The old indigenous religion of the Mari people is based on nature worship. Maris believe that all living things – including animals and plants – have a soul. It is also believed that, in addition to living organisms, also seemingly non-living things such as natural phenomena, earth, clouds and stars are living and they also have a soul. This means that all items made by people are also living things. Items, including used ones, may therefore not be thrown away or given to others. Instead, they must be kept. Maris also believe that when an item or thing breaks or is spoilt, its soul goes away.
The Mari nature religion has retained features of the old religion that used to be shared by Finno-Ugric peoples. These features include ancestor veneration, belief in guardian spirits and the sky-god tradition. In Mari, the Sky God is Yumo.
Ancestor veneration (worship) is an important part of the culture of Finno-Ugric peoples. Ancestor veneration strengthens communality, and its main purpose is to preserve the coherence of the family and safeguard the continuity of the family lineage. Finno-Ugric peoples divide the dead into relatives and restless spirits. Dead relatives are the ones that are actually venerated, whereas the aim regarding restless spirits is to appease them with various rites. The dead can act in various roles, such as bringing good luck, providing advice or being unpredictable disturbers of peace.
Many Mari celebrations end with ancestor veneration. Memorial celebrations are held for the dead. Rites relating to calendar festivals ensure that the community of the dead in the cemetery are well and get to take part in the work of the living. Rites may also be used to make sure that those who die move on and adapt to joining the dead.
Essential elements of religious practice include sacred groves and sacrifice. Maris perform sacrifices to guardian spirits, deities and heroes, and there are separate sacred groves for different things. Both food and animals are offered in rituals. Animals are sacrificed through a highly specific procedure. In addition to communal sacrifices, Maris also perform private sacrifices.
Today, many Maris state officially that they are Orthodox. Even though many Maris have converted to Christianity, they also practise their traditional nature religion. Udmurts and Mordvins have also had a similar nature religion. Udmurts still practise their nature religion to some extent, but the religion disappeared from Mordvin culture during the 1900s.
Holmberg, Uno 1914: Tsheremissien uskonto [Religion of the Cheremisa]. WSOY.