BATHS in a religious context are sacred places where people bathe not for hygienic purposes, but rather to spiritually re-create themselves in both mind and body. Spiritual bathing may take place in sacred spaces in nature, for example in hot springs or in the water of a sacred river such as the Ganges or Nile, or in buildings made out of stone (Roman baths) or wood (saunas).
Sauna is a Finnish and Sami word for a building where one bathes for the purpose of cleansing body and mind. It has somewhat varied meanings, including commercial and erotic ones, in communities without a history of sauna culture. Sauna has been part of the Finnish life cycle for thousands of years—and, at the dawn of the third millennium, it still is, both in Finland, with its 2.2 million saunas for 5.2 million people (in 2004), and among expatriate and emigrant Finns.
Saunas in the form of log building are characteristic of the peasant architecture of Finnish-related and Slavic peoples living in northern Eurasian forest territories. Throughout its traditional area it is still central to ethnic religion and cultural habits. The sauna as a building and as a heated construction has undergone various changes, but as it has been adapted into new milieus, including urban environments, many sauna-related habits and rituals have shown remarkable strength not only in surviving but also in being revived as a form of socially shared group behavior among youth, adults, and environmentalist societies.
There are bathing traditions reminiscent of the Finnish sauna on other continents, for example, the traditions surrounding the Roman, Turkish, and Celtic bath, the Japanese furo, and the Native American sweat lodge (such as the Lakota inipi ). What is common to all of them is the feeling that bathing is not just a cleansing experience, but a spiritual one, as well as the bath's intimate connection to various life stages and rituals. In all these traditions, baths have also played a part in solving various personal crises. In inipi, furo, and sauna mind and body are purified—re-created, as it were, to enable the person to face the challenges life presents. On all three continents sacred baths are the subject of various religious narratives, including certain Japanese Buddhist texts, Native American initiation songs, and the poems of the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic.
At the core of the sauna is the kiuas (lit., "stones in a hot heap"), around which the early sauna, in a depression in the earth, and subsequently the smoke sauna were created. Over time, saunas developed from mere heaps of stones covered by skin or cloth to the electrically powered sauna stoves presently found in private homes and hotels. The public sauna was an important part of Finnish community life and shared urban culture before its almost complete disappearance after World War II. In Tokyo the furo is faring better; public facilities for this type of bath amount to well over a thousand. In the United States, the formerly forbidden sweat lodge has been undergoing a revival as an expression of Native American identity.
The Finnish sauna began its spread abroad at an early stage. In 1638 a colony called New Sweden was established in Delaware on the eastern seaboard of America, with several hundred Forest Finns among its approximately 1,000 inhabitants. Smoke cabins were among the typical constructions built by the early settlers. The so-called pioneer house found along the coast throughout New England was neither German nor Dutch in origin, but was instead based on the Finnish smoke sauna; a log timber house it served frequently as a model for other constructions. The propagation of Finnish sauna has continued to this day. For example, for Finnish United Nations peacekeeping forces around the world the construction of saunas at their bases is among the first tasks.
For Finns today, the sauna is more a national than a religious symbol, just as the furo symbolizes the modern Japanese way of life and the inipi the revived consciousness of Native American identity. Symbols have their importance, however, all the more so for small nations that feel compelled to change as a result of domination by major cultures. Sauna is the most popular Finnish loanword, and even quite recently has been borrowed by several new languages. Along with the sauna buildings drawn by Alvar Aalto and other well-known Finnish architects, the word itself has made its way all around the world, even though rituals and beliefs associated with Finnish sauna have not always been transmitted with it.
For Finns, the sauna has been a sacred place. Traditionally, it was visited once a week, on Saturday evening. To heat a smoke sauna for several sessions was a whole day's operation, an operation demanding its own expertise in the selection of kindling, the laying of the kindling, and the adding of firewood; above all, it required patience, as heating the sauna and binding the birch switches took a great deal of time. The taking of sauna itself entailed certain ritual behavior observed with religious zeal. An oral proverb has it that one should conduct oneself in a sauna as in church—reverently. Visits to saunas were governed by many rules of conduct: it was important not to be rowdy, to curse, gossip, speak evil, break wind, or make noise in a sauna.
The spirit of löyly, the vapor rising from the water splashed over the stones of the sauna stove, is the main element in folk beliefs related to Finnish sauna, along with a belief in the manifold healing effects of the birch switches used in saunas. It is still a Finnish custom to greet the löyly spirit as the guardian of the holy space either through gestures or words before entering the door, crossing the threshold, or mounting the benches. Adults and older children were expected to bless themselves as they entered saunas. This was both to express reverence for the sacred space and to guard against harm: while people were naked, with all their pores open and exuding sweat, they were defenseless against the evil eye and envy. When a sauna was inaugurated, reference was often made to the power of Väinämöinen the wise man, a sage and a shaman who is the central figure in the Kalevala; the löyly itself was even said to be "Väinämöinen's sweat."
