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Karsten, Rafael (1879–1956), sociologist, religion historian, Finland.

Rafael Karsten (1879-1956), a Finnish Scholar of Religion

(A short biography by Ilona Salomaa):

Sigfrid Rafael Karsten was born on Saturday 16 August 1879, at the vicarage of Kvevlax (in Finnish Koivulahti) in the province of Ostrobothnia in Western Finland. Rafael Karsten's father, Klas Edvin Karsten (1836-1908), was vicar of the parish of Kvevlax. Rafael Karsten's mother Maria Augusta Emilia (Emma) (1837-1920), nee Cajanus, had a clerical background, too, as her father, Anders Cajanus, was vicar of Orivesi. Rafael Karsten was born to a family of one God, whose name was omnipotent and spoke in the voice of devout Lutheranism. In spite of being interested in various denominations of Christianity, the aspiration for a strong internalization of Christian dogma aptly described Klas Edvin Karsten's upbringing methods. However, Klas Edvin Karsten's wife, Emma Karsten, was a prominent religious educator at home. In Karsten's family children became conscious of themselves through fear of God, which was a prevailing force of everyday life. Emma Karsten's religiousness and concept of education were sincere. She looked upon religion as a means of salvation which would bring her children safely into society. She desired to separate the profane world from the true religious world and aspired faithfully to educate her children of the teachings of Jesus.

In his childhood Rafael Karsten's belief resembled unconscious belief, since he was trained for life in a Christian society (socialization and enculturation). Very typically for a child he did not question his parents' religious teachings and piety, but accepted them as omnipotent sagacities. In the first place the significant re-orientation of Karsten's life took place when he began his studies at Wasa Svenska Lyceum (secondary school) in 1894. Historical registers and researchers reveal that Wasa Svenska Lyceum (founded in 1641 in Nykarleby) was a school with inspiring teachers. As a seaport, Vaasa was a gateway to international influences and tendencies. Probably this cosmopolitan, marine bustle made Rafael Karsten evaluate his religious world view against a more secular life course. This suggestion is strengthened by the evidence of the record of the University of Helsinki. After finishing his studies at Wasa Svenska Lyceum on 15 June 1899 Rafael Karsten entered the Faculty of Philosophy (Historical-Philological Section, Ostrobothnian department) at the Alexander University on 16 June 1899. Contrary to recommendations, Karsten did not enter the Faculty of Divinity until 23 March 1902 What now becomes important is the question why Karsten entered the Faculty of Philosophy (Arts) (it is a historical fact that often at least one of a clergyman's sons entered the Faculty of Divinity after his matriculation examination). It is clear that during his school years in Vaasa, Karsten used to read the studies of the German scholar Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). They described his expeditions in the regions of Orinoco in Brazil. In his later teens Karsten also read "Red-Indian story-books" which presented Indians as "fascinating individualities". Evidently various travel accounts made an impact on young Karsten and created an interest in foreign countries and nations. The books increased Karsten's mastery of the environment on a psychological level, however, the books alone could not be the principal cause of Karsten's growing spiritual doubts. In retrospect, there had to be simultaneous physical reformers or agents which expanded Karsten's scope of individualism. Perhaps the ships carrying sailors and vagabonds ashore consolidated Karsten's daydreams about exotic countries. Possibly, a liberal circle of friends formulated Karsten's ideas. In reality, school was the ground for the demonstrative arguments and changing beliefs of students at the end of the 19th century. The conclusion to all this is that Karsten's humanistic view of life was born in Vaasa but became consolidated and discernible only when Karsten entered the Alexander University in Helsinki.

