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The smoke sauna in Võromaa

The smoke sauna in VõromaaTo imagine an Estonian from Võro Shire without a sauna seems to be impossible.
A log-constructed sauna without a chimney is common to all Balto-Finnic peoples, including the Finns, Karelians and Estonians. But it seems that many Estonians in south-east Estonia have that tradition more deeply in their cultures and the roots of their identity than other West-Finnish peoples. The fact is that saunas of traditional design have been more resistant to the changes of modern times in this region of Estonia than in the other parts of Estonia or even in neighboring countries.
The tradition of heat and sweating as a means of healing and strengthening both mental and physical health is widespread throughout the world. Perhaps the best known form is the sweat lodge of the First Nation of North America. This and similar traditions among several peoples and tribes in Asia have deep and ancient connections with the Uralic sauna-culture, and both have the same roots. But in Estonia the sauna was joined with log construction long ago.
Some traditional rites and habits connected with the sauna have survived, although many have been lost and forgotten.
The old original variety of sauna without a chimney, and therefore with a heating process involving smoke with a special aroma, has also survived despite the newer variants of the sauna, including the special commercial type designed in Finland and therefore commonly called the “Finnish sauna”.
Among many traditions connected with the sauna is thanking everybody who has something to do with the process of enjoying the sauna, from the sauna constructor to the person who carries the water needed. An old tradition is also saying “jummal sekkä”, which can be translated as “Let God in to increase the number”, and it is up to each person how the word “God” is understood, whether the Christian God or a god of an older pagan religion.
Among other activities that the sauna is used for is smoking meat. In recent decades, smoking has almost exclusively involved pork. There are some evidence that in former times mutton was also smoked. But the sauna is never used for smoking fish; it seems that the odor of fish is not compatible with enjoying the sauna.
The wood used in sauna construction is the same as that used in other types of construction in Estonia: almost always Norway spruce or Scotch pine, varieties which are common in the forests of Estonia. In ancient times, aspen was also used. The stove, which was previously simply a heap of rocks, is now made of bricks, with rocks piled on top.
Nowadays, the people of south-east Estonia, especially the inhabitants of Võro Shire, have begun to understand the importance of the traditional sauna in their cultural heritage and identity. During the last two decades, since the end of the Soviet occupation, several new saunas of the old design have been constructed. An entirely new phenomenon is the sauna as a tourist attraction. Although it is sometimes quite expensive, there are still many Estonians, and even people from other countries, willing to pay to enjoy an old smoke sauna.

Author ot the text Kalle Eller

Smoking out local traditions?


Ester Võsu, Helen Sooväli-Sepping

Abstract: In this paper we explore the current process of the smoke sauna’s transformation from a tradition into heritage in the context of rural tourism in Võru County, southeast Estonia. We examine the multiple meanings and values that the smoke carries from the tourism entrepreneur’s perspective and the possible connections between the smoke sauna and personally interpreted cultural identity. Our theoretical approach handles heritage production as a selective process conducted by tourism entrepreneurs, in which personal memories, stories and material settings are displayed or performed in order to make them experienceable for the public. The results of the analysis of the fieldwork material indicate that three major directorial attitudes towards local tradition and heritage exist, expressed in the materiality of sauna settings, whereas entrepreneurs’ interpretations of the intangible dimensions of the smoke sauna are more varied as they are based on emotional and personally significant meanings rather than shared cultural values.

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