Friday, February 4, 2011

Erzya costume from the Shentala District of the Kuybyshev Region

Hello All,
Today i will continue the series of Costumes of the Volga Peoples. In 1103, Muscovite chronicles recorded that one of their princes, attempting to expand Moscow's territory east to the mid-Volga was defeated by a people he referred to as 'Mordovtsi'. This term has since been used in the west to refer to this people, found to the south of the Volga, south of the Mari and the Udmurt peoples, over quite a wide area. This is translated into English as 'Mordvin', 'Mordovian', 'Mordvinian', etc. They were eventually brought into the Muscovite Empire in 1552. These people inhabit approximately the red areas on our map. The clump in the northwest of their distribution is more or less coterminous with the Mordvin Autonomous Republic in the Russian Federation, This holds about 30 percent of the Mordvin population. The capitol is Saransk and this is their flag.

Now the word mordovanets in Russian means murderer, which i believe was applied to them because of the battle in question, i assume, as apparantly it was ok for Muscovites to kill others, but not for others to kill Muscovites. When the Soviets decided to start using self-designations for indigenous peoples, they had a problem with the Mordvins, because they didn't have one. The people in the east of their territory called themselves the Erzya, and the ones further west called themselves the Moksha. Their dialects are mutually unintelligible, and they do not consider themselves to be the same nation, foreign scientists to the contrary. So in official documents they continue to be called the Mordovians, although i have seen in indigenous printed material the term Moksh-Erzya.
Today we will be looking at one version of the Erzya costume from the Shentala District of the Kuibyshev region. Again you can see that the base of the costume is the embroidered linen chemise, which in Erzya is called pokay. This version of the costume includes an apron, although some do not. There are the obligatory sash, ornaments which depend from the sash and the neck and a headpiece for married women, which come in a great variety of shapes. This particular one is called the soroka. There is also what might be called a back apron which is called a pulokarks.The concept of a front and back apron is quite common in east European costumes, found among the Serbs, Hutsuls, Transylvanians, Vlachs, and other peoples, but the Erzya pulokarks is unique. Here is a display from a Museum in Helsinki showing the back view of this type of costume

This was originally part of the dress of a married woman, but later was worn by unmarried girls as well. The upper part was embroidered by the woman herself, but the lower portion was made by specialists, and included tassels, fringe, chains, cowries, coins and beads. It was said of Erzya women that you heard them coming long before you saw them. All this, of course, provided the pulokarks with a great deal of movement whenever she walked, which i suspect was the point. Here is a closeup of one

and another one, with the embroidery on the top tier more visible.

The headdresses come in many varied shapes, you may notice that the back view shows one with a somewhat different shape than  the first picture. Here is a closeup of the front and back of the soroka. You can see that the embroidery is similar to the pulokarks, and the part which hangs in the back is similarly provided with coins, chains, tassels, beads and cowries. In this case the cross stitch embroidery of red and black in cross and diamond shapes is covered with metal sequins sewn on top.

Here is the back view. You notice that the bands with gold galloon are made very stiff, so as to spread out the noisemakers.

The embroidery on the apron and the chemise are of the same style. Here is a closeup of the apron.
Notice it is also equipped with tassels and beads.

This type of embroidery is made up of outline stitch done in a very heavy wool, so that the design is lost, and the effect is basically one of texture. Here is a closeup of some Erzya chemise embroidery

You can see darning stitch on the bottom hem, in the center the typical Volga Finnic outline stitch filled in with slant stitch, in this case with each alternate row of slant stitch going in opposite directions, and what is sometimes called 'star stitch', basically outline stitch forming units of textured design which are distributed to make a larger composition.
an old Russian book graphs a couple such designs like this:

Notice that the notation in the margin calls this a Russian Design, which it is not. Russians do not do this kind of embroidery, except in  the same way that they might dabble in other embroideries not of their own tradition. If you do research into folk art, you have to be aware of this. I once saw a beautiful Croatian Posavina costume on display as Austrian, because the woman who collected it was traveling in the Austrian Empire pre WWI, which of course, included a huge part of central and southern Europe, and the curators had no idea. It is important to know where the various empire borders were when a particular book was published.
Here is another example of Erzya embroidery in which you can see the individual design motifs.

