The sauna is a source of wellbeing for a Finn; it is a place for relaxing and cleansing the body and for reinvigorating the mind. In the ever-changing world it seems that the sauna not only has the power to evaporate worries but it also seems to improve sleep and bring other health benefits.
Back in the days sauna was often the most hygienic of domestic spaces and therefore used for giving birth and treating the sick and injured in. It was also customary for bodies to be washed and dressed in saunas before their final journey. Often functioning as an extension to kitchens, it was not uncommon for cured meats and other food to be prepared in saunas as well.
Finns built their first saunas in the Stone Age by digging a pit into a slope. The pit was heated up with heated rocks placed on the floor. The sauna mostly served as a dwelling in the winter. Because people roamed around and did not stay at one place for long, saunas moved with the people. Saunas in the woods were part of ancient fishing and hunting trips, which the spirits and elves naturally co-habited.
Bronze Age was the era of earth saunas. These saunas were a more advanced configuration of the dugout. The sauna was typically built on top of a pit and was very small. The low roof was made of peat or turf. The use of rocks in the bottom of the pit as the heating element continued.
Smoke saunas, which are still common especially in the countryside, were developed in the Iron Age. Instead of pit, the sauna was built from wood and formed a building of its own. Smoke saunas have a furnace which lets the smoke rise freely into the room. There is no chimney and once the sauna is heated up the smoke is let out through a small air outlet.
The 17th century introduced the heat storage stoves, which can still be found in Finland. Heat storage stoves require more stones than continuous fire type stoves, as more stones store more heat. The heat storage saunas are not heated up during bathing but well in advance and can take a long time to heat up. They used to be heated up until the stones were glowing hot and red in colour. Finally, to prevent the heat from escaping, the chimney damper was closed before bathing.
As the sauna gradually developed and the earthen floor was replaced with wooden planks, the heat storage stoves were replaced with continuous fire stoves in the 19th century. Chimney flues were added to let the smoke escape immediately, which meant that bathing was possible while the sauna was heated up.
Continuous electric stoves were developed in the 20th century. The first electric stoves came to the market in the 1950s, but did not take off properly until the 1990’s when modern heat storing and quickly warming models were introduced. Electric stoves allow saunas to be built inside apartments and high-rise buildings, and nowadays many Finns enjoy ‘löyly’ in their own apartment sauna or a common sauna of their condominium. Public saunas, which were common in the mid 1900’s, have also gained more popularity in the recent years, and Tampere has over 30 of them!
Sauna is linked to a wide range of beliefs. The Finnish folk tradition is full of magic spells and stories of sauna spirits and elves that are generally good-natured and live in harmony with the people. Birch whisks, pouring water on the stove to summon the ‘löyly’ spirit, sending greetings to the ones passed, and singing old songs is one example of a Finnish sauna tradition.
According to old Finnish proverbs, different wood varieties used for burning were known to have specific magical functions, which goes to explain sauna’s role in traditional medicine. Back in the days sauna was a sacred place where speaking loudly, behaving disruptively or otherwise in violation of good manners was considered inappropriate. This still applies — many like to enjoy their sauna in quiet, but talking silently is allowed nowadays as well.