Sauna: Building The House Of The Ancestors
excerpt from Wightridden: Paths of Northern-Tradition Shamanism
It is the opinion of those of us who consider the sauna to be a spiritual tool of the Northern Tradition that if you are going to do it at all, you should do it right. Some modern "saunas" have electric heat, or infrared heat, or no steam at all, or not enough ventilation. Except for that last item, which can make people ill from oxygen deprivation, the rest aren't exactly a crime. If you want to use such a "sauna", fine. Go ahead. You can even use it as a purification ordeal, which is part of what the sauna is ... but don't think that you'll get deep religious ritual out of it. Tapping into the original spirit of the sauna/stofa ritual is honoring the powers of fire and water and stone, and the steam that is the Breath of the Ancestors. Without those, the wights will not come.
A proper sauna/stofa ritual should have the following in attendance:
1) A source of wood heat, with real flame. Usually this is a woodstove, although a stone hearth or oven will do just as well.
2) Ventilation. Many modern airtight saunas make people sick because the oxygen level falls too low. Even an open window to the cold is better than nothing - just crank the fire up. The ideal is an adjustable vent near the floor, to vent the cooling, sinking air, and another higher up to vent the excess heat later on.
2) Stones to throw water on. They can be collected ceremonially and charged with intent, if you like. Do not use river stones, which have a tendency to blow apart during temperature changes.
3) Water to throw on the stones, preferably rainwater.
4) A birch whisk. To make this, collect birch "twigs" - meaning branches less than two feet long - and tie them together. It is best made and used fresh, but of course you may not be able to get fresh leafy birch twigs for a good portion of the year. Think ahead and make a bunch of them, and let them dry. They should be spring or summer branches; fall branches tend to defoliate easier. Hang them to dry and then store them flat in paper bags. You will use each one up every time you do a sauna ritual, so be prepared. (If you have a chest freezer, you can freeze them flat in bags and then thaw them later.)
To use a fresh whisk, simply rinse it off before going into the sauna. During the second round - the Community round - dip it in warm water and turn it gently over the steam. For a dry whisk, rinse off the dry branches and then put them into a basin of warm - not hot - water. This is usually done on top of the sauna stove. As soon as it is rehydrated, it is ready for use. The birch whisks bring a beautiful scent to the hot air. It has a long history as well; among the ancient Slavic people, a certain number of birch whisks were actually paid as tributes by weaker, conquered tribes.
5) Knowledge of the proper sauna etiquette. A sauna is not for partying, rowdiness, or fondling each other. It is a solemn occasion, and a quiet, meditative ambience should be promoted. Being naked is mandatory; one should go in as one came out of the womb. The sauna is a rebirth experience in its own way. In our modern society, some people may feel shy about being naked, but this is fairly critical. Anyone who would be so rude as to comment on someone's body, or give someone an unwanted touch, shouldn't be allowed to be present during such a ritual anyway.
Community saunas are traditionally mixed-gender and mixed-age, although there were occasional saunas specially for men or women (for example, part of a puberty rite might be held in the sauna). One saying held that of the three sauna rounds, one was for men, one for women, and one for the faeries. (One would assume that this refers to firing up the empty sauna for the Saunatonttu; see below.) However, the ancestors of men and women are the same, and we strongly encourage mixed-gender saunas, with everyone well versed in the proper behavior. If nothing else, it obviates the problem of where to put the people who are neither male nor female, some of whom may be the community shamans.
The first step is to build and consecrate your sauna. While the original ones were made of stone, by the 5th century they were being built of timber. However you make yours, be sure that it has good ventilation. Situate the hearth carefully - remember that it is the altar of the room. You will likely be using some wood, if only for the benches. Traditionally, all lumber scraps were saved and burned in the ceremonial first firing. The door to a traditional sauna should be shorter than a "normal" door; one should have to stoop to get into it, which shows reverence for the ancestors. In Russia, it was traditional to leave the banya backwards, bowing to the spirits. Another of their traditions was burying a sacrificed black cock under the doorstep, a custom which the modern builder may use or not, as they prefer.
