There are about 1.6 million saunas in Finland for a population of 5.1 million. In the Middle Ages saunas were common all over Europe. Undesirable activities, like prostitution, were, however, increasingly connected to saunas, hence the tradition secularized and disappeared. These negative phenomena never reached the Finnish sauna, since the Finns have always regarded sauna as an almost sacred place, where immorality was not allowed. This attitude is well reflected by a Finnish saying "In the sauna you must behave as in church".
Sauna is an essential part of the Finnish life. The mean age of a Finnish child taking his first sauna bath is 4.5 months and average Finn goes to sauna more often than once a week. Sauna is frequently mentioned in the Finnish national epic, practically all our authors have described sauna in their books, sauna appears as a motif in paintings and Finnish composers have made songs about sauna. Sauna occurs also in Finnish films and at present, one of our most popular TV shows is set in sauna. Among the guests of the show there have been a dozen cabinet ministers and close to one hundred members of Parliament --- usually towel-clad.
Scientific research on sauna has elucidated physiological and folkloristic aspects of the bath and technical aspects of sauna building. Twelve medical doctoral theses on sauna have appeared in Finland and altogether there are about 500 publications on the (patho)physiological effects of sauna from the last three decades.
The Finnish word "sauna" has been adopted in its original form into several anguages. Unfortunately it is not always used in its original meaning. Finns are irritated when all kinds of sweat inducing constructions and devices are marketed as saunas, and sad and angry when dubious business ventures -- massage parlours and houses of prostitution -- exploit this name. The original Finnish sauna has nothing to do with sex. In Finland women and men do not bathe together, unless they are of the same family.
Why to go to sauna? Earlier it was important for practical reasons, a place to give birth to babies, a place to treat diseases, a place to prepare food and of course a place to wash the body after heavy work. These practical reasons are not important anymore. Nowadays people go to sauna mainly for its relaxing effect. After a proper bath, you always feel better. It may be due to release of endorphins, although we do not know it for sure. But the mechanism is not important, important is that you really el better. Both body and soul are cleansed in a Finnish sauna.
The sauna is such a central and distinguishing feature of everyday Finnish culture that its significance and uniqueness are difficult to grasp. For the Finns, the sauna is more than just a place to wash themselves. It is a complex of many traditional customs and beliefs.
The sauna is not a Finnish invention, however, despite a strong belief to the contrary. Finns can, however, be considered a nation of true sauna-goers, and with good reason, since the sauna has retained its prominence while adapting itself to ongoing cultural change.
The scientific dilemma of trying to discover the inventor of the sauna is like the question of the whereabouts of Hansel and Gretel's gingerbread house. No answer can be given. Our cultural historians were nevertheless able to ascertain its distant equivalents rather early on, as well as its unique features. The Finnish stone oven sauna is seen as bringing together the best traditions of two bathing cultures, namely hot air baths and steam baths.
Nestor, a historian from Kiev, produced a famous chronicle in the year 1113 which contained a well-known account of the sauna. This account is romantically viewed as one of the earliest proofs of the existence of the Finnish sauna. The chronicle describes the hot saunas of the Novgorod region, in which naked people lashed themselves with twigs from a tree, only to douse themselves with cold water at the end. "Voluntarily they torment themselves, acquiring pain instead of cleanliness," the chronicle recounts.
The sauna unites and separatesAs an identity symbol, the Finnish sauna is akin to the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. It has likewise been institutionalized, and has its own associations, postal stamps and fervent fans. Yet, the diverse culture of the sauna lives on and thrives, as does the Kalevala, all the while oblivious to its official mouthpieces and supporters.
The excellent collection of articles recently published under the title, "Finland Through Others' Eyes" (1995), is a series of accounts of foreigners' experiences in Finland. They clearly point to the fact that the visitor to Finland has always been stirred, for better or worse, by three things: the nightless summer nights, skiing in the winter and, above all, the hot, dark sauna. After initial bewilderment, this 'primitive people's sweatshop' perhaps shows itself to be proper and commendable after all.
