Here’s why the history of the sauna is deeper than you might think

Saunas were built for survival before becoming intertwined with the lives of the people who used them.

Friends gather for a traditional sauna in Estonia. Photo by Tõnu Runnel.

Mention sauna and most people think of Finland.

Despite a population of just over 5 million people, Finland has an impressive 3 million saunas to share between them — far outnumbering their cars — while ‘Finnish saunas’ are now found in gyms and spas almost everywhere on Earth.

No one actually knows where the first saunas were built, but the tradition is thought to originate somewhere in northern Europe around 2,000 BC and has remained an important part of cultural life to this day in countries including Estonia, Latvia, and Russia, as well as Finland.

A girl sits outside an Estonian smoke sauna. Photo by Mariann Liimal.

People in these countries like to debate who now has the best saunas, but the truth is that their building techniques and traditions have evolved mostly in parallel for the past few thousand years. As an Estonian though, I’ll give you my slightly biased explanation later for what makes Estonian saunas particularly special.

Most other people around the world using a sauna today might not realise just how deep the sauna story goes. In fact, it starts underground where the first saunas were built — not for relaxation — but survival.

The ancient saunas

The first saunas were man-made caves that were draped closed with animal skins and had a fire burning inside them during the day beneath a pile of stones. After the fire was extinguished and the smoke wafted out, the stones would continue to warm the cave long into the night for the people (and sometimes animals) who huddled inside and basked in the steam that rose from the stones when water was poured on them.

These rooms were not just warmed by the fire, but also sterilised by the smoke. As a result, they were essential for sustaining daily life in an unforgiving landscape. These early saunas functioned as kitchens, washrooms, hospitals and more throughout the year, while in the harsh winters they were literally the only place to live. The sauna was where people were born, where their bodies were laid out at the end of their lives, and where all the most importance celebrations took place in between.

As a result, the saunas developed their own distinct traditions and became holy places that were intertwined with spiritual beliefs. They were believed to bestow magical powers on those that entered and were also home to a mystical sauna spirit that was both respected …and feared.

Here’s the story gets even stranger though.

The more archaeologists look, the more they find evidence of saunas across the ancient world. There are remarkable similarities, for example, between the northern European sauna tradition and the sweat lodges still used today for religious ceremonies by native American tribes on the other side of the world.

Stonehenge is one of more than 1,000 ancient circles across the UK.

There’s even evidence that the mysterious ancient circles made from wood and stone across the British Isles and other parts of Europe may have been saunas. Archaeologists agree that they were used for some kind of ritual and burnt stones have been discovered at the centre of some of them, such as this one in northern England found earlier this year.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, these circles increase in number the further that you travel towards the colder north. More than half are found in Scotland.

While early sauna culture survived in northern Europe, it was wiped out in other places, seemingly at the same time as the people that used them — like those early Britons who built Stonehenge.

The sauna middle ages

Back in northern Europe, the sauna caves were upgraded to sauna dwellings and the same traditions continued — including the technique of filling the room with smoke before ventilating it, as well practises such as beating each other with birch branches.

Sauna is a Finnish word, but since at least the 13th century we’ve been using the word saun in Estonian too alongside words such as viht for the birch branches.

Most saunas in northern Europe to this day remain inside people’s homes (or a separate building on their property), but sauna culture also inspired the bathhouses that sprung up across the region, as well as the rest of medieval Europe, the Islamic world and east Asia.

Visiting a bathhouse was an integral part of daily life for many people across Europe and the world for centuries — until, quite suddenly, it wasn’t. The rapid disappearance of Europe’s bathhouses isn’t easy to explain, although an unlikely villain may have been responsible.

The enlightenment movement led to the victory of science, reason and personal liberty over the power of divine authorities, like the Church and Kings. This transformed almost every aspect of society and is believed to explain the disappearance of most bathhouses. Saunas — and their seemingly superstitious bathing techniques — were seen as vestiges of the old order and were simply no longer in fashion.

What many newly enlightened people didn’t realise is that the sauna really did bestow ‘magical’ powers upon those who entered them… in a way …but it is only now that science has given us a more complete understanding of the enormous benefits of visiting a sauna for both our minds and bodies.

Modern saunas

It wasn’t until the industrial revolution arrived in northern Europe that chimneys were added. This enabled saunas to be heated faster and continuously even after people entered inside (as long as they kept adding wood).

