Mari and Mordvin Religion

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MARI AND MORDVIN RELIGION . The Mari and Mordvin languages together form the so-called Volga group within the Finno-Ugric linguistic family. In international literature, the Mari people are better known as the Cheremis (from the Old Russian name Chermisy ). The Mari republic lies in western Russia in a heavily forested region north of the Volga river. The Mari may be divided into three groups based on their differing environments: the Mountain Mari, the smallest group; the Meadow Mari, the largest group; and the so-called Eastern Mari, which is the youngest group, having developed only in the seventeenth century.

The Mordvins (from the Old Russian name Mordva ) consist of two related groups, speaking the Erzä and Mokša dialects of the Mordvin language. They differ from each other to such an extent that the speakers of Erzä and Mokša do not understand one another. Two separate literary languages have been formed accordingly. The Mordvin republic, Mordvinia, lies to the east of the Mari homeland in the Russian federation. In addition, there are some separated settlements in the Tatar and Bashkir republics. The population of the Erzä is approximately twice that of the Mokša. The Erzä could also be called Western Mordvins, living on the banks of the Sura River, and the Mokša of the Mokša River could be called Eastern Mordvins.

The Mari and Mordvin languages, with the Balto-Finnic and Saami (Lapp) languages, are believed to stem from a common Volga Finnic protolanguage, spoken from 1500 to 500 bce. Around the beginning of the common era, Mari and Mordvin started to develop into separate languages. Although they possess a common linguistic background, the Mari and Mordvin cultures have, in the course of centuries, undergone diverse developments under the influence of Tatar and, later, Russian domination. For this reason, the Mari and Mordvins are culturally quite different from each other, particularly in their religious views and activities. There are very few common features in Mari and Mordvin religion, and many differences become manifest in the comparison of their specific cultural groups as well.


The first mention of the Mordvins is in the chronicle of the historian Jordanes (551 ce). He relates that in the fourth century, Ermanarik, the king of the East Goths, subjugated a people called Mordens. Nestor, on the other hand, tells in his eleventh-century chronicle of three peoples living at the Oka River where it meets the Volga: the Cheremis, the Mordvins, and the Muromans, a distinct third group. Giovanni da Pian del Carpini, the papal emissary, wrote in his report of 1245 that the Tatars occupied the domain of the Mordui people, living between Russians and Bulgars. Marco Polo, on the other hand, mentions Mordui as one of the groups under Mongolian power.

The influence of the foreign cultures, beginning with the Tatar hegemony of the medieval period, is evident in Mari and Mordvin religion. The conversion to Christianity began in the middle of the sixteenth century, when the Russians finally overthrew the Tatar khanate of Kazan. The often quite violent mission was strengthened in the seventeenth century, with the result that many features of pre-Christian Mari and Mordvin religion gradually disappeared. Many fieldworkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have, however, been able to report religious beliefs and practices that clearly belong to the autochthonous elements of the Mari and Mordvin cultures.

Our earliest information on Mordvin religion comes from an earlier Italian explorer, G. Barbaro, who visited the district now called Eastern Russia in 1446. He gives an account of the horse sacrifices of the Mokša. In regard to the Mari, some valuable information can be found in the report published by an envoy from Holstein, Adam Olearius (1663), on Mari offering rituals. The sources of the eighteenth century include the accounts by N. Witzen, P. J. Strahlenberg, G. F. Müller, I. Lepeshchin, J. P. Georgi, N. Rytshkov, and P. S. Pallas. A valuable study on Mordvin religion is the Russian manuscript written by a surveyor named Mil'kovich in 1783. In addition to Russian scholars, several Finnish ethnographers, including Albert Hämäläinen, Heikki Paasonen, and Uno Holmberg Harva, have done field-work among the Mari and Mordvins in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their collections have been published by the Finno-Ugric Society in Helsinki. Uno Holmberg Harva edited the monographs on the religion of the Mari (1914) and Mordvin (1942). Holmberg's study of Finno-Ugric mythology published in volume 4 (1927) of The Mythology of All Races is still a classic in its field, a comparative survey of Finno-Ugric worldviews. More recent publications include N. F. Mokshin's work on Mordvin religion (1968) and Thomas A. Sebeok and Frances J. Ingemann's work on Mari religion (1956).