At the university it became Rafael Karsten's destiny to find contradiction between theological and humanistic approaches. A latent or awakening discontent with the religion of childhood home came out powerfully. Karsten began to see theological interpretations as conservative, inflexible and outdated. Practically, this meant that he began to see his childhood home's religious life as a negative experience. Why did Karsten finally reject the religion of his childhood home? Firstly, the revolutionary and liberal atmosphere of the university changed Karsten's pattern of thought. The end of the 19th century was a period of intellectual and academic change in Finland. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution found its way to Finland in the early 1860s when various scholars were eager to accept Darwin's scientific ideas. In the wake of evolutionism the ideas of empiricism, liberalism, and socialism also arrived in Finland. With empirical sciences, the Finnish academic thinking pattern also assumed the ideal of positivism as a part of its theoretical terms of reference. The new intellectual tendencies adopted a non-affirmative attitude towards theology and Christianity. The radical ideals of positivism regarded theological study as an ancient relic. Secondly, a pamphleteer for Karsten's intellectual anarchy was cosmopolitan Edward Westermarck, the doyen of Finnish sociologists, whose influence on the young student proved to be decisive. From the first moment Karsten saw Westermarck, Westermarck became a symbol of intelligence, criticality, humanity, thoroughness, and open-mindedness for Karsten. Karsten felt he shared the same ideas, feelings, and academic doubts as Westermarck. Affected by Westermarck's liberal and agnostic outlook on life, Karsten became increasingly aware of the disparity between theological and humanist thinking. Thirdly, Rafael Karsten's independent nature evidently was a significant factor in his spiritual transition and in the emergence of his study on religion. At the same time that Karsten became involved with Westermarck and his teachings, he also launched his own independent style of research. Thus, I believe, Westermarck was ultimately like a window through which a wide scientific panorama came into view. It was this specific drive to free himself from all obligations that marked Karsten's career in comparative religion. Karsten has frequently been described (by Numelin and Hultkrantz) as the most independent of Westermarck's disciples. Finally, the liberal and radical climate of the university and the fervent figure of Westermarck, as mentioned before, made Karsten gradually assess the faith of his childhood home. In an excited state of mind he began to see the strict religious nature of his mother as an irritating legacy. Karsten partly adopted a negative attitude towards the religion of his childhood home since he felt his parents (especially his mother) were too persistent and narrow-minded in their religiousness. Klas Edvin Karsten was perhaps a vicar with a strong will, but his religious nature never irritated Rafael to such an extent as his mother's religious fervour, that is, Klas Edvin Karsten was more of a cosmopolitan person than his wife Emma. But, the sisters also trained their brother Rafael for a life in a religious society. Rafael Karsten's oldest sister especially, the singing teacher Ellen Karsten (1863-1923), responded very vigorously to her brother's endeavour to free himself from any religious attachments. Ellen Karsten considered that a humanist was destitute in comparison to a clergyman, who always had enough money to buy food, clothing and shelter. Although Rafael Karsten's sister Signe Karsten (born 1876) was deeply religious, she adopted a positive attitude towards her brother's choices in the academic world. Rafael Karsten's sister Helmi Karsten (born in 1867, married to the vicar of Kurikka, Yrjö Alanen) also encouraged her brother in his endeavours. As a result of all this, Rafael Karsten drifted into a personal crisis (intellectual change). He stood facing two signposts: one advised him to choose the old belief, and the other opted for a more liberal, evolutionistic view of life. By accepting Westermarck's influence, Karsten replaced his childhood devoutness with ideas of agnosticism and liberalism which criticized the foundations of Christianity. The result of this cognitive soul-searching was that Karsten now felt outside to Christian tradition, when he formerly had been a part of this religious tradition, that is, it meant the rejection of his key belief systems.

