Finnish Sauna Culture --- Not Just a Cliché

Pirkko Valtakari
Former executive secretary of the Finnish Sauna Society


"There is nothing that Finns have been so unanimous about as their sauna. This unanimity has remained unbroken for centuries and is sure to continue as long as there are children born in their native land, as long as the invitation still comes from the porch threshold in the evening twilight: "The sauna is ready."
Maila Talvio 1871-1951

The ins and outs of a true sauna

In the course of centuries, many nations have practised sweat bathing. In some places the practice died out, elsewhere it disappeared for a long time and was later picked up again. The Finnish sauna is also a sweat bath but of a distinctive kind. It has been influenced by both the Eastern and Western bath cultures but has also developed some genuinely national features. The tradition of the sauna, carried on unbroken for about two thousand years, is deeply rooted in the nation's way of life. Sauna bathing is part of the Finnish identity just as essentially as rye bread is part of the customary diet.

Age-old origins

At its most primitive, the sauna was probably a pit dug into a slope, with a heap of heated stones in one corner. The dugout developed into a four-cornered log hut with an earth floor and a chimneyless stove; this served as both a primitive dwelling and a bath. There was smoke in the room when the stove was being heated, but afterwards it vanished, leaving behind a smoky smell. The smoke sauna, with some modern adaptations, is nowadays becoming quite popular again. The next step in the story of the sauna was the addition of a chimney to the stove, which was then heated just once each time; still later came a newer type of stove which could be kept hot by continuous heating.

Today the Finnish word sauna may refer to a building or just a room with wooden walls, floor and ceiling. There is a stove, called kiuas, which is heated with wood, electricity, oil or gas. The top of the stove is covered with a thick layer of natural stones, which radiate the heat to the room.

Humidity is regulated by small doses of water ladled repeatedly onto the kiuas stones. The resulting vapour, rising from the stones, is called löyly. The temperature varies between 70 and 100 °C, depending on the size of the room. Bathers warming up in the hot room help perspiration by using whisks made of tender birch twigs (vihta or vasta). Warming-up is followed by washing and cooling off; arrangements for cooling off in the open air are welcomed.

In due course a dressing room and a washing room were added to the original one-roomed sauna. Sauna suites, frequently used by business people for entertaining guests, may include other additions such as a sitting room with a fireplace. A small private summer sauna often consists only of the hot room and the dressing room. In any case, modesty and simplicity are traditionally characteristic of the Finnish sauna; ostentatious decoration of the facilities is out of the question.

Finland - the homeland of the sauna

During the last 50 years, the number of saunas in Finland has grown threefold, from about half a million in 1938 to about 1.5 million in 1990. For a total population of just 5 million this is a numerical world record of its kind.

The origins of the sauna were rural, but it gradually became part of urban lifestyles, too. Town saunas were first built in the yard outside the living area, then inside detached and terraced houses and blocks of flats, where they would be shared by all the families living in the building. In towns they also commonly had public saunas. The proverbial saying "share your tobacco and tinderbox, but not your sauna or your woman" was ignored in those days. Today the principle seems to be regaining respect, as people like to have their private saunas built in individual flats, even bed-sitters, with the bathroom serving as the washing room.

Finns cannot manage without a sauna. Whether an immigrant, a sportsman or an exporter, a Finn will take the sauna with him wherever he goes. Finnish soldiers at war needed their baths just like others and built a dugout or tent sauna whenever possible. Finns serving in the UN peace corps have also attracted attention by building a sauna at every base they end up at.

In 1936, a sauna was built at the Döbernitz Olympic Village for Finnish athletes participating in the Berlin Olympic Games. The design was Finnish, and the venture gave publicity to the idea of the sauna in Central Europe.

A sauna is a standard element in swimming baths and sports centres, hotels, holiday centres and camping sites. Innumerable families have sauna cottages by a lake or by the sea. An enterprise wishing to maintain the image of a successful business absolutely must have a sauna or sauna suite of its own. Finnish boats and car ferries have long served their passengers with saunas, and even the possibility of a train sauna is being investigated. The number of sauna types seems to be increasing, and the only one which has practically disappeared is the public sauna of the town.

A facility for many functions

Our ancestors did not use their sauna only for bathing. It was needed for drying flax, preparing malts, curing meat and for many other agricultural or domestic chores.

In old times, the sauna was known as the Finnish cure or the poor man's pharmacy. It was also the hospital where folk healers practised their art. They administered baths and massage, and drew blood; cupping was another method to suck bad blood away. The healer woman who went from house to house was a very important person; the darkness of the sauna helped her to develop a power of suggestion over her patient.

The sauna was also a place for performing magic, mostly to do with healing or love affairs. At Whitsuntide and Midsummer the marriageability of young women was improved by special sauna baths; the smell of herbs and birch-leaves hung in the air and the wise woman recited her spells. Sauna baths were also believed to be useful for improving virility.

In the countryside women usually gave birth in the sauna. For example, our long time president Urho Kaleva Kekkonen was born in a smoke sauna in 1900. After a birth the sauna was assigned to the mother as her resting place for several weeks. There were strict rules, strongly influenced by the magic tradition, for the baby's first bath. This was administered by the woman who attended to bathers and also served as a midwife, and it was believed to determine the basic features of the child's future personality.

