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Forest Prayers With Russia's Polytheistic Mari

The Mari people of central Russia speak a distinct language and practice a separate religion from their Christian neighbors. Photographer Sergei Poteryaev and reporter Regina Khisamova attended a traditional prayer ceremony in one of the sacred forest groves of the Mari El Republic.


The Mari visit sacred forest groves on holidays and days of prayer. 
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The Mari visit sacred forest groves on holidays and days of prayer. 

Every five years, Mari from the whole region gather in one village for a fall prayer. In November 2016, the gathering took place in the Shurnoto grove, near the village of Tumyumuchash.
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Every five years, Mari from the whole region gather in one village for a fall prayer. In November 2016, the gathering took place in the Shurnoto grove, near the village of Tumyumuchash.

There are thought to be about 400 sacred groves where the Mari people worship. This one is marked by a sign pointing the way to the grove, or Kusoto. 
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There are thought to be about 400 sacred groves where the Mari people worship. This one is marked by a sign pointing the way to the grove, or Kusoto. 

Believers set out gifts for the gods: bread, pancakes, poultry, grain, and money. Some of the food is kept as an offering, and the rest is eaten by the worshipers. 
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Believers set out gifts for the gods: bread, pancakes, poultry, grain, and money. Some of the food is kept as an offering, and the rest is eaten by the worshipers. 

Five bonfires are dedicated to specific gods and set in fire pits by sacred trees.
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Five bonfires are dedicated to specific gods and set in fire pits by sacred trees.

Food is prepared in cauldrons over the bonfires. Cooks carve up ducks and geese, throw their bones in the fire, and add the meat to the cauldrons. 
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Food is prepared in cauldrons over the bonfires. Cooks carve up ducks and geese, throw their bones in the fire, and add the meat to the cauldrons. 

Tum Jumo is the primary god in the Mari religion. He is depicted as a white-bearded old man.
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Tum Jumo is the primary god in the Mari religion. He is depicted as a white-bearded old man.

The Mari priests, known as Karts, wear white hats as they oversee the rituals. 
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The Mari priests, known as Karts, wear white hats as they oversee the rituals. 

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Large cauldrons are suspended over the fire pits.
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Large cauldrons are suspended over the fire pits.

Most of the Mari who come to pray are middle-aged or older. Some members of the community say that young people are not interested in practicing their traditions. 
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Most of the Mari who come to pray are middle-aged or older. Some members of the community say that young people are not interested in practicing their traditions. 

Cooks prepare dumplings from the blood of sacrificed animals mixed with grain. 
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Cooks prepare dumplings from the blood of sacrificed animals mixed with grain. 

Women carve the meat and cook the dumplings while men tend the fires. It's forbidden to chop down the trees in the sacred grove, so firewood is brought from elsewhere.
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Women carve the meat and cook the dumplings while men tend the fires. It's forbidden to chop down the trees in the sacred grove, so firewood is brought from elsewhere.

After preparing the food, Mari pray to the gods, moving from one fire to another to speak to different deities. 
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After preparing the food, Mari pray to the gods, moving from one fire to another to speak to different deities. 

Trees are believed to connect the world of people with the cosmos, and to host the gods while the Mari pray. 
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Trees are believed to connect the world of people with the cosmos, and to host the gods while the Mari pray. 

Offerings of food and coins
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Offerings of food and coins

Karts, the Mari priests, lead the prayers.
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Karts, the Mari priests, lead the prayers.

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People pray by the bonfire of the primary god, Tum Jumo.  
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People pray by the bonfire of the primary god, Tum Jumo.  

After about an hour of prayers, the feast begins.
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After about an hour of prayers, the feast begins.

Mari walk around the grove and eat the dishes prepared in the cauldrons. 
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Mari walk around the grove and eat the dishes prepared in the cauldrons. 

Only those people who speak the Mari language are allowed to participate in the prayers. The language, part of the Finno-Ugric group, is spoken by some 400,000 people in the Mari El Republic.  
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Only those people who speak the Mari language are allowed to participate in the prayers. The language, part of the Finno-Ugric group, is spoken by some 400,000 people in the Mari El Republic.

 

After the prayer and the feast, the Mari return to their villages. The next large prayer gathering will take place in the summer.
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After the prayer and the feast, the Mari return to their villages. The next large prayer gathering will take place in the summer.

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