The first saunas were smoke saunas, referred to by the Finns as savusauna. The fire was lit under stones, and the smoke went out through a hole in the wall or ceiling. When the smoke had heated the entire room, the hole was shut and the window opened to let in fresh air. There are varying claims on the health risks of savusauna; some say that the smoke is bad for your lungs, others that the smoke creates a bacteria-free and oxygen-rich environment, assuming that you leave the place alone long enough for all the deadly carbon monoxide to leave it.
However you feel about it, the first ceremonial firing of your sauna should be as close to a traditional savusauna as possible. Afterwards, you can do it the "normal" way. To do this, remove the stovepipe from your stove (or stop up your chimney, if there's no pipe). Place containers of water out for heating. (It's also good to have it around in case of fire.) Start your fire using an older method, the sort that is appropriate for sacred fires - flint and steel at the least, or a fire-bow or fire-drill if you have mastered that art. Add pieces of birch, then harder woods as the fire gets going. It is traditional at this point to burn the scrap lumber from the building project.
Make sure that you have your vents open. It will take three to six hours to properly smoke up the sauna, so start it early in the day. Appropriate activities during this time might be to sit outside and drum and sing. What you're trying to do is to call a guardian spirit into the sauna. For some folk, the guardian spirit was an ancestor - in which case they didn't call one in when building the sauna, but merely waited until a family member died in there. Since we are unlikely to want to wait that long, start calling for a guardian spirit during the smoke-out.
Another sort of guardian spirit, popular in Finland, is the Saunatonttu, a little gnome or wizened faery. It was customary to warm up the sauna just for the gnome every now and then, or to leave some food outside for him. It is said that he warned the people if a fire was threatening the sauna, or punished people who behaved improperly while inside it. The Saunatonttu doesn't seem to be an Alfar-type so much as one of the "little people", the earthly nature sprites who live astrally in this world. If you work with them, calling a Saunatonttu might be a good idea. If not, try calling an ancestor to watch over the place, or just ask the land-wight to send the right spirit over. The song that you sing doesn't have to be brilliant, just sincere.
In Russia, the guardian spirit of the banya was the Bannik, a spindly, hairy creature described here by Aleksa: "In ancient Russian culture, the (usually male) spirits of the banya provided safety in bad times or against evil spirits, so if you were being chased through a field or a forest by evil beings or bad men, you may take refuge in a bathhouse and pray to the banyanka or the Bannik to protect you. The Bannik controlled your experience of the banya - the heat and steam levels - and it was heated and cleaned once a week to placate him. In Christian times the offering became the sign of the cross (although, ironically, icons were not allowed to be hung in a banya due to their residual pagan associations), but vestiges remained of the pagan practice of feeding the Bannik in offerings of vodka. In order to see the bannik, you had to go alone at night, and you had to sit with part of yourself in the banya and part out - in other words, you had to be in-between. (This was why people didn't bathe alone at night, unless they wanted to meet the Bannik.) If the banya made a purring sound, the Bannik was at home." He was sometimes known to appear to late-night wanderers as a village elder or dead ancestor, and it was important to leave the fourth steam round for him, to propitiate him with food and vodka, and to refrain from bringing anything from the house into the banya and vice versa, as everything in the banya belonged to him (whereas the rest belonged to the domovoi). If properly treated, he would protect his guests; if maltreated he would become hostile and cause failures of fertility (crop, animal, and human), again showing the connections to the banya as a temple to Mokosh the Earth Mother.
But back to your ceremonial first smoke sauna. When the room is very hot and there is only a small blue flame left in the fire, shut the vents for a while - perhaps 20 minutes. Then open them all up and let the air in for at least an hour, to clear out all carbon monoxide. Pour water on your rocks, which will have been heating on the stove; it helps clear the air. When it's safe to be in there for more than a minute, go in with buckets of water and old rags and wipe everything down - the smoke will have blackened things. Sweep the floor, putting your intent into purifying the space. Then reconnect the stovepipe (or unstop the chimney), relight the fire, and have a regular sauna in the mellow heat from the savusauna. You have now honored the ancestors by doing your first firing in the way that they would have done.