Rafael Karsten received his master's degree (filosofie kandidat) on 8 March 1902 at the Alexander University. The overall grade of Karsten's certificate was clarissimus which was the lowest mark. Perhaps the rapid tempo of studies and the unstable political conditions of his learning environment influenced the young student's overall grade. Rafael Karsten undertook his first research project at the British Museum in the beginning of May in 1903. Rafael Karsten's intention was to work at the British Museum reading various studies which were difficult to obtain in Finland at that time. His plan was also to collect material for his doctoral thesis. Rafael Karsten undertook his second trip to England already in February 1904. At that time Westermarck was appointed teacher of sociology at the London School of Economics. Karsten prepared his doctoral thesis at the British Museum and met Westermarck frequently, meanwhile his brother Torsten Karsten took care of his brother's applications for scholarships in Finland. Karsten spent the summer in Finland and returned to the British Museum in September 1904. On October 1905, Finland went on general strike. The students walked in the streets asking what Finland could do in the face of Russia's sanctions. Nineteen days after the general strike, Rafael Karsten's doctoral thesis was presented in the hall of the Historical-Philological Section (on 25 November 1905 at 10 a.m). The title of his thesis was: The Origin of Worship: A Study in Primitive Religion. The focus of the study was the search for the origins of religion. Rafael Karsten's doctoral thesis was the result of radical intellectualism of that time, where an evolutionistic scheme was a valid term of reference of research (Karsten's thesis belonged to a branch of sociology, but was, regardless of that, a study on religion). The doctoral thesis was for Karsten a landmark which guaranteed him the permanent favour and companionship of Westermarck. A month before his doctoral thesis was examined, Rafael Karsten became a member of the Prometheus Society. The main objective of the Prometheus Society was to achieve full freedom of religion. Edward Westermarck and Rafael Karsten were not members of the most radical wing of the society, even if Karsten's anticlerical opinions were quite fanatical, that is, his analysis of Christianity was propagation rather than sedate discussion. Karsten's analysis of Christian faith, Hedendom och kristendom ("Paganism and Christianity"), was published in 1910. In his study Karsten opened up new problems in the history of Christianity and shook its foundations. On taking his Ph.D degree on 11 December 1906, Rafael Karsten received marks in moral and social philosophy (laudatur), Greek literature (laudatur) and general history (approbatur). In 1907, Karsten was appointed docent in comparative religion at the Alexander University.

The late 1900s was for Rafael Karsten a period of academic striving. He carried on his studies in the course of the years 1906, 1907, 1909 and 1910 mainly in the British Museum in London. But he also studied philosophy of law in Berlin (1906, 1907, 1910) and in Cologne (1906) and moral and social philosophy in Paris (1906). The hours spent in the libraries were the most crucial to Karsten's intellectual development. Resolution encouraged hard work. In middle-aged Karsten still preserved his agnosticism. He felt that an individual had a right to believe in whatever he preferred. Karsten was agnostic but not an enemy to religion.One of the most important single factors in describing the Finnish intelligentsia of the turn of the 20th century is the trend known as interest in expeditions and scientific journeys. Ever since the Finnish physicist J. J. Nervander (1805-1848) and the orientalist Georg August Wallin (1811-1852) had undertaken their trips to Italy and Egypt in the middle of the 19th century, Finnish scholars aspired to study abroad. In September 1911 Rafael Karsten undertook his first expedition to South America, in particular to Argentina and Bolivia (to Buenos Aires via Stockholm and London). During his trip Karsten studied the Toba, the Mataco-Noctenes, the Ashluslay, and the Choroti Indians of the Gran Chaco. Karsten's main focus did not lie on the study of the material culture of the Indians but rather on the study of their religious customs. Rafael Karsten returned from Bolivia at the beginning of July 1913. The whole journey had been a great