As long as saunas exist, Finns are not allowed to commit a suicide, no matter what happened in their life (or at least not before having a good steam bath…). This sentence is pronounced by Seppo Sorjonen, a character in Arto Paasilinna’s novel titled A Charming Mass-Suicide (1990). And it tells us a lot about the crucial place of saunas in Finnish culture.
Whereas Finland is the home of only 5.3million people, there are about two million saunas in the country. When I went to Finland five years ago, I was really amazed by this aspect of Nordic culture. Saunas were indeed everywhere: every student building had its own, and you could find both indoors and outdoors saunas, in beaches, in forrests, near lakes… Too-Ticky, one of the famous Moomins character, even has her own, and that’s really saying something!
In Finnish culture, saunas are perceived as an intimate place where people can finally be themselves and talk. This idea is developed in Steam of Life, a Finnish documentary made in 2010, in which different groups of men are talking about their private life inside the sauna, naked.
This point of view can also be found in Finnish literature. Some of the main events in Aleksis Kivi’s Seven Brothers, one of Finland’s most famous novels, happen in this place. When it burned, it was perceived as a disaster for the characters.
Sauna and crime
Sauna might be an intimate and relaxing place, but it can also be a crime scene – after all, when Finns are very angry and threaten to kill you, they prefer to say “viedä saunan taakse” (which literally means that they’ll take you behind the sauna). Ever heard of Sauna, made by Antti-Jussi Annila in 2008? This is definitely a movie you wouldn’t like to watch while steam bathing on a Halloween day. In this movie, the sauna is a mysterious place which will make you shudder during the night.
Don’t worry too much though. Saunas are less a crime scene than a sacred place in Finland. Therefore, if you want to experience this aspect of Finnish culture, you must remember to behave in a sauna as you would behave in a church: “saunassa ollaan kuin kirkossa!”
Author: M. B.