History and traditions
The oldest Finnish saunas date back 10 000 years ago, after the Ice Age.Photo: Julia Kivelä
Originally, Finnish saunas were earth pits covered with animal skins. Earth pit saunas don’t exist anymore in Finland but their modern equivalent is the tent sauna.
The ground sauna arrived after the Stone Age. To build it, you need only an earth floor, three walls, one wooden door and a turf roof with a few tree trunks. Inside the sauna was a stove in the corner and wooden bench made of a log.
The third-generation sauna, the smoke sauna with large stoves, was born at the end of Iron Age and it remained popular until the 1930s. Smoke saunas differed from contemporary saunas in that they used piles of rocks heated over a fire for 6 to 8 hours which, after letting the smoke out, would provide warmth for hours. Nowadays sauna lovers cherish the smoke sauna.
The first sauna stoves with chimneys were used in Western Finland and they spread quickly in the 18th and 19th century city saunas. The barrel-shaped, sheet metal stove arrived in the 20th century.
A wood-saving way to heat saunas using small electric and gas-heated stoves arrived immediately after World War II. This invention meant saunas could be heated in just half an hour. These fifth-generation stoves are still used in many Finnish cottages and backyard saunas.
Sauna has always held lots of mystery, mysticism and beliefs. Magical beliefs created lots of rules and regulations to sauna bathing – mystical sauna was strongly associated with the afterlife which made the Finns follow the rules with fearful obedience. Ancient folklore emphasized the fact that sauna bathing should only be done in daylight, since after the sunset sauna became a playground of otherworldly creatures.
In addition to supernatural beliefs sauna also was believed to have healing powers. Väinämöinen, the main character of Finland’s national epic Kalevala, healed illnesses with the remedial power of sauna. Back in the days sauna was known as a hospital where illnesses were cured with spells and remedies. Whisking was a method of banishing the sickness away.
Even though spells and remedies are now only a distant memory in the history of sauna bathing, it is still believed that sauna has numerous health benefits and nowadays these benefits have been scientifically proven.
People believed that each sauna was guarded by its own spirit. The guardian spirit was in gnome form and was supposed to protect its sauna from fire and other damage. By following sauna traditions, people kept the spirit satisfied. One tradition was that the household left a cup of water for the gnome, or at Christmas time, a bowl of porridge. Traditional sauna gnomes still remain in some saunas as a reminder of the old Finnish superstitions.