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21 Mar 2011

Finnish Sauna

Article by Valbjorn Anderson

Despite considerable research, the origins of the Finnish sauna have not been established. Among Finno-Ugric folk the sauna dates to the early agricultural age, and there is evidence of the practice among the Teuto

ns, Slavs, and Balts as well.

Tacitus writes of a hot-bath tradition among the Germanic people. “<em>Statim e somno, quem pleruque in diem extrahunt,
lavantur, saepius calida, ut apud quos plurimum hiems occupant</em>.” (Right after sleeping, which usually extends into the day, they bathe: often in hot water, for it is usually winter where they live).1 And the Russian <em>Primary Chronicle</em> (<em>Povest’ vremennikh let’</em>, c. 1040-1118) describes saunas (<em>bani dreveni</em>, wooden bathhouses) in Novgorod. Flagellation with twig switches is mentioned along with anointing the body with tallow.2

There is also mention of saunas in the Norse sagas. <em>Sverris Saga</em> (Twelfth-century) describes how King Sverri’s men attacked Nidaross while the warriors were in a large bathhouse. In <em>Eyrbyggja Saga</em> the Icelandic sauna is described. In this saga, Styrr uses the sauna to murder two berserkr who had demanded his daughter in marriage. Of course, treachery is not what saunas are usually known for.

<strong>The Sauna Process</strong>

The purpose of the sauna is to induce perspiration and this cannot be overstated. This is dependent on both the moisture and temperature of the air. If the air is too moist, one gets condensation rather than perspiration. In a moist bath, real perspiration is slight. One needs to be in 150 F for around 10 minutes for perspiration to start, and longer for sweat to flow freely. The body tries to dry itself in the air, so if perspiration is slow to start it means the moisture of the air is low and the beginning perspiration is evaporated.

The drier the air is, the more heat one can stand. Folks new to the sauna have trouble believing the temperature on the platform can actually reach as much as 250 F! They don’t believe the human body can stand such heat because water boils at 212 F. The fact is that it is easier to stand temperatures of 190 to 212 F in dry air, than 120 F in very moist air. The purpose of perspiration is to tone up the body. If the temperature can be maintained around 140 F with the stove vent set low, the temperature will rise to its higher limit when the vent is opened. During perspiration it is best to be lying down as this allows uniform heat for the whole body.

<strong>Heating and Construction</strong>

Proper heating of the sauna is essential. If it is not hot enough and one then pours water on the stones, this causes more moisture in the air and cools off the already insufficiently hot stones. This is not conducive for good perspiration. If the stones are not hot enough, the wooden walls and ceiling will not dry out properly after use and the sauna will rot in time. It is not necessary to pour water on the stones if they are hot enough. The stones are the defining quality of the Finnish sauna – even modern electric reproductions have the pile of stones, because they serve a vital function – they absorb non-radiant heat. The heat is not radiated towards the bather but rather into the stones directly. The heat is then emitted into the air in the sauna. This is a gentle, constant heat. Once the stones reach the proper temperature the heat in the sauna does not change very much.

Heating the sauna is an art, including selecting the best type of wood. It is generally agreed that hard-wood is best, and conifers should be avoided as the pitch and creosote will coat the stones and reduce their ability to transfer the heat.

It is essential to start the stove well in advance of using the sauna, because once it is hot enough the sauna needs to ‘ripen.’ The flames will lay low, and the walls, ceiling, platforms, and floor will become completely warm and dry. (It should be noted here that exposed nails on any wood surface should be avoided, it should be easy to imagine why.)

A new sauna built from freshly cut lumber will take a long time to acquire a real atmosphere. Green wood stays damp and cannot absorb moisture. This is why saunas should be built from dry seasoned timber. Also, if the sauna is not tightly constructed and insulated, heat will not be retained for long. Doors and windows should be low.

<strong>The Sauna’s Role in Scandinavian Culture</strong>

There is a passage from <em>Kalevala</em> where Ilmarinen
bathes before going off to woo the maid of North Farm:

<em>Said the smith, said Ilmarinen,
“Annikki my little sister,
I will forge you now a shuttle,
Pretty rings to deck your fingers,
Golden earrings, two or three pairs,
Five or six linked girdles make you.
Warm for me the pleasant bathroom,
Fill the room with fragrant vapour,
Let the logs you burn be small ones,
And the fire with chips be kindled,
And prepare me too some ashes,
And some soap in haste provide me,
That I wash my head and cleanse it,
And I may make white my body
From the coal-dust of the autumn,
From the forge throughout the winter.”</em>

<em>Annikki, whose name was famous,
Heated secretly the bathroom,
With the boughs the wind had broken,
And the thunderbolt had shattered.
Stones she gathered from the river,
Heated them till they were ready,
Cheerfully she fetched the water,
From the holy well she brought it,
Broke some bath-whisks from the bushes,
Charming bath-whisks from the thickets,
And she warmed the honeyed bath-whisks,
On the honeyed stones she warmed them,
Then with milk she mixed the ashes,
And she made him soap of marrow,
And she worked the soap to lather,
Kneaded then the soap to lather,
That his head might cleanse the bridegroom,
And might cleanse himself completely.</em>

