Saunas offer the ultimate escape from the daily grind with their warmth, soothing properties, and calming ambiance. But did you know these cozy and comforting spaces have a deeply rich history dating back thousands of years?
From their humble beginnings in remote Scandinavian forests to their glossy presence in our contemporary gyms, the evolution of saunas goes far beyond architectural advancement. It’s a story that intertwines ancient health practices, spiritual traditions, and social trends.
Curious about who invented the sauna? How were saunas used in ancient times? Eager to understand how these old-age steamy sanctuaries differ from the more modern infrared saunas (like the Dynamic Saunas series)?
Read on to learn everything about the history of saunas, from their invention in prehistoric Finland to the modern wellness trends that have made them a mainstream wellness trend today.
Saunas in Ancient Times: History of Public Bathhouses
Sauna bathing is a long-standing tradition known for its refreshing and revitalizing experience. Despite the worldwide popularity of saunas in modern times, their roots stretch far back into the depths of history, primarily originating from the Northern European region.
While the exact timeframe of when saunas were first invented remains debatable, evidence suggests that sauna bathing was a well-established tradition at least 5,000 to 7,000 years ago.
Back then, sauna bathing held a mystical charm and was deeply associated with the afterlife. Tribal leaders and community members used these sacred spaces for a plethora of spiritual ceremonies, like purification rituals, healing the sick, honoring the dead, and more.
To uphold the supposed sanctity of this sacred place, a vital part of the folklore was that sauna bathing should be undertaken only in daylight as they were said to become the territory of supernatural beings after sunset.
As time went by, the indigenous Finns gradually expanded the use of saunas beyond their spiritual context, tapping into their practical advantages. During the harsh winter months, these warm sanctuaries were used for protection against freezing temperatures. People even used saunas as birthing rooms for expectant mothers. Barrel saunas soon evolved into multi-functional spaces where the community could gather to socialize and relax.
Sauna Traditions Around The World
Following are some fascinating sauna traditions from around the world.
Turkey: Turkish Hammams
Originating from the Roman bath culture, Turkish Hammams are a central part of the country's history and traditions. Initially, people used them for ritual ablutions before prayers. Turkish Hammams have evolved beyond mere bathhouses to become significant social spaces.
These hammams have a unique architecture, comprising large marble spaces flanked by baths or wash basins. Most hammams usually have different pools for immersion. Upon arrival, you got offered a special silk or cotton cloth to cover the body, similar to a pareo.
Your sauna experience will begin in a warm room where your body starts to acclimate to the high temperatures. After you've started to sweat, you'll move to progressively hotter rooms to further your detoxification process.
The bathing experience in hammams isn't solitary. Hammam traditions involve bath attendants, who thoroughly wash and scrub the visitors. After that, you’ll get muscle kneading and joint cracking massages, providing a profoundly refreshing experience.
Sweden: Bastu and Its Features
Although the Swedish sauna, known locally as "bastu," bears similarities to its Finnish neighbor, it has unique traditions. When public bathhouses got introduced in Sweden, they were used to cleanse the body and provide a serene environment for people to relax and heal after a long day's work.
However, the sauna culture faced a significant blow in the early 18th century. The rising spread of syphilis led authorities to mistakenly attribute the spread to public sauna usage, resulting in a ban in 1725. Despite the setback, home-based saunas continued to thrive and contribute to developing distinct Swedish sauna customs.
In Sweden, saunas are usually built as small rooms, with a wood-burning stove in the center and two leveled benches around the perimeter for sitting. The saunas get heated by pouring water over hot stones or burning wood in an oven beneath metal plates placed on top of the stove.
Swedish saunas rely on dry heat, much like their Finnish counterpart, but with different bathing practices. Swedes often alternate between the hot sauna and a cold-water rinse, with the famously adventurous "isvak"—a hole cut into the ice of a frozen lake or pond. After heating up in the sauna, Swedes usually plunge into the ice-cold water for ultimate relaxation.
While it is generally advised against consuming alcohol before using a sauna to prevent dehydration, Swedes pay no heed to the matter and often enjoy the sauna experience with a cold beer or a small portion of their favorite beverage.
Russia: Banya and Its Cultural Significance
Dating back several centuries, the Banya is deeply woven into the fabric of Russian traditions, lifestyle, and folklore. During ancient times, Russians believed that saunas could kill evil spirits, combining four essential elements: fire, water, earth, and air.
Today, Russian banyas remain popular communal spaces where people gather to relax, socialize, and discuss various topics. Banyas involve steam, high temperatures exceeding 199 degrees Fahrenheit, and the unique tradition of 'venik.'
In this tradition, sauna bathers lightly hit each other with bundled branches to improve blood circulation and direct the steam toward themselves. In banyas, people use felt hats to safeguard their heads against the heat and a mat to protect themselves from the hot benches.
After an initial sweat session, it is customary to take a cold plunge outside—rolling in the snow or dipping in a cut-out area of a frozen lake. Following the cool-off, you can return to the banya, sprinkle water on the hot rocks, and enjoy the new, warm steam.
Native America: Sweat Lodges and Their Spiritual Aspects
In Native America, sweat lodges serve as a significant spiritual ceremony intended for purification, healing, and connection with the sacred. The sweat lodge, often called 'Inipi,' is a dome-shaped structure typically built with natural materials.
The frame is usually made from bent willow branches and then covered with hides or tarps to retain heat. At the center of a sweat lodge, there's a pit where you place heated stones.
People sit around that dome while elders or spiritual leaders conduct the ceremony. They pour water onto the heated rocks and chant prayers or songs, making the whole experience deeply spiritual and transformative. The intense heat and steam serve as a form of rebirth, purifying people by driving out their impurities, toxins, and negative energies.
