The Sauna is a very old spiritual tradition, especially for the European peoples. Throughout history we find that the Northern European cultures have an important connection with the sauna. Archaeology in northern Portugal and Spain also found that the Celts and the Lusitanians used to have buildings similar to their houses only for the purpose of cleansing the body through heat and vapours. Nowadays it isn’t hard to get into a sauna, but unfortunatelly modern saunas are very different from the old saunas that were used for religious purposes.
The first purpose of the sauna is to honor the powers of the elements, fire, water and stone (earth) and how the spirits of such elements together make “magic”, creating steam, thought to be the very breath of the earth and the ancestors. Without these elements, the spirits will not come to you.
For religious purposes, the sauna must have a good source of heat from wood with real flame (nowadays modern saunas have the source of heat through an electric sistem). Also, there is the need of adding stones, most modern saunas have them, as long as there is wood and real flame, it is fine. Now, something very important that isn’t taken to account by the people who build modern saunas. Ventilation. Many modern saunas make people sick because the oxygen levels fall too low. Any type of opening will do, the fire needs oxygen to “breath”. The best way is having an adjustable vent near the floor, to vent the cooling sinking air, and another higher up to vent the excess heat that follows later.
Also, like I’ve written, having stones, to throw water on them. Don’t pick up river stones, usualy blow apart during temperature changes. You will also need water of course. Our ancestors used to collect the rainwater for these purpose, coming from the sky, it was a direct blessing from the deities. The type of wood used to come from the birch trees, I believe that I have already written about the birch tree in another post, those were consider to be very magical in many cultures, especially the ones ruled by a druidic order.
Do whatever you want in the sauna, but know that the real purpose of it, wasn’t to party, so if you really want to do any type of spiritual work, you must behave of course. Being in a sauna, one must be quiet, meditative, peaceful, solemn. This is an opportunity to be in touch with the spirits of the elements, a rebirth ritual, so our ancestors used to go into the sauna, completly naked, the way they came into the world, deprived of any clothing.
Of course people may feel shy for being naked in a community sauna, that is understandable, but modern community saunas don’t have the ancestral spiritual purposes. Community saunas used to be mixed gender, however, some rituals during the year only for men or for women, were held inside the sauna (at least part of the rituals) so in that case, the sauna was occupied by only one gender.
The first saunas were made out of stone, but during the later 5th – 6th centuries, these were being built our of timber. The hearth was considered to be the altar of the sauna (the sauna being the temple/house of the ancestors).
The door to a traditional sauna used to be shorter than a an average door, people had to stoop to get into it, showing reverence for the ancestors.
The very first saunas were smoke saunas, the Finns refer to them as savusauna. The fire was lit under stones, and the smoke went out through a hole in the wall or ceiling. The smoke heated the entire room and then the hole was shut and the window opened to let in fresh air come in. There are different claims on the health risks of these smoke saunas, or savusauna. Some say that the smoke is bad for your lungs, others that the smoke creates a bacteria-free and oxygen-rich environment. Don’t try these in any circumstances if you are new at this or alone, these might be better in community and with someone outside the door.
The traditional ways of making fire for the sauna, would take long (compared to modern ways of course, it wasn’t that long) but it would take longer to get the sauna ready for the spiritual purpose, so people used to sit outside and play the shamanic instruments to call upon a spirit to enter the sauna. In some cases, people would also wait for a family member to die in or near the sauna, so they would be able to call upon them during the sauna rituals.
Our ancestors would call upon guardian spirits to protect them. There was/is one very popular in Finland, named Saunatonttu, a little gnome or sort of faery. It was customary to warm up the sauna just for the gnome every now and then, or to leave some food outside for him. It is said that he warned the people if a fire was threatening the sauna, or punished people who behaved improperly while inside it. The Saunatonttu doesn’t seem to be an Alfar (Elf) but more like a being that belongs to the “little people” race. In Russia there was the Bannik or banyanka, also a spirit that protected people from evil spirits. Our ancestors would take refuge in the bath houses and saunas to pray to these spirits for protection.
The purpose of the sauna was to honor the ancestors, to call upon the spirits for protection and to be connected with them and the elements of nature, creating the very breath of the earth, ancestors and gods. Through this “breath” one would cleanse the body and soul.