"Louhi, Pohjolan emäntä, sanan virkkoi, noin nimesi:
'Niin mitä minullen annat, kun saatan omille maille,
oman peltosi perille, kotisaunan saapuville?'"
(Louhi, mistress of Northland, uttered a word and spoke thus:
'So, what will you give me if I bring you to your own lands,
back to your own fields, all the way to your home-sauna?')
- Kalevala 7, 289-94
Although the birch leaves have unfurled into sprays of soft green, the lake's dark waters are still rimmed with a thin glaze of ice, and winter's dying breath still cuts cold in the wind. Björn, master of the farm, comes to his bathhouse weary from a long day's work in the fields. The small wooden building's door is shut tightly, but he can see a faint glow through a chink between the logs. He draws his belt-knife, reaching up to the dangling twigs of the old birch tree which stands tall and fair beside the bathhouse, and murmurs a blessing before cutting a handful of her leafy branches and binding them together with a long supple twig.
Once inside, Björn quickly sheds his cloak, tunic, and breeches, letting the bathhouse's heat soak into his bones. In the warm light of the glowing fire-rocks, he can see his wife, Helga, resting on one of the bathhouse's linen-spread benches, a fire-reddened sheen of sweat already gleaming on her fair skin. She greets him gladly as he comes to stretch out on the bench beside her, then dips her ladle into the bucket of water by her seat and casts the water onto the hot stones. A cloud of steam hisses up, dampening the air and making it feel even hotter.
In a little while, both Björn and Helga are dripping with sweat, all the day's grime and weariness washing away in the salty trickles that run freely over them like rivulets of water over melting ice. Björn takes the birch-bundle he has made and begins to whisk Helga lightly with it; too soft to hurt, the birch's leafy twigs beat the sweat from her back and shoulders, stirring her blood so that her white skin soon glows pink and healthy. The fresh scent of the bruised leaves rises from the whisk, blending pleasantly with the wood-smoke that heated the bathhouse. After a little while, Helga takes the birch-bundle and whisks her husband with it in turn.
When they have sweated long enough, Björn and Helga rise from their place, going to the door. They plunge out together, running out along the lakeside pier and diving into the rime-chill water only to come up a moment later, gasping with the joyful shock of the crisp cold biting into their skins. The two of them swim about for a few minutes, then pull themselves up onto the pier again, cleansed and strengthened by their bath of fire and ice.
This scene, or one much like it, must have been played out over and over again in the Viking Age, when almost every well-appointed farm had its own sauna-type bathhouse, even in more marginally-settled areas such as Shetland (as at the 'Jarlshof' site). We know that cleanliness was a great part of Nordic culture at this time; the English cleric John of Wallingford (post-Viking Age, but working from older sources) mentions that the Anglo-Saxon women had preferred to go with Heathen Vikings rather than the christian English because the former bathed every Saturday, combed their hair, and dressed well. In the Nordic-speaking Scandinavian countries, the custom of sauna seems to have become less and less common after the conversion, but never died out altogether, and is still practised in the traditional way by some, as Solfrid Saue tells in her description of visits to her West Norwegian friend Norvald Tveit (Norwegian Cooking, pp. 38-39). In Finland, however, sauna is one of the great national pastimes, and nearly every house has at least a small sauna-chamber in the bathroom.
The origins of the Northern sauna are lost in the mists of prehistory, but the word is Finnish (correctly pronounced sow-na, rather than saw-na) and, if the Finns were not the creators of the practice, it has been far more important to their recorded culture than to that of any other European people. The Kalevala, Finland's national epic (which contains much religious and traditional material) includes several sequences describing the importance of sauna as a social activity, a place for giving birth, and simply one of the finest pleasures of home.
The good effects of the sauna are many and great. For the body, it gives a thorough cleansing, ridding it not only of dirt on the hide, but also of the many lesser poisons and pollutants in the system. It is the best single means of skin-care in existence, as it opens the pores, loosens dead hide, and forces out any detrius which has clogged the skin. The great heat looses tired and sore muscles. Sauna also stimulates the circulatory system, especially when the vihto (birch-branch whisk) or a soft-bristled scrubbing-brush is used. In sauna, the heart beats more swiftly and the blood-vessels dilate. For this reason, the regular practice of sauna is good for the circulatory system, but people with heart defects or other circulatory problems should get a physician's advivce before going into the sauna for the first time, and should also be careful that the water in which they dip after each session of sweating is not cold enough to cause a severe shock to the system.