South Korea: Jjimjilbang
The South Korean sauna, known as jjimjilbang, is more than just a sauna; it's a full-featured recreational experience. While they include hot tubs, steam rooms, and saunas, jjimjilbangs also offer amenities like napping areas, entertainment rooms, and even food courts.
Compared to Finnish saunas blasting with high heat and humidity, Korean saunas are usually heated between 122 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit to provide a longer, more relaxing experience.
Sauna Traditions and Customs in Other Countries
In addition to the ones mentioned above, a few other countries with popular sauna traditions and customs include:
Japan: The sento is a public bathhouse where people can wash and soak in hot water. It has separate sections for men and women, where nudity is usually mandatory. Japanese saunas are perfect places for hygiene, relaxation, and socializing. The sento may also have other facilities such as saunas, massage rooms, or restaurants.
Iceland: Iceland has a popular outdoor pool and sauna culture. Icelanders love to soak in geothermal pools and hot springs, which are abundant in the country. Many pools also have saunas, steam rooms, and jacuzzis. Swimming and bathing are popular activities for people of all ages.
Czech Republic: The saunas in the Czech Republic are naked but separate. Czech saunas are usually segregated by gender, and nudity is mandatory. People wear only a towel or a sheet to cover themselves when moving between rooms. The sauna experience consists of several stages: warming up, cooling down, resting, and repeating. Some saunas also offer aromatherapy, music therapy, or peeling treatments.
Germany: Germany is famous for nudist saunas. German saunas are co-ed, and nudity is the norm. People do not wear anything except a towel or robe, which they use to sit on or wrap around themselves outside the sauna room. German saunas have strict rules of hygiene and etiquette, such as showering before entering, not talking loudly, and not staring at others.
Italy: Italian saunas are also co-ed, but people wear bathing suits, shorts, and T-shirts. The temperature is usually lower than in northern European saunas, around 140 degrees Fahrenheit or less. Italian saunas are often part of spas or wellness centers, where people can also enjoy massages, facials, or other treatments.
Morocco: Moroccan saunas are known as hammams, similar to Turkish saunas, which are basically public bathhouses where people wash and cleanse themselves using water, soap, and scrubbing gloves. Hammams have separate sections for men and women; nudity is common but not obligatory. They are also popular places for socializing, gossiping, or relaxing.
Transition and Modernization of Saunas
Before the industrial revolution, most sauna experiences involved wood-burning stoves to produce heat, a tradition that still holds true today. As technology progressed, saunas evolved from a simple Finnish invention to a sophisticated relaxation and heat therapy form.
Today, commercial saunas have become an integral part of health and wellness establishments, with dedicated spaces in spas, gyms, and health facilities. These modern facilities often house traditional and electric saunas, catering to various preferences.
While traditional wood-burning saunas like the Almost Heaven Allegheny Cabin Sauna offer a rustic appeal and a classic feel, electric saunas make it easy to adjust the temperature and humidity level per your needs. They also have other added features, including aroma lamps and music systems, providing a more luxurious experience.
Saunas in the 21st Century
In the 21st century, saunas have seen significant design, construction, and technology advancements. Different types of saunas are available on the market.
Newer traditional saunas are made from softwoods like white fir, cedar, thermally modified hemlock, or Nordic spruce. Such materials offer better heat retention and moisture absorption properties, so you won't have to worry about warping or rotting.
The modern era has also seen the rise of steam saunas, a delightful variant of dry saunas. Steam saunas use a steam generator like Mr. Steam MS-E Series to produce steam circulated into the room. This design eliminates the need for boiling water or heating stones, which can be time and energy intensive.
Infrared saunas, a relatively recent addition to the sauna world, have gained popularity for their unique heating method. Unlike traditional affordable saunas that heat the air around the user, infrared saunas like the Golden Design Bellagio use infrared light to penetrate deeper into your tissues.
Research shows that infrared saunas offer increased muscle recovery, better skin health, and improved cardiovascular endurance.
Modern saunas also feature digital control panels that allow you to precisely customize the temperature and humidity levels and even schedule sessions in advance.
Energy-efficient Heating elements that are energy-efficient and improved insulation result in faster warm-up times and reduced energy consumption. Additionally, the prefab saunas have made it easy to enjoy sauna bathing benefits from the comfort of your home.
The History of Saunas: FAQs
Which Countries Are Known for Saunas?
Saunas are popular and an integral part of the culture in several Nordic and Baltic countries. The countries most known for their saunas include Finland, Sweden, Norway, South Korea, Denmark, Russia, and Turkey.
What Is the Birthplace of Saunas?
Finland is recognized as the birthplace of saunas. The earliest evidence of home saunas dates back to Finland's Stone Age, making it the origin of the modern-day sauna concept.
What Are the Ancient Traditions of Sauna?
In the ancient era, saunas held a significant role in spiritual purification. The Finnish people, for instance, regarded saunas as an integral part of various rites of passage, such as ceremonial bathing of brides, facilitating childbirth, and preparing the deceased for burial.
Owing to their therapeutic properties, saunas were often dubbed the "poor man's pharmacy," as they provided a cheap and effective way to help treat many ailments.
What Is the Oldest Known Sauna?
The oldest saunas are in Finland and date back to circa 2000 B.C. Also known as steam saunas or savusaunat, they constructed early saunas by digging into an underground embankment, with animal skins draped over them to retain heat.
When Did Saunas Become a Thing?
Saunas have existed for thousands of years but became popular during the 16th century in Nordic countries. However, it wasn't until the 20th century that saunas became more widespread throughout Europe and North America.
Once integral to cleansing rituals and communal gatherings, Saunas have transformed over the centuries and become a modern-day popular wellness trend for relaxation and rejuvenation.