Sauna and Löyly – the most important cultural heritage of Finland

Experiencing Sauna is most of all about washing and relaxing. For Finnish, it’s a lifestyle, like a ritual.

On Thursday, 17 of December we can assure the Finnish people warmed up their saunas and celebrated – as the important Finnish sauna tradition was added to the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage.

10 000 years ago, the first saunas were bumps in the ground filled with stones that were heated with fire. During the Iron Age, building skills developed and the first log-built smoke saunas were born. In the early 1900 sauna was a sacred place – a place where women gave birth and newborns were welcomed to the world. Finnish people prepared food and clothes, treated the sick, relaxed, and washed – all in the Sauna. The sauna was the beginning and the end of life, as it was also the place where the dead were given their last anointing.

Picture, National Board of Antiquities, 1940

Nowadays Sauna is still a big part of Finnish culture and it is counted that there are approximately 3.2 million Saunas in Finland. In comparison, the population of Finland is 5.5 million people. A sauna is a place where people gather every season, any day of the week, to relax with their families.

“Sauna is a big part of Finnish tradition, culture, history, and identity – what it means to be Finnish. We Finns live, breathe, sleep, eat and take sauna” says Leena Marsio, from the National Board of Antiquities.

There are Saunas in the countryside, in apartments, by the lake, in swimming halls, and even in some offices. Some Finns take sauna every day, some dedicate it for holidays and weekends. Some enjoy Sauna in silence, some have the deepest conversations there. It’s a place for celebrations as well; bachelor parties, especially women, who have important love rituals in the warmth of the sauna. Or when Finland wins in big sports, especially Ice Hockey, everyone knows that the players will go to Sauna.

What makes the Finnish Sauna apart from the Saunas worldwide is definitely “Löyly” which is the action of throwing water on the hot stones. It creates heat and steam.

“That steam – Löyly – is the most important thing in our sauna. I, too, love the steamy Löyly that fondly caresses me later on the benches and takes me in its arms. Löyly is the sacred spirit of the sauna” says RitvaOhmeroluoma from the Sauna Society in Finland.

Picture, Toivo Vuorela, National Board of Antiquities, 1963

Besides Löyly, Finns have another tradition between Sauna sessions by swimming in the frozen lake or rolling down in the cold snow. In and out, several times in the huge change of the temperature. In Sauna it can go as high as 100 degrees in winter minus 20 degrees outside. They also have a sauna whip “Vihta”, a bouquet assembled from birch twigs to beat their naked bodies. Birch leaves bring a natural scent and beating makes the blood circulate.

Sauna is one of the key elements in Finnish culture. In its uniting power everyone who steps in naked, without expensive clothes and important titles, is equal. There is no shame, no stress. Sauna is life.

Selina Niemi

Youtube | Saunaperinne Suomessa – Sauna culture in Finland

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