Did you know than in ancient Finland sauna´s were so much more than just bath houses. They were sacred places where shamanic ritual were performed.
Land of saunas
Finland is known as the land of saunas. There is well over 3 million saunas in Finland which is quite a lot for a country with population of 5.5 million. Most of the detached houses have saunas. There are sauna´s in boats. There are portable sauna´s. I´ve even seen sauna caravans. When I was a student there was a tiny sauna in my small student flat where I couldn´t even stretch my feet (good times). Many Finnish families have summer cabins with lake-side saunas. But did you know that this obsession for saunas goes back all the way 10 000 years to the time when first hunter-gatherer tribes arrived to the area of what is now known as Finland during the last ice age.
Origins of sauna
There has been lots of suggestions made to explain the origins of the word sauna. It is widely considered to be Uralic word and it´s original form was savńa which meant a pit in a ground that was heated and then covered with an animal skin. These kind of saunas can not be found from Finland anymore and closest to them would be so called tent saunas which are similar to native american sweat lodges. Finnish word sauna has similarities in other Finno-Ugric and Finno-Baltic languages like Estonian (sauna) and northern saami (suovdnji). In Finno-Ugric Komi language that is spoken by the Komi people in Siberia words sa una means lot´s of smoke. Where these first ground sauna´s were invented is difficult to tell but we know that in Finland first sauna-like buildings were build in the stone age. Like among several other hunter cultures the belief system of these early settlers was animistic-shamanic and they believed that everything in nature had it´s own soul and spirit.
Global sauna history
Native American sweat tents were (and are) used the same way as warmed pits were in Finland and northern Europe/Asia. Sweating was considered to be not just physical but also spiritual cleansing of the soul. Sweat lodges that were used for shamanic rituals have also been found from India and Africa.
Bath house culture in Europe originated from ancient Greece. Early Greek bath houses however were not made for spiritual purposes but solely for relaxation and socialisation. Later on when Romans took over they spread bathing culture far and wide. During the time of the Ottoman Empire Turkish bath house culture spread into Eastern Europe. Biggest difference between traditional Finnish sauna and Turkish sauna is that temperature in the Turkish sauna never goes above 40 degrees while in Finnish sauna temperature can go up to 60 degrees and above.
In the early Medieval period around Europe there was custom to build bathing areas/sweat lodges next to monasteries and it was widely believed that bathing would have spiritual effects. During the heart of the Middle Ages (1000 -1300 AD) and late Middle Ages (1300-1500 AD) Europe was a constant battle field between different religious groups and bathing started to get questionable reputation as destroyer of people´s morals. This is one of the reasons why most parts of Europe bathing culture disappeared and several bath houses were destroyed.
Circle of Life
Bathing and sauna culture managed to stay alive and well in northern Europe and Baltic countries simply because they were some of the last countries in Europe that were converted into Christianity.
Before any of the modern hospitals existed it was very common in Finland that women gave birth in the sauna. This is believed to have it´s roots in old shamanic tradition where sauna was believed to be a portal between our world and the spirit world(s). There was a custom to take the body of a dead person into the sauna before the burial. Sauna was connected to both birth and death also big celebrations of life (like weddings) included ritualistic sauna visits. Going to the sauna was also part of yearly festivals (Kekri, the harvest festival and Ukonvakat the summer solstice).
Pagan church of ancient Finns
In ancient Finnish pagan faith person was believed to have three souls. They were called itse, löyly and haltija. Itse was similar to psyche. Human´s personality. Haltija could be described as the higher-self or in some cases a guardian spirit. Löyly meant the body-soul and all the body functions such as breathing. In modern Finnish language löyly means the steam that comes from the sauna stove. Löyly has similarities in other Finno-Ugric languages. In Hungarian löyly is lelek and in Mari language lel.
Going to the sauna was like going to the church. It was a sacred ritual and person had to follow the sauna rules. Sauna also had it´s own spirit called löylynhenki. Depending on which area the person lived sauna spirit was either male or female called löylynhengetär. Spirit of the sauna would not tolerate disrespectful behavior and could even haunt the person who misbehaved.
In ancient Finland when a person started to build a house for themselves first thing that they build was the sauna. This was because of practical reasons. Building house was a sweaty business and one could also spent their nights in the sauna resting until the house was ready. According to some folk tales the first person who took a bath in the sauna became the guardian spirit of the sauna saunatonttu (the sauna elf) after they passed away. In Finnish folklore elves were guardian spirits of buildings and often connected to ancestral worship. Saunatonttu is also one of the most well-known characters in Finnish folklore.
