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Europe's Oldest Religion
Article ID: 15097
Age Group: Adult
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Deep in the heart of euro Russia, in the Idel Ural region, live the Mari, formerly known as the Chermis. This Finno Ugric people (who dwell in their own autonomous republic Mari El as well as in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan and some Russian ethnic regions) have maintained an ancient Animist faith through years of Mongol, Tatar, czarist and communist repression. Chi Mari Yula is today one of three state religions in Mari El (Christianity and Islam being the others) . According to the high Kart (priest) Alex Tanygin, who attends official events, this is the oldest religion in Europe, going back 7000 years.
Before czarist oppression in 1887, Mari would gather to hold national prayer meetings. These were held yearly to honour a great Mari prince. These were stopped when the Russians destroyed the holy mountain of Nemda, which had been a national holy place for hundreds of years. After 1887, Mari maintained communal and family prayer meetings in several sacred groves. In communist times, the religion was also repressed, except in the Second World War when the soviet state found the Karts useful in the war effort.
With the end of communism, Animism has taken off in Mari El and in those more traditional Mari communities in Bashkordistan. There are over 360 holy groves in Mari El and about 120 Karts. Mari have some 20 festivals annually, which remain closely bound to the rural life that most Mari still live in their forest republic on the Volga River.
While some ritual slaughter of animals as sacrifice is still involved to some degree, Mari are slowly moving away from this form of worship, although a minority of Karts still maintain these rites. Mari believe that Osh Kughu Yumo, the Great White God, has a number of substances ranging from the life giving Yumo, birth Goddess Shochinava, Goddess of fertility Saksa, Goddess of fate Purysho the god of death Azyren and a large number of nature spirits like that of fog -Tutyra and the household spirit Surt.
In 1957, Mari in the village of Kupron sola managed to arrange a large prayer meeting and sacrifice, which was to be the last until the 1980s. Of some of those things that make up Chi Mari Yula, the cult of the dead play a large part as do ancient marriage ceremonies and a mythological spirit world.
During the spring plowing festival, an old man representing God sits high in a tree answering questions on health, the harvest and the weather. Graveyards are deep in the forest as are most holy groves. The lud is the clan and village prayer site and is mostly a wooden table under a birch close to the village. A Kuala- the clan sanctuary - is a log cabin in the woods outside the village but these are less common today.
A holy place will also be maintained inside the house. Here a basket made from elm bark is hung out of sight and reach in the roof and lead coins and small flat cakes are left for Surt. Another form of worship is the hammering of holy objects into the trunks of trees and the hanging of them from branches. The essence of the tree is then given the form of a holy pillar or shelf and is taken into the village.
It is believed that most Mari are Animist. Juhu Vkliaho, a Finnish Lutheran missionary who worked in Mari El, says, "In their hearts Mari are all Pagan." Those who have never been baptized are known as Chi Mari, while those who attend both church and Holy grove are known as Rushvera.
Next door to the Mari live the Urdmurt people who are also Finno Ugrics. They live in their own autonomous republic called Urdmurtia. They too have maintained the old religion, which is called Vattisen Yaly -the tradition of the old. History records two main anti Christian Urdmurt movements: the Vylepyrisi, who demanded no contact with the Russian invaders and the 1849 Lime Tree Sect, which arose to oppose not only the Russian Orthodox but also Tatar Islamists.
In 1892, Urdmurts from the village of Multan were charged with making human sacrifices to Pagan Gods. They were all found not guilty in what became known as the Multan Affair. Like the Mari, the most traditional Urdmurt villages are in Islamic Bashkortostan.
During the Russian Revolution, the region of Idel Ural tried to form an independent state. From the Nanet and Komi territories on the Arctic to the Buddhist Kalmyks on the Caspian (and taking in the Islamic Tatars and Bashkars, the Animist Mari, Urdmurt and Mansi along with the Christian Chuvash, Mordovians and the now dispersed Volga Germans) , this attempted state is still recognized by the U.S. Congress as a captive nation.
Like in Vodou, many in the Volga region practice some form of syncretic faith. This is strong among the Mordovians and Chuvash but also among Islamic Tatars and Bashkir who look to the pre Islamic Turkish culture and a form of Islamized Animism call Tengreism. Of all the Volga peoples, it is the largely Christian Chuvash who have maintained the carving of forest idols known as Keremets. These represent forest spirits. The Chuvash are also known for traditional Pagan forest graveyards.
Chuvash Neo Paganism also draws on traditions maintained in Chuvash villages in Bashkortostan that were only superficially Christianized. So while neo-paganism is going stronger every day in Chuvashia, Mordvinia and the Tatar and Bashkir republics, in Mari El and Urdmurtia, it remains an ongoing tradition to which the term ‘neo’ has no meaning and while it is true also that some Mordvinia in Bashkortostan remained pagan, the vast majority of Mordvinia became Christian unlike the bulk of Mari and Urdmurt who remained unbaptized .
Paganism in the Idel Ural is also a way of maintaining ethnic nationalism and, as such, has lately come under some pressure from Russian nationalists in government. As Mari only make up 45% of the Mari El population (Russians and Tatars being the rest) , these people have been trying to make stir up tensions between Mari and Russians. A leading Kart was recently charged with and convicted of debasing orthodox religion simply for saying it was a ‘false’ religion. The flip side of this law is that, as Chi Mari Yula is an official religion, Christians and others are also unable to debase Animism.
The Mari believe that there is a great richness in their ancient belief that allows direct communion with the cosmos or God .So here's to Europe’s only Animist faith, Chi Mari Yula!
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