Harva, Uno

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HARVA, UNO (18821949), was a Finnish scholar of religion and a specialist in the religious traditions of Finno-Ugric and Siberian peoples. Harva became one of the first advocates for comparative religion studies in Finland during the first decade of the twentieth century (Finland was a grand duchy of Russia until 1917). Harva dedicated his academic endeavors to advance pluralistic cultural values in the name of the Enlightenment and an awareness of the accomplishments of the Finns and other Finno-Ugric peoples as agents of history. Under the tutelage of Edward Westermarck, Harva was introduced to the theories of cultural evolution and the methods of ethnographic fieldwork prevalent in contemporary British social anthropology. Westermarck, who held positions at both the University of Helsinki and the London School of Economics, had carried out extensive fieldwork in Morocco, beginning in 1898. Westermarck had worked closely with such prominent figures in anthropology as Charles Seligman and Alfred Cort Haddon; he instructed his Finnish disciples to collect firsthand ethnographic data on which to base comparative analyses of ethnoreligious materials. Unlike his fellow Finnish Westermarckians who embarked on anthropological studies of non-European cultures, Harva chose to specialize in the oral traditions and ethnic religions of peoples belonging to the Uralic language family. In addition, the science of ethnography had become a standard approach in Finland in the 1830s, when Finnish linguists traveled in Russia and Siberia to collect linguistic data with which to substantiate the theory of M. A. Castrén of the Altaic origin of Finnish language.

Harva was initiated into Finno-Ugric studies by Kaarle Krohn, a professor of folklore at the University of Helsinki between 1898 and 1928. Krohn's paradigmatic Finnish, geographic-historical method had received worldwide attention among folklore scholars. Harva was an adherent of both the Krohnian geographic-historical paradigm and the Westermarckian empiricism and comparativism. His aim was to unravel the origins and development of early forms of religion among the peoples speaking Uralic languages. He adopted the theory that the kinship between different Finno-Ugric peoples was based not only on language but also on other cultural factors. The theory implied that the beliefs and practices that still prevailed among other technologically and socially "less developed" Finno-Ugric peoples living in Russia and in Siberia could shed light on religious evolution among the Finns and Hungarians. Harva created a comparative-typological method by which to explore the forms and structures of religious expression and the processes of transition from the cultural stage of hunting and fishing to the agricultural stage. The theory was concerned with indigenous religious elements; only marginal attention was given to the spread of organized world religions. Geographically, Harva's field of vision extended from the Finnic peoples in the cultural area of the Baltic Sea and the Saami living in the Lapland territory across northern Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia to the Permians (Udmurt and Komi), the Volga Finns (Meadow and Hill Mari), and Mordvinians (Ersä and Moksa) as well as the Ob-Ugrian ethnic groups (Khanty and Mansi) in Siberia. Harva conducted fieldwork among the Udmurt (previously Votyaks) and the Mari (Cheremiss) in 1911 and 1913 and among the Ket (Yenisei Ostiaks) and the Evenk (Tungus) in Siberia in 1917.

Born in 1882 in Ypäjä, in southwestern Finland, Harva first trained as a theologian and even served as a priest for one year in a small parish in central Finland. His father was a minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and an active member of the evangelical revivalist movement. Harva, however, experienced a spiritual crisis and resigned his position in 1907 to return to Helsinki to pursue further academic studies in comparative religion. In addition to participating in a seminar led by Westermarck, Harva was invited by Kaarle Krohn to contribute articles on Saami (Lapp) shamanism to the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics (1928). The editor of the encyclopedia, James Hastings, had approached Kaarle Krohn in 1904 as "the highest authority on the ancient religions of the Finns" to contribute to the encyclopedia. (Letters of Kaarle Krohn, James Hastings to Kaarle Krohn, June 10, 1904).

Krohn organized opportunities for other scholars as well and signed a contract with one of the major publishing companies in Helsinki to produce a series of monographs on the indigenous religions of the peoples related to the Finns (in Finnish, Suomen suvun uskonnot, 1918). Krohn asked Harva to write three volumeson the religions of the Permians, the Mari (Cheremiss), and the Saami (Lapp) peoples. The first two monographs were published in Finnish in 1914 and the one on the Saami in 1915. In 1913 Harva defended his doctoral dissertation, a study of the water gods of the Finno-Ugric peoples (Die Wassergottheiten der finnisch-ugrischen Völker ; 1913). After the intense and extremely productive first years of his academic career, Harva was invited to contribute to the Mythology of All Races (1916). The volume on Finno-Ugric and Siberian mythology was written by the spring of 1916 but was not published until 1927.

Harva was a historian of religion, an ethnologist, and a folklorist. He explored mythic structures in the ancient cosmologies of peoples living in the vast geographical area extending from Scandinavia in the west to the Bering Straits in the east and to the old areas of Central Asia and Asia Minor in the south. He showed morphologically related themes in the mythic narratives of shamanic hunters, cattle-breeding agriculturalists, and nomadic pastoralists. These included center of the world (axis mundi) symbolism and analyses of motives in Mother Goddess (Magna Mater) traditions; they also dealt with themes and motives in shamanistic traditions, such as the significance of the shaman costume, the shaman's tree, and his ascent to the sky. Harva's achievements as a student of myth, cosmology, and ritual have been valued highly by Mircea Eliade, Bronislaw Malinowski, and Weston LaBarre among others.