financial struggle although the Alexander Fund awarded a scholarship of FIM 5140 to Karsten in spring 1912. Rafael Karsten undertook his second expedition to South America, Ecuador, at midsummer 1916. Edward Westermarck and his close friend, the Professor of Aesthetics Yrjö Hirn, wrote Karsten a good letter of recommendation and so the Faculty of Philosophy awarded him a scholarship of 8000 Finnish marks (per year). Presumably, Karsten's intention was to travel earlier but the air of political excitement delayed his plans. Karsten desired to study the Jibaros of the Amazonas area which had preserved their cultural and political independence in spite of the Catholic missionaries. Rafael Karsten had difficulties in returning from Ecuador. The political instability (World War I), difficulties with loading the collections, and anxiety about his teaching duties at the university as well as homesickness, lack of money, the loss of his Russian passport, and the loss of letters sent by relatives and friends all contributed to Karsten's pessimistic frame of mind. These sad experiences developed Karsten's ethical thinking. He learned that the world was more hypocritical and insincere than he had thought, and that nations were not equals (because of the red rebellion in Finland, Finnish citizens were not allowed to enter Great Britain, as Great Britain was anxious about the spreading of Leninist Bolshevism). However, Karsten convinced the British officers of his (political) innocence and they issued him travel permit (to Finland via Liverpool). Rafael Karsten arrived safely in Finland in the autumn 1919. Meanwhile, Finland had gained independence.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Karsten concentrated on publishing the research findings of his expeditions. He had developed into a genuine Americanist who also participated in numerous congresses around the world (Gothenburg 1923, 1924, Hamburg 1930, Lund 1932 and London 1934). In the 1920s, Karsten turned his attention to German anthropologists and their fieldwork experiences in South America (Karl von den Steinen, Theodor Preuss, Gunther Tessman and Theodore Koch-Grunberg). Rafael Karsten was married to Margit Boldt on 5 December 1921 in Helsinki. The courtship had began already in 1914. Margit Boldt, a daughter of the founder of the Finnish local folklore movement, Johan Georg Robert Boldt (1861 - 1923), was inevitably the woman of his life. Margit Boldt, born on 7 May 1892, was thirteen years younger than Rafael Karsten. She had entered the girls' school "Apollo" in 1903 and took her matriculation examination in 1911. She also studied music in the Music Institute of Helsinki. Later, Margit Boldt taught music to children. Rafael and Margit Karsten's first daughter, Eva Margareta Maria, was born on 3 October 1922 (in Helsinki) and the twins Rolf Robert and Margit Elisabet on 18 July 1924 (in Helsinki). Ultimately, family life mellowed Rafael Karsten who, from the moment his daughter Eva was born, was constantly worried about the prosperity of his family. However, the children have reported that their father was a strict disciplinarian at home. One of the most significant issues concerning Rafael Karsten's scholarly career, occurred in January 1922, when he was appointed professor of moral and social philosophy at the University of Helsinki. It was claimed that Karsten was appointed the professorial post due to his satisfactory command of the Finnish language and his independence as a researcher (a man without too many social, political and scholarly commitments). At the same year, The Royal Academy of Sciences in Sweden awarded Rafael Karsten the Loubatian prize (4800 kronas) for Blood Revenge, War and Victory Feast among the Jibaro Indians of Ecuador and Bland Indianer i Ecuadors urskogar I-II. The first significant intellectual clash between Karsten and Westermarck already took place in 1919 when Karsten expressed his disapproval of Westermarck's theory about the function of primeval art. Then, Westermarck felt that Karsten's criticism on his concept of art was unfair and groundless. In 1927, Edward Westermarck published his autobiography Minnen ur mitt liv ("Memories of My Life", 1929). A peculiar point is that Rafael Karsten is almost totally forgotten in Westermarck's life history. Westermarck mentions Karsten once or twice in the context of the Prometheus Society. Inevitably, an obstinate dispute about primeval art had taken its toll.

