In examining the history of saunas, the Finnish sauna comes to the forefront – with a long and rich history and heritage. In fact, having an understanding of the culture and traditions of the Finns can actually add to the personal enjoyment of the sauna experience.
The original Finnish word “sauna” actually means a bath or bathhouse, and today it’s in common use in the English language. The sauna is well entrenched in modern western lifestyles, but the history of saunas easily goes back a thousand years with the Finnish people.
The history of saunas and the Finnish people
Originally, the Finns were nomadic people, and the very first version of a “sauna” was likely quite similar to the Sweat Lodge of the aboriginal people of North America. Animal skins and hides were used to make a tent enclosure, and a fire would provide the required heat. Water would provide “löyly” – that’s the burst of steam that serves to cleanse and purify the body.
As time passed, and the Finns did less wandering and more settling, the structure of the sauna became more physically rigid and permanent. Indeed, the very first “fixed” sauna was probably a hole dug into the ground, with a fire, and with animal hide or tree branches covering everything. As saunas became more and more permanent, the health benefits and popularity increased.
The history of Finnish saunas in more recent times
Decade after decade, as sauna construction evolved, the physical structure became a completely enclosed cabin, with a fire that heated a pile of stones. When the fire burned off, and the residual smoke cleared, the lingering heat inside the stones kept the sauna warm for many hours. This design of sauna was the accepted standard for many hundreds of years. And this is when most of the sauna concepts, principles and traditions began to take hold.
For Finnish farmers, the sauna was the ideal environment for drying food and smoking meat. But the intense heat was also relaxing and soothing for the muscles after a hard day’s work. As a clean and sanitary enclosure, the sauna was also the place where children were born and women experienced their purification ritual prior to marriage. Clearly, there was a great deal of trust in the many health and healing properties of the sauna environment.
The history of Finnish saunas and the present day
Today, there are many claims about the health attributes of a sauna. And while some are hard to substantiate, there are very few experiences that offer the soothing, relaxing, and comforting after effects. A good sauna experience encompasses health benefits for both body and mind.
For the Finns, their so-called traditional “sauna culture” has endured the test of time. It’s become an essential part of their lives, and has influenced “sauna culture” throughout the world. Today, with advanced sauna technology, saunas are far more accessible to people than ever before.