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The Last Heathens of Russia

Oleg Ponomarev attended some Mari ritual ceremonies, witnessed a sacrifice, and discovered what representatives of a pre-Christian belief ask their gods.



We set out at something after six in the morning. An endless field is all around. The horizon is melting into the thick fog. As we turn off the highway, we catch up with a file of slow-moving cars. It is evident that all of them are bound for the same destination – the most important place for every Mari, the sacred grove of Savaran-oto, where the biggest joint prayer of the year will be held today.


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The Mari are part of the Finno-Ugric peoples. They number something over 600,000. Most of them live in the republic of Mari El, in mountain Mari in the Western part of it, and in meadow Mari in the East. Even though Mari closely coexist with other ethnicities — Russians, Tatars, Udmurts — they have managed to preserve their very distinctive culture. Along with the traditional Mari religion there are also other confessions in the republic — the larger ones being Christianity and Islam. Even within one family different generations can belong to different confessions.


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Kart Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Aktuganov.


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Agnya Ilyinichna, his wife.


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/mari15.jpg”, “alt”: “Mari”}


Kart Nikolai Trofimovich.


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Elena Vasilyevna, his wife.


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The Mari faith is based upon the idea of harmony with nature and understanding of the fact that you cannot claim more from it than it is ready to give. For example, their traditions rule out cutting down dead trees, even if they are completely dry and weathered. The village people will wait until the tree falls down of its own accord, lift it up and carry it into the wood where it will decay and go into the earth — to the gods.


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The Mari people have no scriptures of any kind. So all knowledge as to religious feasts and ceremonies as well as behaviour while praying is passed from father to son and from kart to his disciple. One of the feasts is called Shorykyol (the Week of a Sheep’s Leg). It is the week following the first Friday of a new year. The idea of Shorykyol is as follows: when the summer is over days grow shorter, nights longer — the earth needs to have a rest, it is necessary for the people to walk less on it. And starting from the first week of the new year days start growing longer — in that way the earth signals that it is once more full of energy.


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The most important days of the year, though, are the days of praying. Depending on its importance a few dozens up to a few thousand people can be in attendance.

In small hours of a cold morning preparations for praying are in full swing in the Savaran-oto grove. Some people are busy downloading cauldrons from trucks, others are decorating the entrance into the grove. Pillars have been dug into the ground, a broad white band with a Mari ornament is being attached to them. Women with huge shopping bags walk by and geese are looking out of those with genuine curiosity.

In front of the archway all the believers stop for a second, say a short prayer, make a bow and pass though — to the place where they will ask gods for welfare and kill sacrificial animals.


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The grove gets full of people. The next 11-12 hours are going to be very busy. Firewood needs to be cut, water has to be boiled in huge cauldrons where the festive meal will be cooked, the sacrificial animals have to be killed and carved. Karts are in charge of all that — they are the elders who will administer the prayer ceremony.


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The attendees make five groups around the five sacrificial fires — in front of each of them people pray to a different god. One of them is implored for health and a good harvest; another for repentance of the ancestors’ sins; the third one for peace and birth of children; the fourth one or clarity of rivers; the fifth one for health of cattle.

The biggest group is around two fires. In front of one there are people going to pray to the chief god of the Mari people, Tung Osh Kug Yumo. The prayer will be administered by the head kart of the republic of Mari El. In front of the other — to the Mother of God, who is usually implored for “health and prosperity for all people born on planet Earth.”

In front of each fire there are huge tables where every attendee has to deposit some food. Very soon they will be laden with fresh bread, pancakes, flatbreads and kvas. On top of pancake piles Mari put cottage cheese, making pyramid-shaped piles of it as symbols of energy going upwards.

Karts begin administering the ritual after which the animals may be sacrificed. As he is saying the prayer, a kart pours stream water on the head and back of a goose, then recedes slowly. In a couple of minutes the goose stands up very straight and starts flapping its wings — it means the gods are ready to accept the sacrifice. Mari people stand in a long line to the kart’s assistant who will slay the animals. When the animals are carved they are distributed between the different cauldrons (for different gods) and are left to cook.

Sheep skins and offal are burnt at once, the horns a bit later, while a prayer is said. The blood is poured into a separate basin. It will be used to make cutlets that are later served with broth. Whether the food is ready can only be told by the smell — tasting is not allowed until the end of the prayer. The cooking process is a complicated ritual — as they get ready for it, young karts ask the elders for guidance.


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/mari04.jpg”, “alt”: “Mari”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/mari07.jpg”, “alt”: “Mari”}


The most important moment has come. The karts start reciting the prayer. They are “accompanied” by the voice of metal — symbolic knocking of hammer against a knife blade. The grove now resembles a church with the walls replaced by linden and birch. Along their trunks the prayer goes up into the sky. The believers kneel down.


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/mari11.jpg”, “alt”: “Mari”}


Then the meal starts. The Mari make a line to get some broth, mash, pancakes and flatbreads that they take from karts’ hands. Now they make small groups around the grove, sit down on bundles of fur-tree branches and eat.

Then they just need to clean the grove so that nature knows the people have come with good motifs: the poultry feathers are burnt, the grove is cleaned with a rake.


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/mari08.jpg”, “alt”: “Mari”}


At the end the karts make a ritual of closing the grove and are the last to leave it. One is allowed to enter it no sooner than the time of the next praying event.


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/mari10.jpg”, “alt”: “Mari”}

Text and photo: Oleg Ponomarev.

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