During the exceptionally warm summer 1927, Rafael Karsten travelled to Petsamo. His aspiration was to study the so-called Skolt-Lapps (Saami). Rafael Karsten had for a long time been interested in the religion of the Fenno-Scandinavian Laplanders. The reason for Karsten's study on the religion of the Saami is somewhat obscure. A year later, in September 1928, Karsten undertook his third expedition to South America. He travelled to Guayaquil (Ecuador) via Berlin, Hamburg and Antwerp. The trip was partly paid for by the Finnish state, partly by the University of Helsinki. According to Rafael Karsten, the trip was necessary if he desired to finish and publish his study of the Jibaro Indians. In practice this meant that Karsten wanted to verify de novo his earlier observations and notions and thus conclude his investigations on the Jibaro Indians and their culture. In spring 1929, Rafael Karsten stopped in Cuzco when returning from Iquitos and Lima. Karsten had become interested in the old Inca culture when studying the Jibaro Indians of eastern Ecuador. The historical relationship between the Jibaros and the Incas made Karsten interested in the latter. Yet, it is important to take into account that Karsten never went into raptures at archaeological investigations and thus his most significant research work was done in the archives of Madrid and Copenhagen.

In the 1930s, Rafael Karsten's academic career proceeded with giant leaps. He was very active on many scholarly fronts. He wrote articles on religious customs and the social life of South American Indians, published extensive monographs and studies (Indian Tribes of the Argentine and Bolivian Chaco, The Head-Hunters of Western Amazonas, The Origin of Religions, Uskontotieteen perusteet, Inkariket och dess kultur i forna Peru), participated in ethnological congresses around the world, was a member of many scientific societies, taught sociology and philosophy at Jyväskylä Summer University (1930, 1931), was a lecturer of Spanish at the Swedish School of Economics, led seminars at the workers' institute of Viipuri (Viipurin työväenopiston kerho) (1929-1931), and undertook his fourth fieldwork trip to South America, Peru, to study the ancient Inca culture. During the period 1930-1932, Karsten was also a member of Sällskapet för Psykisk forskning ("Society of Psychic Research"). On 5 July 1932, Rafael Karsten's close associate Baron Erland Nordenskiöld died in Gothenburg. Although, Erland Nordenskiöld's role in assisting Karsten's expeditions to Bolivia, Argentina and Ecuador was incontestable, relations between the two scholars were not harmonious. The unbalanced nature of their friendship gradually became visible. First, Karsten reproached Nordenskiöld for misunderstanding his interest in ethnography. Then, came the huairu game controversy when Karsten opposed Nordenskiöld's views of the function of the ancient Indian dice game and finally, in 1929, Karsten and Nordenskiöld argued over the academic qualifications of American scholars. The polemics continued until the death of Nordenskiöld in 1932. In 1937, Rafael Karsten caught malaria in Peru. He had undertaken his fourth expedition to South America in spring 1937. The purpose of Karsten's fourth fieldwork trip was to collect ethnological data concerning the old Inca culture. As a result of the inadequate hygienic conditions of Peru and Bolivia Karsten contracted malaria. He had to leave the field two months earlier than planned. Karsten arrived home via Panama and New York in September 1937. The trip was not in vain. In 1938, Karsten published his first Inca study Inkariket och dess kultur i det forna Peru ("The Civilization of the Inca Empire in Ancient Peru"). The book received instantaneous attention and the Society of Swedish Literature in Finland awarded Karsten the Mauritz Hallbergian Prize on 16 May 1940. The "Head-Hunters" and Inca research are still the most famous of his monographs. Both books have been translated into several languages (French, Spanish) and reprinted several times. All in all, in the 1930s Rafael Karsten was an independent and versatile scholar, whose academic activity was free from any binding attachment. It is possible to argue that Karsten had found religious balance in his life, which meant that a life without Christian dogma as a main motivator was possible. His academic emphasis lay now on the study of religion as a universal phenomenon.

In his old age, Karsten's attitude towards religion was mixed. His critical attitude towards the Christian faith had become milder, and he no longer published pamphlets against Christianity and its foundations. He preserved his independence from the austere Lutheranism of his childhood home but was no longer so critical about Christian dogma. In the 1940s and 1950s the target of Karsten's criticism changed. It was now the new modern sociology which arrived in Finland after World War II. Karsten felt that modern trends in social science had undervalued the work of old Westermarckian ethnosociologists. In the 1950s he resigned from the committees he considered to be excessively eager supporters of modern sociology. On the eve of World War II (on 3 September 1939) the Westermarckians received sad news; the most influential Finnish social anthropologist of the early 1900s had died. Rafael Karsten recalled his mentor and colleague Edward Westermarck by praising his clear pattern of thought. However, a year later Karsten gave a negative answer when his associate Rolf Lagerborg asked his consent to become a member of Westermarck Society. According to Karsten, sociology had to look to the future, taking into account the circumstances and requirements of modern society. Rafael Karsten believed that he could develop Westermarck's sociology by modernizing its methodology and scholarly aims, but reality differed from Karsten's patterns. Besides, not only the topics of sociology but also the subjects of comparative religion were changing. Consequently, Karsten's pattern of thought turned upside down once again. In spite of the late friction between Karsten and Westermarck, Karsten remained an immovable supporter of Westermarckian science (evolutionary anthropology) all his life.

