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Europes Last Pagans Worship in Marii-El Republic Grove

Published: July 7, 2009 (Issue # 1489)



  • Worshippers in a sacred grove near the village of Marisola in the Marii-El republic.
    Photo: Nikolaus Von Twickel / The St. Petersburg Times

  • Gusyev (l) and Vasilyev at the ceremony.
    Photo: Nikolaus Von Twickel / The St. Petersburg Times

MARISOLA, Marii-El Republic More than 50 worshippers gathered in a sacred grove on a hot June afternoon outside the village of Marisola. The crowd, mostly women dressed in national costumes and colorful headscarves, stood on a glade opposite a spruce where men were busy conducting prayers.

The congregation kneeled while the men under the spruce, dressed in suits, white felt hats and linen towels cast over their shoulders, said prayers in a low, monotone murmur.

They prayed to Osh Kughu Yumo Mari for Great White God who was being revered that day as Agavairem, which means both deity of creative energy and the feast marking the end of spring labor.

The women lined up in the grass in front of piles of thick homemade pancakes, white cheese, dumplings and brown kvas, the fermented rye drink. Pots and kitchenware were adorned with burning candles, as was a makeshift table in front of the spruce.

The extraordinary ceremony testified to the little-known fact that an animist faith has survived centuries of Christian and Muslim hegemony in this obscure region 800 kilometers east of Moscow.

The Mari, a Finnic people of roughly half a million whose language sounds a bit like a strange mixture of Finnish and Turkish, are said to be Europes last pagans. Yet their priests, called kart in Mari, reject that notion.

We are not pagans. We call our faith the Mari Traditional Religion, and we are registered officially in the republic, said Vyacheslav Mamayev, who oversaw the ceremony as the chief kart of the local Sernur district.

He went on to explain that for the Mari, God has nine substances, or hypostases, ranging from the life-giving Ilyan Yumo to the birth goddess Shochinava.

Asked about the theological foundation of his faith, Mamayev smiled and said, Everything works through nature.

Indeed, like most animist religions, the Mari faith traditionally knows no written scriptures and no sacred edifices. Prayers are chiefly held in sacred groves, where some feasts include the ritual slaughter of animals as sacrifice.

Nature is our temple, said Zoya Dudina as she walked with worshippers on a winding path through high grass after the ceremony in the grove had ended.

Dudina, a poet and intellectual from the republican capital, Ioshkar-Ola, expressed pride that her people had regained the possibility to practice their traditional faith.

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ALL ABOUT TOWN

Friday, Dec. 26


Celebrate Boxing Day by playing various tabletop games during the British Book Centers Board Game Evening tonight at 5 p.m. Spread the Christmas cheer and goodwill by making other people regret their decision to come and try to match their intellectual prowess against yours.



Saturday, Dec. 27


Indulge cultural and material needs simultaneously during the free classical music concert at the Galeria shopping mall in the heart of the city. Starting at 7 p.m., shoppers and mallwalkers will be able to hear the sounds of Tchaikovsky and Strauss softly lilt over the constant buzz of people bustling from store to store, trying to get their shopping done before New Year.



Sunday, Dec. 28


Prepare for the holidays at the Russian Winter New Years Fair on Moskovskaya Ploshchad, which concludes today after starting on Dec. 22. Games and attractions as well as numerous performances will be on offer for those looking to get into the spirit while numerous vendors will help make sure you have something for everyone on your list.



Monday, Dec. 29


Learn how the Swedes observe Christmas, or Jul, in their land of ice and snow, during aSwedish Christmas celebration at the Lermontov Childrens Library this afternoon at 4 p.m. Activities explaining and demonstrating Swedens cultural traditions will be accompanied by traditional dishes and sweets.



Tuesday, Dec. 30


Today is the final day of the Christmas Market at the Europolis shopping center on Polyustrovsky prospekt. Indulge your holiday sweet tooth by tucking into some gingerbread men, or attend one of the master classes that will teach you about how to make beautiful, festive decorations for your tree using only your hands.



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