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MA Castrén (1813 - 1852)

Professor of Finnish Language and Literature

Oil painting by G. Budkowski 1845. © Pohjalainen Valtuuskunta / © National Board of Antiquities, Finland. Kemin Kuvaamo. © National Board of Antiquities, Finland.
1973. © National Board of Antiquities, Finland.

The municipality of Tervola is located in Northern Finland and surrounded by forests and hills. Tervola is known for its churches. The oldest wooden church is from the 17th century and in the 19th century one of the parish ministers was a man called Kristian Castrén. His son Matthias Alexander was born on 2 December 1813 and was sent to a Finnish-speaking school in the nearby Oulu, after which he moved on to the University of Helsinki to study classical and oriental languages. Castrén was inspired by the The Kalevala and wanted to explore the origin of Finns. He made two trips to Siberia in the years between 1841 and 1848.

Drawing by MA Castrén. Private ownership.Castrén’s main aim had been to travel to Siberia to study Finno-Ugric languages, but he was unprejudiced and ended up studying thirteen languages, including some that were unrelated to Finnish. Castrén's work includes the first ever grammar of Khanty. Castrén gathered information from many different perspectives and, in addition to being a linguist, he can also be regarded as an ethnologist, folklorist, religious scientist, archaeologist, historian and geographer.
In 1851 he became the first professor of Finnish at the University of Helsinki. Castrén's long and physically exhausting travels resulted in his health being ruined by tuberculosis, and he died when he was only 39.

MA Castrén Society
Finno-Ugrian Society

© National Board of Antiquities, Finland.

Castrén writes in his diary:
I did not even get past my first night
(on the way to the town of Turukhansk) when I found myself in an adventure. In the darkness of the night my driver did not notice that the ice on the Yenisei River was flooded with water seeping from openings in the ice. Alas, he steered us into open water and the reindeer could not pull us to the shore. There we were literally sitting frozen in the river, perplexed, helpless and in danger of frostbite to our limbs. It was only by lucky chance that we were rescued. A courier happened to catch up with us. He helped us out and showed us the way to a Samoyed tent made from birch bark, and that is where I spent the night, warming my chilled blood with tea and the content of the letters he had delivered.

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© Anna Seppo 2010.
© Anna Seppo 2010.