The Sacred Steam Room
You haven’t truly saunaed until you’ve been in a Finnish one.
The dressing room is decorated with sea charts, a taxonomic poster of Baltic fish, and cane chairs covered with soft cushions. An electric light bulb washes the room with a yellow-ish light. The only sounds come through a thick wooden door, beyond which the hiss of water on scorching hot stones mixes with the occasional beats of bundled birch twigs on naked, sweaty skin and the crackles of burning wood.
For the average traveler, the sauna is shrouded in mystery and often approached with prudish self-consciousness. In a post-Victorian sense, it seems impossible for a social gathering to succumb to sweaty nudity without Dionysian overtones. This fear of nudity as something opposed to the very foundations of society is of course juxtaposed with the hypocritical laissez-faire attitude towards the use of the naked, usually female, body in advertising or entertainment.
In Finland, however, the culture around the sauna challenges both the perversity-paranoid attitudes and the hyper-sexualized consumer culture that centers around the objectification of the naked body. The difference in attitude stems from the sauna’s deep roots in Finnish history and its monolithic place in Finnish culture.
The Finnish sauna has always been an interesting mix of sacred and profane.
Invariably, it has warranted reverence, coded into a myriad of rules, from the age-old ban on bathing late into Saturday night (lest the Devil skin you alive) to reserving the last steam, or löyly, to the sauna elf (lest he kill the bathing family). This respect for the supernatural remains a part of the sauna culture still today. For example, flatulence and shouting are frowned upon while inside the sauna.
The profane dimension of the sauna often concerns the harsh conditions of life in the cold, dark north. It used to be a recurring aspect of life, especially for rural Finns. Once, women gave birth in the sauna, as the room was both warm and sanitary with a supply of hot water. For similar reasons it was used in many folk-cure practices, such as bloodletting. To complete the trinity of birth, life, and death, the recently deceased were kept in the sauna before being buried.