The heat of sauna raises the body's temperature, making it possible to bear and even enjoy degrees of cold which otherwise would be highly unpleasant afterwards (as when Finns go swimming through holes broken in the ice). The process of enduring the sauna's heat and the cold bath afterwards also strengthens the soul and the will as well as the body; some Finns see the ability to bear great degrees of heat and humidity in the sauna as the best proof of sisu (a Finnish word meaning courage, endurance, strength, and stubborn will). I have heard, as well, that the sauna is a sure cure for a hangover, though I have never had access to one when in need of a remedy for that particular ill. However, given its general effect of cleansing poisons from the system, the theory at least sounds plausible. Yet another reason to have one near the ritual feasting site...
Casting water onto the stove to make steam and raise the perceived temperature also ionizes the air in the sauna. In an electric sauna, the ions are evenly divided between positive and negative; in a smoke sauna, where the stove is largely made of stone with little or no metal, the ions produced are mostly negative ions, creating the same sort of "charge" to the air that one feels during thunderstorms. Air ionized in this way is very good for both the body and the soul, calming and filling with might at the same time.
The best time to use the sauna for one's bodily health is after exercise, when the heat will soothe and relax one, helping the body to clean out the poisons of fatigue and aiding the muscles in recovery and growth. In the Teutonic tradition, health and strength of the body mean just as much as health and strength of the soul; the two cannot really be divided from each other. Thus, regular exercise followed by the fine care given to the body by the sauna should be a part of every Northern wo/man's life whenever possible.
It should not be surprising that something which affects the body and mind as deeply as sauna does also has a rich spiritual tradition. None of this seems to have survived in our Old Norse records, but Gloseki menions that "Sauna-like sweat baths, too - so important in Amerindian cleansing rites - were also used by Germanic healers; the technique of bringing water together with heated rocks to produce the theraputic steam, called stanbæþ "stone bath" by the Anglo-Saxons, is very widespread" (Shamanism in Old English Poetry, p. 128). It is thus likely that most of the Germanic folks knew of the sauna, or something close to it, and used it in healing at the least. In Finland the beliefs associated with the sauna are many. Konya comments that, "The ancient Finns believe that fire came from heaven (see "Thonar" - KHG), and therefore was sacred; for this reason, they looked upon the sauna as a holy place. It was a place for the worship of the dead, a place where diseases and evils of the body were driven out, and even a place where unhappy love affairs could be settled. Some people consider that the pile of stones on top of the sauna stove is a relic of an altar used in pagan times and that the throwing of water over the stones was a form of sacrificial ceremony to supernatural beings. The Finnish word löyly (the vapour which rises from the stones) originally signified 'spirit' or even 'life', and the word corresponding to löyly in languages related to Finnish is lil, which means 'soul'" (Finnish Sauna, p. 7). Although Finnish tradition is originally non-Indo-European, both the Finns and the Lapps had extensive contact with the North Germanic tribes, including regular interbreeding, and there is a considerable body of evidence that the Finno-Ugric and Scandinavian religions influenced one another to a great degree (cf. Ahlbäck, ed., Old Norse and Finnish Religions). It is, thus, at least a reasonable probablity that the North Germanic sauna could have been holy to our forebears in a similar manner. Moreover, although this religious usage cannot be supported beyond supposition for Viking Age Heathens, the general tradition of religious and social interaction between Finns and Norse was so strong, and the sauna so much a part of physical culture in the Viking Age, that there is no reason why it should not be adopted into modern Heathen practice, and many reasons why it should.
As well as cleansing and strengthening the body, the sauna is the best means for cleansing and strengthening the manyfold aspects of the Northern "soul". The dark, quiet wooden enclosure, hot and damp with löyly, is not only womblike, but also recalls the trees from which humans had their first birth and the great tree which will hide Líf and Lífþrasir within its bark through the fires of Ragnarök. It is one of the finest places to sit and sink within one's own self, thinking on matters of the soul. The intensity of the heat, rather than distracting, actually aids in concentrating the mind, forcing one to breathe slowly and relax one's body.