Löyly establishes a connection between the sauna or sweat-shed and the other worlds, both above and below, as well as in the Hereafter. The steam rising from the stove, like the smoke issuing from the open fire, the door of the smoke sauna, the flue, or the chimney, creates a symbolic connection between the sacred space of the sauna and its people (microcosm) and the sphere of the Hereafter and its inhabitants (macrocosm). An individual healing event occurring within the sauna and concerning the health of an individual is thus linked to the entire universe. Myths based on a connection to the gods, the departed, and various spirits are recounted and intoned in the löyly of the sauna, or by the campfires.
The word löyly is older than sauna. A term with Finno-Ugric origins, it does not only refer to the steam rising from the sauna stove. Löyly and its variants (Estonian, leil; Hungarian lélek ) can also refer to a person's soul and to the span of a human life, which in ancient beliefs was held to last from the first breath to the last. The "departure of henki 'breath'" (which in Finnish is synonymous with the word for spirit) was thus the end of physical life, the perceptible sign of death.
However, löyly is only one of the appellations for "soul" in the Finno-Ugric languages. Another is itse, "self" (in Hungarian, iz ), which refers to social rather than physical life and death. The "self" of a person has a different life span than their löyly. A person acquires this "self" at a later stage than their löyly, and it lasts longer. A child acquires the status of "having a self" when they are given a name. Only then are they deemed to have a social existence; their name endows them with a right to inherit and, among the Sami, with their own reindeer mark of identification. The "self" does not expire when the spirit departs, but only two to three years later. Then the person is considered dead as an individual. The Finnish word henki (Estonian, hing ) refers to a third soul, which is thought to be immortal. In the shamanic belief system, this third soul is the soul of the shaman traveling outside the human body to the realm of death, generally in the form of an animal, such as a fish, snake, bear, reindeer, or bird.
The sauna was generally the first building a Finnish settler built, designating thereby both the limits of his territory and his sacred space in nature. Building a sauna involves a thorough knowledge of timber construction, the right types of wood to use, and the appropriate time for felling trees. As with all buildings with a fireplace of some sort, there was, according to folk beliefs, a spirit watching to see that customs were observed and infringements punished. Thus the first person to light a fire had to be chosen with care, as it was he who would, according to the superstition, assume the position of saunatonttu, saunanhaltija, or spirit of the sauna.
Problem-free heating of the sauna and the correct way of making birch switches was taught by one generation to the next. Expertise in the effects of taking saunas is a special branch of traditional Finnish-Karelian folk medicine, reserved for those versed in cupping, bleeding, and healing joints. When a healer was called to a sauna or when an injury was being healed at home, very special attention had to be paid to the heating of the sauna and to other operations. Wood from alder trees was to be used for the logs. This ensured the greater efficacy of the cures effected in the sauna. According to a well-known Finnish proverb encapsulating the effectiveness of saunas, "What tar, alcohol, or sauna cannot help is fatal indeed."
In central Finland there was at one time a custom of laying a table for the spirits of the farmhouse kitchen before departing for the sauna: "While the people of the house bathed the spirits took to the table." There are many ways in which saunas have been connected to the cycles of the agricultural year. Many important farming tasks were performed in saunas: the softening of flax, the smoking of meat, and the brewing of beer and the like in the malt sauna. Annual chores lasting for days involved younger and older family members spending time together in saunas reciting poems and songs and telling tales and riddles as everyone worked at the job in hand.
For Finns, the sauna has been associated with all life cycle events, from birth to death. During the marking of various rites of passage, the sauna normally becomes the exclusive province of women. Only in such cases where the transition from one state to another is considered by the community to be infelicitous for one reason or another—for example, if the child or patient is very sick—would the intercession of a male witch, sage, or folk healer be called for. Such a crisis situation requires the most potent religious leader of the locality or family, be they woman or man.
