ORIGINS OF SAUNA

origins of sauna

What are the origins of sauna? The origin of sauna is a hotly debated topic. Many countries claim to be the original founders. However, history teaches us a different lesson. The origins of sauna can be traced back to multiple different locations. And, it developed separately in each of these locations before traveling to other parts of the world. Let’s take a closer look at the origins of sauna.


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WHO INVENTED SAUNA?

woman relaxing in an infrared sauna

Who invented the sauna? Sauna sprung up in different locations around the world. Historians have thought us that sauna does not originate from a single location. Many ancient cultures practiced and developed sauna over the centuries.

And, each of these cultures developed sauna separately, without inheriting it or being influenced by the use of sauna from another region. Amazing as it sounds, the birth of sauna can be traced to multiple locations.

While many nations stake a claim to being the original source of sauna, some have a valid claim to the throne. Let’s take a look at where sauna began and how it grew to become as popular as it is now.


ORIGIN OF SAUNA AROUND THE WORLD

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Where did sauna come from? Who invented it? And, how did it develop over the years? Finnish journalist Martti Vuorenjuuri addressed these long-standing questions and explored the origins of sauna in his groundbreaking book – Sauna Kautta Aikojen (Sauna Through the Ages).

In his book, Vuorenjuuri discusses how sauna developed in the three distinct regions of – the Islamic world, Mexico and North America, and Central and Western Europe. He explains how saunas were created independently from one another in different regions at different points in time.


THE HISTORY OF SAUNA

two women sitting inside a sauna

What about the history of sauna? What regions showed early signs of sauna use? Vuorenjuuri’s diligent research lead him to believe that the practice of sauna or use of ‘sweat baths’ in Europe alone can be traced back to early Greek-Roman, Arabic, Scandinavian, Slavic, and Irish cultures. There is no single place of origin and sauna use spread across Europe from multiple independent origins.


SAUNA IN ANCIENT GREECE AND ROME

plenty of historical evidence to show that the ancient Roman and Greek cultures enjoyed spending time sweating in saunas. The Romans built impressive large-scale bathing facilities called Thermaes that included thermal rooms for sweating – similar to the modern sauna.

They also built balneaes which were similar to the great Thermae baths but on a smaller scale. It appears the origins and spread of sauna across ancient Greece and Rome was linked to the popularity of sauna in the Islamic world at the time.


SAUNA IN THE ANCIENT ISLAMIC WORLD

Sauna or sweat bathing was equally popular in the Islamic world. In Islamic culture, a sauna was and still is known as a hammam. In English, these saunas and bathing areas are often referred to as Turkish baths.

Spending time in a sauna was a central part of everyday Muslim life and the practice began to sweep across Europe during the time of the crusades. Europe saw a boom in hammam construction during the second half of the nineteenth century when they became widely used for medical treatments.


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SAUNA IN CENTRAL & SLAVIC EUROPE

In Vuorenjuuri’s book, he explains how the Greek, Roman, and Islamic sauna culture were interlinked and how they spread across Europe. These ancient cultures played a central role in the development of sauna culture in central Europe and Scandinavia. In Scandinavia, these Greek, Roman, and Islamic influences fused with the already-existing local sauna culture.

The central role sauna plays in these regions persists to the modern day. In particular, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Russia all have a strong connection to sauna and sweat houses. And, the people of these regions take their sauna seriously where it plays a key role in their social lives and health routines.


SAUNA IN SCANDINAVIA

Sauna has a rich history across Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway, Denmark) and especially in Finland. It is believed that sauna in some form existed in these areas in ancient times. However, historians know little about life in Finland before the middle ages as there is little recorded evidence to explain the life and times of the nation’s early inhabitants.

Early Finnish saunas dating back to 7,000 BC may have existed as excavations dug into the ground where fires were used to heat stones. These may have developed into portable saunas or smoke rooms that were taken on the road as the nomadic population traversed the countryside. And, more comprehensive sauna structures using stone-lined walls have been discovered that are 2,000 years old.


FINNISH SAUNA

woman wearing a sauna hat

What about Finnish sauna? Did sauna originate in Finland? Finland has a distinguished and proud history when it comes to saunas. Many would say it is a national pass-time. In fact, there are over 2.3 million saunas in the country servicing a population of just over five million people. That’s a lot of saunas – almost one for every two Finns.

Finland has a strong tradition and proud history of saunas. Ancient Finnish civilizations may have been using some kind of sauna as far back as 7,000 BC. However, because there is very little written historical record it is difficult to figure out the precise origins of Finnish sauna.

Historians believe that there was a long and well-established history of sauna in Finland by the time the Roman, Greek, and Islamic sauna traditions swept across Europe. In fact, Finnish sauna has been added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List to help safeguard the tradition and highlight its importance as part of Finnish customs and well being.


WHERE DOES THE WORD SAUNA COME FROM?

women in a sauna

The word sauna is of Finnish origin and comes from an ancient Finnish language. Pronounced locally as ‘sow-nah’ it is the only Finnish word in popular use in the English language.

The word sauna is used to refer to the traditional Finnish bath and to the bathhouse itself. It is believed the word originated from the Proto-Germanic language as ‘stakna’, later the Proto-Finnic ‘sakna’, and finally the Finnish ‘sauna’. In Estonian, a sauna is called a ‘saun’ without the ‘a’.


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