Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The People of Mari-El - Europe's Last Pagans

I like to have a little bit of everything on my blog, and I especially enjoy learning about different cultures and their indigenous beliefs. I had never before heard of the Mari El and find their history fascinating. I'm sure you'll agree and I hope you'll enjoy this fascinating guest post from Ty Hulse.

On a hot Summers day, in a sacred grove of trees, a small crowd of people gather around a cluster of spruce trees. A few men stand among them saying prayers to their ancient deities just as they have for thousands of years. The Mari have no churches. Instead they worship in the ancient groves, like the ancient Germans spoken of by Tacitus, and the earliest Romans, Greeks, and some of their fellow Russian people. For it is in the wilderness, the forests that they believe the gods and spirits live in, so it is wrong to try to contain them in a building.

Often called Europe's last Pagans many of the Mari people never actually converted to Christianity or the Muslim faith. Even during the Soviet Era when the religion was outlawed the people of this Russian province would sneak out into their sacred groves to pray. So it was that the Mari Traditional Religion (MTR) became the only indigenous faith to survive in Europe. Although to some extent many of them still have images of saints in their homes, are baptized and they may cross themselves during ceremonies. There is a varying amount of Christian and Islamic faith that has worked its way into their religion. If one read about how their religion was structured a hundred and one looks at it now it will become apparent that they pay more attention to a supreme deity than they used to. At one time it was much more common for them to believe that the world of gods was a hieracrchy and just as a person in a country would be more likely to talk to their local representative than the president the people of Mari-el used to spend more time worshiping the local deities than the distant ones.

Historically it was common place for the Mari to worship the Keremet a form of regional and or ancestor spirit which reflected their veneration for the animals, rivers, rocks, mountains and trees. At the same time they also feared these entities. Thus sacrifices were made to the Keremet to appease the spirits and avoid their mischief. This internal dualism was common place in the "fairy faiths" of Russia and indeed throughout Europe and Asia. The Maris believed in the existence of an underworld with bright and dark places with those were good and honored going to the bright places. Yet they believed that ancestor spirits could still interfere with and influence the world of the living for good and bad. It was important to them to worship their own ancestor spirits because of this, with the eldest men acting as a form of deputy for the ancestor spirits in the world of the living. This in turn gave the elderly men a place of honor within the Mari society. They also believed in animal reincarnation / resurrection and when they would sacrifice an animal they would burn its heart, lungs, liver, tongue, cartilage, and so forth in a sacred fire. This act was important for they believed that the fire was the intermediary between men and the deities and would therefore carry the soul of the animal which was contained in these parts to the deities so that the animal could be brought back to life. After the animal had been sacrificed its skin would be hung in the sacred trees to help expedite this process. again as with many of their rituals we see this same thing occurring from Asia to Ireland. In England for example Christian priests complained that people would still hang animal head and skins from sacred trees long after they had supposedly converted to Christianity. In a large part this is what makes the Mari so interesting, because there are at least some connections between their beliefs and those of the other "fairy faiths" in Europe which have lost much of their knowledge. I use the term "fairy faith" because the word fairy means "those which control the fate of humans." Thus in its original meaning fairy was analogous to deity, only its role was slightly different. In this sense the Mari belief, especially that of a hundred years ago, involved creatures which the Celts would recognize as fairy like and others which they would recognize as being like deities.

Deities and spirits, or fairies dwell within the forests and some 500 registered sacred groves in Mari-el Russia. These sacred groves traditionally had three entrances, one for the animals on the eastern side, another for carrying spring water (which was used to purify animals, people and more) on the southern side of the grove, and the last on the western side for people to enter. When a community enters a sacred grove to pray the priests choose the trees (which are most often oak, birch, or linden) through which the prayers of the people would enter heaven. Similar to how the Greeks, Romans and Germanic people believed Zeus, Jupiter, and Thor respectively could be reached through sacred oaks. In addition to their worship of a primary deity who has multiple natures, spirits, and ancestors the Mari believe that there is an all encompassing life force which gives living things strength, power and energy that all things depend on. This inner power unites everything and is very similar in conception to Tao in Chinese folk religion, Pneum among the ancient Greeks, Vagi among the Finnish peoples, or Brahma among the Hindus.

I have translated many of the fairy tales of the Mari people into English for the first time and am compiling aspects of their religion and beliefs on the web at http://zeluna.net/mari-el and am doing the same with Russian fairy tales at http://zeluna.net/russian-fairy-tale.html

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