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‘Europe’s 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 Europe’s 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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