According to the historical data, people of Sparta were the original inventors of a hot-air bath, or laconica as it came to be known. When it spread to the city of Athens with its great social life, laconica soon became that perfect compromise between the needs of a body and the desires of human intellect. The harmony of both health and mind was reflected in the very design of Greek baths. Conveniently located between a gymnasium and a lecture hall, they became the place where Olympic athletes could listen to philosophical ideas of Plato and Socrates.
The Roman ascent to power brought about the boom of communal bathing. Romans built their gigantic publicly supported baths, or thermae, everywhere they found themselves during many centuries of constant conquest. Field heat rooms of legionaries expanded to become these magnificent constructions, some of which one can still find witness in North Africa, Asia, Eastern and Northern Europe.
Roman thermae contained pools and baths with hot and cold water, hot-air rooms, gyms, libraries, restaurants, concert halls and much more. Thermae were centers of communities, where people could discuss news, debate philosophical ideas, present their art and celebrate important events of their life.
In Ancient Rome, bathing in thermae was considered to be a cure from numerous diseases. This belief was supported by works of famous doctors, such as Hippocrates, Galen and Asclepiades. The latter was so devoted to thermae, he was nicknamed “bather”. He was absolutely convinced that moderate physical exercises, walks in fresh air, reasonable diet, massage, a clean body as well as regular sweating in hot-air rooms are absolutely essential for treating a vast amount of diseases. As was expressed in one old saying carved in the wall of one of the bath-houses: “Thermae, love and joy – we are together”.
Thermae played an important social and even political role in Rome. Senators preferred to informally discuss crucial political decisions that affected lives of citizens of the vast Empire. Ordinary people would than discuss those decisions as well as various news and rumors again in thermae. All Roman Emperors considered it a duty to construct thermae-or community bathhouses.
To link the love of bathing to the ruler of Rome, thermae were often named after those who ordered to construct them. The largest one of all is named after Emperor Diocletian. It was capable of accommodating up to 3,600 clients at one time.
On the verge of millennia they turned into enormous entertainment complexes, virtually, cities inside cities, that were created by extravagant Roman rulers to buy the political support of a general public.
Moreover, Some of these thermae continue to work as public bathing houses today. At the same time, the smaller, locally-oriented baths called balnea remained the centers of many Roman neighborhoods. Loyal to the principles of Greek laconicas, they became a place to go for a good company, community news and, of course, relaxation and revitalization that comes with social bathing.
Turkish hammams are considered to be one of the classical bathing traditions that still remain popular. It is also a bit of a misnomer since hammams in Syria, Morocco, Tunisia and United Arab Emirates do not differ much from their Turkish version. All together Hammam is a product of a Muslim culture that expanded past the borders of religion, hygiene or health treatment.
The origins of hammam can be traced to Byzantine bathing traditions. The Byzantine Empire, or Eastern Roman Empire, for centuries had been preserving Roman customs, bathing included. Arabs, who even before Islam were in close contact with Byzantine, adopted the use of hot steam to their daily routine. The greatest incentive to promote Roman type bathing in the Arab territories of the Middle East came with its endorsement by the prophet of the Muslim religion.
Muhammad believed that the heat of the hammam (translated from Arabic as “spreader of warmth”) enhanced fertility, and thus the followers of the faith will multiply. Arabs soon adapted foreign bathing habits to their specific needs.
The Healing powers of hammam were known for centuries. Famous Arab doctor and scientist, Avicenna (Ibn Sina) considered it to be one of the exceptional means of improving health and general well-being. Echoing the opinions of Greek doctors he believed that “physical exercises, healthy lifestyle and regular visits to hammam will render all medicine useless”. In his famous work “The Canon of Medical Science” he pointed to beneficial effects of hammam on blood circulation, respiration, weight loss. He recommended hammam as a treatment for insomnia, paralysis, nervous disorders, digestive problems, low appetite, kidney and liver malfunctioning and much more.