The sauna's status is secure if not undisputed in our changing pantheon of national symbols. Symbols of identity have two functions, after all. On the one hand, they increase the feeling of togetherness in a group; on the other hand, they distinguish us from others, highlighting differences. The sauna unites the Finns in a convivial way. However, does it distinguish us from others in that authentic and worthy manner that is the hallmark of the Kalevala, for example?
In his collected essays, "Arctic Bramble, Myth, and Mannerheim", Matti Klinge remarks, "Instead of taking our foreign guests to our Greek pillars of antiquity by reciting the tales of Ensign St€l as affirmations of Finnish character in the moral tradition of the former, we all too often offer up the sauna and the pasty as symbols of our distinctiveness."
Birth of the sauna ideaWe no doubt understood the special significance of the sauna quite early on. Already at the inauguration of the Turku Academy in 1640, Mikael Wexionius, a professor of history and politics, noted that all the Finns were avid sauna-goers: "They bolt out of the sauna even in bitter cold, fetching water from the well, river or lake with enthusiasm and laughter, only to throw it over their bare skin. Yet all this makes them physically hardy and able to withstand exertion."
Professor Henrik Gabriel Porthan, a key scientific figure of eloquence in Finland, was able to recount, at the end of the 18th century, that 'Finnish forest people' who had emigrated to Sweden were accustomed to vigorous sauna-bathing, which in the wintertime included rolling in the snow afterwards. For him, our compatriots' sauna customs were merely an exotic object of research, however, and not part of a living Finnish heritage worthy of respect.
K.A. Gottlund, an enigmatic finnophile whose 200th anniversary was celebrated in 1996, saw matters very differently. In the course of his field trips to study forest people who had emigrated to Sweden, he observed that the sauna was the essential feature of the Finnish building tradition that was still intact even amongst those who had already relinquished their mother tongue. He realized the central significance of the sauna for Finnish culture as a whole upon his arrival in Vermland, central Sweden, in the summer of 1817: "I had not taken a bath in a year although I was earlier used to bathing at least twice a week. This habit is second nature only to Finns." These words have sometimes been read as a veritable declaration of the Finnish attitude towards the sauna.
Gottlund produced a Kalevala-oriented literary work called Runola (Land of Poetry) in honour of the university's 200 year anniversary celebrations in 1840. Runola was a poet's paradise, an island of fairy tales and songs ruled by Runamoinen along with his assistants, the sweet Graces called Onnetar, Toivotar, Tiijotar, Hein€tar, Tarjotar, and above all, Saunatar. Gottlund was a forerunner in depicting the Finnish sauna as the ultimate zenith of pleasure and heavenly joy.
Several other writers such as Juhani Aho and Ilmari Kianto returned to this myth of the heavenly sauna at a later date. For example, Kianto has written about Ryysyrannan Jooseppi (Ragged Joseph of the Shore), a cottager from Kainuu who, upon his death, is ordered by Providence to be the bather of all the dead from R€ms€nranta in a heavenly bathing house. He declines to accept this honour, however, and is thus transferred to the heavenly threshing department. In contrast to Kianto's satirical tendency, Aho's vision of the heavenly sauna is one of gentle humour.
A house without a sauna is not a homeThe Kalevala had the effect of making depiction of sauna-going and bathing a commonplace thing in Finnish literature. The ride, upon stepping into the man's world, is advised to prepare the sauna for her father-in-law and mother-in-law every evening. Lemmink€inen orders his mother and Ilmarinen orders his sister to prepare the sauna before going through major trials. Aino prepares bundles of leafy twigs in the grove. In the national epic, men are depicted bathing and talking. The women attend to the heating of the sauna while making sure that a fresh shirt is available. The same Kalevala-esque staging is still present in sauna postcards today.
