A foreign loan became Finland's national property.
Facts and legends about SAUNA
Arto Salomaa
Jaanintie 34 A 26, 20540 Turku, Finland

When I was younger, I planned to write a book about Finnish sauna.

Then I realized that there is so much literature about sauna that I could hardly add anything. Sauna has always been very important for me. During my long stays abroad I have missed sauna perhaps more than anything else in Finland. This article contains some well-known facts but is still written from my personal point of view.

1 History
Sauna is not a Finnish invention but the word is certainly Finnish, appears abundantly in our folk poetry. The word is internationally very well known, and is perhaps the only Finnish word appearing in foreign (English, German, French,...) dictionaries. However, the best features of sweat bathing were pre-served and developed further in Finland so that sauna, or Finnish sauna, became the national property of Finland.

Before the Second World War the only reasonable saunas outside Finland were those of Finnish immigrants. In Finland itself there were much more saunas than cars. The sauna density is nowadays roughly one sauna per two inhabitants. During very recent years the number of cars, unfortunately, has exceeded the number of saunas in Finland. Sauna, or the idea of sauna, has become an important export article. For instance, the number of saunas in Germany nowadays exceeds that in Finland.

Different forms of sweat bathing have existed almost everywhere for ages. In India very old medical books, in Sanskrit, emphasize the importance of sweating before washing up. Famous authors, such as Herodotos and Seneca, describe different forms of steam baths. The steam tents of American Indians come very close to the tent saunas used by Finnish soldiers in front line conditions.

During the Middle Ages sweat bathing was very common all over the Middle and Southern Europe. No convincing records exist about the bathing habits of northern people during this time. The situation changed dramatically after the year 1500. Then Central European bathing houses vanished completely. It has been suggested that this was due to the Reformation and the somewhat immoral habits in the bathing houses. Finland kept up and developed the tradition. The first written accounts of Finnish saunas also stem from this period.

2 Different kinds of saunas. Effects of sauna
The heart of sauna is the stove, kiuas containing stones, usually on top of the stove. The stove has to be big enough to heat the sauna room properly. The most common mistake in lavishly decorated executive saunas is the size of the stove. I have seen luxurious saunas where the builders have suddenly become stingy in the selection of the stove and chosen a tiny little metal box. Such a stove fails to heat the sauna room properly, especially if there are many people in. The situation is in no way improved by a Saunameister swinging around a wet towel thus trying to cause some wind in sauna. "Only snakes blow in sauna" is an old Finnish proverb.

One is able to experience both dry and humid heat in sauna. The latter is produced by throwing water on the stones. The humid heat thus emanating from the stones is called löyly. In judging the quality of a particular sauna, there is no substitute for good löyly. No lavish swimming pools and bars help if löyly is bad. My usual analogy here is that, in a steak dinner, no fancy vegetables, drinks, etc, can compensate the steak itself being the sole of a shoe! If löyly is good, the only reason to get out of sauna is that it is too hot for you, rather than that you cannot breathe well, the place looks filthy or smells bad. The most important factors contributing towards this are a sufficiently big kiuas, cleanliness and good ventilation.

The sauna stove, kiuas, is either preheated, meaning that it is not heated any more during the actual bathing, or continuously heated. The most common energy sources for heating are wood and electricity, sometimes also gas or oil are used. A smoke sauna is a special type of preheated sauna. There is no chimney but the smoke gets out through some holes in the walls or roof. Bathing can start when there is no smoke left. The löyly in smoke sauna has a special velvety touch. Some sauna lovers accept only smoke saunas and lament: "In a smoke sauna you often got tears in your eyes. Now in an electric sauna you get tears in your eyes when you think of smoke saunas." I will quote below an old story of a Frenchman visiting smoke sauna.

Every sauna lover knows that saunas heated by wood give better löyly than others. There are also some scientific tests verifying this. Continuously heated saunas are more practical than preheated ones. It might take the whole day to heat a smoke sauna.

The sauna building usually contains rooms other than sauna itself, rooms for washing, dressing and sitting. However, this is not necessary and was not the case in old times. I have had excellent löyly in a smoke sauna built by covering a hole in the ground.

