The sauna as a cultural institution

I’ve used saunas on occasion, but not very often – I prefer to soak in a hot tub when the opportunity arises.  I knew they came from Scandinavia, but I hadn’t known much about their history.  An article in the BBC Magazine has corrected that oversight.  Here’s an extract.

This bathing ritual has been performed across Finland for thousands of years, ever since the first settlers dug a ditch in the ground and heated a pile of stones. Water was thrown on the hot stones to give off a vapour known as loyly.

Each sauna is considered to have its own character and its own distinctive loyly. The better the loyly, the more enjoyable the sauna.

For those working in the fields in harsh conditions, the sauna provided welcome relief to wash and soothe aching muscles.

These warm wooden rooms could be used at lower temperatures too, and were at the heart of the major events of a Finn’s life.

Women gave birth in them because the walls of traditional smoke saunas were lined with naturally bacteria-resistant soot, making them the cleanest room in the house.

Saunas were also the place for purification rituals before marriage, and the bodies of the dead were washed and prepared for burial on the wooden benches.

For many Finns the sauna was the holiest room in the house and the one most closely associated with their wellbeing.

. . .

Today, Finland is a nation of 5.3 million people and 3.3 million saunas, found in homes, offices, factories, sports centres, hotels, ships and deep below the ground in mines.

There’s more at the link.  It’s worth reading in full for a ‘different’ look into what makes another culture tick.

(The tale of the Finnish president who negotiated with Soviet diplomats in his sauna during the Cold war made me chuckle, and reflect that there are all sorts of ways to bring people to agreement – including cooking them if they delay too long!)



  1. Back in 1990 I was part of a team that was preparing a proposal for an offshore oil lease off Sakhalin Island. The effort involved a trip to Yuhzno-Sakhalinsk to meet with Russian "businessmen" – basically to shmooz them and tell them what oil development could do for the area. The discussions involved a night spent at the Banya, or sauna. There is something unique about business negotiations when all the parties are naked in a steamy room.

  2. I've always found it interesting that despite the historical connections between Sweden and Finland, saunas have never really became the same thing in Sweden.

    It's still popular in Sweden and you find them everywhere, but it doesn't have the cultural importance it does in Finland.

  3. Pedantry=ON
    Scandinavia most properly refers to Sweden, Norway and Denmark. The other icy northern parts (Finland, Iceland) together with Scandinavia constitute the Nordic countries.

    "There is something unique about business negotiations when all the parties are naked in a steamy room." Hah! Cultural norms clearly differ, but from my midwestern (American) upbringing there're many people I'd pay good money to NOT see naked, and a rare few I'd find too distracting to stay focused on business. Just another darn uptight 'murricun, I guess.

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