Credit goes to Aleksis Kivi for the fact that Finnish sauna culture can also be viewed in a humorous light and that the Finnish Christmas sauna is the subject of extensive narratives and of continued deviation. Juhani's proud respect for folk tradition in Kivi's novel resulted in truisms that have since found their way into oft-repeated sayings: "A house without a sauna is not a home where the matron or the wives of hired hands can give birth. A crackling sauna, a barking dog, a crowing rooster and a meowing cat are what make a proper house."
Researchers also began to show interest in the origins of the Finnish sauna around this time. In 1871, August Ahlqvist, a professor of Finnish, began to draw attention to Finnish words such as 'sauna', 'bathing', 'whisk' and 'soap'. He surmised that the sauna had originated from the Byzantine world, and that it subsequently migrated to the Slavic world, from where it finally reached the Finno-Ugric groups.
Max Buch was a medical doctor interested in ethnological research who felt it was his duty to renounce Ahlqvist's theory. Buch had achieved renown as a result of his research on the Votyaks or Udmurts during time spent as a doctor in Izhevsk. Buch attempted to prove by means of the history of settlements and linguistics that the sauna was not of Slavic origin but an authentic Finnish invention. Buch used the aforementioned account in Nestor's chronicle as documented evidence.
Buch thought that the chronicle recounted the sauna customs of heroes of the Kalevala who lived north of Novgorod. This was how the Kalevala and the sauna had become intermeshed, creating a combination that partially served as the fount for the building of a tenacious mythical construct about the Finnish sauna's origins. Ahlqvist was able to demonstrate that Buch's explanations were untenable, especially when it came to the Kalevala.
A great sauna peopleThe discussion concerning the sauna's origins did not go further at that stage. Doctors nevertheless wisely began to emphasize the sauna's significance for hygiene and for overall health. They lamented the decline in sauna-bathing. In 1888, Albert Pfaler recognized that Finnish forefathers were veritable balneo and hydrotherapists in their healing work. "The sauna was their prime hospital suite and operating theatre, and hot sauna vapour was their carbolic mist." The medical profession has harboured great sympathizers with the sauna principle ever since the days of Elias L€nnrot.
The development of the Finnish sauna ideal was shaped not only through the work of writers and doctors, but also through the work of ethnologists, most notably Sakari P€lsi's many excellent essays. He described the special features of the malting sauna of the H€me region, and pondered over the origins of the sauna oven and the custom of throwing water on the heated stones. P€lsi amusingly develops the theory that the idea of throwing water on the stones came about by itself: "Our ancestors' houses contained stoves made of stones as well as openings in the ceiling for smoke to go through. Whenever there was a brisk shower, the water would hit the hot stones, giving the residents the pleasure of a free steam bath in the process."
Although Juhani Aho firmly believed that the sauna was a Finnish invention and "the most long-standing memorial to the era of our forefathers", P€lsi did not wish to imply that the Finns were the sole inventors of the sauna. Instead, he began to speak about the Finns as the great sauna-going nation that, come dusk on Christmas Eve, marches in step into the sooty sauna, with birch twigs tucked under their arms.
It is worth noting that, according to the current etymological interpretation, the word 'sauna' is contiguous with the word in the Lapp language which means the snowy resting hole of the willow or wood grouse. According to the ethnological interpretation, the original sauna was a hole dug in the ground, in the middle of which was a heated pile of stones, and which our ancestors covered with hides. This is what the earliest Finnish sauna looked like.
Sauna and 'sisu'Tahko Pihkala had the audacity to dream as early as 1912 that the day Helsinki is granted the Olympic Games will also be the day that sauna bathing has come into its own as a competitive endurance sport. Sport became, in fact, a vehicle for making the sauna known across the world. Finns already had their very own sauna, designed by Carolus Lindberg, during the 1924 Paris Olympics. The stove was donated by a Finnish cast iron oven factory from Haapam€ki. The guiding rationale was that assembling the sauna would give "Finnish export firms a unique opportunity to promote their products before the eyes of the entire world".