The most important accessory for a sauna bath is vihta, a bunch of soft leafy birch twigs. Also other trees can be used. For instance, in California Finns use eucalyptus to make vihtas. The effect of löyly can be increased by hitting yourself with a vihta. Some people claim that this is the best way of taking vitamins. Anyway, the usage of vihta brings about a typical sauna smell.

Many German sauna books contain very detailed instructions for taking a sauna bath, even telling the exact length of the various phases. I am very much against such detailed instructions. You should not take your watch with you. Time should stop in sauna. Stay in the löyly room as long as it feels pleasant. Then go out to cool yourself by whatever means available: shower, lake, snow or just going outdoor. In Finland the last alternative is sufficient for most of the year. When you feel like going to the löyly room again, just do so. Repeat the procedure as many times as it feels pleasant. I used to take very hot löyly and have some 6 sittings in the löyly room during a sauna evening. Now because of old age and health, I am satisfied with moderate löyly and 2-3 sittings. However, I still feel that sauna is good for my health. "If your feet carry you to sauna, they carry you also back home is" a Finnish proverb.

It is not wise to eat before going to sauna. Your sweating often continues quite long after sauna, so you should not dress up too soon. You experience the dry heat if you sit in the löyly room without throwing water on the stones. When you throw water on the stones, the air becomes more humid and feels hotter, although the temperature does not go up. Sauna heat, how hot you feel in sauna, cannot be defined in terms of degrees alone. In an electrically heated city sauna 120 degrees (Celsius) might not feel very hot, whereas 60 degrees in a smoke sauna with a huge kiuas could be unbearable.

Sauna is an excellent means of cleaning oneself. "Both body and soul become clean in sauna" is an old Finnish proverb, and so is "A woman is never as beautiful as one hour after sauna". I have many times realized how sauna opens the veins in your brain. This we noticed also when I was working with Hermann Maurer and the late Derick Wood. Once we really got stuck. Not only were all alleys blind ones but we also realized that one of our basic tools had been wrong. "Time for a sauna!" After sauna, Maurer started to talk like an oracle, solving the basic difficulties. Sherlock Holmes spoke of three pipe problems. We used to speak of three sauna problems.

3 My Salosauna
My own sauna for the past forty years is called Salosauna. The word salo means wilderness. So the place is a sauna in the wilderness or, symbolically, a refuge or a place of peace. It is a wooden building, made of thick logs around the time of the birth of my grandfather. Originally it had two rooms but now it has three rooms and a storage space. The kiuas is continuously heated by wood. There is no electricity in the löyly room. Every true sauna lover thinks that his own sauna is the best in the world. Personally I can say that I have nowhere experienced better löyly than in Salosauna, although I have met several with roughly the same quality. Facts about Salosauna appear also in some books, for instance, in the book Badplätze by W.Abel and J.Salamander, Oaseverlag 2008.

I never force or even strongly encourage that my visitors should go to sauna. However, many famous computer scientists or other professionals have accepted the invitation to Salosauna. The late Seymour Ginsburg was so impressed that he guaranteed me free access to the best shower in West Los Angeles. Many visitors have broken records kept for foreign visitors. Grzegorz Rozenberg came fastest from the airport to Salosauna and also saw the most variegated fauna during a sauna evening: two moose, a raccoon dog and a fox. Hermann Maurer has the longest span, 36.5 years, between two Salosauna evenings, whereas the late Derick Wood has the most visits there, 28. I have a big collection of sauna poetry. Lila Kari wrote the most poetic and Werner Kuich the strongest verses about sauna feelings. The following poem was written by the late Canadian poet Ron Bates when he and his wife visited Salosauna.

The kiuas is there, The marriage of water and stone And fire. This is where We come to be one.

