More than 50 worshippers gathered in a sacred grove on a hot June afternoon outside the village of Marisola. The crowd, mostly women dressed in national costumes and colorful headscarves, stood on a glade opposite a spruce where men were busy conducting prayers.
The congregation kneeled while the men under the spruce, dressed in suits, white felt hats and linen towels cast over their shoulders, said prayers in a low, monotone murmur.
They prayed to Osh Kughu Yumo — Mari for “Great White God” — who was being revered that day as Agavairem, which means both deity of creative energy and the feast marking the end of spring labor.
The women lined up in the grass in front of piles of thick homemade pancakes, white cheese, dumplings and brown kvas, the fermented rye drink. Pots and kitchenware were adorned with burning candles, as was a makeshift table in front of the spruce.
The extraordinary ceremony testified to the little-known fact that an animist faith has survived centuries of Christian and Muslim hegemony in this obscure region 800 kilometers east of Moscow.
The Mari, a Finnic people of roughly half a million whose language sounds a bit like a strange mixture of Finnish and Turkish, are said to be Europe’s last pagans. Yet their priests, called kart in Mari, reject that notion.