The logs for the construction were taken from an old drying barn in Hyvink€€ in order to impregnate the sauna with the 'familiar Finnish sauna fragrance'. These were loaded onto a ship in Kotka and taken to the sports site. "[The sauna] awaited our competitors in the shade of a chestnut tree, and they were delighted, recognizing it immediately as an old friend." The splendid success of the Finnish runners was ultimately also attributed to the sauna.
Stories started circulating in America that Paavo Nurmi trained in a Finnish sauna. Distance runners from Harvard University, together with the editor of Boston's largest daily newspaper, visited a Finnish-American sauna. They were reported to have said, on the basis of their personal experiences, that if Nurmi spends two hours a day in such a place only to break records on the track thereafter, he must be the toughest man in the world. "A man who appeared from a crevasse, instead of having been born like the rest of us." The editor also tried to explain the nature of Finnish sauna-bathing to a readership unfamiliar with the subject: "The Finnish sauna is not a solo performance in washing up - it is like a meeting. It reminds one of campfire gatherings in the olden days."
Finnish sisu made itself known not only by way of the sauna but through the sports arena, where it offered further explanation for the successes of Finnish distance runners, in particular. Even Akseli Gallen-Kallela commented on this winning combination: "A nimble man once wrote about our victory in Antwerp, saying that Finnish sisu, sauna and rye bread had made it possible. He really hit the nail on the head. Sauna and sisu are truly remarkable assets, permitting Finns to set high records if properly produced rye bread and something sensible to go with it are added to their staple diet." The expedition to the Berlin Games was undertaken with rye bread, lamb, pork, cheese and sauna whisks in tow because "German bathing whisks could not be counted on". The custom-made sauna for the Finnish contingent drew a lot of attention, even though it didn't measure up according to some. During the previous year, 200,000 visitors visited a sauna tent built by Finnish boy scouts for a large scouting jamboree in Hungary.
Official heritageSurprisingly, the nascient travel business did not perceive the sauna as something worth offering to visitors. This shows that the sauna's currency in the world of cultural exchange has also always had to face its sceptics. Foreigners were first in discovering the sauna. Many travel guides started praising the sauna and the hygienic standards of the Finns.
German magazines advertised the sauna as follows: "If you want heaven and hell at the same time, go to a Finnish sauna." This was how 'sauna' was incorporated into the German language. The sole point of debate was whether it was die or das Sauna. Finnish travel brochures only started mentioning the sauna in the late 1930s, concurring with the appearance of sunbathers clad in bathing suits. The four 'Ss' of Finnish travel had been, namely sisu, sauna, Saarinen and Sibelius.
Quite a lot was written about the sauna in the newspapers and periodicals of the 1930s. In 1933, Risto Lundgren even published a medical dissertation about the sauna, the preface of which contains an interesting overview of ethnological research on the sauna, including Russian writings on the subject.
An account of the event by a reporter from the daily Uusi Suomi is worth quoting as it foregrounds the difficulty of attempting to popularize scientific material: "An interesting point of contention in the discussion between the opponent and the doctoral candidate was what constitutes a specifically Finnish sauna. Another subject for reflection was the definition of a sauna oven. The author of the dissertation argued that it was the entire oven structure while Professor Rancken understood it to be the container of the hot stones. A further question reflected upon was the temperature needed for truly effective sauna heat."
Public opinion gradually agreed on the need to foster respect for the Finnish sauna. The impetus came from the brand new Finnish sauna at the Stockholm sports hall which, according to visitors, did not measure up to expectations: "What would the French say if some other country were to produce a truly sub-standard beverage, advertising it as French cognac. For the sake of our own and our sauna's reputation, we need to inform people in Stockholm about the attributes of an authentic Finnish sauna."
This is how an official identity symbol was created from a complex cultural entity. The precursor of the Finnish Sauna Society, the Friends of the Finnish Sauna, was established in 1937. The sauna begot its own 'ideological' club and its politically correct advocates. The secondary school class graduating the following spring wrote on the subject of 'the Finnish sauna'. More recently, in 1986, the sauna also received its own name day, the second Saturday in June. There has even been talk of an official flag day...