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.
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Pronounced as Nee-na.
Artist, illustrator, writer, watercolorist and a folklorist. Gryffinclaw. Comes from Finland. Likes cats, tea and period dramas.
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