Paganism is alive and well here in the Mari El Republic. Every year, beginning in October, all across the republic’s boundless expanses, vehicles thread their way to the sacred groves that serve as the Mari people’s temples for their annual ritual. No village is without a grove, and they all have a priest, a kart in the language of the Mari. Preservers of time-honored traditions and held in the highest regard by their fellow villagers, these priests preside over the autumn observances, reciting the ancient prayers and tending to the smoking bonfires to which believers stream to sacrifice geese, rams, or bullocks to their gods.
I’m learning what I need to know from Grigory Serafimovich Ivanov, a local kart. No animal, he tells me, can be slaughtered until the gods give the sign that they are prepared to accept the sacrifice. The kart pours water over a goose, dousing its neck and back, and if the goose stretches to its full height and spreads its wings, that means the gods are ready. The ceremonies usually last from early morning until five or six in the evening (often with an audience of mesmerized children perched on logs).
Grigory then switches the conversation to his family, his home village of Sardayal, and the school of which he is a proud alumnus. Hearing that all this is news to me, he invites me to spend the night with him, so he can take me there the next day. Sardayal sits at the very edge of the republic, he tells me, has been pagan from time immemorial, and has a school that’s over 120 years old.
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