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Finno-Ugric Religions: History of Study

FINNO-UGRIC RELIGIONS: HISTORY OF STUDY

The ways of life and customs of peoples inhabiting the northern regions of Europe concerned even the earliest historiographers, such as Herodotos (c. 484between 430 and 420 bce) and Tacitus (c. 55120 ce). Nevertheless, the first genuinely valid data regarding peoples of the Finno-Ugric language family can be found only much later, in the works of writers living from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries: Mathias de Miechow, Sigismundus Herberstein, Olaus Magnus (14901557), Michael Agricola (15081557), Alessandro Guagnino, Nicolaes Witsen (16411717), Johannes Schefferus (16211679), Nicolaie Spataru (16631708), and Adam Olearius (16031671), among others. The information conveyed by these writers in their religious, geographical, ethnographical, or historical texts has proved to be a valuable contribution not only to social history and ethnography, but to the history of their religion(s) as well.

Foundations of Eighteenth-Century Study

The eighteenth century was a time of great journeys and discoveries as well as the publication of travel literature based on eyewitness accounts on respective areas. At this time the peoples of northern Eurasia and Siberia among others became objects of genuine scientific interest. Several authors of travel accounts, namely Y. E. Ides, D. G. Messerschmidt, P. J. Strahlenberg, Johann Georg Gmelin (17091755), and J. G. Georgi, made interesting observations not only about the languages of northern Eurasian peoples, but also about their customs and religious cults. These writings also established the basis for the eventual recognition of Finno-Ugric as a language family. Two German scholars, Johann Eberhard Fischer (16971771), who was a member of the Russian tsar's academy, and August Ludwig von Schlözer (17351809) played especially important roles in this discovery by summarizing in their scholarly works the available information concerning Finno-Ugric peoples: Fischer in Sibirische Geschichte (1768) and von Schlözer in Allgemeine Nordische Geschichte (1771). In Hungary Finno-Ugric comparative linguistic research was initiated by the study Demonstratio: Idioma Ungarorum et Lapponum idem esse (Proof that the languages of the Hungarians and the Lapps are the same; 1770), by Janos Sajnovics (17331785), and the study Affinitas linguae Hungaricae cum linguis fennicae originis (Relationship of the Hungarian language to languages of Finnic origin; 1779), by Samuel Gyarmathi (17511830).

The first Finno-Ugric studies were thus written simultaneously with, and not independently of, respective studies in Indo-European comparative linguistics. Progress in Finno-Ugric studies was slower than that of Indo-European studies because of the more remote distance between peoples themselves as well as scholars studying them. In the same way as the three Finno-Ugric peoples of EuropeFinns, Estonians, and Hungarians, who later on became the only ones to be able to found the national states where Finno-Ugric languages are in majoritylived far from one another, so their scholars also lived in scientific isolation without knowing too much about each other's scientific works and results.

Nevertheless, both the Finns and the Hungarians were able to complete their first mythologies in the last decades of the eighteenth century. In Finland, Henrik Gabriel Porthan (17391804), learned professor of rhetorics at Turku Academy, was familiar with theories on Finno-Ugric peoples in Germany. He advocated the publication of Erik Christian Lencquist's doctoral dissertation, De superstitione veterum Fennorum theoretica et practica (Superstition in belief and practice among the ancient Finns; 1782), which was based on data collected from people. Another Finnish scholar, Christfried Ganander (17411790), a Lutheran pastor in Rantsila, northern Ostrobotnia, created a network of over one hundred ministers and officials around Finland while gathering data for his huge Finnish-Swedish dictionaryuntil 1997 available in three facsimile volumes onlyand Finnish mythology (Mythologia Fennica, 1789). The latter is a kind of Finnish-Lappish comparative mythology since it provides an alphabetical listing of Finnish and Lappish (Sami) mythological terms and concepts with historical and other information related to entries. The work is a valuable source of the original runic poems of the eighteenth century and the foundation of the comparative mythology school in Finland. Since it worked as Elias Lönnrot's (18021884) model for his further collecting of poems in the field, it was the primary basis for the whole creation of the idea of the Finnish epics. Typically enough, the first editions of the Finnish-Karelian epics compiled by Lönnrot carried the title The Mythology of the Finnish People edited by Old Poems before the book was finally named as the Kalevala in 1835, with a geographical reference to a mythical dwelling place of Kaleva's gigantic sonsin Lönnrot's thinking, Kaleva was the king of Finland.

