Fire & Ice: A Northern-Tradition Sweat Ritual

excerpt from Wightridden: Paths of Northern-Tradition Shamanism

sauna3To prepare for the sauna, first clean yourself. In the winter during older times this would have meant a scrub with snow; at least take a shower first. There will enough toxins coming out of your pores in short order. Clearing the skin is a good idea. It can also be used as ritual pre-cleansing in order to make yourself ready for the sacred space of the sauna.

A sauna is divided into rounds, each called a gang in Finnish. The ritual we create here is done in three rounds, as are many traditional versions. The first gang is the opening of the space, done to warm up and release the pressure of the everyday, a transition from daily concerns. It is the Ancestor round, in honor of those who came before us. The Ancestors are always honored first during a proper Northern-Tradition sweat ritual. Although this ritual is written as if for a group - since it may well be the job of the spirit-worker to lead it - it can also be adapted to a personal religious ritual by one individual.

The first round is the Perth round, going into the Mystery in silence. To begin, each person is recaned with mugwort and then sent inside the sauna. Everyone comes in naked, bowing before the low lintel, and seats themselves. The one who is in charge of the rite lets everyone get settled in silence. Keep the silence going for a few minutes in order to let everyone calm down and transition away from their daily movement. If there are those who are uncomfortable, the silent warmup may help them as well. Ideally, one ought to get to the point where there is no psychological discomfort with being naked in a roomful of other naked sweating people. Physical discomfort is to be expected, at least in small amounts - in fact, if someone needs to leave during the rite for physical reasons, let them do so, and don't give them trouble about it. Having someone keel over will disrupt everything. It should go without saying that everyone in the ritual space should have been briefed on what this is about and how to properly behave.

If possible, encourage people to start by breathing together, difficult as that is in the hot room. The ideal is to get folks into a headspace where they are the tribe, all together, quietly celebrating their group bond. Don't push it, though. Overenthusiasm will not work here. Let the löyly do its job. As Lydia Helasdottir puts it: "One of the things that is said about sauna by the Finnish is that the everyday isn't there. Marriages are brokered and enmities healed in the sauna. It doesn't matter who you are; when you're in the sauna you're just a sauna-mate. Doesn't matter if you're a Prime Minister or a peasant."

The officiant (which is how we will hereby refer to the person in charge of the rite) kneels before the fire as one would an altar, extends their hands towards the fire, and says:

In the beginning, there was Darkness,
The never-ending Void of Ginnungagap.
Then came Surt into the world with his flaming sword,
One point of light in the Darkness,
And so was Muspellheim, the World of Fire, brought into existence.
Before anything else, there was fire.
Out of the darkness, Fire.

All participants repeat back, "Out of the darkness, Fire."

On top of the stove, a number of stones have been arranged, ideally in a spiral pattern, or perhaps that of a rune or a pictograph. They have been heating up all this time. The officiant has held back and is carrying one stone, which they now carefully place with the others, completing the pattern. The officiant says:

Then came forth the world of Niflheim,
The land of ice and snow, and cold stone.
And so came forth also Ymir, great as a mountain chain,
Suckling the nourishment of Audumhla, Mother Cow,
Giant of stone and ice, Ancestor of thousands.
At the beginning of the world, there was fire and stone.
Out of the ice, stones.

The participants all repeat: "Out of the ice, stones."

Then the officiant wipes the sweat from their forehead with a bit of (natural fiber) cloth, and tosses it into the fire, saying:

Then of the sweat of Ymir was born the first frost-giants,
As cold as the sons of Surt are hot,
Ancestors of many worlds,
The powers of air and wind,
We honor them with our very breath.
Above fire and stone, there were the cooling winds,
And out of the sweat of earth, life.

The participants all repeat: "Out of the sweat of earth, life."

There should be a bowl of water placed on one of the benches; it can have some kind of herb or essential oil if you like. For appropriate scents, I prefer pine needles for the first round (symbolizing the evergreens which are the oldest trees), birch for the second (as this is the birching round, although if you're using birch whisks, there's no need for anything but clean water), and the third should be chosen on the basis of which Gods you are honoring. The officiant holds up the bowl of water and says:

Then Muspellheim did draw near to Niflheim,
The moment of worlds colliding,
The fire melting the ice,
And the mists of water rose between the worlds.
Hot to cold to hot to cold; here we live this first cycle.
In the beginning, fire and water and stone,
Changing the Land of Ice to the Land of Mists.
From fire and water and stone, all creation.

