stands for "Mother Earth". It was compiled by A. M. Sharonov and first published in 1994 in the Erzya language (it has since been translated into Moksha and Russian). Mastorava is also the name of a movement of ethnic separatism founded by D. Nadkin of the Mordovian State University, active in the early 1990s.[32]


Main article: Mordvinic languages

The Mordvinic languages are the Erzya and Moksha languages, with about 500,000 native speakers each. Both are official languages of Mordovia alongside Russian. Mordvinic is closely related to the now extinct Meshcherian and Muromian languages.

Erzya is spoken in the northern and eastern and north-western parts of Mordovia and adjacent regions of Nizhniy Novgorod, Chuvashia, Penza, Samara, Saratov, Orenburg, Ulyanovsk, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. Moksha is the majority language in the western part of Mordovia.

Due to differences in phonology, lexicon, and grammar, Erzya and Moksha are not mutually intelligible, to the extent that Russian language is often used for intergroup communications.[33]

The two Mordvinic languages also have separate literary forms. The Erzya literary language was created in 1922 and the Mokshan in 1923.[34]

Both are currently written using the standard Russian alphabet.


Latham (1854) quoted a total population of 480,000.[4] Mastyugina (1996) quotes 1.15 million.[35] The 2002 Russian census reports 0.84 million.

According to estimates of Tartu University made in late 1970s, less than one third of Mordvins lived in the autonomous republic of Mordovia, in the basin of the Volga River.

Others are scattered (2002) over the Russian oblasts of Samara (116,475), Penza (86,370), Orenburg (68,880) and Nizhni Novgorod (36,705), Ulyanovsk (61,100), Saratov (23,380), Moscow (22,850), Tatarstan (28,860), Chuvashia (18,686), Bashkortostan (31,932), Siberia (65,650), Russian Far East (29,265).

Populations in parts of the former Soviet Union not now part of Russia are: Kyrgyz Republic 5,390, Turkmenistan 3,490, Uzbekistan 14,175, Kazakhstan, (34,370), Azerbaijan (1,150), Estonia (985), Armenia (920).

List of notable Mordvins


See also

References and notes

Further reading

  • Nikolai F. Mokshin, "ISBN 978-1-56324-535-0, 29-45 (English translation of a 1991 Sovetskaia etnografiia article).

External links

  • Library of Congress: A Country Study: Soviet Union (Former)

Mordovia news

  • Info-RM (English)
  • Moksha language)
  • Erzya language)

Mordvin toponymy (in Mordovia and throughout the Middle Volga region):

  • Sándor Maticsák, Nina Kazaeva. "History of the Research of Mordvinian Place Names" (Onomastica Uralica)
  • Moksha language
  • [1] Finno-Ugric World news, articles in Mokshan
  • [2] Mokshan-English-Mokshan on-line dictionary

Template:Uralic peoples Template:Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Christians

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