Mari and Mordvin ethnic religions are described here mainly on the basis of the folklore sources of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As a result of the Russian socialist revolution, Mari and Mordvin cultures have undergone rapid changes that have had great influence on their religious views (secularization and acculturation).

Life and Death

Both the Mari and the Mordvins employ a complex system of soul concepts. The Mordvins describe physical death with such expressions as "ojm'eze l'iśś" ("his spirit left") or "ojm'enze noldaś" ("he overthrew his spirit"). Various terms for soul denote the life-keeping elements, breathing, or simply "up"; in Mokša languages, ojm'e or vajm'ä, in Erzä, arńe, in Mari, šüloš. The life of this kind of soul is related to the length of the life of the individual whose body it inhabits, beginning with the first symptoms of physical life and ending with body's last breath. The soul then leaves the body like warm air or smoke. This kind of soul is linear, living only once with its personal character. The cyclical soul concept, in which the soul lives on after the physical death, in manifest in such words as tšopatša (Erzä), šopatša (Mokša), and ört (Mari). These souls are described as living with the body both in its lifetime in this world and after death in the place where the corpse has been buried. The ört may leave the body during a trance or dream or when a person is senseless. After death, the ört may appear as a ghost who disturbs relatives or wanders through the home. It is the ört that is moved to the land of the dead. The tšopatša is conceived of as a kind of personal guardian spirit that is embodied in the shadow or a picture of its carrier. It also lives after the physical death of its corporeal carrier and often takes the form of a soul bird.

Family cult rites associated with death are organized by the dead person's relatives. Life after death was regarded as a direct continuation of earthly life. The departed were believed to live in much the same way as they had upon earth, in log cabins within fenced groves that were called šugarla (Mari), kalmazur (Erzä), or kalma-kuža (Mokša). The articles used by them in life were carefully carried to the cemetery and placed beside their bodies in the grave. In death as in life family and kin remain together, so that the graveyard is simply the counterpart of the village. In this view, there is no realm of the dead in the universal sense. It was thus natural to construct the cabin of the dead in such a way that a window faced home; there also was a hole to allow the ört or tšopatša to revisit the living members of the family.

Each family worships its own dead. Festivals in honor of a departed individual were celebrated during the first year after death: immediately after burial, six weeks (or the fortieth day) after death, and one year after death. After this last ritual, the deceased was no longer honored as an individual but rather as a member of the collective group of the family dead in ceremonies celebrated annually in accordance with the economic and religious calendar.

Twice a year the Mordvins hold a festival called Pokśtšat Babat or At'at Babat ("grandfathers and grandmothers") for all departed ancestors. The ancestors are then requested to participate in a banquet shared between the living and dead members of the family. Formerly, animal sacrifices, often horses, were offered to the departed. Heikki Paasonen points out that this practice may derive from an earlier practice of human sacrifice. He also believes that the worship of some gods (pas) is related to the ancestor cult. The Erzä annually worship Staka, a god resembling a Turkic ruler or prince; in addition, the Erzä and Mokša worship a god called Keremet, who is given the title soltan ("sultan"), which seems to be a manifestation of a former local hero cult.

Universe and Nature

According to a Mordvin myth recorded by the Russian clergyman Fedor Saverskii in 1853, there were a pair of creators in the beginning of time. God was sitting on a rock in the midst of the huge proto-ocean contemplating the creation of the universe. A devil (šaitan) appeared and promised to help him in the act of creation. God asked him to dive into the depth of the ocean and to bring sand from the bottom. After having succeeded in his third attempt, the devil brought the material but hid some of it in his mouth, planning to create his own world. God threw the sand he had been given on the surface of the proto-ocean and it started to grow both there as well as in the devil's mouth, forcing him to empty it. Because of this dualistic conflict, there is evil as well as good in the universe.

