History of sauna and how it spread around the world


All over the world, whenever people hear the word “sauna” they think of the Finns. “Sauna” means “bathhouse” in Finnish. Pronounced “sow’-na” (or sometimes “saw’-na” in English), it is the only Finnish word used by English-speaking countries. “Sauna” has been borrowed by many other languages.

An old Finnish saying is, that “wherever three or more people get together, there will be a Sauna in three weeks”. Sauna is part of the “Finnish Way of Life”, proven by the statistics that there are more Saunas than cars in Finland. The Finns seem to have been the most influential of anyone in spreading this tradition of sauna bathing across the globe.

The Uniontown neighborhood in Astoria, Oregon maintains a strong connection with its Finnish history.

Anyway sauna culture can be traced back to to prehistoric times and saunas have their origin in the Stone Age already. Indeed, at that time it were holes in the ground which were warmed up with hot stones and on which water was poured.

Although the word “Sauna” comes from the Finnish language, the sauna itself was not invented in Finland. The most ancient findings were in Eastern Asia, from where sweat rooms have spread to North, Central and South America. Today Inuits and Native Americans still celebrate this kind of bathing by using sweat rooms and in Mexico and Central America the Temazcal actually becomes more and more popular again, especially in hotels and vacation resorts.

When the Finns have immigrated approx. 2000 years ago from their Asian origin to their Northern European living environment they have presumably brought this bath form from there. Via Asia Minor then it has taken its way into the whole Mediterranean area. Most written and oral medieval traditions expose the popularity of sites similar to sauna and for the use of personal hygiene which has existed for all people regardless of status or symbol. Therefore, one can be surprised how it was possible, such a cultural component disappeared for about 100 years, approx. from 1700-1800. Given reasons in general were lack of morality and the transference of contagious illnesses in common baths. And also the influence of the church should not be underestimated due to demoralization in the baths. It was seen that non-bathing was the only way to live agreeable to God.

In Finland and Russia, however, the cultural tradition of the sauna has continued to exist incessantly from century by century.

Image left: A wooden building once located at the crossing of Pakkahuoneenkatu and Isokatu in Oulu, Finland. During its history, the building used to house at least Jokela Sauna, photography store Dufva, and Lyyra Photography. The building has since been demolished, and nowadays there is an Arina hotel standing in its place.
Image right: Modern sauna facilities at Therme Erding, Germany – www.therme-erding.de

Sauna_bathingSAUNA is the only bath in the world in which both dry and damp air is present at the same time. It is the body’s natural way to cleanse itself through perspiration. The high heat (average of 180° F – 212° F) and the low humidity (about 25%) creates an environment which promotes over-all perspiration and the deep cleansing of pores. The body’s impurities are flushed away and sauna baths help to maintain clear, healthy skin and provides a rosy afterglow.

Saunas are first and foremost a place of relaxation. The soft heat and humidity soothes and relaxes tired muscles, relieves stress, strengthens the immune system and promotes a wonderful after Sauna feeling of satisfaction and well being. The body’s natural painkillers, beta-endorphins and norepinephrine, are released to provide a feeling much like the runner’s high.

No wonder that people have enjoyed it throughout the centuries!


Photo Credits
Top right: Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives, via Wikimedia Commons
Middle left: By Uuno Laukka (Pohjois-Pohjanmaan museo), via Wikimedia Commons
Middle right: By Therme Erding (Therme Erding), via Wikimedia Commons
Bottom left: By Thomas Wanhoff (Partyzan_XXI), via Wikimedia Commons