Wilfried and Ute Brauer wrote a scientific paper about transportation to Salosauna. The late Satoru Takasu was sitting in lotus position in Salosauna. Jozef Gruska wanted to collect all of the historical material involved. Gheorghe Paun thought that love and the game GO are better doing than speaking but, after Salosauna, added sauna to the list. Now he has a sauna in his house. The late Alexandru Mateescu helped me to install a new kiuas, whereas the late Sheng Yu was a real expert in the heating of Salosauna. Karel Culik gave me a huge bucket for more löyly. The late Aristid Lindenmayer and Ferenc Gecseg talked a lot in Hungarian, and soon after Ferenc had a sauna in his garden. Ivan Havel drew two pictures depicting the view through Salosauna window, from inside and outside. I have mentioned here only a few names that come to my mind now. Many of my visitors have later built saunas of their own. The late Ron Book never felt healthier or cleaner than after Salosauna.

4 Sauna legends
Finland is a very cold country. The idea of a hot hell does not seem right to a Finn. Siberia is known to be still colder than Finland. When it is very cold in Finland, we say that "it is cold like in the Russian hell". Hot surroundings are considered pleasant. "If the wooden walls can take the heat, your skin can take it, too" is an old Finnish proverb. The following Finnish legend is to the point.

A simple man tried to reduce his chances of going to hell. He had a passion for sauna and could endure the highest heat the sauna had to offer. The hotter the sauna, the more he enjoyed it. It became known around the land that this man enjoyed more heat than any sauna could produce. Eventually, the devil heard of him and traveled to meet him "I hear you like hot saunas." "Sure," replied the man, "that I do." "Well well, let me take you to a place where it is so hot you'll be begging me to stop the heat." Excited, the man followed willingly. When coming to hell, the devil ordered his servants to throw more wood and coal on the giant fire. The devil was grinning. "We have a friend here who loves the heat." The man smiled and thanked the devil for his generosity. Soon hell was afire. It was so hot also on earth that the polar ice caps began to melt. (This detail of the legend reminds us of the global warming!) The farmer smiled. "More heat!" the devil screamed. "More heat for this stupid guy!" By this time everybody in hell had gathered around the man and watched him in awe. They whispered among themselves and shouted "More heat, more heat, more heat!" The devil embarrassed: his hell was Heaven for the man. He simply smiled, again thanking the devil for such a splendid time. Finally, the devil screamed in desperation. "Get out! I never want to see you down here again." So the man returned to the earth, sorry after losing the wonderful heat of hell, but pleased to know his fate was secure. Thus Finnish children, wanting to go to Heaven, should frequent sauna.

Sauna is a place of absolute cleanliness. In Finland all children used to be born in sauna. Although this is not any more the case, the tradition has apparently had good after-effects: nowadays infant mortality is lowest in the world in Finland, and the Newsweek magazine lists Finland as the number one country in the world to be born in. Personally I still feel that it is for you a great asset in life if you were born in sauna. I envy people such as my former student Martti Penttonen, also a computer scientist, who enjoy the advantage of being born in sauna. I quote here the story of John Virtanen, an American Finn, about his own birth.

The people were still in bed that cold October morning while my mother lingered over her first cup of hot coffee in a crowded one-room home. Her children slept soundly in one wide bed, and father had hardly opened his eyes. The arrival of the tenth child was imminent as mother wrapped herself in a warm blanket and then went down a narrow, rocky footpath toward her favorite smoke sauna, lighting her way with an old lantern and feeling the frost through her thin leather shoes. The doctor and the hospital were miles away and far beyond her reach. After a few painful minutes she found the privacy and warmth of the sauna where she would deliver her baby. The sauna was dark. She lit the handmade candle which rested on the window sill and hung the lantern on a hook by the door. The charcoaled walls had witnessed the marvel of birth before. Opposite the benches stood the large sauna stove, kiuas, source of the sauna's heat, built by a master mason of natural red rocks and formed in a shell to contain over a square yard of fist-sized, blackened stones. The kiuas radiated the pleasant heat which filled the sauna, warming the walls and enveloping the benches and platform. For a long 280 days my mother had carried a child in her womb, and now she allowed her blanket to slip to the floor and climbed the three steps to the platform. Once again the sauna would provide the warmth, the quiet, the peaceful environment in which to give birth. The midwife who came along washed the baby boy, and there I saw my first candlelight and cried my first sound.