Hungarian mythology was introduced in Europe by Daniel Cornides (17321787), who lectured on ancient Hungarian religion at the University of Göttingen in 1785. Basing his arguments on medieval chronicles, he compared the remains of ancient pagan Hungarian religion with elements of the ancient Jewish, Greek, and Scythian religions. Later on, in his short study Commentatio de religione veterum Hungarorum (Comments on the ancient religion of the Hungarias; 1791), he compared ancient Hungarian religion to Persian religion.

Nineteenth-Century National Mythologies

During the first decades of the nineteenth century there was a romantic interest in folk tradition many parts of Europe, especially in Germany. Under stimuli of Indo-European comparative linguistics and mythological research, the collection of folk poetry and the exploration of narrative folk traditions began. Two seminal works of the period were published in 1835. The first was Deutsche Mythologie by Jacob Grimm (17851863), which subsequently served as a model for reconstructing mythologies of several peoples, among them the Finns, the Estonians, the Sami, and the Hungarians. The other, the Kalevala by Lönnrot, contributed to the study of Finnish mythology by compiling folk poetry on the basis of epical songs. In accordance with its initial names, this (Old) Kalevala with thirty-two songs was the mythology of the Finns on the basis of the epical poems. Its second, enlarged edition published in 1849 contained almost a double amount of verses, 50 songs with 22,759 lines in all. After Grimm's speech in 1845 at the Academy of Berlin, the (New) Kalevala was now offered by Lönnrot as the national epic of the Finns, not as their mythology any more, but as the sacred history of the new nation. The European readers at large only became acquainted with the (New) Kalevala through its German translation published in 1852.

The discovery that the Finns, a people small in number, had produced heroic epic poetry comparable with the Homeric epics profoundly impressed the scholars of other Finno-Ugric nations as well. Encouraged by Lönnrot as early as the 1840s, Reinhold Kreutzwald (18031882) began collecting Estonian narratives and epic songs about Kalevi-poeg, a gigantic folk hero of exceptional strength. While the first prototext of about twelve thousand lines was completed by 1853, the reconstructed epic itself, Kalevi poeg: Üks ennemuistene Eesti jut: Kaheskümnes laulus (Kalevi-poeg: An ancient Estonian legend in twenty songs), was published considerably later (in 1862), in Estonian, even though it appeared in Finland. Meanwhile, Kreutzwald worked on reconstructing Estonian national mythology and published the study "Über den Charakter der estnischen Mythologie" in the journal Verhandlungen der Gelehrten Estnischen Gesellschaft zu Dorpat (1850).

The romantic quest for Pan-Finnish identity, to find related peoples and an ancient, common land of origin (where the forebears of related peoples had lived together), prompted scholars of the mid-nineteenth century to undertake long journeys of exploration. For example, Matthias Alexander Castrén (18131852) collected valuable material during his repeated Siberian travels and described his research in Reiseerinnerungen aus den Jahren 18381844: Nordische Reisen und Forschungen (Travel recollections, 18381844: Nordic travel and research; 1833). Castrén's lectures on Altaic (i.e., Finnic) mythology, given during the last years of his life, were published in translation from Swedish under the title Vorlesungen über die finnische Mythologie (1853).

Meanwhile, Castrén's Hungarian contemporary Antal Reguly (18191859) went on a research trip among the Ob-Ugrians and presented the results of his research in Ethnographisch-geographische Karte des nördlichen Ural-gebietes (Ethno-geographical map of the northern Ural region; 1846). Only some two decades later did Pál Hunfalvy (18101891), one of the founders of Finno-Ugric comparative linguistics, publish Reguly's collection, which contained valuable folk literatureprimarily texts of Mansi (Vogul) heroic epicsin A vogul föld és nép (The Vogul land and its people; 1864).

