Is sauna a Finnish invention?
Sauna, perhaps more than anything else, is a Finnish institution. It is what we are known for abroad and we take pride in inventing it. Or that’s what we Finns like to think – the truth is somewhat more complicated. Sweat rooms like sauna have existed since time immemorial on all continents and in nearly every culture.
Shamans and sweat lodges
Most indigenous peoples were familiar with steam or sweat baths, whose purpose was to heal the bathers mentally as much as physically. These practices often had a strong religious dimension – including the trance-like states that shamans would induce in themselves.
Among North-American Indian tribes, undergoing ritual steam baths in sweat lodges, where water was thrown on hot stones as a means of healing and purification, was part of the culture. According to some scholars, some tribes were passionate bathers, and would take steam baths daily.
If liquor, sauna and tar won’t help, the illness is deadly.
The Mayans and Aztecs purified themselves both spiritually and physically in special bathing places – they even used something similar to vasta/vihta, the boughs of silver birch used in Finnish sauna for whisking, only they would use herbs and corn leaves. Shamanistic and religious rituals were common.
According to the Shinto faith in Japan, bathing would bring a person into closer contact with God. Sweat baths were also known in ancient India and Syria, and in ancient Greece public baths were common. From there the public baths spread to Rome and Constantinople, where, after falling under the Ottoman empire, they became an established part of the Turkish way of life. In the wake of the Islamic conquest, steam baths were subsequently introduced as far as Western Europe.
From a pile of stones to smoke saunas
The Finnish take on the sauna dates back two thousand years. The most basic type of sauna, used by primitive Finnic peoples, was the earth sauna, which was partly or completely dug into the side of a hill. At its simplest, the earth sauna was just a whole in the ground filled with stones, which after heating were covered with hides supported on poles. It is believed that these saunas already existed in Finland in the prehistoric era. According to researchers, these constructions were very similar to the sweat lodges of Native Americans.
Saunas built from logs were first introduced in Finland and neighbouring regions during the first couple of centuries of the common era. The earliest type of log sauna was a wood-heated smoke sauna, with no chimney, and therefore full of smoke. It was only after the Second World War that chimneys were introduced on a large scale in Finnish saunas.
From cradle to grave – in the sauna, where else!
Besides bathing, the sauna was used in Finland as a drying barn or temporary dwelling. Settlers would typically build the log sauna first and only then the main building and other farm buildings. Finns also believed – and probably many still do – that the sauna cures illnesses, and up until the early 1900s, it was commonplace to give birth in the sauna. When a person died, the body was washed in the sauna, where it remained lying until the burial. In other words, the sauna was an integral and essential part of people’s entire lifecycle.
The sauna featured in all major events of the year: New Year, Lent, Easter, Midsummer and the harvest festival kekri. Spirits were believed to bathe in the sauna on these occasions, too.
With urbanisation in the late 19th century, public saunas became more and more common. In the 1960s, public saunas were replaced by saunas in townhouses and suburban blocks of flats, which were shared by the residents, with each household having their own designated time. At Christmas and during neighbourhood events, the use of the saunas might be shared, with women and men bathing separately, and in some housing companies, weekly shared women’s and men’s saunas were common practice. Higher standards of living and more upmarket housing brought small individual electric saunas to each home, but these saunas are seldom praised for their quality. In recent years, Finns have reverted to the more communal style of sauna bathing, and public saunas are experiencing a small revival in cities.
Why do Finns beat themselves with a bough of silver birch when in the sauna?
A well-loved part of bathing in the sauna is to gently whisk yourself with a fragrant bough made most commonly from silver birch, known as vasta if your family is from the east and vihta if you hail from the west. Native Americans had something similar, but they used corn leaves, willow, eucalyptus or other leafy shrubs. In Mediaeval Europe, the boughs were made of birch or oak. The purpose of the practice is to bring out the sweat and to gently massage the skin.
It is also associated with ancients beliefs. When healing the sick, the patient would be subjected to vasta whisking from top to toe while spells were chanted to drive the pain out of the body. Using nine different tree varities was believed to be particularly potent. Vasta was also used for fortune telling by throwing it onto the roof of the sauna. The position in which the vasta landed on the roof would tell the fate of a newborn baby, and in Midsummer, it would point to the direction from which a future suitor would be arriving.
A land of millions of saunas
The Finnish Sauna Society estimated in 2013 that there were some 3.2 million saunas in Finland. This figure includes saunas that have been built with or without a permit, saunas at people’s summer cottages and makeshift mobile saunas drawn behind a motorcycle. The number of legally built saunas in approximately two million.
The sauna and the Finnish summer go hand in hand. During the summer months, saunas are heated on a daily basis throughout the country, and the Finnish Sauna Society’s international Sauna Festival will be held this year for the 21st time. The sauna is about giving yourself time to indulge in the gentle, relaxing steam, although sometimes Finns turn it into a competition about who can stand the hottest sauna – don’t try this at home! The only thing you want to cook, after all, is the sausage on the barbecue afterwards.