Finally, I would like to quote the story by a Frenchman, Paul B. Du Chaillu, visiting Finland at the end the 19th century. Somehow it captures the spirit of sauna. The outer conditions are primitive and poor. Nowadays the social habits, such as who go together to sauna, are very different. The sauna described in the story is very old-fashioned smoke sauna. There are no other rooms except the sauna itself. Nowadays there are separate washing and dressing rooms. This is essential for long sauna evenings, with several sessions in sauna, and several cooling-off sessions.

One of the most characteristic institutions of the country is the Sauna (bath house). It is a small log-house, built very tight, with no windows, having a single aperture above to let the smoke out; in the center is an oven-like structure built of loose stones, under which a fire is kept burning till they are very hot; then the fire is extinguished, and the women clean the place thoroughly of ashes and soot, the smoke-hole having been in the meantime closed. A large vessel filled with water is placed within, a number of slender twigs, generally of young birch trees, are put into it, to be used as switches. The bath-house stands by itself, and at some distance from the other buildings, for safety in case it should take fire. Every Saturday evening, summer and winter, all over that northern country smoke is seen issuing from these structures. It is the invariable custom for all the household, on that day, to take a bath, for the work of the week is ended and the beginning of Sunday has come. After washing, all put on clean linen and their best clothes. The stranger, the passing inhabitant of the cities, does not bathe with the people, for they are shy: he may have his bath, but all alone. It was only when they had come to regard me as one of themselves that I was allowed to accompany them; then the neighbors, old and young, would often come to bathe and keep company. I remember well my worst bath en famille one Saturday afternoon. The weather was piercing cold, the ground covered with snow, and I was glad that the bathing place was within a stone's-throw of the dwelling. From my window I noticed several maidens wending their way with rapid steps towards it, in a costume that reminded me of Africa, minus the color. I did not wonder at their speed, for the thermometer stood below zero. Soon three rather elderly women took the same route from a neighboring farm, but the two oldest were clothed with old skirts around their waists; other young women followed, and all were quickly lost to sight behind the door, which they shut at once. "They must be about to hold a sort of levee in the bath," thought I. Several aged men then made their appearance, followed in quick succession by younger ones, and children of all sizes; none had on any clothing whatever, and they also joined the throng inside. When I saw the field clear, I thought it was time to make a rush for the building. I emerged from my room at a running pace, for I was dressed as scantily as those who had preceded me. I hastily pushed the door open, and was welcomed by the voices of all the company as I closed it behind me. The heat was so intense that I could hardly breath, and I begged them not to raise any more steam for awhile; the sudden transition for 20 degrees below zero to such an atmosphere overpowered me. As my eyes became accustomed to the darkness of the place, by the dim light which came through the cracks of the door I began to recognize the faces of my friends. There were more people than usual, for all the neighbors had come to have a bath with me. At first I seated myself on one of the lower benches built around, after awhile getting on the other above. More water was poured on the hot stones, and such a volume of steam arose that I could not endure it, so I jumped down again, and reclined in a half-seated posture in order to breathe more freely. In a short time I was in a most profuse perspiration; again and again steam was raised by pouring water on the stones, till at last the hot air and steam became extremely oppressive. Now and then we poured water on each other, which caused a delightful sensation of relief; then with boughs, every one's back and loins were switched till they smarted severely. "Let me give you a switching", a fair-haired damsel or a young fellow would say; "and after you get yours, I want you to give me one." This operation is beneficial, as it quickens the circulation of the blood in the skin. In about half an hour the people began to depart, first submitting to a final flagellation, after which cold water was poured upon the body; then all went home as naked as they came. As I emerged from the hut the sensation was delightful, the breathing of the cold air imparting fresh vigor and exhilarating my spirits; I rolled myself in the snow, as did some others, and afterwards ran as fast as I could to the farmhouse. In some places the men and women, as if by agreement, do not return together, and the old women wear something around their loins as they go to or come from the bath. I have gone out of the bath-house with the mercury at 32 degrees below zero. It is not dangerous to walk a short distance, as long as the perspiration is not suddenly and entirely checked. On returning one does not dress at once, for he must get cool gradually and check the dripping perspiration. These people are the only peasantry in Europe who take a bath every week, and they are very healthy. I never failed to bathe every Saturday.