The officiant pours water onto the hot stones, and as the steam rises the participants repeat: "From fire and water and stone, all creation."

The officiant then speaks of honoring the ancestors who came before us, and may speak of some deed done by an ancestor. Others then might speak forth with tales of their own ancestors. For those who do not know their own ancestors, or do not wish to honor them by name for whatever reason, speaking of a spiritual ancestor that inspired them will suffice. Not everyone needs to take part; if the round falls to silence, that's fine. Whatever people say, it should end with a time of meditative silence.

Meanwhile, the löyly is surrounding everyone slowly. As Lydia puts it, "...this presence fills the sauna area, and it's more than just the steam somehow, and it makes your skin tingle, and the hackles on your neck rise if it's really there properly. It overwhelms you; when löyly comes you are just quiet for that moment until it gets absorbed into the walls."

One Finnish farmer referred to there as being four kinds of löyly: Maiden löyly, Lady löyly, Mother löyly, and Grandmother löyly. The first time that the water is thrown on the rocks is Maiden löyly, which surrounds you like a fiery lover; you can hardly bear her touch, but it is exciting and ecstatic. The second is the Lady löyly, which caresses you like a loving wife. The third, Mother löyly, is so gentle that it is "like sitting in your mother's lap". The fourth, Grandmother löyly, is said to be the sweetest of all ... it happens when you go out to the bathhouse after the sauna and toss a little water onto the still-warm coals for the sake of the Saunatonttu and the Ancestors.

When the first round has gone on long enough - and "long enough" is something that needs to be carefully gauged by the person in charge; remember that you'll be doing two more of these - everyone takes a break. This is the time to wash in cool water, or take a cold shower, or roll in the snow, depending on how sturdy one is. If someone has high blood pressure or a heart condition, have them soak or sponge off with warm water - a sudden drastic temperature change could create problems. Then it's back in for the second gang.

The second gang is for weighty matters. It is the Mannaz round for the Community. While this is traditionally for bringing up important issues that are besetting the community, it is not for arguing or starting fights. Instead, people should frame their issues as hopes, stating what positive changes they would like to see happen in the future. "Community" could be anything as small as one's family to as large as the world. The round is formal, and people should not speak out of turn. If the group is intimate and trustworthy enough, negative matters between people can be brought up, but the officiant should keep things on track and not allow grudges to affect the energy of the rite.

This is the round where the birch whisks are brought out, steamed over the fire, and used to flagellate each other. It is done to loosen off the dead bits of skin that are peeling off of everyone's back, and also for spiritual purification. When done in community, it is important that people do it to each other as well as themselves, as an act of acknowledging the community bond. If no birch whisks are available, essence of birch can be put into the water. Birching is sometimes done in the sauna, and sometimes during the second break, depending on people's preferences. Birch is the tree of Frigga, the Queen of Asgard and the Lady of Frithkeeping. Part of Frigga's gift is to make sure that social interactions run properly, with as few people being insulted as possible. During this round, the officiant takes on Frigga's role, making sure that the atmosphere is maintained and that nothing degenerates into argument or, conversely, mere partying. An invocation to Frigga can be done, if the people involved wish to invoke her, to keep things peaceful. The UPG of one spirit-worker was that this round would be appropriate for divination done with symbols - runes or pictographs - drawn on birchbark or carved on birch twigs. After this round, the whisks are burned in the fire.

The third gang is done for the Gods, the Ansuz round, and it is mostly quiet. The Gods may be hailed in the beginning, by name as people choose or all together, and then silence falls again. The group meditates on how they are going to enact the vision that came during the löyly or the divination or the talking on the last two rounds. Then all leave in silence, shower off, and the sauna is left going for a while longer in order to propitiate the guardian spirit. Someone should be chosen to watch the fire - checking in on it periodically until it goes out - and if there is a feast afterward, some of it should be brought out and set at the door of the sauna as an offering.