Russian Pagans


The Latin word from which we derive "pagan" means something like 'of the countryside' or 'rural.' There are a few left:

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.
This is not one of the "neopagan" faiths that have cropped up since the 19th century. Those were inspired by the Romantic movement in literature and music, which sought to infuse meaning into life through soaring emotion. This one is simply an old way, that has survived in a very rural region.

The Christian priests in the area have tried to sort out their own thoughts on the relationship between the faiths. The Russian Orthodox priest says he lets them come to church, and even be baptized, but believes they are lost souls who cannot be saved. The Lutheran they interviewed said that the problem wasn't that they weren't Christian, but that they weren't Russian: "Many Mari do not want to go the Orthodox church because it is perceived as quintessentially Russian. We, however, can offer worship in their own language."

Yet it is the poet they interviewed who spoke best, as poets will.
"You should not put too much significance in this," Dudina explained. "Our people have lived with the Russian church for generations, but our faith is older."

Christianity, she said, had not entered Mari rites, but rather the rites had entered Christianity. "There are so many pagan traditions in Christianity. Look at the Christmas tree," she said.
I remember another poet who felt that way:
He kept the Roman order,
He made the Christian sign;
But his eyes grew often blind and bright,
And the sea that rose in the rocks at night
Rose to his head like wine.

He made the sign of the cross of God,
He knew the Roman prayer,
But he had unreason in his heart
Because of the gods that were.

Even they that walked on the high cliffs,
High as the clouds were then,
Gods of unbearable beauty,
That broke the hearts of men.

And whether in seat or saddle,
Whether with frown or smile,
Whether at feast or fight was he,
He heard the noise of a nameless sea
On an undiscovered isle.

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