For the sake of proper chronology, one must mention here the first comprehensive collection of Hungarian mythology, Magyar Mythologia (1854), published during the romantic era of reform after the Hungarian revolt against Austria (18481849). Its author, Arnold Ipolyi (18231886), a learned Roman Catholic bishop, collected folk tales, legends, and folk beliefs of the region. At the same time he was intimately familiar with the contemporary scholarly literature dealing with comparative mythology. As he pointed out, his work was greatly influenced by the mythological studies of Jakob Grimm, Georg Friedrich Creuzer (17711858), and Joseph von Görres (17761848), but he also quoted the Finnish studies by Lencquist, Ganander, and Castrén. Ipolyi's study, more than five hundred pages long, is a genuine comparative-mythological survey, though its assertions should today be looked on from a critical distance. A few years later, Ferenc Kállay (17901861) compiled another work, though more modest, about the religion of the pre-Christian Hungarians (A pogány magyarok vallása, 1861), in which he described the major figures of ancient Hungarian mythology.

For the one-thousandth anniversary of the Magyar conquest of Hungary, Kabos Kandra (18431905) prepared the third edition of Magyar Mythologia (1897). Although Kandra was in a position to build on the findings of contemporary Finno-Ugric linguistics, his work is basically the last romantic attempt at reconstructing the system of Hungarian mythology. While the most important text among the materials used for purposes of comparison is the Kalevala, the Mythologia also depends on quotations from the studies and text collections of Bernát Munkácsi (18601937). Munkácsi's fieldwork among the Udmurt (Votyaks) and Mansi (Voguls) took place in the second half of the 1880s. He published his own and Antal Reguly's findings in four thick volumes, with copious notes on mythology, titled Vogul Népköltési Gyüjtemény (Vogul folklore collection; 18921902). He also published studies on comparative mythology in Hungarian and German.

While there are early and finely detailed descriptions concerning the ancient religion of the Sami, for example, Ioannus Schefferus's Lapponica de origine, superstitione, sacris magicis (1673), the first real reconstruction and description of Sami mythology (Lappisk Mythologi, Eventyr og Folkesagn ) was published in Christiania (later Oslo) as late as 1871 by Jens Andreas Friis (18211896). Lars Levi Laestadius's Fragments on Lappish Mythology were written earlier in 18401845, but remained unpublished until the 1990s.

As the national self-awareness of the ethnic minorities of tsarist Russia began to increase during the last decades of the nineteenth century, collecting texts of folklore also started among them. One should mention Serafim Patkanov (18561888), who did research among the southern groups of Khanty (Ostyaks), and Ivan Nikolaevich Smirnov (18561904), a professor of the University of Kazan, Russia, who collected valuable materials among the Finno-Ugric peoples of Perm and along the Volga. Smirnov published several books on his findings concerning the Cheremis (Mari), Votyak (Udmurt), and Komi Permyak: Cheremisy (1889), Votiaki (1890), and Permiaki (1891), respectively. Several chapters in these volumes are devoted to the gods and religious customs of the Finno-Ugric peoples living by the Volga, and they serve as useful source material for comparative research.

Early Twentieth-Century Comparative Research

Around the turn of the twentieth century, Finno-Ugric studies became strengthened by scientifically planned fieldwork. For the most part it was carried out by well-trained linguists, who in the process of their fieldwork also recorded materials valuable for folklorists and students of mythology. In this context one should mention the Hungarian József Pápay (18731931) as well as the Finns Heikki Paasonen (18691919), Yrjö Wichmann (18681932), Kai Donner (18881935), and Artturi Kannisto (18741943). Their authentic text collections made it possible to reconstruct the belief systems of certain Finno-Ugric peoples and consequently to prepare comprehensive comparative studies. Since, unlike research on Indo-European mythology, Finno-Ugric comparative mythological research is based almost entirely on folkloric material, it was logical to study it in this context and to describe the mythology of particular peoples as accurately as the circumstances would allow.

In 1908 Kaarle Krohn (18631933), the first professor of folklore at the University of Helsinki, and Aladár Bán (18711960), a Hungarian scholar, jointly published A finnugor népek pogány istentisztelete (Pre-Christian god worship of the Finno-Ugric peoples) in Hungarian; with Bán's supplement, this work essentially became the first Finno-Ugric study of comparative religion. The book is based on Suomen suvun pakanallinen jumalanpalvelus (The heathen worship of Finnish tribe; 1894), which included posthumously published lectures of Julius Krohn (18351888), Kaarle Krohn's father, who was a docent at the University of Helsinki in 1884. In the first chapter, the history of research, the sources, and the scholarly literature are reviewed, and in subsequent chapters sacred places of sacrifice, sacred images, activities of shamans, and actual sacrificial rituals are discussed. What renders this volume valuable even today is its rich use of contemporary Russian scientific literature that is now not readily available.