In his works Der Baum des Lebens (1922); Finno-Ugric, Siberian [Mythology] (1927); and Die religiösen Vorstellungen der altaischen Völker (1938; translated into French in 1954 and 1959 and into Japanese in 1971 and 1981), Harva created a distinctive way of systematizing mythological and religious materials. He identified in the traditional religions of all peoples a fundamental body of structure beliefs that dominated premodern thought and behavior. Harva did not draw a sharp distinction between the notion of religion and that of tradition. According to him, any popular, or nontheological, religion is based on the oral transmission of local knowledge revolving around ritual interaction between people and invisible terrestrial and celestial forces. Such components as beliefs in gods and souls, veneration of the dead, hero cults, animated and anthropomorphized natural phenomena, genius loci of sacred places in inhabited and uninhabited areas, or the location of ritual behavior during the critical boundary points of the annual economic cycle are integral to any indigenous religious tradition.

Harva was a rationalist who looked for order and systematic structure in the empirical materials under scrutiny. In his mature years he felt a reluctance to engage in theoretical discussions of religion. However, he was not methodologically naive. His work reflected the anthropogeographic ideas put forward by the German geographer Friedrich Ratzel (18441904), and he became an adherent of the culture-historical school in ethnology. He adopted the tenets of logical empiricism as his epistemological point of departure. He was fascinated by the idea of finding an explanation of folk-religious beliefs and practices in the work of biologists. On some occasions, however, this fascination led him astray. Drawing on association psychology, he believed he could uncover the working of the ordinary mind. In explaining, for instance, folk narratives about a mythical milk-stealing being in the Finnish and Scandinavian agrarian belief tradition, he reduced the belief to the perception of ball lightning. Similarly, beliefs in haunting by dead beings were generated by the sounds of specific birds. Harva considered that belief traditions are firmly founded on human auditions and visions; due to a lack of real (i.e., scientific) knowledge about phenomena in the biotic world, however, people tend to draw false conclusions about the origin of such phenomena.

Harva's remarkable contributions to comparative religion led to a discussion regarding the establishment of a university chair in the discipline in Finland. this did not happen, however, and the only permanent position Harva held during his academic career was a professorship in sociology at the University of Turku between 1926 and 1949. After being invited to the professorship in 1926, he abandoned his Swedish name, Holmberg, and changed it to Harva in 1927. As a sociologist he lectured and wrote on Finno-Ugric systems of relationship, on marriage customs (especially the relationship between the kin of the bride and the bridegroom), on gender distinctions and the position of women in the social structure of various Finno-Ugric societies, and most specifically on calendar systems and the popular reckoning of time. Harva's major theoretical concern was the relationship between the individual and the social collective in archaic societies. While he emphasized the collective nature of social life in archaic cultures in the manner of Émile Durkheim (18581917), he was nevertheless more influenced by the work of Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (18571939).

See Also

Finno-Ugric Religions.


Anttonen, Veikko. Uno Harva ja suomalainen uskontotiede (Uno Harva and the science of religion in Finland). Helsinki, Finland, 1987.

Anttonen, Veikko. "Uno Harva's Studies on Religious Rituals of the Mari." Acta Ethnographica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 35, nos. 34 (1989): 319332.

Anttonen, Veikko. "Uno (Holmberg-)Harva as Field-Ethnographer." In Uralic Mythology and Folklore, edited by Mihály Hoppál and Juha Pentikäinen, pp. 3348. Ethnologica Uralica 1. Budapest, Hungary, and Helsinki, Finland, 1989.

Harva (Holmberg), Uno. Die Wassergottheiten der finnisch-ugrischen Völker. Mémoires de la Société finno-ougrienne 32. Helsinki, Finland, 1913. Republished as Das Wasser des Lebens: Göttingen und Wasserkult [Überarbeitet, egänzt und herausgegeben von Kurt Derungs]. Bern, 1997.

Harva (Holmberg), Uno. Der Baum des Lebens. Annales Academiae Scientiarum Fennicae B 16: 3. Helsinki, Finland, 1922. Republished as Der Baum des Lebens: Göttingen und Baumkult. Bern, 1996.

Harva (Holmberg), Uno. "Über die Jagdriten der nördlichen Völker Asiens und Europas." Journal de la Société finno-ougrienne 41 (1925): 153.

Harva (Holmberg), Uno. Die Religion der Tscheremissen. FF Communications 61. Helsinki, Finland, 1926.

Harva (Holmberg), Uno. Finno-Ugric, Siberian. The Mythology of All Races, 13 vols. Edited by Canon John Arnott MacCulloch; consulting ed., George Foot Moore. Boston, 1927.

Harva (Holmberg), Uno. Die religiösen Vorstellungen der altaischen Völker. FF Communications 125. Helsinki, Finland, 1938.

Harva (Holmberg), Uno. Die religiösen Vorstellungen der Mordwinen. FF Communications 142. Helsinki, Finland, 1952.

Harva (Holmberg), Uno. Les représentations religieuses des peuples altaïques: Traduit de l'allemand par Jean-Louis Perret. L'espèce humaine 15. Paris, 1959.

Harva (Holmberg), Uno. Shamanizumu: Arutai-kei sho minzoku no sekaizō. Tokyo, 1971.

Honko, Lauri. "Uno Harva." In Biographica: Nordic Folklorists of the Past, edited by Dag Strömbäck. Arv. Tidskrift för Nordisk Folklivsforskning 2526: 5766. Stockholm, 1970.

LaBarre, Weston. The Ghost Dance: The Origins of Religion. New York, 1978.

Letters of Kaarle Krohn. Literary Archives, Finnish Literature Society. Helsinki, Finland.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. Sex, Culture, and Myth. New York, 1962.

Veikko Anttonen (2005)