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ETHNONYMS: Self-designations: Mar, Mari; Cheremis


Identification. Within the Russian Federation, the Maris have had a titular autonomous republic (the Mari ASSR after 1936, today the Republic of Mari) which now forms a part of the Volga-Vyatka macroeconomic region. The Maris belong to the Volgaic branch of the Finno-Ugrian peoples. "Mari" and "Mar" are self-designations meaning "man." An older name used by other peoples is "Cheremis." In Soviet usage, "Cheremis" has been replaced by "Mari." This name has increasingly won acceptance in other countries as well.

Location. The formation of ancient Mari tribes took place in the Middle Volga region, between the Volga and Vyatka. The first Slavic settlers to these tracts came in the late Middle Ages, and the inflow greatly intensified after the Muscovite conquest of the Volga Valley in the sixteenth century. As a consequence, large numbers of Maris began to move eastward; the Mari homeland lost much of its coherence and the areal center of the nationality shifted to the east. At the present time the Maris are scattered over a vast territory in the Volga-Urals region. The westernmost settlements are in the neighborhood of the Volga-Sura confluence (about 170 kilometers down along the Volga from the city of Gorki), whereas in the east, groups of Mari villages exist on the foothills of the Urals in the Sverdlovsk Oblast. The basic area of the nationality is the Republic of Mari, the bulk of which lies on the left bank of the Volga. The southwestern corner of the republic extends also to the right side of the river. Geographically, most of the republic can best be characterized as rolling plain; the highest places of the Vyatka ridge in the east rise to about 273 meters, whereas the swampy lowlands in the west, north of the Volga, are just 45 to 100 meters above sea level. Over half of the territory of 22,500 square kilometers is covered with forests, consisting mainly of coniferous trees. The main agricultural areas are located in the northeast and in the southwest (i.e., on the hilly bank of the Volga). The climate is continental; the average temperatures range from -13° C in January to +18° C in July. The mean rainfall is 50 centimeters per year. The period of vegetation begins at the end of April and runs until the first days of October.

Demography. The number of the Maris totaled 670,300 in 1989. Nearly half of them324,000 persons or 48.3 percent of the totallived in the Mari ASSR. In the Bashkir ASSR there were 105,800 Maris. Other notable areas of inhabitationwith the number of Maris ranging approximately from 10,000 to 50,000were the Tatar and Udmurt republics and the Kirov and Sverdlovsk oblasts. In 1989 the Mari ASSR population was 749,300; the largest group was the Russians with a 47.5 percent share of the total population. The Maris constituted 43.2 percent, and the rest was made up mainly of Tatars and Chuvash. According to the 1979 data, the Maris were the largest nationality in the countryside, making up 68.7 percent of the ASSR's rural inhabitants, whereas in the urban areas the Maris did not comprise more than 21.6 percent of the population. Urbanization has begun only relatively recently: as late as 1970 over 85 percent of the Maris in such important areas of habitation as the Mari and Bashkir ASSRs and the Kirov Oblast were rural residents. Until the 1960s the Maris maintained a fairly high fertility level. Since then a gradual decline has taken place, but the Maris still compare favorably with the Russians in terms of birthrates. So far this surplus fertility has been enough to keep the Maris population growing, even under conditions of serious assimilation losses. The growth rates, however, have slackened. Although the number of Maris in the 1959-1969 period grew on average by 1.6 percent annually and the total Soviet population by 1.3 percent, the ensuing decades show growth rates below 0.8 percent per year for the Maris; moreover, the Mari rates fall short of general Soviet population growth.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Mari and Mordvin languages form the Volgaic Branch of the Finno-Ugrian Language Family. Two languages are spoken by Maris, Meadow Mari (Olyk Mari) and Hill Mari (Kuryk Mari), each consisting of several dialects and each having a written form of its own. Initiatives to create a single written language have not had practical results. The differences between the two languages are mainly lexical and phonetic. Meadow Mari is based on the Morki-Sernur dialect. The unwritten Eastern dialect (Ervel Mart or Üpö Mari) spoken by the Maris living east of the Republic of Mari, a significant subgroup of Meadow Mari, is often called Meadow-Eastern Mari. The Kozmodemyansk dialect forms the basis of Hill Mari: less than 20 percent of Maris belong to this group. Among the Finno-Ugrian languages, the Mari language has experienced the strongest Turkic (Chuvash and Tatar) influences. Turkic elements were adopted long ago and involve both grammar and vocabulary, whereas borrowing from Russian is a relatively new development, which has intensified since the nineteenth century. More or less regular publishing in Mari was initiated in the late nineteenth century by the Kazan-based missionary movement. Both of the written Mari languages use the Cyrillic alphabet. At the time of the 1989 census, 81 percent of all Maris regarded Mari as their native tongue; in the Mari Republic the figure was 88 percent. The fact that the number of Maris considering Mari as their native language stopped growing after the 1970 census is suggestive of increased linguistic assimilation. Surveys concerning actual language use have shown that among the younger generation, especially in urban settings, lingual Russification is strongly underway. In the mid-1980s Mari was used as a medium of instruction at the lower grades of a number of rural schools in the Mari and Bashkir ASSRs.