The most important shamanic aspects of the sauna was it´s healing properties. Sometimes shaman would take the ill patient to the sauna and in the shamanic trance they would travel into the spirit world to seek the spirit of the sick person and try to bring it back. It is also possible that sauna was a symbol of the womb which would explain why so many rituals connected birth, life and death that took place in the sauna. There are little evidence of the early goddess cult in Finland but both the earth goddess Akka and Louhi goddess of witchcraft and shamanism were likely connected to sauna shamanism. After all people were born from the earth and when they died that is where they returned.
Like a powerful shaman sauna would help to heal the person both it´s body and soul. Healing properties of the sauna are still recognised today. It is scientifically proven that visiting the sauna reduces stress, inhaling the steam helps people with allergies, it can also ease physical pain and increase the quality of sleep.
Bundles of Healing
One of the elements that are part of Finnish sauna experience is vihta (western Finland) and/or vasta (eastern Finland). Vihta/vasta originally meant a leaf broomstick. It literally is a bundle made of fresh tree branches. In shamanistic rituals they were used to gently brush the body to drive away bad thoughts and illnesses (scientifically this increases the circulation of blood). To create good scent into the sauna water where the bundle was kept was thrown into to the stove.
During pagan times making the bundle was part of a ritual because each tree had it´s own magical meaning. If person wanted to become more wise they made a bundle from oak leaves. If one had problems with asthma they made a bundle from blackcurrant. Juhannus the midsummer festival was time for making love spells. Women especially made special vihtas for the Juhannus-sauna where they picked branches from trees that were connected to love magic.
Vihtas and vastas were not only Finnish or Slavic thing. Several native american tribes also used bundles made of tree leaves in shamanic rituals performed in sweat lodges and ancient Mayan´s used bundles made of corn leaves in their purification rituals.
While many of these ancient pagan beliefs that our ancestors connected to sauna are long gone sauna still has very important role in Finnish culture. Going to "special" holiday sauna´s during Christmas and summer solstice are living traditions. Sauna´s are also popular in Russia where sauna is called banya and in Sweden sauna is called bastu. In both countries sauna´s can be mostly found from country side. In Estonia interestingly enough sauna´s can be only found from certain parts of the country. Mostly from southern Estonia and Virumaa.
While living abroad I have faced all kinds of interesting and sometimes amusing prejudices about saunas. One thing that often creates confusion is the fact that Finns go sauna naked. Well..sauna is a hot place. It makes no sense to go there fully covered and in Finnish culture sauna has always been an asexual place and as it is common in Finnish culture even when we are in the sauna we respect the personal space of the others. In swimming halls there are separate sauna´s for men and women. Open sauna´s near beaches and sauna ferries are often unisex sauna´s but in those of course you need to wear swimsuits.
There is a wonderful sauna ferry in my old home town. On a hot summer day you can sit in the sauna chatting with your friends and jump straight into the river. What more could you ask for. If you like extremes try the traditional country side Christmas sauna. After sitting in the sauna until your skin is warmer than a fallen meteorite run into the snow and roll around. There is no such thing as cold. When you start to feel slight chill it´s time to return to the sauna. Congratulations you are reborn as a Finn.
I turned some of my photographs to prints. You can find them from my store )O( Thanks for popping by :D
Magic of the north
Growing up in north-western Finland I´v seen northern lights several times. Living near the sea dancing lights I saw were mostly green but every time when I went up north to visit my grandparents I saw northern lights in all colors of the rainbow. Still today when I see northern lights during dark October nights I see them as true miracle of nature and I understand how they captivated minds of the people in the past same way as they captivate the imagination of a modern human. There are several myths told about the northern lights and I will share some of them with you.
Estonian Celestial Wedding
In Estonia there is interesting myth told about the birth of the northern lights. According to Estonian myths northern lights were created when humpback whales were playing games and their scales are reflected into the night sky.
Another Estonian folk tale tells us that northern lights are born when spectacular horse drawn carriages are carrying heavenly guests into magnificent celestial wedding.
Firefox of the Saami's
In the Lapland of Finland northern lights were believed to be created by a magical giant fox called Tulikettu. Foxes were hunted because of their fur and it was believed that great fox hunter was also a great shaman. Tulikettu was like the Phoenix of all foxes and there could only be one fire fox at time. It was believed that the hunter who catch the fire fox would live in great wealth for the rest of their life. Fire fox however was so fast that no one could ever catch it. When it ran in the snowy hills it´s fur and tail brushes would create sparks that would fly into the skies and turn into northern lights. Finnish word for northern lights revontulet literally means fox´s fires.
