The Finnish Sauna
The Sweat Bath in Northern Europe: A Brief History
Throughout history people of different races and cultures have been using sweat baths for hygienic and medicinal purposes. Various cultures around the world have their versions of the sweat bath, but all with the same objective: To help avoid disease and maintain good health by eliminating toxins through sweating. Today, the most notorious sweat bath is undoubtedly the Finnish Sauna.
The first modern wooden saunas, as we know them today, were built around the 5th century when northern European tribes abandoned their nomadic lifestyle and settled down. The sweat bath became so common in Scandinavia in the Middle Ages that foreign visitors wrote "these people are the only peasantry in Europe who take a bath every week".
Soon after that however, sweat bathing started to decline in Norway and Sweden. At a time when serious plagues and epidemics were spreading and killing people by the thousands, sharing bath facilities rightly didn't seem like a good idea anymore, and most sweat bathhouses were closed down. By the end of the 19th century the sweat bath had almost entirely disappeared in much of Scandinavia.
The dramatic improvement of living conditions in the 20th century and the rise in health awareness brought a revival of sweat bathing not just in Scandinavia, but all around the world. However Finland remains undoubtedly the cradle of the modern sauna culture and passion.
Sauna As a Symbol of Finnish Identity
As a matter of fact, sauna is a Finnish word, and the only one to become part of the world's vocabulary.
Finland has about 2 million saunas in a land of 187.888 lakes and 200,000 summer cottages. It is the only country in the world where there are more saunas than cars! Every person in Finland has access to a sauna, either in his or her own house or in a shared facility in an apartment block. Saunas in Finland are everywhere, even in Parliament!
Sauna is for every occasion in Finland, for business as much as for leisure. It is completely normal to hold a business or political meeting in the sauna. The Finns believe that due to its social nature and relaxing effect, the sauna is an excellent place for negotiations, and exchange of ideas and opinions. They believe that doing business in the sauna is conducive to mutual understanding and consensus. Saunas are as common as boardrooms in many Finnish business premises.
The Finnish Sauna Tradition
In Finland the sauna is used for rites of passage. It is a place where children are born and where women go through the purification ritual before marriage. It is also where old people sometimes drag themselves to leave this world in peace and warmth. Until today, some older generation Finns boast about being born in the sauna, it is a national passion and an integral part of their civil identity.
In ancient times, the sauna in Finland was linked to spiritual and religious ceremonies and healing. Not dissimilar to the church for the Christians, the sauna meant a quiet, peaceful place and a clean and warm haven. Saunas have always had a very strong significance and social importance, more particularly in the countryside. Some seasonal agricultural activities such as drying malt or curing meats were done mainly in the sauna, where the community would gather to work together singing songs and telling folk stories.
An old Finnish proverb says, "One should behave in the sauna the way one behaves in church".
Being such a family-oriented and social event, there are some basic etiquette rules to follow in the sauna. Parents teach their children basic sauna manners from an early age, such as keeping quiet and not shouting or badmouthing.
Naked bathing is a key feature of the sauna culture, which the Finns consider completely natural. However, aware that other cultures are intimidated by it, they don't impose it on their foreign guests. They believe that wearing a swimsuit is unhygienic and as uncomfortable as having a shower with your socks on!
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"A great life is born in the soul, grown in the mind and lived from the heart."