When the war between Finland and Russia broke out again, after the truce of 1941, Rafael Karsten's children Rolf and Eva Karsten were sent to the front. Eva Karsten was acting as lotta, a volunteer who performed communication services at the front whereas her brother, Rolf Karsten, fought in Äänislinna. Rafael Karsten and the rest of his family were compelled, due to the heavy bombing, to leave their home in Kulosaari in Helsinki and move temporarily to their summer cottage in Lohja (Lojo). Life changed. The war destroyed people's idealism and Rafael Karsten, too, saw the "pollyannaism" of his early life as a peculiar historical phenomenon. According to Karsten, World Wars I and II taught people that education or civilization as such did not humanize an individual or make her morally superior. Rafael Karsten's whole outlook changed into pessimistic pondering. On 16 August 1946, Karsten retired from his position as professor of moral and social philosophy at the University of Helsinki. A few days later, Rafael Karsten and his Finnish-Swedish expedition (Expedicion Amazonica 1946-47) voyaged from Oslo aboard m/s Martin Bakke to Guayaquil in Ecuador. Along with Rafael Karsten the other participants on the expedition were Eva Karsten, and the Swedish ethnographers Bengt Danielsson, Göran Wannberg, and Gunnar Harling. Rafael Karsten's greatest ambition was to establish a hacienda, a house, in Ecuador which would gradually grow into a research station open for all Scandinavian explorers. Rafael Karsten's dream never came true. The circumstances in Ecuador were too harsh to build a permanent research station. This was perhaps one of the greatest disappointments of his life.

After returning from Ecuador, Karsten began to work with his study on the religion of the Saami (published in 1952). At that time Rafael Karsten was "the fighting professor" which meant that he was hard on his scholarly opponents. Karsten himself called the era humbug par excellence. Gradually, Karsten became disillusioned with the whole world. The fact underlying Karsten's academic disillusion was his personal conflict: he felt totally lonely, but at the same time considered himself an expert of well-nigh everything. In the 1940s, Karsten complained that the University of Helsinki had abandoned him, without taking any interest in his knowledge. However, Rafael Karsten's self-pity sounds ludicrous in the light of Professor Veli Verkko's notion that Karsten's book Naturfolkens samhällsliv ("The Social life of Primitive People") was still on the curriculum in 1955. One source of Karsten's confusion was his inability to make the distinction between his own and others' studies. Over the years, Karsten had accused the American ethnologist Paul Rivet of plagiarism in his Jibaro studies. Surprisingly, Rafael Karsten who had earlier stated that South America was large enough for numerous ethnologists, was now claiming that the Jibaros had been thoroughly studied and should be left in peace. In autumn 1949, Karsten attacked on Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki Expedition. The controversy between the two scholars became most visible in the media. At the time, Karsten could not accept Heyerdahl's views that Polynesia was settled from Peru. Karsten believed that the Polynesian islands had been settled from Asia, from Japan, for instance. In 1951, at the age of 72, Karsten undertook his last fieldwork trip to South America. A year before he had been a founder member of the Sociedad Argentino-Finlandesa. At that time, he was also invited to be a corresponding member of the Bolivian Society of Americanists. During his last fieldwork trip, Karsten visited the Shipibo Indians of eastern Peru with his wife Margit Karsten. For the first time, Margit Karsten followed her husband to South America and the trip became "the greatest adventure of her life". When the couple was returning from their expedition, Rafael Karsten was knocked down by a police car in Buenos Aires. Karsten injured his leg and head and his pelvis was fractured. He had to spend one month in a hospital but survived. Rafael Karsten travelled to South America for the last time in August 1954. He then with the Danish Kaj Birket-Smith participated in an anthropological conference in Sao Paulo in Brazil. On 5 October 1954 Karsten resignated from The Finnish Society of Sciences and Letters. Rafael Karsten died suddenly on 21 February 1956 while waiting to see a doctor for a routine physical examination. On walking into the examination room, the man of science died literally in his wife's arms. It had been Rafael Karsten's ultimate desire once more to visit his childhood locality, Kvevlax and Vaasa. Besides, there were three unfinished works in his study. Unfortunately, destiny cut short the life of an explorer. The cause of death was a heart attack. A year later Rafael Karsten's close friend Ragnar Numelin stated: "Rafael Karsten was a colourful, combatant, temperamental, and exact man of science. He was a university lecturer, scholar, and explorer". We have to believe this is the truth.

Author: Ilona Salomaa, Post-doctoral researcher,
Department of Comparative Religion, University of Helsinki
e-mail: ilonasalomaa@hotmail.com

For more information on Rafael Karsten, see;
Salomaa, Ilona 2002. "Rafael Karsten (1879-1956) as a Finnish Scholar of Religion" (Academical dissertation. Helsinki 2002. Http://www.ethesis.helsinki.fi)

Acta Americana / Special Issue in English on Rafael Karsten, Vol. 1, Nr 2, 1993 (various writers)

Works by Rafael Karsten

(the most significant):


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