As thermae for Romans, hammam soon became the center of a public life. Abu Sir, a distinguished Arab historian used to say that “the city is only good if it has a hammam”. It was a place of absolute equality: rich and poor, young and old – every hammam visitor was equally respected. Still, the hammam atmosphere was quite different from that of Roman thermae. It served as a calm and secluded retreat, a place for relaxation and meditation shielded from the worries of the outside world.
For Turks, hammam also became a place where all important life events and achievements were celebrated. It even had its own important place in marriage ritual – a bride with relatives would go to hammam for a pre-marriage fest.
Hammam became such a prominent part of public life, that even those rich enough to have their own private bathing houses would still go to the public hammam to show that they were clean both in body and soul.
Hammam was also famous for mystical tales of djinns that lived in spring water. When water was heated up, these supernatural were said to begin play with each other and hammam visitors. To the observer it looked like clouds of steam going up to the ceiling.
Finally, donating for hammam construction was considered to be a way of improving one’s prospects in afterlife. According to the Arabic writer Yusuf Abdalhadi “That who committed many sins should build a hammam to wash them off.”
The first public baths in Japan were established in 8th century BC by Buddhist monks serving in shrines of Nara, the ancient Japanese capital. In fact, monks provided free baths for the poor up until the 16th century, when this tradition was abolished due to the constant wars between samurai clans. By the end of this century, when the country was united under Tokugawa family, the first commercial bath opened in Edo (present day Tokyo). The novelty was extremely successful, which brought about the boom of bathing. Soon Japan boasted 600 bath houses.This expansion process never ended: in the 1960s Japan had almost 23,000 public baths, or sento.
As with many other cultures all around the world, sentos acquired a great social importance. Today, Japanese bathhouses are more like clubs, where people meet each other, discuss local news, and simply spend time with their friends.
Native American Temescal
The culture of Native American sweat houses developed with no influence from ancient European civilizations, yet it in some aspects is very similar. It is known that ancestors of American Indians lived in Asia most likely, that is where the idea of the steam originated.
Even though Indian tribes were on different stages of development, nearly all civilizations of North and Central America had a tradition of using steam for healing as well as for religious purposes. Recent archeological discoveries have proven that hot-air treatment was very well-known by Mayan people. Steam rooms of about 1,200 years old were found in Piedras Negras, Chichen Itza, and El Paraiso.
Temescal (derived from Aztec teme, to bathe, and calli, house) is a small hut with a fire that heats stones, on which the water is poured to give off the healing hot vapor. American Indians used sweat lodges as a way to treat such common sicknesses as cold and rheumatism. Aztecs even had a similar tradition to the Russian venik platza, where they used bunches of herbs to treat bodily disorders.
Jimjilbangs are large, public bathhouses in Korea, furnished with hot tubs, showers, saunas and massage tables. Jjimjil is derived from the words meaning heated bath, and bang meaning room. In other areas there are usually rooms with heated floors for lounging and sleeping, a snack bar, TVs, exercise rooms, ice rooms, heated salt rooms, and sleeping quarters with either bunk beds or sleeping mats.
Korean body scrub masters are world famous for their exfoliating skills.
It is common for Jjimjilbangs to have various rooms with different temperatures to suit your preferred sleeping habits. They inlay the walls with different woods to make the ambient mood and smell more natural.
Most jjimjilbangs are open 24 hours and are a popular weekend getaway for Korean families. Jjimjilbangs are also popular with Korean women, and traditionally, pregnant Korean women used rooms made of red clay for their special properties.
The origins of sauna are found at the time of the Great transmigration of peoples, when nomads from Central Asia came to Eastern Europe – modern day Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Estonia and the land of Suomi, or Finland. Until the 16th century, sauna was not known outside Finland, but in this country it was a vital part of people’s lives. In year 1500, a traveler to Finland wrote in a private letter, that “nowhere in the world hot-air rooms are as crucial for living as in Northern countries”. Sauna soon became popular in other Scandinavian countries.
