The history of the sauna has its origin already in the Stone Age
History and development of the sauna. The term “sauna” is the most widely used Finnish word. This is not surprising, since the Finns are the world champions of saunas and Finnish smoke saunas are known practically all over the world. But did you know that the sauna was not actually invented in Finland? Its history can be traced back to the Stone Age, beginning in eastern Asia with the so-called sweat baths.
It all began with sweat baths
The original sauna was the sweat bath, and it has been around for thousands of years. The earliest archaeological findings come from Asia and show that our ancestors already appreciated the soothing warmth of hot stones. At that time, people dug holes in the ground and placed hot stones in them to heat the air. The stones were previously heated in a fire and then doused with water, which produced steam and increased the pleasant warmth. The infusion was born. They covered the pit with twigs and branches. Tents were also used for such sweat baths.
In the beginning, the whole thing was mainly used for body care, because heating stones in the fire required much less effort than heating water in vessels and always having to carry it along on hikes. Interestingly, the Greek historian Herodotus reports on a custom of the Scythian people who, after burying the dead, purified themselves with the help of sweat baths in a tent heated by red-hot stones.
Bathhouses of the Mayas and Aztecs
Certainly, people also used the sweat baths to relax after work or to regain strength after strenuous hikes or battles. Over time, the pits apparently developed into spiritual places for some peoples. For example, researchers discovered adobe bathhouses near places of worship among the Mayans and Aztecs, suggesting that sweat baths also served ritual purposes among these peoples. Eventually, they even went so far as to use sweat baths to cleanse themselves of evil spirits!
Further development by the Finns
The Finns moved from their original homeland in Asia to Scandinavia almost 2000 years ago, taking the sauna traditions with them. In the new homeland they were glad about the sweat bath, it offered itself nevertheless straight to the cold climate, because the campfire gave alone not sufficiently warmth. However, the ground was frozen and digging holes in the ground was hardly possible.
So people looked for ways to conduct sweat baths above ground, and the first saunas were built in tents, wooden huts or stone houses. Inside there was a fire, in the flames of which the Finns heated stones. As soon as the stones were hot enough, they extinguished the fire and closed the room so that a pleasant warmth could spread inside. For the Finns, this room was almost a sacred place, where even children were born.
Worldwide spread of the sweat baths
From East Asia, the tradition of sweating spread all over the world. This is still evident today among Native Americans, some of whom have retained the original sweat baths to this day. Sweat baths were particularly popular with the ancient Greeks, who bathed in dry, hot air and then cooled off in cold water. And of course with the Romans, who are known for their fondness of bathing anyway. In ancient Rome, pompous sweat baths were built by imperial order, such as the laconium: a charcoal basin placed in the center of a room produced the dry, hot air.
The bathhouses of Europe
In Europe, the Germanic tribes began to enjoy the new bathing culture around the 8th century, even though their modest baths were in no way comparable to the monumental buildings of the Romans. In medieval documents, one repeatedly encounters the term “bathhouse”, which refers to baths that were open to the public. At first, the Germanic bath was rather a cellar-like pit with a wooden roof.
However, woodcuts and engravings from the time of the Merovingians have also been found, which show rooms made of wood with rising benches as well as with stone ovens similar to the equipment in today’s saunas. Besides the obvious meaning as bathrooms with wash tubs, where guests were washed, coiffed and shaved, the bath parlors were sometimes real sweat baths, the predecessors of today’s saunas.
Bathrooms in the Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages, for example, there were several public bathhouses in larger cities, such as 29 in Vienna, 26 in Paris and 5 in Berlin, in addition to many other cities plus private bathhouses. These bathhouses were in use in Europe for a long time, until they largely disappeared from the scene in the 18th and 19th centuries, due to poor hygienic conditions and religious concerns of the time. Quite the opposite, by the way, of Russia and Finland, where the tradition of saunas – called “banya” in Russia – has continued throughout to the present day.
Also in Germany again very popular
Simultaneously with the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, sweat baths returned, although from then on the famous Finnish word “sauna” was used for them. It all started with the Olympic Games in 1936, when Finnish athletes wanted a small sauna – a novelty that was widely reported in the media. As a result, there were already individual saunas in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Day of the sauna
After World War II, the number of saunas continued to increase, which may have been due to returning soldiers. As soldiers on the Eastern Front, they had become familiar with saunas and now began to reach out to public saunas themselves in their native Germany. In the following decades, there were more and more sauna facilities in Germany, hotels had their own saunas built and people created their own home saunas based on the Finnish model. In the meantime, going to the sauna has become so popular again in Germany that sauna lovers have campaigned to celebrate “Sauna Day” on Sept. 24.