The Women's Sauna

Story Intangible
Country
Finland
Share:
Overview

In Finnish tradition, the sauna has always been a place of life and death ruled by women. In the warm embrace of the sauna women have given birth, cared for the ill, adorned the brides to be, and finally faced death. There are still thousands of Finns, who were actually born in sauna. Even though most of the babies are nowadays born in hospitals, the sauna remains a sacred liminal space, where many of the most important feminine passage rites take place.

Finnish sauna culture is still guided by a variety of ancient regulations that aim at maintaining the balance between human life, nature, and the universe. Especially in women’s sauna traditions, balance and nature play a crucial part. The sauna traditions of women play an important part in connecting generations, of sustainable development, passing on traditions, and preserving ancient connection to nature – all values worth preserving especially today.

Kalevala Women’s Association is a cultural organization promoting and renewing Finnish traditions. We would like to tell the feminine story of the Finnish sauna.

Finnish sauna culture is listed as a UNESCO cultural heritage since 2020. However, our sauna culture is mostly presented from the masculine point of view as a place of having fun, and competing with each other in extreme temperatures. But there is also a sacred, more down-to-earth, and feminine side to the Finnish sauna tradition.

Kalevala Women’s Association is a cultural organization promoting and renewing Finnish traditions. As an outcome of the following story, we would like to organize Naisten saunavuoroThe Women's Sauna event to promote our valuable female sauna traditions. The Women's Sauna inspires women of all age and from different backgrounds to share their sauna knowledge. The event also encourages women to create new interpretations of the female sauna culture and share them on social media, and to arrange a communal Women's Sauna event promoting local sauna or bathing traditions all over Finland and Europe.

Here comes the feminine story of the Finnish sauna.

Sauna as a liminal space

In Finnish tradition, the sauna has always been a place of life and death ruled by women. In the warm embrace of the sauna women have given birth, cared for the ill, adorned the brides to be, and finally faced death. There are still thousands of Finns, who were actually born in sauna. Even though most of the babies are nowadays born in hospitals, the sauna remains a sacred liminal space, where many of the most important feminine passage rites take place.

One of the most important rites is morsiussauna, “The bridal sauna”, preparing the bride for marriage. In the morsiussauna the bride says farewell to her life as a maiden and her childhood home, ensuring the happiness of her upcoming marriage. The bride cleanses her body and soul, leaving the past and her previous lovers behind.

In the morsiussauna the maid of honour acts as the main bather. She is responsible for making the bride cry, as it is believed that if the bride doesn’t cry in her bridal sauna, she will be crying for the rest of her life. In addition to crying, good luck is also cast with ancient incantations and spells. The decorations have a strong symbolic meaning too. The sauna is usually decorated with flowers, sprigs, nettles, and thistles to remind the bride that hard times are also an inevitable part of marriage.

After transforming the maid into a bride, the sauna becomes a place of another feminine transition: becoming a mother. If the childbirth is delayed, the bride is usually advised to go to the sauna. It is believed that the heat in the sauna relaxes the body and helps to induce labour in a natural way. As soon as the baby is born, she or he is introduced to the sauna usually by her grandmother, and the cycle starts over again.

The sauna as a natural healer

The sauna is in many ways connected to the healing powers of nature, and it is also the core of Finnish folk healing. The sauna not only cleanses but also heals the body and the soul. In our sauna tradition, the guardians of the healing sauna were elderly female bathers. Even today, the healing sauna is a part of our female knowhow and tradition.

The sauna is often located by water in a place of natural beauty and the connection with nature is an important part of the sauna culture. The healing effect of nature is especially present in the tradition of whisking: an important part of bathing and healing is whisking yourself with bath whisk of birch branches tied together. Whisking is the Finnish version of aromatherapy, and many women dry their own wild herbs in summer to use as sauna fragrances in winter. Through the sauna bathing and whisking the women maintain ancient ideas on the healing powers of nature and its plants.

The sauna also increases wellbeing through community. In women’s culture, the sauna has always been a safe place for women to meet, share their joys and their sorrows. The sauna still is a place for connecting generations and passing on traditions and silent family knowledge.

Apart from a community, the sauna is also a place where women can find peace and quiet and ponder on the ways of the world in silence. On the sauna benches you can stop to observe nature and its sounds. The heat and fragrances help you relax and reduce stress.

European Dimension

The sauna is an example of ancient traditions that still form our identity. As a culture, it not only unites most of the Nordic nations, but Russia and Japan too.

The traditions around sauna bathing and the sauna itself strengthens our connection to our roots and history. They help us better understand who we are, where we are coming from and what aspects of our culture are valuable and worth preserving. The sauna is a way for Finnish people to get genuinely close to another person and for foreigners a way to grasp the core of our Finnish nationality.

Finnish sauna culture is still guided by a variety of ancient regulations that aim at maintaining the balance between human life, nature, and the universe. Especially in women’s sauna traditions, balance and nature play a crucial part. The sauna traditions of women play an important part in connecting generations, of sustainable development, passing on traditions, and preserving ancient connection to nature – all values worth preserving especially today.