How Saunas Work

The Saga of the Sauna

Created in 1496, Albrecht Dürer's "The Women's Bathhouse" realistically depicts the German public bath culture of the day.
Mario Tama/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In discussing saunas, it's important to note the antique origins of the Finnish practice and of saunas themselves. The practice spans the breadth of human history, back to when Neolithic tribes inevitably happened across geothermic hot springs and steamy caverns.

Just imagine the sensation of walking in from the cold of a Stone Age winter and finding yourself in a hidden pocket of summer. Imagine stripping off your hides and feeling months of accumulated dirt wash off you in a tide of dripping sweat. It's the sort of thing you can get used to, right? And that's just what our early forefathers did. The ancient cave settlements in France and Spain are handily situated within walking distance of hot springs. Since then saunas have found their way into cultures throughout the world, from the African motherland to the wilds of precolonial America.


The Finnish have sat in saunas for as long as they've been a people. It's thought that they brought the practice with them when they migrated into modern Finland, splintering off from other nomadic Asian tribes. Like many northern peoples, including Native American tribes, they likely used portable sweat lodges until a more settled lifestyle allowed them to construct semipermanent structures -- dugout smoke lodges, then the first savusaunas and finally saunas.

Up through the Middle Ages, bathhouse culture ran rampant through Europe. Whole villages of common men, women and children would sluice it up at the local bath house. They'd feast amid the steaming vats, as well as hold birthing and marital ceremonies. They'd also partake of the kind of carnal indulgences that earned them such nicknames as "the stews." They were kind of a catchall venue for every aspect of common life, a place for weekly cleansings in both the hygienic and ceremonial senses -- and of course, a great place to meet prostitutes.

Then, in 1517, the Protestant Reformation came, along with syphilis, plague and rising fuel costs. Together, these forces all but washed public baths from Europe. Only the Finnish, Scandinavians and Russians held tight to their traditions.

We've covered a lot of ground, but now it's time to answer the final pressing question: How naked should you be in the sauna? Don't put a stitch back on -- just click to the next page.