<em>Then the smith, e’en Ilmarinen,
He the great primeval craftsman,
Wrought the maiden what she wished for,
And he wrought a splendid head-dress,
While she made the bathroom ready,
And she put the bath in order.
In her hands he placed the trinkets,
And the maiden thus addressed him:
“Now the bathroom’s filled with vapour,
And the vapor-bath I’ve heated,
And have steeped the bath-whisks nicely,
Choosing out the best among them.
Bathe, O brother, at your pleasure,
Pouring water as you need it,
Wash your head to flaxen color,
Till your eyes shine out like snowflakes.”</em>

<em>Then the smith, e’en Ilmarinen,
Went to take the bath he needed,
There he bathed himself at pleasure,
And he washed himself to whiteness,
Washed his eyes until they sparkled,
And his temples till they glistened,
And his neck to hen’s-egg whiteness,
And his body all was shining.
From the bath the room he entered,
Changed so much they scarcely knew him,
For his face it shone with beauty,
And his cheeks were cleansed and rosy.</em>

<em>Then he spoke the words, which follow:
“Annikki, my little sister,
Bring me now a shirt of linen,
And the best of raiment bring me,
That I robe myself completely,
And may deck me like a bridegroom.”</em>3

The sauna also had a role to play in war time. The Finnish soldier felt indebted to the sauna for his endurance and stamina. Service regulations called for a sauna once a week, and soldiers went to great lengths to arrange for their baths. Soldiers passing by a sauna would light the stove so that those following behind could use it.

It should be noted that when a Finn built a new house, the sauna was built first. The sauna was much more than a bathhouse. It was also a temple. The Finns believed that fire was sacred, having come from the Gods, and the fireplace and piled rocks was an altar. Special kinds of wood were burned and special rites and spells performed in order to drive diseases and evils from the body. There are those who believed pouring water over the hot stones was a sacrificial ceremony. The Finnish word <em>löyly</em> means the “steam that rises from the stones,” and was considered a healing spirit.4

There is an old Finnish saying: “If spirits, tar, and the sauna avail nothing, then there is no cure.”5 It is probably due to the sanctity of the sauna that it did not become a haven for debauchery like the baths in central and Western Europe. Other uses for the sauna would be smoking meats, preparing malt, working flax, and drying nets. Massage, cupping, and bloodletting would have also occurred there.

The sauna was not only central to rites of passage, it was itself a passageway. Many Finns were (and still are) born in sauna and brought there to die. As a temple it was a place to worship and honor the dead. We see in <em>Kalevala</em> how Marjatta, who is with child, cast out by her father, must find a sauna in which to give birth. She finds one on a clearing with a stable in the pinewood. In this primitive sauna she gives birth to the new king of Finland, helped by horses that create the steam by breathing vapor on the hot stones.

A very early description of Northern bathing comes to us from a Russian missionary, St. Andrew, who on his journey from Russia to Rome passed through the former Finnish town of Novgorod. His account, written in Russian, can be found in <em>Nestor’s Chronicle</em> (c. 1100). He states:

<em>During my travels I saw many wonderful things in the country of the Slavs. I saw bathhouses built of wood. When
they have been heated to a very high temperature, people undress themselves completely and go inside. They pour
tepid water on the backs of their necks, take a bunch of fresh birch branches in their hands, and lash themselves to
the point of exhaustion. Then they pour cold water on their bodies and are thus quite refreshed. They do this every day quite voluntarily. They go of their own free will, to have a bath, and not at all to torture themselves.</em>6

Not all held the sauna in such high regard. While never having been considered immoral, it has been condemned for alleged ill effects on health. In 1756 the Royal Medical College produced a pamphlet titled <em>The Necessity of Caring for Small Children and the Duty of all Christian Parents</em>. “In Finland” it reads, “mothers are in the habit of going to the sauna with their small children as often as every other day. The result of this, as any other piece of foolishness, is the premature death of the child, and it looks as if this had been brought about on purpose.”

In addition, a complaint is made that women often give birth to their children in the sauna. Finnish doctors have in fact found recently that that the custom of Saturday bathing tends to encourage the onset of labor, with a disproportionate number of Finnish babies being born on Mondays.7

Despite such accusations, many writers have likened the sauna to paradise. When the heroes of folklore dreamed of the life to come, they believed there would be saunas in the dwellings of the blessed. We do not know completely how the sauna affects our health, and this might be a question for further study. But we <em>do</em> know this:

Induced perspiration is the best method for cleansing the skin; an ordinary hot-water bath does not loosen the dead outer skin or cleanse the pores. And beating with birch branches stimulates the blood and spirit. But perhaps the most delicious moment of all is when, on a still summer evening, one can lie naked in the fresh air outside the sauna, and all tensions and worries vanish.

1 Tacitus, <em>Germania</em>,
2 Thomas A. Dubois, <em>Nordic religions of the Viking age</em> (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999) 100.
3 W.F. Kirby, <em>Kalevala: the Land of the Heroes</em> (London: Everyman’s Library, 1907) 201.
4 H. J. Viherjuuri, <em>Sauna: the Finnish Bath</em> (Brattleboro: Stephen Greene Press, 1972) 17.
5 Viherjuuri 17.
6 Viherjuuri 20.
7 Viherjuuri 23.

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