Mari El is an autonomous republic of Russia located approximately seven hundred kilometers from Moscow. The ethnic Mari, formerly known as the Chermiss, who speak a Finno-Ugrian language, represent 43.3 percent of the republic’s population. Beyond Mari El, the Mari peoples are found also in Bashkortostan, Tatarstan and Udmurtia as well as in the areas of Nijny Novgorod, Kirov and Sverdlovsk.
Upon the rediscovery of its indigenous pagan traditions at the end of the 1980s, the Mari El Republic underwent a nationalist reawakening. By granting legal status to longstanding religious traditions, the 1997 Russian law concerning freedom of religion promoted Mari Paganism as well. Nevertheless, the Mari have encountered difficulties.
Despite some Soviet efforts, the Mari pagan tradition had never been suppressed, but at the same time it had also never been officially registered (largely because the Mari do not use houses of worship), and this has made it difficult for the tradition to gain recognition despite the 1997 law.
Mari spirituality is intimately connected to a respect for the natural order. The conception of nature has always been one of alliance rather than domination. Each aspect of the natural world is considered a base for perpetual regeneration. An ecological tradition has emerged for the Mari out of their reverence of nature. Their relationship with the natural manifests in all facets of life. For instance, since the sacredness of water is emphasized, the Mari will not wash their clothing in the rivers. Springs and groves are highly important and constitute places where above all one must behave with dignity. Seasonal considerations play a central role in how the people organize their lives. Though less dependent on hunting today, in former times it was believed that the pursuit of game at inauspicious moments would increase the likelihood that the hunter might be killed by an offended forest spirit. Protective traveling songs insured the vitality and benefit of both the rider and his horse. Overall, animals and humans were considered as equals, and weather was forecast through the appearance of animals. In ritual, animals would have been sacrificed – a practice that appears still to be current.
While the Mari relationship with animals has changed in many respects from what it once was, reverence of vegetation remains much the same as in former times. For the Mari, plant life may be understood as the most direct form of divine incarnation. This is especially true of trees, and tree-worship focuses in particular on the birch, lime and oak – associated, respectively, with women, maidens and men. Understood as divinities, offerings are made directly to trees. They are reputed to be able to heal disease, influence weather and augment the harvest. Tree worship may also be hierarchical: some trees become commemorative foci to which offerings are made; others are considered to be ancestors. These last, though presents are rarely offered, are appealed to in difficult times. It is forbidden to cut them down. Mari worship is centered on the grove where strict rules apply concerning swearing, spitting and harming trees physically. During festivals, the people don new clothes to come to the grove. Such loci religiosi are approached as areas for healing, consolation, comfort, renewal and the solving of domestic problems.
Today, Mari Paganism recognizes approximately three hundred sacred groves. In a country of 23,000 square kilometers and a population of about 700,000, there are around one hundred priests.
Today, the principal opposition to indigenous Mari spirituality comes from the Russian Orthodox Church, which holds Paganism to be dangerous. The Orthodox repression has been mitigated to some extent by the 1997 law that guarantees respect for all religions. Although many Mari are Orthodox, the government supports Paganism and recognizes it as an official religion alongside both Orthodoxy and Islam. While Orthodoxy is understood as part of the hegemonic Russian pervasiveness, Paganism is seen as a cultural factor that supports autonomy against the Russian government. Nevertheless, Mari El nationalism is not activist, but adopts a more passive approach for change to occur naturally and harmoniously. Within the Pagan community itself, however, rivalry between various leaders has caused a degree of friction and difficulty. Despite the “double-faith” situation and predominance of Orthodoxy in Russia, many Christian and Pagan rituals have become associated. By not constructing its edifices directly on the old places of worship but simply near to them, the Church has not engendered the same animosity it has elsewhere in Europe.
Consequently, regardless of the difficulties encountered with official registration, there is more tolerance for Paganism in the former USSR republics than in other European states. In Western Europe, with the exception of Iceland and Norway, Paganism is generally ignored and cannot hope at the moment to obtain official recognition.