Until World War II, Finnish women mostly gave birth in saunas. The midwife was referred to as the "sauna wife" and the mother-to-be as the "sauna woman." "Sauna time" among the womenfolk might last as much as a week before the child was triumphantly carried into the farmhouse. This process was associated with precautionary measures against disease and the evil eye, as in Protestant Finland both the child, who was "without self," having no name, and the woman, who was deemed "unclean" because she had not yet made the church visit that occurred six weeks after a birth, were considered to be in a precarious state. On reaching adulthood women went to the sauna. Girls of marriageable age were bathed and slapped with birch branches by older women who recited incantations on procuring love. Traditional Finnish wedding ceremonies known as antilas involved the bathing by family members of the girl to be given in marriage. After the ablutions, in a delicate ritual performed in the sauna by the married women of the family, the girl's hair, which had so far been worn loose, was plaited and a "wife's cap" was placed on her head together with the other symbols of a married woman. In the sauna, in the company of married women, the girl was also initiated into how different life would be at her husband's home and told what it would be like under the eagle eye of her mother-in-law. She was then completely "away from the paternal home," to which she would only be able to return to visit relatives the first August following the birth of a son—which could mean a two- to three-year period of separation from her childhood home.
For women, there were more transitions marked in the sauna than there were for men: transitions from girl to bride-to-be, from bride-to-be to a woman given in marriage, from a woman given in marriage to a wife, from a wife to a "breeding" mother, then to one who suckled an infant. Within the extended family, various family members became specialists in the different functions associated with these life-cycle rituals.
The sauna was also connected to funeral rites. In some rural areas, there was a custom that after death the corpse was carried into the sauna on a board, where women of the family specialized in the task washed it. In family-oriented communities it was important that all those with a role in the rituals—the wailing women, and those who washed the body, spoke the ritual words, and made the coffin—should be family members. If someone was asked to perform such a function it was tantamount to a last wish, and it would be improper to decline. Once the corpse had been washed with soap reserved for that purpose, it would be dressed and lifted onto a laying-out board in the threshing building. The last voyage toward the cemetery started from the threshold of the sauna.
Despite widespread assumptions to the contrary, research into ancient Finnish folk traditions indicates that mixed bathing in saunas was practiced in only a few communities. In most communities men and women took their own turns. Taking saunas together as a family group is a more recent phenomenon. In earlier years, the farmer would visit the sauna with his farmhands once the work in the fields was done, whereas the farmer's wife would go to the sauna with the maids after milking. Because the men's turn was first, the women's turn on the eve of the Sabbath might well continue until the beginning of the Sabbath. Sunset was the delimiting factor until it was superseded by the six o'clock church bells announcing the arrival of the Sabbath; by this point the women were supposed to have left the sauna.
In Finnish oral folklore saunas were pictured as sometimes being a hard and dangerous place, and thus people were afraid to go to them alone. There are many stories about encountering the spirit of the sauna and finding it in a wrathful mood. Such an apparition was believed to be a punishment for infringements against the Sabbath. Following the men's and women's sauna turns, there was a third turn, that of the spirit of the sauna. In most cases the person experiencing something strange is a lone woman or a group of women bathing together. Sometimes it is a question of an obviously erotic dream; the last woman to go to bathe falls asleep on the bench and feels or sees a hairy male creature who, after throwing water on the stones, comes to touch, hug, or caress her.
As in the home, the threshing building, the cow house, or other buildings with a fireplace, the spirit of the sauna is believed to be like the first one to kindle a fire. Thus even today people try to find a "nice, mild" person, such as a kindly old woman or man, to kindle the first fire, to ensure good luck in their home. These kinds of ancient traditions have survived until recently in accordance with the ancient belief that the most suitable personality for a sauna spirit is that of a playful, blithe child. Another custom is to honor family members and friends, both those still alive and the deceased, by mentioning their names in turn when pouring water, löyly, on the stones. This ceremony lasts as long as new names are remembered by the bathers.
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Edelsward, Lisa Marlene. Sauna as Symbol: Society and Culture in Finland. New York, 1991.
Konya, Allan. The International Handbook of Finnish Sauna. London, 1973.
Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Sauna: A Finnish National Institution. Helsinki, 2001.
Peltonen, Jarno, and Matti Karjanoja, eds. Sauna: Made in Finland. Helsinki, 1997.
Pentikäinen, Juha, ed. The Finnish Sauna, the Japanese Furo, the Indian Inipi: Bathing on Three Continents. Helsinki, 2001.
Sytula, Charles M. The Finnish Sauna in Manitoba. Ottawa, 1977.
Teir, Harald, et al., eds. Sauna Studies. Papers Read at the VI International Sauna Congress in Helsinki on August 15–17, 1974. Vammala, Finland, 1976.
Viherjuuri, H. J. Sauna: The Finnish Bath. Brattleboro, Vt., 1965.
Juha PentikÄinen (2005)
This article is concerned primarily with baths and bathing in Christian antiquity.
