Castrén, Matthias Alexander

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CASTRÉN, MATTHIAS ALEXANDER (18131852) was a scholar of Finno-Ugric languages and the founder of the Finnish School of Ethnography of Religion. His studies of remote north Eurasian peoples helped establish a discipline that he named Altaic in accordance with his theory of their urheimat (point of common origin) in the Altai Mountains. Now called Finno-Ugrics or Uralics, the discipline, in Castrén's broad definition, embraces comparative studies of Finnish and Finno-Ugric languages, literature, ethnology, folklore, and religion.

Castrén began his studies at the University of Helsingfors (now Helsinki) as a student of Greek and Hebrew. Before long, however, this was subsumed by an interest in Finnish and other regional languages. He traveled twice throughout Eurasia, including a journey through Siberia proposed by his Finnish colleague A. J. Sjögren (17941855), an academician in Saint Petersburg. During his visits among the small populations in the huge, sparsely populated territory between the Ural Mountains and the southwestern Chinese border, Castrén recorded local folk songs, proverbs, legends, and other traditions. These were published by Anton Schiefner (18171879), another linguist from Saint Petersburg, in the twelve-volume series Nordische Reisen und Forschungen, between 1853 and 1862.

Castrén collected folklore mainly among the Samoyed peoples of Siberia; most of this work was published in 1960 by Toivo Lehtisalo (18871962) as Samojedische Sprachmaterialien: Gesammelt von M. A. Castrén und T. Lehtisalo. Publications on Castrén's voyages by Aulis J. Joki (19131989) show how Castrén carried out his fieldwork, collecting such linguistic artifacts as Turkish epics among the Tatars of Minusinsk steppe at Akaban (Schiefner, 18531862, vol. 2, pp. 305306).

Castrén had a rare ability to learn to communicate in foreign languages in a short time, and he spent three to six months at each key station. Although he was criticized by later philologists for both his Altaic urheimat theory and his overeagerness to find new languages, both of these can be understood in the context of the nationalistic Pan-Finno-Ugric trend of his time, which sought new relatives on the family tree of the recently established Finnish nation.

The study of Finno-Ugric religion, particularly shamanism, was central to Castrén's fieldwork between 1841 and 1849. He wrote:

All the religion proper of the Altaic peoples has been called shamanism. Unfortunately this far attention has more been paid on the naming and outer features of the phenomenon, not on the inner disposition, the essential nature of it. I would not consider shamanism as a form of religion of its own, but rather as a moment of the folk religious divine doctrine. (Castrén, 1853, p. 1)

A professor at the University of Helsingfors in the last years of his life, Castrén was appointed chair of Finnish language and literature studies. As a professor Castrén devoted most of his lectures to the folklore and mythology of northern peoples. In one of his last lectures he defined ethnography as:

a new name for an old thing. It means the scientific study of the religion, society, customs, way of life, habitations of different peoples, in a word: everything that belongs to their inner and outer life. Ethnography could be regarded as a part of cultural history, but not all nations possess a history in the higher sense; instead their history consists of ethnography. (Castrén, 1857, p. 8)

Castrén's untimely death at the age of thirty-nine left much of his work unfinished. He is remembered most for his linguistic studies that identified the Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic languages as members of the larger Uralic family.

See Also

Finnish Religions; Finno-Ugric Religions.


Castrén, Matthias Alexander. Nordiska resor och forskningar, vol 2: Föreläsningar i finsk mytologi. Helsinki, 1853.

Castrén, Matthias Alexander. Tutkimusmatkoilla Pohjolassa; Matias Aleksanteri Castrénin matkakertomuksista suomentanut ja johdan non kirjoittanut Aulis J. Joki. Helsinki, 1853.

Castrén, Matthias Alexander. Nordiska resor och forskningar, vol. 3: Ethnologiska föreläsningar. Helsinki, 1857.

Castrén, Matthias Alexander, and Toivo Lehtisalo. Samojedische Sprachmaterialien: Gesammelt von M. A. Castrén und T. Lehtisalo. Helsinki, 1940.

Estlander, Bernhard. Mathias Aleksanteri Castrén: Hänen matkansa ja tutkimuksensa. Helsinki, 1929.

Joki, Aulis J. "M. A. Castrénin elämäntyö." Virittäjä 67 (1963).

Pentikäinen, Juha. "Northern Ethnography: On the Foundations of a New Paradigm." In Styles and Positions: Ethnographical Perspectives in Comparative Religion. Comparative Religion 8. Helsinki, Finland, 2002.

Schiefner, Anton. Nordische Reisen und forschungen. Saint Petersburg, 18531862.

Juha PentikÄinen (2005)