The main runes of the sauna are the triad uruz-nauthiz-berkano. Uruz is the water cast onto the hot stones and rising as steam; it is also the streams of water which run through the body to cleanse it and flow forth as sweat. Nauthiz is the stove's fire (which, if possible, should be kindled as need-fire) and the stress of bearing the sauna's heat and cold, which call upon the bather's reserves of strength and will. Berkano is the sauna-hut or room itself, where Finnish women traditionally gave birth; the Birch-Frowe's womb in which the bather is cleansed and from which s/he is reborn; also, the birch-twig whisk which stings the bather clean and fills the air with the sweet light scent of spring. This basic triad can be extended from ice to fire: isa, the ice or snow in which the bather may roll, melts into laguz, the cold waters of the final bath which also give the water that is cast onto the stones as löyly for uruz. Berkano, as said before, is the hut in which all these mights are woven together. On the side of fire, the runes are nauthiz, followed by kenaz, which is the cleansing and shaping work of the heat on the bather, and the pure fire of fehu itself.
In its wholeness, from ice and fire woven together, the sauna recreates the process of the worlds' making - though one can also see it as a little Ragnarök, through which the bather is remade and reborn cleaner, stronger, and fairer than before.
When taking a sauna for ritual purposes, the method I have found best is as follows. Go into the sauna, making sure it is not too hot or cool. Spread a cloth of rough linen on the bench and sit in silence until the first sweat begins to rise on your body. Then chant, slowly and softly, "Uruz...uruz...uruz..." Repeat the rune-name nine times; cast a ladleful of water on the stove; chant "Nauthiz" three times; cast a ladleful of water; and finish by chanting "Berkano" nine times as you beat yourself with the birch-whisk (top of head to soles of feet, leaving out no part of the body). Repeat this process thrice over. Depending on how hot the sauna is and how experienced a sauna-bather you are, you may be ready to get out at this point, or you may wish to sit and consider each of these runes in silence, perhaps using the birch-whisk again. When you are ready to leave - a feeling you will know when it happens - go and plunge at once into cold water. If you do not have a lake or even cold swimming pool to dip in, an ice-cold shower is the next best choice. In wintertime, many Finns delight in breaking a hole in the ice on the Baltic or the nearest lake so that they can swim there after sauna. If circumstances permit, a mighty shout should be shouted as you leap into the water or dive naked into the snow. Move fast and thrash around. If the water is not frozen over, a short swim after sauna is pleasant and healthy; otherwise, you should be able to tell for yourself when it is time to get out. If your dip is in a swimming pool, you must shower thoroughly in fresh water before getting back into the sauna, as otherwise the evaporation of chlorine in the enclosed space can present a serious health hazard.
After the cold-water phase, go back into the sauna and cast more water on the stones. This time, repeat the triad along the following lines, casting water on the stones and beating yourself strongly with the whisk after each formula:
Uruz, uruz, uruz; uruz, uruz, nauthiz; uruz, nauthiz, berkano
Nauthiz, nauthiz, nauthiz; uruz, nauthiz, nauthiz; uruz, nauthiz, berkano.
Berkano, berkano, berkano; uruz, berkano, berkano; uruz, nauthiz, berkano.
Chant the whole sequence three times over. Again, you may be ready to leave and leap into the cold water when you are done, or you may choose to sit longer.
The third time into the sauna, the formula is:
Isa, laguz, uruz, berkano, berkano, berkano, nauthiz, kenaz, fehu.
This may be chanted in a weaving pattern:
Fehu, isa, kenaz, laguz, nauthiz, uruz, berkano (thrice)
or in a snake-pattern:
Fehu, laguz, isa, nauthiz, kenaz, uruz, berkano (thrice)
as you feel yourself moved. Repeat chant, whisking and casting water at will. When you are done, sit quite still for a little while and simply feel the might around you soaking into you.
After the last cold plunge, stand in tree-stance (full elhaz) and chant,
Above me Ase-Garth's awesome might,
Roots below in Hella's halls.
Bring your feet together and spread your arms out straight from your sides, intoning,
All meets in Middle-Garth's might.