Lapland, Scandinavia and Greenland
According to another Saami myth northern lights were spume of water ejected from whales swimming in the arctic sea.
For fishermen in northern Sweden northern lights were a good prophecy. Omen that there was large groups of herrings swimming by.
In Norse myths aurora borealis thought as reflections of the shining spears, armors and helmets of the valkyries. The warrior women who rode on horseback leading fallen soldiers to Valhalla. Sometimes northern lights were believed to be the Bifrost Bridge. Magical arc that lead straight into Valhalla the home of the gods and goddesses.
For the Inuits in Greenland northern lights were spirits of still born babies and even children that had been killed after birth.
Northern Lights in Inuit and Native American Myths
Native American myths about the Aurora Borealis vary great deal same way as the traditions and cultures of different tribes.
Algonquin´s the natives of Ottawa and Ontario in Canada believe that northern lights were created by their creator spirit Nanahbozho. For them it was a sign that he was always watching over them.
For the Menominee´s native American tribe of the Wisconsin area northern lights were torches used by evil giants when they speared fish at night.
Inuit´s living in Point Arrow, the most northern point of Alaska believed strongly that northern lights were evil and suspicious and they could come down from the skies and kill a man. They carried knives with them to protect themselves from them.
Inuits of Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea thought that northern lights were created by a walrus spirits who were playing with human skulls.
Makah´s, native american tribe from the Washington state told stories about a tribe of dwarfs who boiled whale blubber. Another myth which connects Aurora to cooking comes from Mandan from north Dakota where people believed that in the northern lights there lived great warriors who cooked their enemies heads in massive pots.
Aurora in Greek Mythology
Aurora Borealis are a rare sight in such southern parts of Europe as Greece but for the ancient Greece there was nothing that could have not be explained without the presence of gods and goddesses. In Greek Aurora means sunrise and boreas means the wind. Aurora was the sister to Helios the sun god and Seline the moon goddess. In Greek myth sun and the day are born when Helios and Seline ride in the skies with their celestial wagons. Sometimes Aurora joins the ride but her wagon is made of vivid dancing colors. She is assisted by god of the northern wind Boreas who gives her chariot a nice blow.
Fight of the dragons, Northern Lights of the East
It is not very common to see Aurora Borealis in the firmament of Japan or China but when they are seen they are considered to be mystical powerful occasions.
In Japan child conceived under northern lights is believed to receive good looks, intelligence and great fortune.
In China Aurora Borealis are connected to the stories and legends about mighty dragons. Lights in the skies are good and evil dragons testing their powers against one another and breathing fire.
Australian Aboriginals do not see northern lights but southern lights, Aurora Australis. For the aboriginals Aurora Australis represents their beloved deities and spirit dancing in the celestial sky.
Central Europe and Britain
Northern Lights are rare phenomena in central and southern Europe. Before people knew the science behind the northern lights people lived in an atmosphere where all supernatural things were frightening and northern lights terrified people. In Italy and France northern lights were thought to predict war, plague and mass deaths.
In north of Scotland where northern lights are more common they are called dancing merry men representing souls of the soldiers who died in a battle.
Be Careful When You Whistle
Some Native American tribes believed that northern lights were trickster spirits who would come down if someone whistled and would kidnap the person. To protect themselves person should clap. This made the lights retreat and people would be safe from them.
In Greenland expecting mothers were told not to whistle otherwise child would be born crossed-eyed.
Saami´s in Lapland also had superstitions about whistling. If they would whistle the lights would come down from the skies, chase them and burn their hair. Because of this still today many saami´s test their powers by whistling to the northern lights.
My other articles and vlogs with stories from the north:
Siberian and Eurasian shamanism
Sun and the moon in Saami mythology and folklore
Reindeer in the saami mythology
How stars got in to the sky
Mythmas Northern Lights
Check out my northern lights collection from my Redbubble store.
Siberia is considered to be the heartland of shamanism. In modern anthropology, the term Shamanism refers to the spiritual practice of native groups. However, shamanism itself is not limited to Siberia. It is a universal practice where all major religions are based on. Siberia is a large area which includes a variety of cultures, languages, practices, and beliefs which many fall into the classification of shamanism and many of these ethnic groups practice shamanism still today.
In Siberian shamanism, there are some distinctive features such as worship of nature, belief for the world tree, an invisible pole that is a representation of the universe and three layers of the world (upper world, middle world, and the underworld). Many of these ethnic groups were hunters and lived a nomadic lifestyle. Hunting was a sacred ritual and in order for the hunt to success, the job of the shaman was to take shape of an animal and travel to meet the deity who was in charge of the hunting. The shaman would dress up as animals and mimic their sounds and movements.
