Research Profile

Over the past three decades, I have focused my scholarly attention to the category of the sacred. I have explored diverse archaelogical, ethnographic and folkloric data in order to track down ways of using terms denoting ‘sacred’ in Finno-Ugric and Indo-European  languages in diverse geographical and social contexts around the Baltic Sea Culture Area  prior and after semantic changes brought by Christianity. My primary intention has been to unravel the mental architecture and cultural logic by which the ‘sacred’ was used both as a territorial, corporeal and social signifier. There is no hidden theological agenda in my approach. I have aimed to explain why topography has made a difference in the formation of pre-theological religious terrains. I have paid attention to topographically anomalous sites and places out in the wilderness regions, such as springs, rapids, marshes, lakes and mountains, in order to makes sense of distinct forms of attributing sacredness to the landscape. Also, in regard to major world’s religions, my approach is designed to explain eg. why the Mosaic laws assign pig the status of a defiled (forbidden, tabooed, and thus sacred) animal – rules still observed by both Jews and Muslims?  In reference to folklore studies, I have paid attention on properties on the basis of which rowan tree and its red berries were deemed ‘sacred’, and the question why sacredness is closely connected with the symbolic significance ascribed to female body in the overall system of classifications within the community boundaries. What is at stake in the analysis, concerns purity and propriety rules revolving around women’s behavior during their menstruation period and in the late stage of pregnancy? I have aimed to create a counter-argument against phenomenological interpretations, which emphasize religious experience and the subsequent introspective emotion as the prime avenue for understanding the sacred. I have defined the sacred as a category boundary, which is actualized in context-specific situations when transformations take place in the perception of bodily, temporal and territorial boundaries.

In addition to issues related to identifying spatio-cognitive parameters of religion and mythology, I have expanded my field of scholarly vision into the role that human body plays in religion. One of my recent publications discussed the case of a Finnish pastor who in 2008 underwent sex reassignment surgery. The pastor’s decision to change sex and become a woman gave rise to heated debates within the Lutheran Church as well as in the media. From the scholarly perspective, this case raises important questions about the meaning and perceptions of the body and gender of a priest as well as about the logic of value-laden boundary-making between the categories of the self, of the society and of the human body more generally. Currently, I am working with Professor Emerita Anna-Leena Siikala from the University of Helsinki on a co-authored volume on the Encyclopedia of Finnish-Karelian Mythology to be published in Finnish in 2017 by the Finnish Literature Society. Also the volume will be part of the 10-volume series The Encyclopedia of Uralic Mythologies to be published both in Russian and in English.

I have published ao. an intellectual biography on Uno Holmberg-Harva, a pioneer of comparative religion in Finland (Uno Harva ja suomalainen uskontotiede, 1987) and more than 140 articles in various journals and edited volumes. In my doctoral dissertation which came out in 1996 as Ihmisen ja maan rajat. ‘Pyhä’ kulttuurisena kategoriana, I explored the semantic history of the category of the sacred.  In my recent book from 2010 I discuss “territories and maps of religious studies” (Uskontotieteen maastot ja kartat). I have also, together with Dr. Ilkka Pyysiäinen from the University of Helsinki, co-edited the book Current Approaches in the Cognitive cience of Religion (Continuum, 2002). I was the editor-in-chief of Temenos. Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion between 2004 and 2011. Other scholarly work include contributions to The Sacred and its Scholars, edited by Thomas Idinopulos and Edward A. Yonan (Brill, 1996); Guide to the Study of Religion edited by Willi Braun and Russell T. McCutcheon (Cassell, 2000), Perspectives on Method and Theory in the Study of Religion edited by Russell T. McCutcheon & Armin Geertz (Brill, 2000), and Religion as a Human Capacity edited by Timothy Light and Brian C. Wilson (Brill, 2004). My articles on shamanism have been published in the journal Shaman, the Encyclopedia of Shamanism (ABC-CLIO, 2005), and A Lion Handbook of World Religions (Lion Publishing, 2005). I have also contributed to the 2nd edition of the Encyclopedia of Religion edited by Lindsay Jones (Macmillan Reference USA, 2005).

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