Still with feet together, press the palms of your hands together in front of your solar plexus, fingers pointing upwards. Gazing straight ahead, bring your hands very slowly up. As they pass in front of your face, gradually form a triangle with thumbs and forefingers; follow it with your gaze until your arms are fully stretched above your head. Part your hands, bringing your arms down in a full circle until your palms meet again, fingers down, then bring your hands slowly back up to the first position. As you do this, see yourself as a shining birch tree (women) or leek (men), rooted deep in the ground, bringing a stream of glowing white might up from your roots through your body, up above your head as a springing fountain of leafy branches or broad green leaves, and flowing down around you again so that you stand completely within a sphere of white light when your palms meet at the bottom of their path. Breathe slowly and powerfully in as your hands move up from your solar plexus, breathe slowly and powerfully out as they move down. Do this nine times. Finish by raising head and hands to the sky again, blessing the gods and goddesses for the fair worlds and the might we share.
Finally, pour yourself a glass cup (the "rime-cup" of our forebears) full of a thirst-quenching golden beer. Trace the runic formula Ansuz-Laguz-Uruz in the froth, chanting the names of the runes as you shape them. Lifting the rime-cup high, sing "ALU - ALU - ALU" and drink deeply.
The full rite depends, of course, on having a certain amount of privacy, which is not always possible. In America, the easiest access to sauna is generally through a health club or other such place where chanting runes aloud is not particularly acceptable. If this is your situation, you will have to perfect your internal-vocalization skills. Such public saunas in the States are often too cool to bring out a good sweat, and have no facility for casting löyly. If your choice is between an inadequately heated dry sauna and a very steamy Turkish bath, the latter, while not ideal, is somewhat better than the former.
If you can afford it, there are several companies which make pre-fab saunas which can be installed in your house or yard (see "Organizations and Resources"). Many Finns build their own traditional smoke saunas, which I am told is not particularly difficult - and a good thing too, as smoke saunas are very prone to burning down.
The native American sweat lodge is probably very much like the earliest form of the Northern sauna, and is even easier and cheaper to build. As Kanyo describes it, "The sweat lodge (of the Havasupai Indians, Grand Canyon) consists of a conical hut about one and a half metres high, set partly in and partly out of the ground and made of packed earth. The small crawlway is closed with a flap of canvas or skin. Several large stones are heated on an open fire outside and shovelled into the pit when they are hot enough. The men...crouch together on the earthen floor in pitch darkness and sprinkle water on the stones at regular intervals (p. 6). The practice of building sweat lodges has always been quite common among native Americans and has also become fairly widespread in the general metaphysical-magical-shamanic community in the past few years, so practical information on making one in your backyard should not be too difficult to find.
For a proper sauna, you need a linen towel to sit on, a wooden or copper bucket and ladle for the water, and either a whisk of birch twigs or a soft-bristled brush. The whisk should be made of the youngest and softest branches available after the leaves have come out, cut about the length of your forearm or a little shorter, and made into a bundle about the thickness of an average person's wrist, which is tied together with a longer birch twig from which the leaves have been stripped. For winter usage, many Finns make a number of whisks in the spring and either freeze or dry them (in the latter case, they must be softened by soaking in warm water before use). Other types of branch may also be used: the traditional Finnish Midsummer sauna-whisk "was made of twigs from nine different plants - birch, alder, juniper, and flowers of the season among others" (Kanyo, p. 6). Kanyo also mentions the possibility of using oak, maple, hazel, mountain ash (rowan), and/or some kinds of eucalyptus in areas where birch does not grow: it is simply needful that the leaves be young and soft and that the plant give a pleasant scent to the sauna.
Generally, a sauna will need no scent besides the natural scents of the whisk and the smoke. When going into sauna to meditate upon something specific or to ready yourself for a particular rite, however, it is possible that you may wish to charge the air with might fitting to your need. For this purpose, either a couple of drops of essential oil (can be gotten at most herb or alternative health stores) in the water or a pinch of herbs cast upon the stove can help in "tuning" the atmosphere to ring true with your work. In either case, you will need very little of the oil or herb to give the sauna the right aura.
In his History of the Goths, Herwig Wolfram comments that "the intoxicating 'cannabis sauna', which Herodotus noted among the Scythians, was not unknown to the Thracians and probably also sent the Gothic shamans on the desired 'trip'" (p. 107). The Troth, of course, does not encourage or condone the breaking of any local laws by its members, which rules out the use of this particular herb in most Western countries. For the purpose of vision-seeking within the sauna, mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) and eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis) may be burned on the stones to strengthen soul-sight, though actually breathing in the smoke is not a good idea. If you are using the sauna as an aid to soul-faring, be sure that you have a friend either inside or right outside the door who will be able to make sure that you come back to yourself and get out of the sauna at the appropriate time, since it is possible to stay in the sauna long enough to damage yourself if your awareness is not in your body.