There is lots of diversity among the sacred animals in Siberian shamanism. Among Samoyed and Uralic groups, a sacred animal was the bear who was believed to be the sacred ancestor of the tribe. In Mongolia and among Turkic groups stags and horses were most important animals. Among the Yukip, Nenetsi and the Saami´s reindeer was the sacred animal ancestor. The creation myth about the earth-diver is common among all groups whose roots are in Siberia and water birds play a significant part in the shamanic practice.
Origins of the word shaman are in Tungusia where it means the spiritual leader and the healer of the tribe.
Shamans and Shamanesses
In Siberian cultures shamanism often has strict gender roles.
For the tuvar´s shaman is ”Tatar”, ”Shor”, or ”Oyrat”.
In Yakagir language shaman is known as ”alman”, ”olman” or ”wolmen”.
Buryat shaman is known as ”Böö” (derived from old Mongolian word ”Böge”)
For the Mansi shaman was called ”Njat”.
Saami shaman is known as Noaidi. Saami word ”Noaidi” and Mansi ”Njat” are based on proto-Uralic word Nojta meaning a witch or a shaman.
Female shamans can be mainly found among Mongolian tribes.
For the Buryat shamaness is called ”Ugadan”, ”Evenki”, ”Lamut” or ”Ugudan”.
For the Negidal shamaness is called ”Odogan”.
In Siberian languages, there are many similar words meaning a ”shamaness” such as ”Utagan”, ”Ubukan”, ”Utygan”, ”Utusun”, ”Idan” and ”Duana”. Most of these words are based on ancient Mongolian earth goddess ”Etügen ”. She was also known as ”Etügen Eke ” the mother earth. Her name can be originated from Ötüken the holy mountain of the earth and fertility.
Speakers of Turkic languages
Turkic shamanism is practiced by ethnic groups who speak Turkic languages. These are Tatars, Tuvars, Tofalar, Yakut and Turks who live in the Altai mountains. Turkic shamanism covers large territories and the practice itself has been amalgamated with Buddhist and Islam beliefs.
Yakut Shaman. Notice the trinkets in the clothes. Fetishes represent animals and spirits who the shaman wishes to communicate with.
Area of the Yup´ik stretches from Eastern Siberia to Alaska and Northern Canada, therefore, there is lots of diversity in their shamanic practices. They believe in soul dualism and reincarnation. Soul of a Yup´ik shaman could travel between different levels to the underneath realms to meet supernatural beings and spirit guides asking for their guidance.
Shamanism of the Ket is foremost totemic. The lifestyle of the Ket is nomadic and shamanism is intertwined to Bear and deer hunting. They use lots of bones, skeletons and other animal parts in their rituals. Like for many Uralic people for the Ket waterbirds were sacred. Loon is an especially important bird, a totem animal and Loon´s bones are often used in ceremonies. They were shaman´s helpers in their journey. For the Ket shapeshifting is an important part of spiritual practice. Shaman goes off on the spiritual journey while drumming and dancing.
Young Buriyt boy
All ethnic groups that speak Samoyedic languages have elements of shamanism in their spiritual practice. Sayan shaman´s boot ´s, dress and headdress represents bones and human organs. The skeleton overlay of the dress symbolizes rebirth. Like all group´s who myths are based on Uralic myths for the Sayan´s loon was a sacred bird and a magical helper. Other Samoyedic tribes such as Nenets, Enets, and Selkup have different crowns and headdresses to be worn on different occasions. When a child is born the proper headdress represents the upperworld and for communicating with the dead headdress represents the underworld.
Reindeer is sacred animal for many ethnic groups in the northern hemisphere.
Saami´s are native people of Scandinavia (and the only ethnic group in the area of European Union). Saami´s live outside Siberia but their language is part of Samoyedic languages. There are elements of shamanism in the spirituality and folk traditions and customs of the saami. One of the most important parts of the Saami culture are the joiks. Joiks are wordless chants that were originally sung in shamanic rites. There are two types of joiks, clear joiks that are mostly sung by young people. Then there are mumbling joiks that are used while casting spells. These joiks often mimic natural sounds.
Speakers of Finno-Ugric languages.
Most speakers of Finno-Ugric languages live outside Siberia. Finno refers to Finnic languages such as Finnish and Estonian and Mari. In all these cultures there are elements of shamanism in the folklore and myths. In Pre-Christian Finland, shamanism had several phases. Noita the shaman was the spiritual healer of the tribe. Later on, there was a shift in the culture and noita became more individualized and was no longer a healer of the community but an individual practitioner of witchcraft/herbalism/healing. Ancient Finnish tribes believed in soul duality. Bear and moose were most common totem animals and there are lots of archeological proofs found from the widely spread bear cult. The world was divided into three levels and they were held together by an invisible pole, the wold tree.