These continuous wood-fired saunas are now what most people consider to be an authentic sauna, although the older styles without chimneys — now called smoke saunas — still exist in various places and are still considered to be the best.

Smoke is ventilated from an Estonian sauna. Photo by Tõnu Runnel.

Here in Estonia, smoke saunas are most common in the southern region of Võrumaa where they have been given protected cultural status by UNESCO.

The reason that Finnish saunas have become most famous though can be explained by modern geopolitics.

Finland and Estonia are both currently celebrating 100 years as independent republics, yet the fortunes they’ve faced during much of that period has been drastically different. Finland remained free, while Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union.

As a consequence, the Finns used their increased wealth and freedom to modernise their saunas and continue spreading the tradition around the world during waves of westward migration.

The first electric saunas was invented in Finland, then popularised in the USA in the mid-20th century. This made saunas a more accessible experience to vastly more people, although with an arguably inferior form of heat. It meant that saunas could now easily be installed inside spas, gyms and hotels across the western world and beyond.

This cemented the idea that saunas were a public leisure activity — where most traditions were removed and swimming clothes were not!

Electric saunas spread back to Finland too where they replaced many of their wood-fired predecessors.

Meanwhile, Estonia and its people were closed off from the world and had to use their fewer resources to preserve the saunas they already had. In addition, Estonians found ways to adapt their sauna tradition in order to facilitate the deal-making that was necessary to survive under the planned economy of the Soviet Union. Larger relaxation rooms were added to saunas across Estonia so that people could bond over food and drink between sessions in the sauna, as well as negotiate the allocation of resources in their area.

As a result, Estonian saunas are today more likely to have retained their old world charm and — quite frankly — are more fun.

Fortunately, Estonia is open to the world once again and it’s increasingly confident about what it has to offer. More visitors arrive every year and Estonians are now making headlines globally for their world leading startups, and for pioneering a digital nation.

Perhaps the success of Estonian companies like Skype and TransferWise can partly be explained by the fact that they have kept saunas in their offices.

Estonia today is known as e-Estonia for its world leading digital initiatives, such as e-Residency. However, most Estonians agree that the best saunas should always be wood-fired — even in a digital nation.

Estonians are also now exporting their saunas around the world through beautifully designed brands, such as Boat sauna and Iglusaun (which is even delivering it’s first order to Australia right now!) Thanks to our Nordic quality, innovative designs, and lowered costs, Estonia has already become the world’s largest exporter of pre-made wooden homes so it’s possible that Estonia could also become the world’s largest exporter of saunas too.

Funnily enough though, many Estonian saunas are still referred to as ‘Finnish saunas’, despite being made in Estonia and even being used in Estonia. It’s probably time that changed, especially as Estonia’s smoke saunas are even now famous enough to feature in a recent cover story for the New York Times magazine:

But no matter where you are in the world and which sauna you are using, remember the next time that you sweat it out inside one that you are continuing a very old tradition with an extraordinary story that is interwoven with the fate and fortunes of the people who used them.

Saunas have never just been rooms. They are a way of life and so, in many ways, the history sauna is really a history of us.

About ‘Estonian Saunas’

Thanks for reading. The Estonian Saunas blog is run by Anni and Adam, explorers and exporters of Estonian saunas.

Anni is a green building specialist who grew up here in Estonia immersed in sauna culture, while Adam is a väliseestlane (‘foreign Estonian’) whose family were exiled to the UK during Soviet times but he has now returned and is still trying to understand the sauna — and everything else about his Estonian heritage.

Together, we love finding weird and wonderful saunas all over Estonia and telling the world about them. Check out our plan to make 100 Estonian saunas more famous around the world.

We also offer two saunas in Tallinn that you can visit. Both are based on the best of Estonian design and technology, although in very different ways. The first is our smoke sauna, Rangi saun, which combines an ancient sauna heating technique with a contemporary Estonian design. The second is our WiFi-controlled e-sauna, Tondi Saun, which is part of our apartment that you can book through Airbnb.

In addition to reading our blog, you can follow Estonian Saunas on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. There’s also a Facebook group for fans of Estonian saunas where you can share advice and stories.

Finally, you can email us at tere@estoniansaunas.com.

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