The sauna was also the place where the dead were prepared for their last journey. The sauna was part of Finnish people's lives literally from cradle to grave.

No risks?

Except for severely ill or handicapped persons, practically every Finn takes sauna baths at least occasionally. So do even those patients suffering from chronic illnesses who manage everyday routines on their own, and so do pregnant women. Bathing small babies is safe from the age of a few months. Finns do not recognize any upper age limit for sauna bathing, either.

However, for accident casualties or patients suffering from acute inflammation sauna baths are not recommended. Those who suffer from contagious diseases can bathe but only in their own private sauna.

Intense heat, prolonged bathing, too sudden or extreme cooling off and especially alcohol all put the blood circulation under some strain. A healthy heart stands such strain but for a weak one it may be too much.

Taken in moderation, sauna baths suit everyone who is aware of his own limitations. They alleviate both physical and mental stress. Pain and tension afflicting muscles and joints fade away, and for many the sauna means a way to ensure a good night's sleep.

The sauna may also provide cosmetic care. Ilmari Kianto (1874-1970) describes a countrywoman's facial transformation in his novel The Red Line: "There in the gentle löyly, the wrinkles on her face smoothed away, and the deep-blue shadows under her eyes gave way to a healthy colour. It was as if the heat had also melted away the darkness of her soul...".

There are no rules on how often sauna baths can be taken. In olden times people used to bathe daily or weekly, depending on the season and the locality. Today Finns usually bathe once or twice a week; a holiday-maker may do so every day in his private cottage sauna. There is no harm in profuse perspiration, but the skin may dry, so excessive use of soap should be avoided.

In defence of the sauna's reputation

For a Finn the sauna is sacrosanct. From olden times children were taught to behave in the sauna as if in a church. Sexuality, noisiness and otherwise indecent behaviour never had a place in the sauna. Therefore it has remained uncorrupted for centuries. Men and women bathe together only inside the family; in public saunas they have separate sections or different hours. So a Finn who happens to visit a Central European mixed-sex sauna is likely to be embarrassed, although no indecency may be involved.

Controlled mixed-sex bathing in other countries hardly damages the reputation of the genuine Finnish sauna. What really damages it are the various kinds of massage and entertainment parlours which operate in many countries under red lights and hide behind the name of sauna.

Harmful are also sensational articles about the unwholesome effects of the sauna; these occur once in a while even in reputable foreign journals and are usually not based on facts but misinformation.

Finns also tend to get irritated by all sorts of artificial sweat-producing devices which have nothing to do with the sauna but are marketed under the name. These paraphernalia vary from plastic sweating pants to a tent bag which is zipped up to the neck: these can be worn for example in the living room while watching the TV...

Care of both body and soul

Some people firmly believe that the primary purpose of the sauna was to warm up the body. A bath would prevent colds, soften up tense muscles and alleviate any pain, exhaustion or depression. At the earliest stages water was used sparingly; the skin was supposed to become clean through perspiration. Gradually, though, the sauna's function as a place where the body was thoroughly cleaned by washing and flushing became important.

The basic sauna ritual is the same as it always was: warming up, sweating, taking löyly vapour and whisking, washing and cooling off. Cooling off nowadays often includes swimming. Many people like to cool off in the open air, and there are also brave ones who want to roll in the snow or take a dip in the sea or lake through a hole in the ice.

A sauna bath without a birch whisk is like food without salt as the saying goes. The bather uses the whisk to beat himself lightly; this raises the blood circulation in the skin, speeds up perspiration and produces a pleasant aroma in the hot room. The whisk is normally made of young birch twigs which are aromatically superior to all other trees. Out of season this birchy smell of summer can he reproduced by using dried or frozen whisks.

Sauna bathing does not only clean the body but also purifies the mind. The bather's frame of mind after a leisurely relaxed sauna ritual could be best described as euphoric. It is like a rebirth; all unpleasant feelings fall away and you feel at peace with the whole world. This is what Finns mean by the care of the soul received in the sauna.

Heavenly sauna

Finnish authors have written a number of wonderful scenes set in the sauna. Here are two very well-known literary characters, a pair of countrymen friends created by Maiju Lassila (1868-1918) in his novel Borrowing Matches, and their view of the hereafter:

There they sat, side by side, amidst the steam and enjoyed the pleasure of the flesh. Antti was musing: "D'you think there might be a sauna in heaven? "Course there must be," said Jussi.

Useful tips

In the sauna wear your birthday suit. Nakedness is natural. Sweating makes swimsuits uncomfortable.

There are no exact rules of behaviour but the ritual is meant to be relaxing. Hurry and noise are out of the question and so is reckless competition about who stands heat best.

It is a good idea to begin with a wash or shower; a seat towel for the hot room is also useful.

The temperature should be 80-90°C; ten minutes at a time will be enough. Air humidity is regulated by ladling small doses of water onto the stove stones. Warming up and cooling off can be repeated as many times as feels good. Whisking adds to the pleasure.

Another brief warming-up may be nice after washing before finishing off with a shower or a swim.

Heavy meals and alcohol should be avoided before sauna. Afterwards you will need a refreshing drink and possibly a snack.

Sauna bathing in moderation suits everyone. Those with health problems should nevertheless consult a doctor before trying it.