By the beginning of the 18th century Swedish sauna or Bantu became a part of traditional Christmas celebration. But soon after that was almost completely banned in Sweden and Norway due to some ill-conceived,misguided medical information Swedish doctors were sharing.
For Finns, sauna never went out of style as it was not simple bathing but an important communal ritual that helped strengthen ties between people and provided much needed distraction from the harsh climate. It was also regarded as an important family tradition. Famous Finnish epic poem “Kalevala” gives a detailed description of a young bride’s duties in relation to sauna: “From thy bath, when thou returnest, To his bathing tempt the father, Speak to him the words that follow: ‘Father of my hero-husband, Clean are all the bathroom benches, Everything in perfect order; Go and bathe for thine enjoyment, Pour the water all-sufficient, I will lend thee needed service.” (Kalevala, Rune XXIII)
The communal spirit of sauna didn’t end on the family level. When one of the Finnish villagers heated up a sauna, as a rule he would always come to his closest neighbors and invite them over for bathing. Sauna was also a place of medical importance, and would quite often host a surgeon and pharmacist. Old Finnish proverb says that “Sauna is a pharmacy for a poor man”. Another old Finnish saying is quite illustrative of the value given to sauna: “Behave in a sauna as if you are in church”. This link between religion and bathing goes even further.
When Christianity was introduced to FInland, the Virgin Mary herself became considered a protector of people in sauna. In the beginning of 20th century, Finnish sauna started to regain its popularity in Europe. In 1920s the Norwegian Medical Association has published a report that called sauna an effective treatment against many chronic diseases. In 1926, almost two hundred public saunas were constructed in Norway, and by 1944 there were already thousands of them, some sponsored by Royal Treasury.
Germany has a long history of spas and wellness. Romans discovered and appreciated the hot mineral springs at Baden-Baden, and beginning with 19th century, German spa resort towns became the centers of European bathing industry.
Today almost every German town has at least one Thermen – a public baths and swimming pool complex. The outcome -nearly 900 spa resorts, including mineral and mud spas, climatic health resorts (known for fresh air), sea-side resorts, and hydrotherapy spa resorts. These places are without a doubt the most advanced and sophisticated wellness business in the world.
There are a few essential differences between American and German spas. German spas have a more relaxed attitude towards nudity at the spa. The therapists don’t worry so much about elaborate draping techniques, and the saunas and steam baths are co-ed and nude. Usually there are many different saunas and steam baths with a range of temperatures and humidity, hot and cold plunge pools, scents and special lighting. Some are very elaborate – think igloo rooms, open fires you can warm your feet by, chamomile-scented steam rooms and a real live person to whip the air in the Finnish sauna – just to make it hotter. A good restaurant is a necessary feature of these complexes and an important part of the bathing tradition.
Roman balnea gave a name to what was soon to become the great tradition of Russian banya. With the name came the spirit – for Russian people banya was far more than a way to bathe. Banya accompanied people throughout all important events of their life, and, according to folklore, was a source of miraculous healing as well as the home of supernatural powers. Bannik, a wayward domestic goblin of Russian folklore, was thought to haunt a banya to ensure that the traditions of bathing were followed to the letter.
One of the earliest descriptions of banya is found in the Russian Primary Chronicle of 1113 describing the missionary work of Apostle Andrew among Slavs. He observed the curious bathing tradition of “lashing each other violently with young reeds”. In fact, that was the origin of the modern venik platza, a revitalizing and rejuvenating massage technique in which leaves of different trees are used in massage for a great therapeutic effect.
The combination of harsh climate and fearless character of people resulted in the creation of another adventurous bathing ritual.