General background. Baths and bathing were an important feature of Greek life from the age of Homer, but they played a much greater role among the Romans from the 3d century b.c. to the end of antiquity. The Romans developed elaborate heating arrangements for their baths and erected enormous bathing establishments (thermae ), which included lounging rooms, lecture halls, and libraries, as well as the baths proper and their own complex of chambers, dressing rooms, etc. They corresponded in many respects to the modern social center. As early as 33 b.c., there were 170 public baths in Rome alone, and under the empire this number was greatly increased. The fee for admission was very small, thus making the baths accessible to the great majority of the population. All cities and towns throughout the empire had their public baths, and all men of wealth had elaborate private baths in their town houses and on their country estates. There were separate public bathing facilities for women as well as for men. Under the empire, however, the custom of mixed bathing was introduced and led to abuses that were severely condemned by pagan and later by Christian moralists. Physicians and moralists also denounced the tendency to spend long periods of time in the warm baths on the ground that this practice was enervating both physically and morally. On the other hand, they recommended bathing with moderation, especially in cold water, as beneficial for the mind as well as for the body.
Bathing and the baths were an essential part of everyday life and are referred to as such in casual terms by Christian writers such as Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and St. Augustine. The Christian Fathers, however, found it necessary to warn repeatedly against the dangers to morals in the public baths, and they were concerned in particular about the special moral dangers to which women bathers were exposed. As archeology has shown, rich Christians continued to erect and maintain elaborate baths in their own town houses and on their country estates to the very end of the empire in the West and in early Byzantine times.
In Christian asceticism. The attitude of the early ascetical writers and founders of monasticism is entirely different. While the immorality connected with public baths was a cause of hostility, the chief reason for the stern prohibitions regarding baths and bathing came from the spirit of asceticism itself. The body was to be chastised severely for the good of the soul by fasting and was to be deprived of all else, along with food and drink, that could give it comfort and pleasure. Hence the ascetical opposition to the pleasure derived from scrupulous cleanliness and bathing. It is not difficult for moderns to understand how acutely painful was the loss of the bath and bathing to men and women for whom they were such a normal part of everyday life in its social as well as in its hygienic aspects. The Rule of St. pachomius (d. a.d.346) permits complete bathing of the body only in case of sickness, but some ascetics even refused the comfort of bathing when seriously ill. St. Jerome, ardent champion of asceticism, makes practically no concessions. St. Augustine (Letter 211.13) permits a community of religious women to visit the baths only once a month, and then only on condition that they go at least three together. He permits more frequent bathing only on the advice of a physician. St. Caesarius of Arles (d. a.d. 542) in his rule for nuns (ch. 31) permits baths only to those who are ill. The Rule of St. Benedict (ch. 36) is relatively mild, but it is couched in the same ascetical spirit. This monastic tradition passed on to the Middle Ages, sometimes in its most rigorous forms, and had its effects on general penitential discipline. A temporary prohibition from indulging in bathing was often given as a penance to laymen—in both East and West. Celtic monasticism in particular developed a special form of asceticism arising out of the idea of bathing, namely, the painful practice of standing for fairly long periods in water that was very cold or even icy.
It is hardly necessary to give more than passing mention to the legend that the years of the Middle Ages were bathless. The legend was undoubtedly based on the presumed application of the prohibitions of monastic rules and treatises, written for the guidance of ascetics, to all classes of society. In the later Middle Ages, even public baths were common in many cities and were very popular.
Bibliography: h. fleckenstein, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche (Freiburg 1957–65) 1:1183–84. l. gougaud, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique, ed. m. viller (Paris 1932—) 1:1197–1200. j. jÜthner, Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, ed. t. klauser (Stuttgart 1941) 1:1134–43, with bibliog. j. zellinger, Bad und Bäder in der altchristlichen Kirche (Munich 1928). p. galland, L'Église et l'hygiène en Moyen Âge (Paris 1933). h. dumaine, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. f. cabrol, h. leclerq, and h. i. marrou (Paris 1907–53) 2:72–117, with bibliog. m. c. mccarthy, The Rule for Nuns of St. Caesarius of Arles (Catholic University of America Studies in Medieval History NS 16; Washington 1960) esp. 122–123, 145–146.
[m. r. p. mcguire]
bathe / bā[voicedth]/ • v. [intr.] wash by immersing one's body in water. ∎ spend time in the ocean or a lake, river, or swimming pool for pleasure. ∎ [tr.] soak or wipe gently with liquid to clean or soothe: she bathed and bandaged my knee. ∎ [tr.] wash (someone) in a bath: they bathed the baby. ∎ [tr.] (usu. be bathed) fig. suffuse or envelop in something: the park lay bathed in sunshine mussels bathed in garlic butter. DERIVATIVES: bath·er n.