In Estonia shaman was called Näit. Like in Finland also in Estonia worship of nature was an essential part of spiritual practice. Trees especially were worshipped as divine nature spirits. Other speakers of Finnic languages like Komi´s, Mari´s and Mordvan also have elements of shamanism in their spiritual practice. Folk religion also has elements from Russian Orthodoxism. Among all these groups nature worship, shamanic traveling and concept of the world tree are very common.
Ugric efers to Ugric languages such as Hungarian, Khanty, and Mansy. Early ancestors of modern-day Hungarians migrated from Siberia already 6000 years ago settling into the area of Pannonia Basin. Elements of shamanism have been preserved in folklore. Ancient Hungarians believed that world was divided into three levels and shaman had the ability to travel between these levels to seek information. In Khanty culture bear was worshiped as an important totem animal and as the divine ancestor of the people.
I´ve had a soft spot for Estonian mythology and folktales as long as I can remember. Essentially same thing that pulls me towards Estonian folktales pulls me towards all Finno-Baltic legends. Stories encourage people to examine their connection to nature and respect the invisible spirits that live around us. Here are some fascinating creatures from Estonian myths and legends.
Metsik the Forest Guardian
Metsik is the elf of the forest. In the primeval Estonian tales Metsik were wood elves that lived everywhere surrounded by trees, from shallow swamp forests to the coniferous woodlands. When Metsik appears to people they take a form of a wild animal, a bird or a handsome tree. Singing bird who truly is Metsik sings songs that humans can understand. They can also understand the language of the aspen tree that rustles in the wind for that aspen tree is Metsik. Metsik are the guardian spirits of the woodlands. They do not approve cutting trees, burning fires and above all trashing. When people enter to the woods with cruel intentions Metsik misleads them away from their sacred home.
Allikaravitseja The Healing Waters
Allikaravitseja is a healer spirit who lives in the hot springs. In the boiling waters there are also great amount of sand which can seemingly create form of a human body. Reflections from the nearby trees and bushes may transform into human figures as well. Spirit reveals itself to the one´s who is carrying a ritual. They toss a coin into the spring and name their concern. Spirit of the spring is also pleased when scraps of silver are left as sacrifice. Allikaravitseja rarely reveals herself but one can hear her voice which sounds like a whisper coming from the water.
Hiid The Giant
Hiid has two meanings in Estonian language. Hiid can mean a sacred grove, an old pagan worshiping place in nature. Hiid is also a king or a guardian spirit of the sacred grow. It is a giant sized elf who has a low deep voice and they speak all languages of humans, trees and the animals. Hiid can transform itself and take the shape of bull elk, high tree or a mountain. Sometimes Hiid can fall asleep for several years and turn into a hill. A giant boulder that no one ever recognize and wake him up.
Soovana The Saddened Mist
Soovana is the guardian spirit of wetlands. He appears inside the mist or a bog. Sometimes the mist takes unusual shapes which probably inspired the legend of Soovana. If bog turf has unusual amount of cranberries Soovana has cranberries growing in his hair. He is not to be disturbed for he experiences periods of sadness and melancholy and even picking cranberries might anger him.
Murumemm Mother of the Meadows
Murumemm is the protector of fields and farms. She is very interested from the well-being of people and shares old folk wisdom to them. Murumemm loves to take care of the land and doing things together. She is the care taker of bees which are her sacred animals. Murumemm is also a merry figure and she loves dancing.
Kivialune The Cave Spirit
Kivialune is a small-sized spirit who lives and meditates in stone caves. He loves silence and can be quiet and motionless for days and in the end he appears into his surroundings. He remains in the darkest part of the stone cave. To get rid of unwanted strangers Kivialune sends a large stone roll down from his location. He does not wish to harm the unwanted guest. He just wants to frighten them.
Saarevaht The Solitary Islander
Saarevaht is the keeper of islands. He feels connection to the sea and water. Saarevaht locates himself to remote places. Often he is the keeper spirit of the lighthouse. He communicates with plants and can transform himself into a fox or an eagle. He is a kind peaceful spirit and likes to show people around his home island. He gets angered by carelessness and rudeness.
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Artist, illustrator, writer and a folklorist. Gryffinclaw. Comes from Finland. Likes cats, tea and period dramas.
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