DO NOT, EVER try burning any part of the yew tree, or any other toxic plant, in sauna. This can cause death. If you must have the energies of a poisonous plant, add a single drop of the homeopathic remedy in question to the water bucket.
The löyly water can also be filled with might before beginning the sauna, by carving and colouring a fitting runic inscription on a piece of wood and scraping it into the water or simply by chanting the runes and directing their force into it. Such water can also be charged by a drop or two of a vibrational elixir (easily made by leaving the appropriate stone or leaf in a glass bowl of distilled water in direct sunlight for a few hours) or a liquid condenser (see Scott Cunningham's Magical Herbalism for information on making herbal condensers).
Sauna is best taken naked. Mixed-sex bathing is not as common as it used to be, and now is usually seen only among families and close friends - though nude mixed saunas have little chance of sexual overtones, as it is simply too hot in sauna to even think about sex. If you must wear something in sauna, it should be a loose loincloth (and perhaps a small breast-covering for shy women), preferably made out of linen, which is the only fibre traditionally used in sauna gear. If linen is not possible, cotton is the next best choice. Avoid wool and synthetic fabrics.
Sauna temperature can vary considerably: the best heat for you is something you will have to find out by experience. Beginners are advised not to try sauna much above 80 degrees Centigrade (175 degrees F)- though most Finns like it hotter, in the range of 100-110 degrees Centigrade (212 - 230 F) - and to be sparing with the löyly until used to it. Younger men, who sweat more easily, tend to like higher temperatures. The length of time you spend in a sauna will also vary. Beginners and children seldom stay longer than five to ten minutes at a time, slowly building up to fifteen or twenty. Going into the sauna after exercise or hard work will probably make the heat easier to bear, as well. Your own body will let you know when it is time to come out - usually when the idea of plunging through a hole in the ice or rolling in the snow begins to sound really good. If you begin to feel dizzy or faint, of course, you should leave at once. Different people usually need different rest periods between sessions; I usually go straight from the cold water back into the sauna, but I have a Finnish friend who likes to sit for half an hour to an hour between saunas.
Obviously, sauna causes some dehydration, and you should expect to be very thirsty when you come out. The healthiest drinks to have ready are probably those designed for replacing the water, salt, and nutrients lost by sportspeople. However, to the Finns, the after-sauna drink is beer, and I can heartily agree that nothing tasts better than a good cold beer after a session of sweating. The best brews for the purpose are the pale lager-type along the lines of, for instance, Carlsberg, with a medium to low alcoholic content. Some Norwegians also drink an evil mixture called "Karelian Virgin's Blood", a blend of spirits and Club Grape. Strong beer should not be drunk too soon after sauna, nor should any stronger drinks such as wine, mead, or hard liquor - your body will want some rest and a lot of water before you are ready to lift the mead-horn.
Never drink alcohol of any sort before going into a sauna. You should also try to avoid eating before sauna if possible, though if you are desperately hungry, a light snack is all right. Finns usually expect a good meal after sauna, with plenty of salty and high-protein foods. Fish is one of the main items on the menu, especially salmon in its various incarnations - smoked, raw-cured with salt, or baked fresh. Like most of the other peoples of Northern Europe, Finns are also mightily fond of sausage and cheese with character. This kind of food is ideal, particularly at a larger gathering where folk who are going into the sauna in shifts and cannot eat at the same time.
For those who are interested in building or buying their own saunas, or in studying the subject further, there is one really excellent book in English, still in print, which provides all the information you could possibly want. This is Allan Konya's Finnish Sauna, to which I have already referred a number of times and from which I got the largest part of the knowledge here. It is published by the Architectural Press, 9 Queen Anne's Gate, London SW1H 9BY; the ISBN is 0-85139-832-4.
"Jos vesi, votkaa, ja sauna ei auta, on tauti kuolemaksi." - Finnish proverb ("If water, vodka, and sauna don't help, the condition is mortal")
KveldúlfR Gundarsson, Warder of the Lore. In Idunna V, iii, 20, Holymonth 1993, pp. 12-16.