Pagan prayers and sacrifices in the woods of Mari El

Only in the 1990s were such mass rites again officially permitted by the authorities. Today, of course, some Mari are Orthodox Christian, while others have adopted Islam and speak the Tatar language.

Only in the 1990s were such mass rites again officially permitted by the authorities. Today, of course, some Mari are Orthodox Christian, while others have adopted Islam and speak the Tatar language.

Fedor Telkov
Few nations in the world manage to retain their unique culture. Nevertheless, the Mari, a Ural people with Finno-Ugric roots, even being persecuted by the tsarist and Soviet governments, and the powerful influence of Orthodoxy, Islam, and atheism, continued to pray secretly in their sacred groves.

Few nations in the world manage to retain their unique culture. Nevertheless, the Mari (the residents of Mari El Republic, located on the Volga river), a Ural people with Finno-Ugric roots, have preserved and hand down their traditional ways to this day: their way of life, culture, and even religion, which is steeped in paganism.

Despite being persecuted by the tsarist and Soviet governments, and the powerful influence of Orthodoxy, Islam, and atheism, the Mari continued to pray secretly in their sacred groves.

The 16th century saw the start of the migration of some “Meadow Mari” to the north-east due to the process of forced Christianization. This group of “Eastern Mari” settled in the south-west of Sverdlovsk Oblast, the south-east of Perm Oblast, and the north of Bashkiria.

Mari prayers can be divided into three groups: communal, casual, and family. During prayers, the position of the moon is always taken into account. Before conducting the religious rites, participants prepare special bread.

The first and concluding parts of the ceremony are held at the family home of the “initiators” of the prayers. The karts (Mari priests) wear caps made of thick white felt. The whole of Sverdlovsk Oblast is served by just three karts, one of whom is said to be “retired.”

The skill of the kart lies primarily in the breadth and scope of his supplications to the gods. The prayers themselves are delivered in free form, with no special canons to speak of, but must come from the heart.

The supreme god of the native Mari religion is Osh Kugu Yumo (“Great White God”). He is the one to whom the sacrifice is made and through whom the kart supplicates other gods. To this day, the Mari are peasant labourers — hence their crops and livestock depend on the spirits of nature.

The places where Mari perform their rituals are called Sacred Groves or, in some cases, Sacred Mountains, which are protected by the forces of nature. Mari El, the traditional homeland of the Mari people, contains around 500 such places. Their desecration is very severely punished by the gods.

A sacred mountain is divided into several distinctive “tiers,” each of which is the sanctuary of a particular god. By some accounts, sacred groves are so-called anomalous zones, where strange phenomena occur, but for Mari it is also a place where they can charge up on positive energy and relax.

Before climbing a sacred mountain, all believers have to wash themselves in the bath-house (with water from a holy spring) and put on clean clothes. In forested areas on sacred mountains, it is forbidden to cut down living trees, swear, shout, litter, perform bodily functions, or consume alcohol.

Ural Mari sacrifice a white-fleeced ram that is sexually mature, healthy, and with no defects. Some Mari rites are devoted to the dark forces, for which a black-fleeced animal is used.

The karts cut out the animal’s vital organs, string them on a cord, and throw them into a pot full of other food. It is a petition for the good health of a person and his/her family members. Meat and blood sausage are boiled in large pots to be served to the participants and to thank the gods for their mercy.

The priests entreat the gods for prosperity for the Mari people, an abundant harvest, sobriety and abstinence from drugs, and judicious decisions on the part of the authorities. While the priests read their rhymed supplications to the gods, the “guests” of the ritual must kneel (the “hosts” are the ones who give up rams for immolation.)

According to legend, nothing superfluous should be left on the sacred mountain, which means all remains of the sacrificed ram are burnt and sanctified products taken home by the participants. They are obliged to treat friends and loved ones with them.

Only in the 1990s were such mass rites again officially permitted by the authorities. Today, of course, some Mari are Orthodox Christian, while others have adopted Islam and speak the Tatar language.

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