There is 5,5 million inhabitants in Finland and 3,5 million saunas. That makes 0,5 saunas for each Finn. If you live in Finland, if you have lived in Finland or if you have just visited Finland it is more than likely that you have been to sauna.
You can find different types of saunas from other parts of the globe as well but in Finland sauna is major part of the culture and national identity.
For example Native Americans have their sweat tents that are used for shamanistic purposes. Same goes with the original purpose of Finnish sauna. Sauna was a place for shamanistic practice and spirituality. Sweating was seen as spiritual process. It wasn't just physical purification but also mental cleaning of the body. Sweat lots that have been used for spiritual purposes have been found also from India and Africa.
Bath house culture in Europe originally started in the ancient Greece. Bath house culture however back then wasn't that much about shamanism or spirituality. For ancient Greeks going to a bathhouse was more a social event. Later on when Rome took over the world of ancient Greece they also adopted the bathhouse culture. After the fall of western Roman empire conquers from Turkey and other eastern Byzantium adopted the bathhouse culture and that is how bathhouse culture spread to eastern Europe.
Turkish sauna however is more similar to steam room and temperature doesn't rise above 40C unlike in Finnish sauna.
Early Middle-Age Europe there was bathhouses build next to several monasteries. Washing and healing waters believed to have powers to purify the soul as well.
Later in the Middle-Ages and Renaissance era Europe was battlefield of constant different religious conflicts. Bathhouses in monasteries started to get questionable reputation as vulgar entertainment and destroyer of morality. Which is why bathhouse culture disappeared from most parts of Europe for a long time. It is interesting to think why sauna culture has survived in Finland 'till today.
I doubt that modern Finns put lots of thought to wonder why they go to sauna or why Finns love to be in the sauna. Once I read lovely comparison; it said that; sauna is as important for Finns as drinking tea for English. I'm a Finn and don't spent much time analyzing why I go to sauna. It's a learned habit. Maybe it's a subconscious habit. Perhaps I go to sauna because my ancestors did.
Once I read a theory that was created by some foreign professors. They thought that ancient Finns went to sauna to do sun worship rituals. I think this theory is quite amusing. I don't believe it's very accurate since the first saunas that have been found in Finland are earth saunas (ground saunas).
Earth sauna is a sauna build underground. You can only see a tiny bulge and chimney coming up from the ground. Naturally earth sauna is extremely dark place so I don't really buy the sun worship theory.
Most common sauna type beside earth sauna is the forest sauna. Forest saunas is type where most of the modern Finnish saunas are based on.
Ever since there has been people living in Finland there also has been saunas. Ancient Finns had animistic/shamanistic world view. According to animistic world view everything in nature has it's own soul and spirit. In Finland nature and four seasons are constantly present in the everyday life. Sauna is relevant during each seasons and especially around major holidays like Midsummer celebration and Christmas.
Imagine a person who lived in ancient Finland. If he wanted to build a house for himself first he would build the sauna. Building a house was very time consuming and very sweaty thing to do. This person could live in the sauna until the house was ready.
Ancient Finns also gave birth in the sauna. It was very common that coming mother and her midwifes spent several days living in the sauna, even weeks while preparing coming mother for giving birth (this custom was also practiced in all three Baltic countries; Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania where saunas are called as pirtis).
Sauna was also related to death. If person died his or her body was washed in the sauna and body was also left to the sauna until the burial.
There is also lots of Finnish folklore and myths related to sauna:
According to Kalevala Poems first cats were born in the Sauna
"I know the cat's origin
the incubation of Graybeard
The cat was gotten on a stove
as a girls nose
a hares head
a tail of "Hiisi's plait of hair"
claws of a viper
a tail of snakes venom
Feet of cloud berries
the rest of it's body
is of the wolf's race"
Graybeard refers to an elf who blew life to the cats on a stove.
There is lot's of elf mythology in Finland.
One myth tells that person who build the sauna or first time took a bath in the sauna became the guardian spirit of the sauna, sauna elf.
Sauna was related to birth, life and death. In many ways sauna was seen as a portal between the visible world and the invinsible spiritual world.
According to the animistic world view of the ancient Finns human beings had three souls (I will make separate blog post about this at some point). One of the soul was called löyly. Löyly represented life inside the body; breathing and other body functions. Löyly is one of the oldest words in Finnish language still used by modern Finns but now löyly represents the steam rising from the sauna stove. Word is very similar in other Finno-Ugric languages.
In Hungarian language löyly is called lelek and in mari language löyly is called lel.
Perhaps the biggest part of sauna in shamanism has been it's relaxing and healing affects. That are still recognized today.
It has been scientifically proved that going to sauna can release stress, steam breathing helps with allergies, being in the sauna can ease physical pain in the body and help with sleeping problems.
Since I live abroad sometimes I've come across with people that have lot's of weird prejudices about sauna. Especially the fact that Finns go to sauna naked confuses people from other cultures.
Sauna however is foremost an asexual place. For some it is place for social events and some enjoy just being in their own company.
Since there are saunas in majority of Finnish homes it can be very private place as well. In bathhouses and swimming halls it is not recommended that people were swimsuits in saunas because they release toxic to the air. Then again Finnish swimming halls have separate saunas and showers for men and women. There are also public saunas in Finland. Many times you can find them around summer in the public beaches and other places. In public sauna swimming suits are of course mandatory.
Majority of saunas in modern Finnish homes are electric ones. You can also find smoke saunas and wooden saunas. Especially in the summer cabins and in the country side.
One of the major elements in Finnish sauna culture is vihta (western Finland) or vasta (eastern Finland). Vihta/vasta is bouquet made from tree branches. Originally vihta/vasta has meant broomstick made from leaves. I'm going to use word vasta now since that's the one I usually use.
Traditionally Finns tap them selves and each others with vasta when they are in the sauna. This also goes way back to the shamanistic practice. Vastominen was a magical process where person could clean their body from sickness and bad thoughts. Also if family wanted to have lovely scent to the sauna vasta was left to stay in a bucket filled with water over night and the next day this water was poured to the sauna stove. Sometimes people also might throw bucket of beer to the stove and get very earthy scent from that as well. Vastominen also has scientific influences on one's health since it increases blood flowing faster.
In the old days people did lot's of magic during Midsummer. Making vasta's to the midsummer sauna was also folk magic. Different trees had different meanings so the person could pick tree branches from those trees that he or she wanted to have power. For example vasta made from oak tree leaves was believed to bring wisdom and knowledge, different kinds of flowers in vasta was great for love spells. If person wanted to stay in good health all year around they should pick branches from blackcurrant bushes.
Vasta is not only Finnish or Slavic thing. Native Americans also use vasta's in their sweat tents and in the anciet Maya culture Mayas used vasta's in their sweating rooms. Interestingly enough vasta's of the Mayas were made from corn leafs.
Photo sources: Yle ja kuva-arkisto
Artist and Illustrator. Mythology and Folklore enthusiastic. Keen traveler. Comes from Finland. Likes cats, tea, and such.