History and Cultural Relations

The shaping of the ethnic community of the Maris was completed around the turn of the first and second millennia AD. Intense contacts with Turkic peoples constitute the prominent feature of medieval Mari history: from the tenth until the mid-thirteenth century the Maris were subjects of the Volga Bolgar Kingdom and then, until the middle of the sixteenth century, they were in a kind of vassalage to the Kazan Tatars. The bulk of Maris remained loyal to the Tatars until the collapse of Kazan in 1552.

Submission to Russian rule took place painfully: a series of violent uprisings erupted, known as the Cheremis wars. By the onset of the seventeenth centuryonly after the Russians had erected a set of forts in the Mari areasthe struggles gradually ended. Later, the Maris were quick to join peasant uprisings but these were more ventures to relieve economic burdens than attempts to win back independence. Conversions to Russian Orthodoxy began on a large scale in the second half of the seventeenth century, and missionary pursuits further intensified in the following century. Results were poor, however: adoption of Christianity remained mostly superficial, and large numbers of Maris chose to escape to the Bashkir lands. The outcome of this move was the formation of the group of Eastern Maris; among this group paganism prevailed until the present century. In the tiny circles of Mari intellectuals, the beginnings of ethnic awakening became apparent around 1900. A number of Mari territories that earlier were divided among several provinces were united in 1920 into a single administrative entity, the Mari Autonomous Area. In the 1930s the Mari intelligentsia fell victim to Stalinist purges even as Mari autonomy was formally elevated to the ASSR level.


Prior to Russian domination, the arrangement of buildings in Mari villages was irregular. Later on, a street plan was gradually adopted. In the 1920s the average size of a settlement varied from about thirty households in the northern areas to fifty-five households in the southern areas (i.e., approximately 160 to 300 inhabitants respectively). A traditional Mari house (pört ) was built of logs with a peaked roof and window frames decorated with carvings. The house and outbuildings formed a closed four-cornered yard. The summer kitchen (kudo )a place of prayer and sacrifice as wellwas constructed of logs and had no ceiling, no window openings, and no chimney. The fireplace was located at the center of the dirt floor. Today, rural houses are also built of bricks or manufactured elements. The yard has become more compact and the surrounding buildings are joined together. The entrance into the yard is through a wooden gate the height of a person. In recent decades, as a result of the concentration of agricultural production, a large number of villages have died out. Though increasing, the Mari portion of the population in urban centers remains relatively small. For instance, over 50,000 Maris live in the capital of the republic, Yoshkar-Ola, but they constitute less than a quarter of the population of the city.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. At the close of the nineteenth century practically all Maris were engaged in agriculture. The main cereals cultivated were rye, oats, barley, buckwheat, and millet. Horses and cattle were kept but, as a whole, animal domestication did not play any prominent role in the traditional economy. Beekeeping had been an important activity for a long time, and hunting was also pursuedin particular, in the backwoods and swamps of the left side of the Volga. Honey, furs, tar, and wood coal served as market goods. Today agriculture is carried on in large unitscollective and state farms. Wheat, potatoes, and flax have grown in importance as cultivated plants. The expansion of the area cultivated for fodder speaks of increased livestock rearing and dairy farming. During the Soviet era, industrial output grew manyfold. The metal industry is now in a leading position, and paper manufacturing, woodworking, and light industries are also well developed.

Industrial Arts. In the past a girl's abilities were, to a high degree, judged by her weaving and embroidery. Despite being officially replaced in the 1930s, the woman's folk dress continues to be an important means of ethnic identification and a sustainer of handicrafts. Currently, however, most of the aprons, smocks, caftans, head scarves, imitation silver coin embellishments, and boots needed for weddings and other special occasions are made in state-owned workshops. Traditional basket weaving persists, as does the making of various folk-art wooden articles.