The second major summary of the religious beliefs of the Finno-Ugric peoples, Die Religion der Jugra-Völker (The religion of the Ob-Ugrians; 19221927), a three-volume study, was written by Kustaa Fredrik Karjalainen (18711919). This monumental work based on the complete literature available at the time was combined with the author's original field research at the turn of the twentieth century. It remains the most detailed overview of the religious beliefs of the Finno-Ugric peoples to date. At the end of the 1920s, Uno Holmberg (later Harva, 18821949) published yet another summary, "Finno-Ugric Mythology," in the fourth volume of The Mythology of All Races (1927). Here, Holmberg methodically reviews beliefs in the soul, the cult of the dead, hunting magic, and veneration of nature spirits (spirits of stones, water, forest, and fire), of home spirits, of the lord of the sky, and of heroes revered as gods. He devotes a separate chapter to the description of sacrifices and the examination of questions concerning shamanism he found to be characteristic of the Finno-Ugric peoples.

Study on Finno-Ugric Religions during the Soviet Era

During the two generations of researchers from World War I and the October 1917 Revolution until the brief period of openness in the spirit of glasnost and perestroika under Mikhail Gorbachov's era at the end of the 1980s, most Finno-Ugric territories inside the borders of the Soviet Union remained closed from scholars living in Finland. Studies on Finno-Ugric languages and religions, however, continued; the rich archival materials gathered by the scholars on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were now carefully analyzed and published as linguistically transcribed collections in the Memoirs and Journals of the Finno-Ugric Society in Finland (founded in 1883) by experts on respective Finno-Ugric languages.

The topic of religion, labelled the opium of the people by Karl Marx (18181883), was taboo in the Communist empire of the Soviet Union. In spite of this, research on religion to a certain extent went on under the umbrella of Soviet ethnography. In 1931 there appeared in the Soviet Union, where most Finno-Ugric peoples lived, a collection of texts about the religious beliefs of the Soviet peoples (Religioznye verovaniia narodov SSSR ). The sole value of this two-volume collection is that it quotes passages from older Russian publications. In the 1930s particularly, and for many decades following its publication, the monopoly of Marxist critiques of religion practically halted all religio-scientific and mythological research in the Soviet Union.

As far as the position of the Finno-Ugric peoples and the research on their cultures and religions in particular are concerned, World War II meant radical changes to the period between the two world wars. Estonia was annexed (formally as a republic) to the Soviet Union until 1991, and Hungary, although still independent, was occupied by Soviet troops as a part of the Eastern block, which divided Europe during the Cold War. Throughout the Cold War, several prominent scholars escaped from Eastern Europe to conduct their research on Finno-Ugric themes in western Europe and in the United States. Gradually, the Finno-Ugric territories inside the Soviet Union became targets for fieldwork organized by Estonian and Hungarian universities and academic research institutes.

Encyclopedic handbooks began to be published elsewhere, and summaries of research appeared every ten years or so. Of these, the overview written by Ivar Paulson (19221966), an Estonian emigrant scholar of religion in Sweden, should be mentioned. It provides a phenomenological synthesis of the religions of northern Eurasian hunting nations and uses the new ethnographic and archaeological data. Paulson's study was published in the third volume of Die Religion der Menschheit (1962). A second modern overview, written by Lauri Honko, was published in the first volume of Das Handbuch der Religionsgeschichte (1971). In its shortened English version titled "Finno-Ugric Religion," written for the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1974), Honko made this kind of observation: "Today there is general agreement that a hypothetical reconstruction representing the 'original religion' of a single language family is virtually impossible."

The second volume of the encyclopedic undertaking of Soviet researchers on myths of the peoples of the world (Mify narodov mira, 1982) includes an entry by V. Ia. Petrukhin and E. A. Helimski, who do not even attempt to provide a comprehensive picture, but instead discuss the mythologies of different peoples separately. This is in accordance with the notion that Finno-Ugric languages are distantly related, as are their folklore and religions. Despite the difficulties on editing folkloric texts constituting the basic sources, a few exceptional monographs have been produced that, though not aiming at a reconstruction of the whole system, nevertheless enable us to engage in comparative studies of certain topics. These topics include, for example, lower-order spirits, totemism, and the cult of idols (Haekel, 1946), hunting rituals and the bear cult (Edsman, 1957), and concepts of the soul of the northern Eurasian peoples (Paulson, 1958).