The Mens costume, consists, as it does throughout the Volga area, and indeed much of eastern Europe, of an embroidered shirt, sash, linen or woolen pants, and boots, or foot cloths worn with woven birchbark shoes. The type of embroidery and placement of the front opening are the distinguishing characteristics.
In general mens costume is much less varied than womens.

Here is a photograph of an Erzya musical group, showing the mens costume.

The name of the group is Toorama, and some of their perfomences are viewable online.
[the oo is not pronounced oo like in food, but as a long O as in OOOOH No]
This link will take you to see one of their songs, here a very lively one
And here a more gentle one.
Both highlight the incredible polyphony native to the Erzya people,
I hear echos of this type of harmony in some Russian folk music.
I invite you to view them and enjoy.
You might take the concept of larger compositions made of small beautiful intricate motifs and
do something of your own with it.
And as always, i invite your feedback, comments, and any ideas for research or blogging that you might wish to send my way.
Thank  you

 Feel free to contact me with requests for research. I hope to eventually cover all of Europe and the Former Russian Empire/Soviet Union. I also gratefully accept tips on source materials which i may not have. I also accept commissions to research/design, sew, and/or embroider costumes or other items for groups or individuals. I also choreograph and teach folk dance.

Roman K.

Roman K

Source Material:
Ildiko Lehtinen, The Finno-Ugric Collections at the National Museum of Finland. Helsinki?
U. Yushkin et al. 'Mordovia Narodnoe Iskusstvo' [Mordovia, Fok Art] Saransk, 1985
T. Razina et al. 'Folk Art in the Soviet Union' Leningrad, 1990
V. Nikolaev, 'Chuvash Tume' [Chuvash Costume] Cheboksary, 2002
L. Molotova. 'Narodnoe Iskusstvo Rossijskoj Federatsii' [Folk Art of the Russian Federation] Leningrad, 1981


  1. ...E(r)zya=Eztli(Nauatl)ya(Nauatl)=already/-ya
    blood-line/ancestry,=hezle(Basque)=teacher, domesticator.

    1. Hello Carlos,
      are you implying a linguistic connection between Aztec [Nahuatl], Basque, and the Volga Finnic languages?

  2. > Now the word mordovanets in Russian means murderer

    Mordovanets seems to have no connection with the Mordvins, coming from the verb "mordovat'" (=to beat) instead.

  3. I believe it was the other way around. The word Mordovanets did not come from 'Mordvin',
    The Russians used the term to name the Mordvins, 'Mordovtsi'
    The Mordvins themselves do not use the term, It was applied to them by the Russians. The so-called Mordvins call themselves either 'Erzja' or 'Moksha'.
    In much the same manner, the Nenets were called by the Russians 'Samoyed', that is, 'cannibal'.
    The Russians are to be commended on abandoning the old terms for most of their indigenous peoples, as many of them were pejorative. The United States has yet to catch up, as many of the terms commonly applied to Native American Nations are pejorative, and not self-designations.

  4. Being Russian myself (and 1/4 Mokshan) I think I should correct you: the word "mordovanets" doesn't mean "murderer" in Russian. In fact, there is no such word in the Russian literary language.
    There is family name "Mordovanets" though but I believe it comes from the Russian word "morda" - which means "muzzle" or "snout" and can also be used as rude name for human face. In fact, verb "mordovat'" mentioned by engisdottir originally meant "beat someone's face".

    The word "mordva" most probably comes either 1) from Erzyan word "mirde" which means "man"; or 2) from ethnonym "Mordens" in Jordanes' "Getica".

    Also, Erzyan and Mokshan are not dialects, these are full-fledged languages with different lexicon, phonetics and grammar (compare "mother, father" in Erzyan - "avai, tetyai" and in Mokshan - "tyadyaze, alyaze"). There is no "mordvinian" language.

    Anyway, thank you for the article! It was very interesting to read. I hope you'll write someday about Mokshan costume and embroidery too!

  5. Is there any information about the cowrie shells used in Erzyan, Mokshan and Mari culture? I am very curious about it.

    1. I'm sorry, I don't have any specific information, but cowries were and are used as ornaments in many many places, and were traded far and wide. They are certainly not native to any place close to the Volga.