The creator god is called Niške-pas or Niške in Mordvin languages, literally meaning "the great procreator." According to Erzä and Mokša folklore, he created heaven and earth, the rising sun, the wandering moon, black forests, and green grass. He also created the world sea and placed in it three mythical fish who support the universe on their backs. According to Mordvin incantations, the fish are white beings, probably whales; their movements cause earthquakes. According to this same myth, the Erzä were created as the first human beings to cut the forest and harvest the grass. The Erzä man is put to plow and sow; his position is superior to that of his wife, whose duty it is to cook.

In international literature, there are scholarly accounts of complex hierarchical systems of deities of the universe in Mari and Mordvin religions. However, they follow the well-known theoretical patterns of the supreme being, lord of the earth, and the Olympic idea of a system of twelve gods to such an extent that it is more probable that the theory has arranged the cultural material than vice versa. In spite of this, we may refer to the interesting account by Strahlenberg, who states that the highest deity of the Mordvins (meaning the Erzä) is Jumishipas, the sky god. The first part of the name is the same as the Mari Jumo and Finnish Jumala, meaning "God"; the latter part is equivalent to Škipas, the name of the sun god. There probably was some kind of sun worship in both Mari and Mordvin cultures.

Nature and culture were divided among the various supernatural beings, each of whom had control over a certain building or an area in nature. It was believed that these guardian spirits existed in order to aid the people in their struggles with neighboring tribes, competitive outgroups, and unknown supernatural powers. They also controlled the affairs and actions that took place in the area in their charge, warned for danger, and punished for wrong, immoral, or improper behavior. In Mari and Mordvin folklore, there are plenty of narratives about personal encounters with the supernatural in the natural and cultural realms. In family and clan festivals held during certain seasons of the economic year, sacrifices, for example, food offerings, were offered to them as a part of family or regional cult practice.

The Erzä and Mokša had a guardian spirit called Mastorava, an earth mother who was thought to grant good harvests and good health upon the tillers of the fields. Each tilled field was thought to have its own particular spirits. The guardian spirits of forests, water, and fire were often conceived of as female supernatural beings, as evidenced by their feminine names. Among the Mordvins, there were such spirits as Vir-ava ("forest mother"), Vedmastor-ava ("water mother"), and Tol-ava ("fire mother"). The first person buried in a graveyard was considered to be the guardian spirit of that particular cemetery. The important economy of the beehives was also guarded by a guardian spirit, P'erna-azor-ava, the hostess or keeper of the bees. She was given the first taste of the annual harvest of honey.

The guardian spirits of the cultural realm watched over their own buildings and controlled behavior there. The dwelling place as a whole, that is, the courtyard, the house, and its adjoining buildings, were later called jurt (yurt), a word borrowed from the Tatar language. The spirit of this area was called Jurt-ava ("mother of the dwelling place"). This concept, particularly among the Erzä, replaced such former Finno-Ugrian concepts as Kudon'-tšin ("house god") or the Mokša Kud-ava ("house mother"). The word kud is similar to the Finnish koti or Saami kota, meaning "home."

Christianity, accepted by the Mari and Mordvins in its Russian Orthodox form, replaced the guardian spirits of the former autochthonous religion with the names of the saints and patrons of the Orthodox church. The functions of the spirits were easily mixed with the attributes and patronages of the Christian saints. The cult was transferred from the keremet (sacred groves) and so on to the cemeteries and neighborhood of the church. Some syncretic religious movements also appeared as a result of the encounter between the old and new religions, as, for example, the Kugu Sorta ("big candle") movement among the Mari at the end of the nineteenth century, combining monastic asceticism with pre-Christian blood sacrifices in the old sacred groves and the worship of pre-Christian deities.

See Also

Finnish Religions; Finno-Ugric Religions, overview article.


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Mari and Mordvin Religion

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