Late Twentieth-Century Russian Research Trends

In the latter part of the twentieth century, some new results were gained in certain areas, especially in the Soviet Union as a result of an effort to involve other sciences in comparative mythological research and thus to revive its methodological tools. Soviet researchers turned to archaeology, which is "materialistic," and to the cataloging of decorative art objects, which were seen as products of the mythological consciousness of ancient peoples. A characteristic monograph of these times is S. V. Ivanov's work about the folk arts of the peoples of Siberia. This book reviews museum collections assembled around the turn of the twentieth century (Materialy po izobrazitel'nomu iskusstvu narodov Sibiri XIX-nachalo XX. V., 1954). This study, which contains both Finno-Ugric and other material, becomes especially interesting when read with the study by Dmitrii K. Zelenin (18781954) of Siberian idol cults and beliefs in spirits (Le culte des idoles en Siberie, 1952).

Russian archaeologists have been able to contribute most significantly to the reconstruction of ancient beliefs, and thus of Finno-Ugric mythology, by interpreting the highly diverse physical evidence. A few of the valuable works containing such analyses are Vanda Moshinskai's Drevniaia skulptura Urala i Zapadnoi Sibiri (Ancient sculptures of the Ural and western Siberia; 1976); Leonilla A. Golubeva's Zoomorfnye ukrasheniia finno-ugrov (Finno-Ugric zoomorphic decorative art; 1979); and Liubov S. Gribova's The Animal Style as One of the Components of Social-Ideological System of Totemism and Stage in the Development of Fine Arts (1980).

Soviet archaeologists can be credited with the discovery of another important source group: petroglyphs, or rock art. During the last decades, remains of rock art have been extensively uncovered (mostly in the form of engravings) in northern Eurasia. In this discovery Aleksandr P. Okladnikov (19081981) had a particularly outstanding role; with his coworkers he has published a series of monographs that contain more than ten thousand Siberian rock drawings and include valuable notes on the history of religions. His major contribution to Finno-Ugric research, written with A. I. Martinov, is Sokrovishcha tomskikh pisamits (Treasures of petroglyphs around Tomsk; 1972).

Aleksandr Zolotarev (19071943) began his research in the 1930s, under the influence of Marxist conceptions of ancient history and society, but his study of the mythology of ancient society, Rodovoi stroi i pervobytnaia mifologiia (Tribal system and ancient mythology; 1964), could be published only after his death. In this study, Zolotarev bases his arguments on a large body of source materials and shows that the dualistic cosmological myths and the dualistic societies of Siberian peoples reflected one another; basically, this recognition resembles Georges Dumézil's position. Zolotarev arranged his materials within a firm theoretical framework. Because of his recognition of the system of dual oppositions, he can be considered a forerunner of structuralism, though his work remains unknown to the West.

Comparative Finno-Ugric Mythology and Shamanhood Research Traditions

The introduction by Soviet scholars of structuralist and semiotic methods to mythological analyses at the beginning of the 1970s proved to be a methodological turning point. These scholars were independent of the West European (primarily French) structuralists in that they formed their own theories, basing them on their structuralist predecessorsfor example, Roman Jakobson (18961982), Ol'ga Freidenberg (19101954), Vladimir Propp (18951970), and Mikhail Bakhtin (18951975). Their most important contention was that mythology is explicable as a system of signs and that it is one of the texts or codes of a culture (Ivanov and Toporov, 1973; Meletinsky, 1973). In his description of the Finno-Ugric mythological system, Mihály Hoppál employs this method. The hierarchy of the gods is described with the aid of dual oppositions functioning as distinctive features (Hoppál, 1976), and consequently mythological structures clarified through semantic characteristics are compared more accurately than before (Toporov, 1974).