This is how it was described by one of the travelers, Adamus Olearius, a German librarian, who visited Russia in the early 1600s, “It is most surprising thing to see them come out of such an intense degree of heat all of a sudden, and run into the cold water, or have it poured upon them; or in the winter wallow themselves in the snow, and so return into the stoves again”.
Banya was recognized as a public good in the young Russian empire. Peter the Great allowed every citizen of newly founded city St. Petersburg to build a banya free of taxes. Peter even instituted a special Chancellery of Banyas that would manage all public bathing facilities in the Russian capital. At the start of the 20th century, Russia boasted more than 300,000 banyas. William Took, a member of Emperor’s Academy of Sciences wrote in 1779 in his notes: “Russians only know several diseases and most of them they can cure by simple measures and a diet. Women give birth easily, infant mortality is extremely low in comparison to other countries… quite often Russians use banya instead of medicine. And there is no doubt that this is a key to their great health and long lives”.
Another English doctor, Edward Cantish, pointed out that a lot of serious diseases have a much lower mortality rate among Russians in comparison to Europeans. He explained this high resistance to diseases solely by frequent visits to banya. The personal doctor of Empress Elizabeth of Russia once said that he did not believe there is a single doctor who can reasonably doubt the great benefits of Russian banya.
The tradition of the extreme temperature contrast, the famous venik platza as well as its social aspect made banya the beloved topic of visitors to Russia. In 19th century Europe Russian culture in general and its steam baths were thought of with a hint of mystery and intrigue. Europeans were quick to connect the great strength and health of Russian people with their bathing traditions. Russian banya also served as the perfect middle ground between dry Finnish sauna and the extremely humid Turkish hammam.
The popularity of banyas grew consistently and even the King of Prussia was a regular client of the first Russian banya in Berlin that opened in 1818. As surprising as it may seem, Russian banya has been present on the northern US Pacific Coast for more than 200 years. First introduced by Russian colonists in the end of the 18th century, the banya tradition still remains and important part of life for many people in Alaska.
For peoples around the world, fire and heat always contained a connection to the other world, a realm of supernatural creatures, and were therefore treated with great reverence. Apart from being a common attribute for different versions of hell, fire was also a symbol of power, vitality and rejuvenation. This might be one of the reasons sweat houses were treated as shrines in a number of cultural traditions.
No doubt that healing effect of bathing also contributed to the deep respect for bathing. This is reflected in numerous myths: Finns believed that vapor coming from heated stones in sauna was the spirit of life, or Loyly, while some tribes of American Indians believed that this vapor is really Manitou, a friendly spirit that can penetrate the skins of bathers and defeat the disease.
Sweat, usually sweat of Gods — indirectly associated with fire and heat — acquired an important role in the creation of humankind. In Russian and Indian folklore, one can find takes of God creating Adam and Eve through drops of his sweat. A Bengali tale has a similar story: “Siva (the Hindu god) sweated and washed the sweat away with a piece of cloth. He threw the cloth away. Out of this a girl was born”.
One of the underlying reasons for this close connection of sweat to the realm of spirituality can be found in the rejuvenating effect of sweat bath. From this point of view, banya represents the Earth itself, a giving, grounded mother that is able to free a human from all impurities. Thus, exiting banya is metaphorically linked to the idea of rebirth.
Moreover, banyas, saunas and childbirth were literally connected in many cultures. In fact, Finnish and Russian women usually gave birth in bathing houses in order to be in the presence of benevolent spirits that were believed to alleviate pain and protect the mother and child.
Rite of passage for Thomson Indians of British Columbia involved a boy entering the sweat bath and praying to “sweat bathing Grandfather Chief” for strength, agility and bravery — much needed for hunters and fishermen of his tribe.
Overall, these myths about sweat baths were based on people’s real-life experience. Without any knowledge of bacteria and viruses, people attributed symptoms of a disease to the influence of malicious spirits and demons. Therefore, supernatural beings of sweat baths became a manifestation, a mental projection of that very real healing effect that sweating and heat had and still has on human health.