Smoke sauna and customs
For the Võro people smoke sauna is an important part of their everyday life and a place of ritual cleansing. Besides washing sauna enables to restore health, life force and mental balance.
Going to sauna comprises a rich and particular set of customs including the skills of making bath whisks, building and repairing saunas and smoking meat in the sauna. Among the Võro people these skills are highly valued and transmitted from generation to generation.
The sauna is a heatable building or room for sweat bathing that cleanses both the body and the soul.The vaporising stove is the central source of warmth used for heating the sauna, and the room has also an elevated platform for sitting or lying.
The smoke sauna distinguishes from other types of saunas in many respects. The rocks in the vaporising stove are heated with logs. The sauna has no chimney and so the smoke from the burning wood circulates in the room before escaping through the door or through a small vent inside the wall. After heating the sauna is ventilated so that by the time it is ready to use, the smoke has disappeared from the room.
Before entering the sauna, people undress outside in front of the sauna or in the anteroom. Usually many people go together to the sauna. They sit on the platform of about half the height of the room facing the stove. They stay in the room until the body begins to sweat. In order to promote sweating, water is thrown on the heated stones to produce hot steam-laden air. Meanwhile people cool themselves outside and rinse their bodies with water. People repeat the sweating procedure several times, and it is accompanied by meditation, whisking and healing procedures if necessary. After thorough sweating and whisking the body is washed. After the sauna the mind is relaxed and the body feels light, all complaints have receded and forces are restored.
People go to the sauna usually once a week, on Saturdays, or before major festivals or family events. The smoke sauna ritual is long and peaceful, requiring special skills. The heating and preparations may last 4-5 hours, and usually one stays at the sauna for another couple of hours – there is no hurry, people take their time.
.In the Võro community going to the sauna is primarily a family custom, a part of everyday rituals of country people. Due to the natural conditions in Võromaa the farms are situated in a dispersed manner, quite far from each other. In every farm lives a family, often consisting of several generations. The sauna, usually the smoke sauna, is a traditional building in the farm complex.
In some villages the smoke sauna is heated for many families – neighbours ad friends are also invited, and so the families take turns in preparing the sauna. Going to the sauna is planned in advance, other works and activities of the day are scheduled, considering the sauna time. Usually a certain family member is responsible for preparing the sauna – cleaning, carrying the water, taking care of the whisks, putting everything in order. Usually the old master or mistress of the farm having the biggest experience heat the sauna. They are often accompanied by grandchildren who gradually acquire the necessary skills.
In the case of a bigger family usually men go to the sauna first and women with smaller children follow later. Everyone chooses his or her own tempo and rhythm of bathing, only small children are washed quicker and then taken back to the house.
Healing procedures for curing bodily ailments (colds, strains, muscle aches) are carried out separately from other people in the sauna, or even on a separate day and by a person with special skills or by a more experienced family member.
Saunas are multifunctional buildings – rural families who raise cattle, use it for smoking meat for their own needs. However, not every family has the skills to do it nowadays. The meat to be smoked is taken to a local master who knows the work. Similarly, not everybody masters the sauna building skills and experienced builders of log houses are hired for that purpose.
For the Võro people going to the smoke sauna continues to be a customary and natural activity connecting families and circles of friends. The long sauna ritual enables to take time for oneself and one’s friends. In today’s hectic way of life the sauna helps to feel and enjoy the peaceful rhythm of nature. Sweating and washing in the sauna cleanses the body and the soul, improves health and provides mental balance. The belief that honouring the sauna spirit secures good luck for the family and prevents misfortunes is also widespread.
As any living tradition the smoke sauna customs have changed over time. Today it is no longer a place of giving birth or dying; healing in the sauna has also become rare, because people rely on public medical services. Some works which were earlier performed in the sauna like sprouting corn or preshrinking woollen cloth, have lost their importance, whereas the custom of meat smoking has persisted. There are skilled meat smoking specialists in communities or villages to whom meat is taken to be smoked or from whom smoked meat is bought on festive occasions.
While earlier sauna was heated every Saturday, today this is no longer possible for many families. However, among younger people the custom to go to their friends’ sauna even if this means driving 50 kilometres or more, has developed.For urban families going to the country sauna on family occasions and major holidays has maintained its importance.
For the Võro people the smoke sauna is a part of their identity, associated with the stories, homes and souls of their ancestors.