Gene Expression

Indigenous European paganism

Found out something interesting today. In the Russian republic of Mari El there exists an indigenous pagan tradition which is not a reconstruction. That is, the pagans of Mari El trace their practice in an unbroken line back to their ancestors, as the Christianization during the period of Ivan the Terrible (the 16th century) was only partial. Other European pagans are by necessity neo- and must reconstruct their system of beliefs and rituals from extant records and folk traditions. The Saami were pagan until the 18th century, and with that I had assumed that all pre-Christian traditions had died. This falsifies that, though some might quibble that the European nature of the cult of Mari El is a matter of geographical technicality (that is, Orthodox Russia’s status as a European nation are somewhat ambiguous to begin with). Here is an article about the pagan revival:

Unlike in western Europe, paganism among the Mari constitutes an unbroken tradition rather than a New Age construction. Mari anthropologist Nikandr Popov points out that pagan prayer meetings were permitted by decree during the Second World War – with collections being made for the front – and survived subsequent Soviet attempts to suppress them. Today Mari pagans gather together for approximately 20 festivals annually, at which they offer animal sacrifices in specially designated sacred groves. There are now 360 such groves in the republic and around 120 karts (pagan priests), according to one of the claimants to the title of head kart, Aleksei Yakimov.

We forget that Russia is one of the most ethnically diverse nations in the world. Much of this is simply due to the fact that the settlement of Siberia by Slavs is a relatively recent and half-measured affair, and the indigenous tribes have no been absorbed into the national identity. But even in European Russia to the west of the Urals the Slavic speaking farmers who expanded into the forests of the hunting & fishing peoples to the north and east did not sweep away all before them. In contrast such relics are rare in central and western Europe; one case may be the Sorbs in eastern Germany, who are what remains of the Slavic people who once dominated the lands on the eastern side of the Elbe. Another are the Vlachs of the Balkans, Romance speaking herders who are probably the remains of the peasants of Pannonia & Illyircum who once sent Emperors to Rome (e.g., Diocletian). In this case Russia is more like China or India than the rest of Europe. The dominant cultural dispensation is numerically preponderant and can assert hegemony within the bounds of the geographic extent of the civilization, but numerous residual peoples with distinct identities remain “undigested.”

Comments

  1. #1 J-Dog
    December 24, 2007

    Cool! Can we recruit them for the War On Christmas?

  2. #2 Lassi Hippeläinen
    December 24, 2007

    Paganism hasn’t disappeared even in Rome. Some old ceremonies still survive, but have been absorbed to Cristianity. Like Xmas.

    I wouldn’t call Russia “one of the most ethnically diverse nations in the world”. It is a diverse country, but not a nation. There are also Russians as a nation, but they are quite homogeneous, because they spread to current Russia only recently, during the last two millennia. Previously the area from Baltic Sea to Ural Mountains was inhabitated by Finno-Ugric hunter-gatherers. The Mari are a small remnant of them.

    The survival of paganism isn’t a proof of Russian tolerance to minorities. Quite the opposite; Mari activists have been oppressed, and Mari newspapers are in constant trouble with Russian authorities. In March the EU Parliament sent an angry note to Moscow:
    http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/expert/infopress_page/030-4063-071-03-11-903-20070309IPR04021-12-03-2007-2007-false/default_en.htm

  3. #3 HP
    December 24, 2007

    I saw a documentary some years ago (it was old when I saw it — probably filmed in the 60s) about a surviving Cult of Dionysus somewhere in the Hindu Kush, dating to Alexandrian times. They held an annual Bacchanale, with the women assuming the role of Maenads and everything. Ethnically they were South Asian, but culturally they were more Caucasian (the culture of the ancient Caucasus, that is, not the ethnicity). I always wondered if they survived the Taliban.

    Does any of this ring a bell for you?

    Google is coming up empty — either I don’t know the right terms, or I’m completely misremembering. IIRC, the documentary referred to them as “the black pagans of the Hindu Kush,” but searching for “black pagans” is mostly turning up singles ads for African-American Wiccans.

  4. #4 razib
    December 24, 2007

    Previously the area from Baltic Sea to Ural Mountains was inhabitated by Finno-Ugric hunter-gatherers. The Mari are a small remnant of them.

    genetically many of the russians who entered into finnic lands carry signatures of finnic ancestry.

    Does any of this ring a bell for you?

    you are talking about the kafir kalash. they are on the pakistan side. their afghan cousins were forcibly converted in the last decade of the 19th century to the religion of peace where there is no compulsion and are now call the nuristanis.

  5. #5 John emerson
    December 24, 2007

    The Mari are apparently Finnic with long association with the Chuvash / Volga Bulgars (a now-Christian Turkic people who ruled a trade empire on the Volga up until the Mongol invasion.)

    The Kafit Kalash are reputed to be late descendants of the Bactrian Greeks. Like the Tokharians, in their case a lot of very interesting data have tended to be inflated into exciting stories that give someone a buzz.

