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Sauna in Estonian tradition – a cleansing and healing holy place

Nowadays sauna is mainly known as a place where you can relax, sweat and get yourself very clean. But did you know that before the arrival of present-day saunas and spas, sauna actually had numerous other functions? For many centuries sauna held a very significant place in Estonians' everyday lives. Sauna was a cleansing place, a holy place, a healing place. It was where important life events from birth to death took place. And for some poor peasants, sauna was home.

Smoke sauna

For most of the sauna history saunas did not have chimneys. During heating the sauna door and shutters were kept open to let the smoke out. Once the heating was finished, the door and shutters were closed to maintain the heat inside. Nowadays, this kind of saunas are called smoke saunas. Smoke saunas are characterized by walls blackened with soot and a strong smoky smell. So, when you continue reading about old sauna traditions, imagine them taking place in a small, dark and wooden smoke sauna.

Saturday sauna nights

Traditionally every farm had its own sauna, which was usually heated up for Saturday night. That is when the entire family forgot about all the other chores and committed themselves to a night of sauna rituals. In the 18th century men and women were known to go to the sauna together, sometimes with the entire family. Later it was more common for the men to go to the sauna first, when it was hotter and smokier, and women after them.

Surprisingly washing was not high in the priority list, but rather a secondary activity. The most important things were leil (gust of hot humid air rising from hot stones after throwing water on them) and whisking. Whisking means beating the body with young birch twigs and it is believed to be very good for health. A nice whisking session done right started from the soles of the feet and then moved upwards to the rest of the body.

Sauna’s importance as a health remedy

Sauna was important for maintaining good health and an often-used remedy for illnesses. In particular, people found relief for different muscle and bone problems caused by hard physical work in the fields. When somebody was ill, sometimes a special Thursday sauna was heated only for the ill people in order to heal them.

Customs and celebrations

Apart from the regular weekly sauna sessions, sauna was also connected to some celebrations and customs. In different parts of Estonia, sauna went hand in hand with weddings. Traditional wedding activities could include the bride doing some sauna bathing before the wedding, bringing the newlywed bride and groom to the sauna or the bride making an offering (belt, gloves etc.) to her new sauna while arriving to the groom’s home for the first time. At Christmas, depending on the area, thatch was laid on the sauna floor or a cross was drawn with charcoal on the door of the sauna, or a “Christmas goose” (interpreted by an older man) went scaring the children in the sauna. Sometimes the sauna whisks were used for fortunetelling. These are just a few examples, but many other celebrations were connected to the sauna.

The many practical functions of sauna

The sauna room found a lot of use for some practical purposes, which did not have much to do with bathing. It was used, for example, for smoking meat, drying malt, fulling cloth to make it durable, drying grains, drying and smoking fishnets and drying clothes. Sometimes sauna was even used as a barn for sheep. The sheep stayed in the sauna for most of the week and were moved out of the way for the sauna night. Furthermore, some very poor peasants actually lived in the sauna of their landlord.

Sauna as a respected holy place

Not only was sauna an important place for it’s practical purposes, but it was also honored as a holy place. The sauna place itself was considered holy and when it was time to build a new sauna, it had to be built in the same holy spot. It was believed that hot sauna steam would bring good luck with daily chores and even fishing trips. Behavior in the sauna had to be respectful ­– the sauna-goer had to be polite, quiet and avoid certain language and activities. Even those who were not in the sauna had to respect the sauna time and not work in the meanwhile. Women often went to give birth in the sauna, so it was the place were new lives started.



Habicht, Tamara (2014). Eesti saun. Saunakombed meie pärimuskultuuris. Tea kirjastus.

Margna, Epp (2012). Suitsusaun on eluviis. Eesti Loodus, 2012, 6-7.

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