I love saunas. I can remember when I first discovered the wood-fired version on a Swedish archipelago. The health-giving properties are obvious. It transforms your skin. You feel great – especially after the cold plunge.
But to the Anglo mind, it has always been an exotic, foreign kind of experience. For some reason, the sauna idea didn’t travel with the Vikings. That’s surprising, since it’s an idea that clearly spread far.
Everyone loves a sauna
Of course, as soon as I’d discovered the Swedish sauna, I discovered it wasn’t the preserve of the Swedes. In fact, sauna isn’t even a Swedish word. It’s Finnish. Swedes call them bastu.
Russians have their banya. The Turks have their hammam. And then there are the amazing historical discoveries…
I’m reading the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. (Why, you ask? That’s another story). In them, he relates his time in the Pacific North-West in 1852, when he rubbed shoulders with local native tribes.
This is what he has to say about a strange practice they used for curing illness:
Something like a bake-oven was built, large enough to admit a man lying down. Bushes were stuck in the ground in two rows, about six feet long and some two or three feet apart; other bushes connected the rows at one end. The tops of the bushes were drawn together to interlace, and confined in that position; the whole was then plastered over with wet clay until every opening was filled. Just inside the open end of the oven the floor was scooped out so as to make a hole that would hold a bucket or two of water. These ovens were always built on the banks of a stream, a big spring, or pool of water. When a patient required a bath, a fire was built near the oven and a pile of stones put upon it. The cavity at the front was then filled with water. When the stones were sufficiently heated, the patient would draw himself into the oven; a blanket would be thrown over the open end, and hot stones put into the water until the patient could stand it no longer. He was then withdrawn from his steam bath and doused into the cold stream near by.
Just one more thing that came across the Bering Strait to the Americas long before the European discovery.
While we’re talking saunas, fancy a cold plunge? Read about The Baltic Cure For Fear