Another current trend is related to comparative mythology emphasized by such Finnish scholars of phenomenology of religion and folk belief in the Finno-Ugric context as Martti Haavio, Lauri Honko, and Juha Pentikäinen. The research is related to the fact that in studying certain topics, scholars have moved outside the narrow Finno-Ugric confines and are analyzing particular topics within a wider Uralian or even Eurasian context, as in, for example, the investigation of the question of a supposed ancient Eurasian mother cult, bear and other expressions of animal ceremonialism, as well as shamanism in a Finno-Ugric, Arctic, and comparative context. Pentikäinen's Kalevala Mythology (1999) emphasizes the significance of shamanic poetry as the basis of the epical singing. Instead of shamanism, a concept of shamanhood (Russian samanstvo ) has been introduced by him since he believes that shamanism is not a dogmatic religion, but rather a way of life.

The examination of shamanism has an especially old tradition among Hungarian scholars. Géza Róheim (18911953), the founder of psychoanalytic anthropology, devoted an interesting chapter to the question of Ob-Ugrian shamanism in Hungarian and Vogul Mythology (1954). Another study of this subject was written by Vilmos Diószegi (19231972), who explored the residues of shamanism in Hungarian folklore in A sámánhit emlékei a magyar népi müveltségben (1958). Two further studies on the question of Siberian shamanism have been published: The Rite Technique of the Siberian Shaman (1978), by Anna-Leena Siikala, and Obriad i fol'klor v sibirskom shamanizme (Ritual and folklore in Siberian shamanism; 1984), by Elena S. Novik, who analyzes the syntagmatic structure of shamanic ritual and of narrative folklore.

In summary one could say that, because Finno-Ugric peoples are generally not numerous, and because most of them have constituted ethnic minorities within the Soviet Union and Russia, their search for common roots and mythology, expressed in the language of folklore, has been one way of establishing their own identity and of buttressing their national self-consciousness. Finno-Ugric mythology and folklore will remain as areas of interest for many years to come. Apart from sociopolitical considerations, naturally, the strictly scientific-philological aspects are no less compelling, a fact that renders the prospect of comparative Finno-Ugric mythological research in the future exceptionally interesting in terms of methodology as well, precisely because of the still insufficiently clarified relations among Finno-Ugric peoples, because of their divergent lines of cultural progress and because of their varied relations with neighboring peoples.

See Also

Castrén, Matthias Alexander; Donner, Kai; Haavio, Martti; Honko, Lauri; Indo-European Religions, article on History of Study; Laestadius, Lars Levi; Lönnrot, Elias; Sami Religion; Study of Religion, article on the Academic Study of Religion in Eastern Europe and Russia.

Bibliography

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Corradi, Carla. Le divinita femminili nella mitologia ugro-finnica. Parma, Italy, 1982. A modern summary on female divinity.

Diószegi, Vilmos. A pogány magyarok hitvilága. Budapest, 1967. A reconstruction of the old Hungarian pagan mythological worldview in terms of shamanism.

Diószegi, Vilmos. Tracing Shamans in Siberia: The Story of an Ethnographic Research Expedition. Oosterhout, Netherlands, 1968.

Diószegi, Vilmos, and Mihály Hoppál, eds. Shamanism in Siberia. Budapest, 1978. A collection of studies on different aspects of shamanism.

Dömötör, Tekla. Hungarian Folk Beliefs. Bloomington, Ind., 1982. The most up-to-date outline of the Hungarian folk belief system.

Edsman, Carl-Martin. Bärenfest. Tübingen, Germany, 1957.

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Haavio, Martti. Essais folkloriques: Par Martti Haavio. Edited by Lauri Honko et al. Helsinki, 1959. Haavio's essays in both German and English cover such topics as haunting soul beings and cultic places in Finnish folk religion.

Haavio, Martti. Suomalainen mytologia. Porvoo, Finland, 1967. The most detailed account of Finnish mythology to date that lists the gods and provides much material for comparative purposes, but one should read it with critical distance.

Haekel, J. "Idolkult und Dualsystem bei den Ugriern." Archiv für Völkerkunde 1 (1946): 95163.

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Toporov, V. N. "On the Typological Similarity of Mythological Structures among the Ket and Neighbouring Peoples." Semiotica 10 (1974): 1942.

Vilkuna, Asko. Das Verhalten der Finnen in "heiligen" (pyhä) Situationen. Helsinki, 1956.

MihÁly HoppÁl (1987)

Juha PentikÄinen (2005)

Translated from Hungarian by Timea Szell

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