  6. #6 Nancy Lebovitz
    December 24, 2007

    Reconstructing paganism is somewhat older than New Age–it probably goes back to the Golden Dawn in the early 1900s.

  7. #7 razib
    December 24, 2007

    Reconstructing paganism is somewhat older than New Age–it probably goes back to the Golden Dawn in the early 1900s.

    george plethon was a neo-pagan in the 15th century, and isolated individuals can be found in renaissance period. i believe that the 18th century saw the emergence of ‘movements’ though they were mostly intellectual, e.g., oxford platonism.

  8. #8 Lassi Hippeläinen
    December 24, 2007

    John emerson: “The Mari are apparently Finnic with long association with the Chuvash / Volga Bulgars (a now-Christian Turkic people who ruled a trade empire on the Volga up until the Mongol invasion.)”

    The Mari are definitely Finno-Ugrian. Russians call the Cheremiss; the Chuvash are a different nation.

    The connection of the Onogar/Bolgar to the Turkish-Tatarians concerns a southern group of Finno-Ugrians who hit the road in the steppes of current Ukraine (as so many other mobile people at the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire) and after some mingling with the party found a good place to live in the Pannonian Basin. The name Hungary is a variant of Onogar.

    Some of the Turkish-Tatarian-andwhateverbythen mobile folks ended up as the the current Bulgarians. Curiously, they now speak a Slavic language, adopted from other rulers along the road.

    The history of Eastern Europe is a wonderful mess… and a living warning to anyone who thinks that evolution of language and culture goes hand in hand with evolution of physiognomy.

  9. #9 John emerson
    December 24, 2007

    At the link I posted, a Mari spokesman claims long cultural association with the Chuvash, and also seems to indicate that the Mari language is closer to Finnish than to Hungarian (the numbers are similiar). However, the post is nationalist and seems directed to a Finnish audience or based on Finnish scholarship.

    The history and prehistory of Siberia is poorly known. For example, the Uighurs of ca. 900 AD are an exotic people to us, but the Kirgiz from the Minusinsk Basin who destroyed their kingdom are exotic-squared.

    And the relation of either to the present Kirgiz and Uighurs (variously spelled) is uncertain and may be very slight. (And at the same time, the last recorded Tokharians were in Xinjiang, and they were probably absorbed by the Uighurs.)

  10. #10 razib
    December 24, 2007

    Some of the Turkish-Tatarian-andwhateverbythen mobile folks ended up as the the current Bulgarians. Curiously, they now speak a Slavic language, adopted from other rulers along the road.

    clarification

    1) genetically the bulgarians do not seem to cluster with the peoples of the volga. rather, they are like other balkan peoples. so the bulgar tribes proper contributed little in the way of ancestry.

    2) the slavic language was not picked up “other rulers along the road.” the area of bulgaria was slavicized during the avar hegemony of the balkans. when the bulgar tribes settled in the region of modern bulgaria their subjects were slavic speaking “skalveni.” they eventually were totally assimilated by their subjects’ culture.

  11. #11 John emerson
    December 24, 2007

    “Number” = “names of the numerals”.

  12. #12 jaakkeli
    December 26, 2007

    John Emerson: Mari is very obviously closer to Finnish. In the usual tree reconstruction, Mari is in the closest group after the geographical neighbours, ie. it’s just one step more distant than Saami languages. The basic vocabulary (like those numerals) is easily recognizable to Finns and you can get a basic message across without having studied the other language. Hungarian is completely unintelligible to Finns who haven’t studied it like any other language.

    (Hungarian numerals are also mostly the same as Finnish numerals, but the languages are so distant in time that you don’t notice it without detailed study of the changes.)

  13. #13 mnuez
    December 29, 2007

    On this post’s subject thouugh, I can’t help but feel at least as impressed by Kalmykia.

    mnuez
    m

  14. #14 Henrik
    January 2, 2008

    Aren’t the Komi (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Komi_peoples) also still partly pagan? Wikipedia lists shamanism as a religion in addition to orthodox and Komi (the republic) is located to the west of the Urals. I also remember a relative travelling there in the early 90′s having witnessed animal sacrifice on at least one occasion.

    However, I could not find a good reference for this, so I am not sure if it represents an unbroken tradition or how much christianity is mixed in with the paganism.

  15. #15 patrick
    September 24, 2009

    You can still see animal sacrifice in Georgia and Ossetia also. Up to the 18th century bulls were occasionally sacrificed in Scotland and Wales.

  16. #16 John Emerson
    January 21, 2010

    12: My point really is that when you speak of nations and peoples, you can’t just look at language groups. For example, Finns have a long-time association with Swedes, and Hungarians have a long-time association with Austrian Germans, Romanians, and Slavs. The Mari had that kind of relationship with the Chuvash / Bulgars. Language doesn’t have the cultural power that nationalists wish it had.

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