Land Tenure. In feudal Russia, the Hill Maris were privately owned serfs, whereas the Meadow Maris were state owned. Village communities practiced a three-field system of agriculture. After emancipation, the separation of the peasants from their communities involved many difficulties; the process accelerated somewhat only after the Stolypin reforms of 1906, but the reforms also added to the economic polarization in the countryside. The Soviet regime collectivized agriculture by 1937; the peasants' privately run plots were limited to subsidiary smallholdings.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship. Past Mari settlements were made up of "corners," or neighborhoods, each inhabited by families belonging to the same patronymic group. Awareness of a common forefather was the main basis of kinship communities of a higher order as wellon the levels of lineage cluster, village, group of villages, and so on. Ancestor worship and joint rites during sacrificial ceremonies helped maintain a shared consciousness within kinship communities.

Marriage. Traditionally, marriages were arranged, often without the consent of the couple being wedded. It was a common habit to marry off sons at the age of 14 to 16 years but to postpone the marriage of the daughters.

Mari marriage involved transfers of property in two directions. The bridegroom's parents paid for the bride, usually with money; the payment was made during the wedding, at the latest. The bride's family paid a dowryusually consisting of cattle to a large extentwhich typically were not delivered until after the wedding, sometimes a year or more later. Compared to what the bridegroom's parents paid, the dowry used to be worth more. Traces of this custom have now disappeared, and the parents' word is no longer final in matters of marriage and divorce. In pre-Revolutionary times, the portion of marriages contracted across ethnic lines was quite small. After World War II intermarriages greatly increased. Russians are, overwhelmingly, the partners with whom the Maris intermarry.

Domestic Unit. Patriarchal extended family households continued in some places until the outset of the twentieth century. Families of this kind consisted of three to four generations of close relatives, and the maximum number of members in them was around 40. By 1900, however, smaller families with 3 to 12 members had already become predominant. Since then nuclearization has proceeded further: according to the 1979 data, 84 percent of Mari families in the titular ASSR consisted of 2 to 5 members, and two-generational families were by far the prevalent type. The average number of members per family was 4.4 in rural areas, and 3.4 in urban ones.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Maris are strongly attached to the peasant way of life; their involvement in industry and education still remains relatively slight. Immobility and firm ties with the soil explain to a considerable extent why the Mari participation in the Bolshevik Revolution was negligible. Later, too, the percentage of Maris who were members of the ASSR's Communist party organization generally lagged somewhat behind the titular nationality's proportion of the population. Like other Republics in the Russian Federation, the Republic of Mari has certain symbols of statehood but administratively it ranks as a province (oblast). It is divided into fourteen districts; in about half of them Maris are a nominal majority of the inhabitants. The districts, in turn, are broken down into rural councils, which are the basic units in the countryside. Each administers around ten villages on the average.

The first manifestations of Mari nationalism became apparent in the late nineteenth century: sects striving to protect old religious habits expressed the idea, "To undo our faith is equal to undoing us." A formally organized national movement got its start after the February Revolution of 1917, but in the course of the 1920s the possibilities for spontaneous ethnic organization again diminished; soon the policy of indigenization (korenizatsiya ) of administration and culture was also ended. Those supporting ethnic freedom were brought under strict party control. Moreover, the national intelligentsia was harshly persecuted. Collectivization obviously caused some ethnic tension as well For decades all this dampened popular initiative and hindered the formation of genuine ethnic self-consciousness. Only after the political atmosphere changed with perestroika were there again some signs of emerging ethnic organization among the Maris. The reclassification of the Mari ASSR as the Republic of Mari is one outcome of this change.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. Indicative of the Maris' superficial adoption of Russian Orthodox Christianity is the persistence of elements of older beliefs: more than one-half of present-day Mari believers either link togetherin varying combinationstraditional customs and Christianity or adhere exclusively to the traditional Mari faith. Typically, Maris practicing syncretism put the matter as follows: "We pray to two Gods: the one of the church and the one of the forest." The presence of non-Christian elements increases from west to east: almost nonexistent among the Hill Maris, these elements are strongest among the Eastern Maris. The Meadow-Eastern group has also experienced Islamic influences. Certainly, religion has lost most of its previous strength over the course of the twentieth century. Compared with the local Russians, however, the Maris have, to a somewhat greater degree, kept their religious habits. One reason for this may be that religious rituals provide them with a channel for maintaining their identity. The similarities one can find in religious procedureseven in the minute detailsall over the geographically scattered Mari habitats bear witness to an ancient and highly developed religious culture. The traditional shamanist-animist religion of the Maris included a host of divinities, ancestor spirits, and supernatural beings personified in celestial bodies, clouds, rivers, earth, trees, and forests. The supreme god, Jumo, represented all heavens and weather together. The core of the site of sacrificial ceremonies and prayer meetings was a fenced section of untouched grove; there were separate sacred groves depending on whether they were for the prayer of the whole community, the clan, or the kin group. All domestic animals except pigs and hens were suitable for sacrifice. The participants in the ceremonysometimes thousands of peoplewere dressed in white.

