Maris - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. Indicative of the Maris' superficial adoption of Russian Orthodox Christianity is the persistence of elements of older beliefs: more than one-half of present-day Mari believers either link together—in varying combinations—traditional customs and Christianity or adhere exclusively to the traditional Mari faith. Typically, Maris practicing syncretism put the matter as follows: "We pray to two Gods: the one of the church and the one of the forest." The presence of non-Christian elements increases from west to east: almost nonexistent among the Hill Maris, these elements are strongest among the Eastern Maris. The Meadow-Eastern group has also experienced Islamic influences. Certainly, religion has lost most of its previous strength over the course of the twentieth century. Compared with the local Russians, however, the Maris have, to a somewhat greater degree, kept their religious habits. One reason for this may be that religious rituals provide them with a channel for maintaining their identity. The similarities one can find in religious procedures—even in the minute details—all over the geographically scattered Mari habitats bear witness to an ancient and highly developed religious culture. The traditional shamanist-animist religion of the Maris included a host of divinities, ancestor spirits, and supernatural beings personified in celestial bodies, clouds, rivers, earth, trees, and forests. The supreme god, Jumo, represented all heavens and weather together. The core of the site of sacrificial ceremonies and prayer meetings was a fenced section of untouched grove; there were separate sacred groves depending on whether they were for the prayer of the whole community, the clan, or the kin group. All domestic animals except pigs and hens were suitable for sacrifice. The participants in the ceremony—sometimes thousands of people—were dressed in white.

An ethnoconfessional movement, Kuga Sorta (Big Candle) gained a large circle of supporters in the second half of the nineteenth century. Attempting to reconstruct the traditional religion to meet the challenges of the new times, the sect acknowledged aspects of both the traditional Mari faith and Christianity. Ascetic rules were followed in regard to clothing and drinking; further, the members of the sect renounced some ancient divinities of lower rank, various genies and gnomes, for instance.

Arts. Characteristic of the rich Mari folklore is the muro, a lyric song often built on repetition, parallels, contrasts, and comparisons, and combining happiness and sorrow. The rhythm of the verse and the pentatonic melody of the songs point to a Turkic influence.

Typical of the traditional texts of the songs is that the focal image is often taken from human life, whereas the supplementary images represent phenomena in nature or objects in the domestic sphere. Frequently, the lyrics of the songs can be understood properly only in the context of the accompanying music, and particularly its rhythm, since many seemingly meaningless nonmorpheme sound sequences are added to the text to make it correspond to the music in length. A stringed instrument widespread among the Maris is the gusli ( kusle ) , a zitherlike stringed instrument held on the knees and played with both hands. It was used to create atmosphere during sacrificial ceremonies and later as an accompaniment to dancing. The reed pipe, the bagpipe, the birch-bark horn, and the drum are other important Mari musical instruments.

Medicine. Trachoma, goiter, and tuberculosis—the main sicknesses from which the Maris suffered in the past—have been brought under control through advances in medicine. In folk medicine, drugs were based on herbs, tar, honey, formic acid, the fat of wild animals, and so on. In case of serious illness, people sought advice through sorcery, and the sauna was considered a remedy for many evils.

Death and Afterlife. The invisible part of a human being was called ort. Even when the person was alive, the ort would at times move about—leave the body for a while—but at death its departure was irreversible. The ört would linger somewhere near the dead body, however; it might also become embodied in the form of a butterfly. At the funeral, it was the custom to put into the coffin some food, money, tobacco, and other necesseties for the life beyond the grave. In addition to the funeral prayers, prayers were said for the deceased on the third, seventh, and fortieth days after death. The repast on the fortieth day was very ceremonious, and it was dedicated to other dead relatives as well. As a symbol of the participation of the late kin at the occasion, one close friend played the part of the deceased by dressing in his clothes. It was also traditional for a portion of food to be put on the table for the deceased each morning during the first forty days.

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