Among the immense forests that characterize the area, some small woods near villages are seen as having loads of energy and therefore designated as religious sites. Here, the sacred grave of Tonshaevo. (Raffaele Petralla/Prospekt)

People praying during the ritual for Yumo, the white god of the forest. Yumo is considered the creator of the highest laws governing the cosmos. (Raffaele Petralla/Prospekt)

When Mari pagan priest Albert Rukovishnikov was a boy, he and his grandmother would sneak down under cover of the night to the sacred groves to make sacrifices. It was a dangerous time — the Soviet Union was known to persecute worshippers. “The police – fervent atheists, communists – would come. They kicked over our cauldrons and chased us away,” he told Geraldine Fagan of Open Democracy Russia.

The attempted suppression of the nature-worshipping Mari has a long and dark history. Ivan the Terrible’s annexation of the territory was accompanied by an attempted overwriting of their religious beliefs with Christian ones. But the Mari have persevered. Photographer Raffaele Petralla captured them recently in his series, “Mari People, A Pagan Beauty.”

Scattered on either side of the Volga are about 500 sacred groves that the Mari people enter to send prayers to their gods. The grove’s air is tinged by the low chanting of Mari priests and the clanging of an ax used in sacrifices. Steam billows out of huge pots suspended in a row by industrial chains and hooks. Inside boils hundreds of pounds of geese, considered the most sacred animal because of their ability to commune with three natural elements: earth, air and water.

Each family rushes to the function with a goose for sacrifice. Before the offering, it is critical that the geese are calm and gentle to ensure good wishes. To calm the geese, the Kart caress the geese with a birch leaf, first moistened and then heated on a fire to create a cloud of pleasant steam. (Raffaele Petralla/Prospekt)

Geese, after being sacrificed, are cooked in large pots and then eaten on site. This is the sacred grove in the Novitarial area. (Raffaele Petralla/Prospekt)

A concert of traditional Mari music in Tonshaevo village. (Raffaele Petralla/Prospekt)

Natasha, 23, is dressed in traditional Mari clothing made by her grandmother in the Tonshaevo village. (Raffaele Petralla/Prospekt)

A woman washes clothes in the river. Tonshaevo Village. (Raffaele Petralla/Prospekt)

Reverence for nature permeates this culture, even dictating how the Mari make a living. Despite lumber being a profitable business in the region, “a Mari can’t do it — his conscience won’t allow him — because a tree contains a soul in a transitional process of evolution. If you have felled a tree, you have destroyed a living being,” priest Vitaly Tanakov told Open Democracy Russia. The Mari could also never sell water, since that would mean selling one of the forms of their god, Osh Kugu Yumo. Therefore, many of the Mari are farmers.

The poverty that sometimes comes with this modest lifestyle has caused Mari youth to migrate to larger cities in search of opportunity, according to Petralla. Whether they return, to perpetuate a culture with several millennia of history, or stay scattered, remains to be seen.

A man draws water from the well of sacred water in Tonshaevo village. (Raffaele Petralla/Prospekt)

In short Russian summers, life takes place outside. Here, children eat watermelon in the afternoon in Tonshaevo village. (Raffaele Petralla/Prospekt)

An elderly lady walks along the village beating a wood plank to warn of the danger of fire in Tonshaevo village. (Raffaele Petralla/Prospekt)

A man on a motorcycle. (Raffaele Petralla/Prospekt)

A party with traditional Mari music remixed in a contemporary style. (Raffaele Petralla/Prospekt)

Young people dance in a club with “modern” music. (Raffaele Petralla/Prospekt)

In the mythology of the Mari people, geese are the most significant animal. They are the only creature that can be in contact with the spirits of the air, of the water and of the ground. (Raffaele Petralla/Prospekt)

Inside the sacred grove. (Raffaele Petralla/Prospekt)

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