An old saying, still heard in Finland today, says, Jokaisen on kayttaydyttava saunaaa samalla tavalla kuin kirkossa.” (“In the sauna one must conduct himself as one would in church.”) This strict reverence protected the Finnish sauna from the corruption that befell most other bathing institutions in Europe.
Ancestor worship was also a function of the sauna; it was thought that the Dead would return to places that they had enjoyed, including the bathhouse, and that thelöyly, or sacred steam, held their souls. It is the Breath of the Ancestors, a word which originally meant “spirit” or “life”. It was a doorway between worlds; the fact that fire and water held an equal balance in sauna sanctity drives home the image of liminal space.
Finns used the sauna for rites of passage. In the sauna children were born, women went through the purification ritual before marriage, and old people often dragged themselves there to die.
Our ancestors did not use their sauna only for bathing. It was needed for drying flax, preparing malts, curing meat and for many other agricultural or domestic chores.
In old times, the sauna was known as the Finnish cure or the poor man’s pharmacy. It was also the hospital where folk healers practised their art. They administered baths and massage, and drew blood; cupping was another method to suck bad blood away.
The sauna was also a place for performing magic, mostly to do with healing or love affairs. At Midsummer the marriageability of young women was improved by special sauna baths; the smell of herbs and birch-leaves hung in the air and the wise woman recited her spells. Sauna baths were also believed to be useful for improving virility.
Sauna-whisks are not exclusive to Finland. North American Indians, for example, used similar leafy bundles when bathing in their sweat lodges, as did some of the Central American peoples.
For centuries, sauna has been an inseparable part of Finnish culture, and using a sauna-whisk, or vihta , an integral element of the sauna tradition. The Finnish vihta is a bouquet of small birch branches used to gently hit oneself while bathing in sauna.
A vihta could be used in a number of ways to provide a patient with pain relief or even a permanent cure. To increase its powers, the branches were gathered from three different areas and from nine different trees . The most important trees used to make special healing-whisk were alder, mountain ash (rowan) and birch.