The sauna is integral to modern Finnish culture. It’s found everywhere, in all types of settlements (cities, villages, small towns, farmsteads), and all types of dwellings (homes, apartments, offices), and in sports clubs, health spas, hotels, prisons, and army barracks. The Finns consider it a necessity of life and something which unites their physical, social, and spiritual worlds. The earliest reference to the sauna is found in the Russian Primary Chronicle (early 12th century), which notes baths that were heated “with a sauna stove to a fiery heat and bathers in the hot steam beat themselves with switches….” The sauna also features prominently in the Kalevala, Finland’s great collection of epic poetry compiled in the 19th century from oral folklore and mythology. So, this style of bath has been around a long time and geographically its origins were centered in modern northwest Russia, Finland, and the Baltic states.
The sauna, effectively, is a steam bath (with which many are familiar in some form or another today). The routine consists of undressing in the changing room (if there is one), entering the steam room and taking a seat on one of the tiered benches. The higher one goes, the warmer and steamier the experience will be. Water is thrown over heated stones to generate steam, which is termed löyly, a word which has its own etymological root entirely (that is, it’s apparently unrelated to other words for vapor or steam in Finnish). It carries connotations of “spirit,” “life,” or even “soul.” So the löyly is certainly central to any sacred or religious connotations that may be attached to the sauna. Most commonly, the room temperature will rise to 80-100 degrees Celsius, and bathers will use birch whisks (vihta) on their skin to exfoliate, induce more sweating, or for gentle massage. These are generally picked early in the year and retain their scents well when stored (dried or frozen). Typically, they are moistened and placed on the hot stones for a short time so their scent is released into the air. After the hot steam, bathers take a dip in a (very cold) nearby lake (if available) or in a pool otherwise. At some point in the routine, they are washed with soap and water. This routine can continue for some time and several cycles. Finally, they exit, dress, and take a drink and some light food.
In the sauna Finns are open, relaxed, talkative, and quite sociable (this is in contrast to the “shy” Finn, who tends to his own affairs and is intensely private), and the sauna itself is an epicenter of social life. Family members bathe together; outsiders are often invited for a sauna as a sign of hospitality; various groups (clubs, hunters, students, etc.) maintain the tradition of sauna evenings; the sauna is used for business and political meetings (with labor leaders, the cabinet, or foreign dignitaries, e.g.); and, traditionally, many rites of passage were performed in the sauna: a sauna was taken before major Christian feast days and the few Finns who are still religious today do so; Finns commonly gave birth in the sauna until quite recently (some still do; and, in fact, the birth of Jesus is depicted in the Kalevala as taking place in a sauna after Mary was turned away from a sauna and sent to a stable, which was then miraculously transformed into a sauna); corpses used to be cleansed in the sauna, with birch whisks placed under the heads of the dead upon burial; and brides-to-be take a sauna before their marriage (a lengthy affair), and after the consummation of the marriage with their husbands.
Finally, the sauna is intertwined with concepts of health and healing in Finland today. It is considered an important part of leading a healthy life (generally), but also a means to alleviate many ailments: aches and pains, fatigue, colds, even stress or depression (e.g., it’s common for students to go to sauna after exams). Athletes use them consistently and tend to associate good performance and physical regeneration with the sauna. And a good deal of medical research is carried out in Finland today on the medical benefits of sauna bathing (muscle activity, sleep patterns, even psychoanalysis to understand the effect on Finns’ mental state). As the Finnish proverb goes, “If a sick person is not cured by tar, liquor or sauna, then he will die.”
C.M. Sutyla, The Finnish Sauna in Manitoba, Canadian Centre for Folklore Studies no. 24, Ottawa, 1977.
L.M. Edelsward, Sauna as Symbol: Society and Culture in Finland, NY, 1991.
C. Bremer and A. Raevuori, The World of the Sauna, Helsinki, 1986.
J. Pentikainen, ed. The Finnish Sauna, the Japanese Furo, the Indian Inipi: Bathing on three continents, Helsinki, 2001.