An ethnoconfessional movement, Kuga Sorta (Big Candle) gained a large circle of supporters in the second half of the nineteenth century. Attempting to reconstruct the traditional religion to meet the challenges of the new times, the sect acknowledged aspects of both the traditional Mari faith and Christianity. Ascetic rules were followed in regard to clothing and drinking; further, the members of the sect renounced some ancient divinities of lower rank, various genies and gnomes, for instance.

Arts. Characteristic of the rich Mari folklore is the muro, a lyric song often built on repetition, parallels, contrasts, and comparisons, and combining happiness and sorrow. The rhythm of the verse and the pentatonic melody of the songs point to a Turkic influence.

Typical of the traditional texts of the songs is that the focal image is often taken from human life, whereas the supplementary images represent phenomena in nature or objects in the domestic sphere. Frequently, the lyrics of the songs can be understood properly only in the context of the accompanying music, and particularly its rhythm, since many seemingly meaningless nonmorpheme sound sequences are added to the text to make it correspond to the music in length. A stringed instrument widespread among the Maris is the gusli (kusle ), a zitherlike stringed instrument held on the knees and played with both hands. It was used to create atmosphere during sacrificial ceremonies and later as an accompaniment to dancing. The reed pipe, the bagpipe, the birch-bark horn, and the drum are other important Mari musical instruments.

Medicine. Trachoma, goiter, and tuberculosisthe main sicknesses from which the Maris suffered in the pasthave been brought under control through advances in medicine. In folk medicine, drugs were based on herbs, tar, honey, formic acid, the fat of wild animals, and so on. In case of serious illness, people sought advice through sorcery, and the sauna was considered a remedy for many evils.

Death and Afterlife. The invisible part of a human being was called ort. Even when the person was alive, the ort would at times move aboutleave the body for a whilebut at death its departure was irreversible. The ört would linger somewhere near the dead body, however; it might also become embodied in the form of a butterfly. At the funeral, it was the custom to put into the coffin some food, money, tobacco, and other necesseties for the life beyond the grave. In addition to the funeral prayers, prayers were said for the deceased on the third, seventh, and fortieth days after death. The repast on the fortieth day was very ceremonious, and it was dedicated to other dead relatives as well. As a symbol of the participation of the late kin at the occasion, one close friend played the part of the deceased by dressing in his clothes. It was also traditional for a portion of food to be put on the table for the deceased each morning during the first forty days.


Hajdú, Péter (1975). Finno-Ugrian Languages and Peoples. London: André Deutsch.

Holmberg, Uno (1914). Tsheremissien uskonto (in Finnish). Porvoo: WSOY.

Narody Evropeiskoi chasti SSSR (European people's portions of the USSR) (1964). Moscow: Nauka.

Narody Povolzh'ya i Priural'ya (Peoples of Povolzh'ya and the Pre-Urals) (1985). Moscow: Nauka.

Suomen suku [in Finnish] (1928). II osa. Helsinki: Otava.


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Maris (mä´rĬs), three Dutch painters, who were brothers. Jacob or Jakob Maris, 1837–99, the most celebrated, painted domestic interiors but is particularly famous for his vigorous landscapes in oil and watercolor. Rich in color and large and simple in composition and handling, these paintings are among the finest of the Hague school. They usually depict the rich countryside under luminous gray skies. The Rijksmuseum has a notable collection, including Arrival of the Boats. Other works are The Bridge (Frick Coll., New York City) and Canal in Holland (Metropolitan Mus.). Matthew or Matthijs Maris, 1839–1917, genre and landscape painter and etcher, worked with his brother Jacob and in 1877 settled in London. He developed a vein of mysticism in his later work, shown in such paintings as Reverie (Metropolitan Mus.) and Memory of Amsterdam (Rijksmus.). William or Willem Maris, 1844–1910, achieved an early reputation for his bright landscapes, usually with cattle. The Rijksmuseum has several, including Cows beside a Ditch.

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