The Finnish sauna culture: 5 interesting facts

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The Finnish sauna culture was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity on December 17, 2020. The list includes living cultural heritage practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, and know-how from around the world. It includes such practices as the Turkish coffee ceremony, Beijing opera, and Argentinian tango. 

The UNESCO Intangible Heritage List describing this new entry into the list includes the nomination document. That document describes the Finnish sauna culture and details the reasons why it should be included in the UNESCO list. So, in this blog post, we won’t go into those reasons or repeat what most people already know. Instead, we present you with 5 facts you may not have known about the Finnish sauna culture.

Fact 1: The oldest still operational public sauna in Finland in Tampere

Hermanni Lahtinen and his wife Maria Lahtinen established the Rajaportti sauna in 1906. This oldest still operational public sauna in Finland in Pispala, Tampere. 

At first, women and men bathed together but starting from 1931 onwards they had their separate saunas. 

Over the years, the sauna has been in the hands of different entrepreneurs. The association that runs the sauna today has been operating it since 1989.

At the end of 2019, the association opened an internet archive showing different types of archival material related to the Rajaportti sauna. The archive is a fascinating collection of photographs, videos, and recordings. 

There are plenty of public saunas operating in different parts of Finland. Here are some

A washer washing a person in Elanto public sauna in Helsinki in 1950. (Photo: Eino Heinonen, Helsinki City Museum)

Fact 2: Cupping still practiced in Finland

Cupping (kuppaus) therapy is a form of alternative medicine in which heated cups create local suction on the skin. In Finland, the form of cupping that is practiced is so-called wet cupping. This means medicinal bleeding where the cups suck blood from small skin incisions. 

In the past, cupping was very much associated with Finnish sauna culture. 

Cupping in its different forms was a widespread therapy method throughout history. In Finland, the first literary sources referring to the practice date from the 15th century. The practitioners were mainly women. Then went from house to house offering their services.

Back then, cupping was used to treat different types of pain, high blood pressure, rheumatism, etc. 

Until the middle of the 20th-century cupping was a wide-spread therapy method for these ailments in Finland. 

Something of its importance is evident in the way the verb kupata (to cup) has begun to mean other things as well. It can mean to exploit someone for money, to fleece off of somebody. This harks back to the way cupping teases blood out of a person. Kupata can also mean to loiter or to do something very slowly. This, in turn, describes the cupping process which is slow and deliberate. 

After around the 1950s, the popularity of cupping decreased significantly. But the practice never died completely. These days, there is an association for cupping practitioners in Finland. If you are interested in getting cupping here’s a link to a list of practitioners by area

The Rajaportti sauna archive includes videos about cupping and cupping traditions. It also includes a video of a cupping session. The video is in Finnish without subtitles but it shows one practitioner, Pirjo Kumpulainen, at her work. 

There is no scientific proof for any healing effects of cupping. 

Cupping practitioner Hilda Leskinen cupping with cow horns in 1927. (Photo: Ahti Rytkönen, National Board of Antiquities)

Fact 3: Nazis made Finnish sauna known in Central Europe

Although sauna-type facilities were common in Central Europe in the past, they had all but disappeared by the end of the 18th century. There, different types of heat treatments had replaced saunas. 

In Central Europe, Finnish sauna culture started to become known in the early part of the 20th century due to the success of Finnish track athletes. 

According to the Tuomo Särkikoski, interest in the effects of the Finnish sauna grew especially in Germany around the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The Germans had built a Finnish sauna for the Finnish Olympic athletes in the Döberitz Olympic village. Finnish sauna and Finnish athletes coming out of it even featured in one of Leni Riefenstahl’s movies. The movie premiered in Finland in 1938 and Riefenstahl herself came to the Finnish premier. 

Nazi propaganda viewed the sauna as an important way to increase the stamina of soldiers. They thought that sauna culture also fitted well with their idea of cleanliness and racial hygiene.  

Fact 4: A festival celebrating mobile saunas

In one of our early blogs, we mentioned that Finland is the promised land of summer festivals. That is true. And there’s at least one festival dedicated solely to saunas. This time mobile saunas.

The Mobile Sauna Festival is organized in Teuva Municipality almost every summer. Summer 2020 was a gap year, but they have announced that this year the festival will take place July 24. The participating saunas must be transportable and they have to be big enough for at least one person. 

The organizers are expecting over 50 mobile saunas from Finland and other countries to join the festivities. The program will include different types of sauna-related competitions.

Here you can see pictures of participating saunas from previous years.      

Fact 5: There is no single Finnish sauna culture

Like with so many other things associated with Finland, Finnishness, and Finns there really isn’t a single Finnish sauna culture. 

Families in different parts of the country have different sauna traditions. Also, sauna culture varies between genders. 

Practices related to sauna also vary based on where that sauna is located. Those living in apartment buildings with a single communal sauna may have very different practices than those living in one-family homes. 

For example, although Finns, in general, go to the sauna naked not everyone does that in mixed gender groups. Also, people like very different types of saunas. Some like them hot. Some like them more mellow. The preferred temperature can be anywhere between 65 and 100⁰C. These different preferences are very evident in public saunas where different people have access to the scoop with which to throw water on the sauna stove. 

So, when you are going to the sauna for the very first time, don’t hesitate to ask what type of sauna-related traditions your hosts have. 

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