Banya in a Symbolic World

Previous Banya Journal articles were dedicated to exploring the scientific rationale for banya. We focused on HGH, dynorphin, and heat shock proteins. We talked about principles and protocols, attempting to do what most modern writing on well-being-related topics tends to do: convince and explain through science. This reflects how we live today – fully committed to Enlightenment rationality, reason, and logic. At least, this is how we want to see ourselves.

In a spirit of scientific investigation, next time you are in a meeting with a potential client and you feel like you want to stretch your legs, try the following: without explanation, asking for permission, or prior warning, put your feet on the table and continue the conversation as if nothing happened. In fact, why should anyone be bothered by it? You felt that you needed to stretch your legs, and you did. Nothing to talk about; let’s get back to convincing your potential new client how your services will boost their quarterly profits.

That is, of course, ridiculous. Most people would consider this behavior disrespectful, impolite, a breach of protocol, and yet… won’t bother explaining why. Culture sets rules, and putting your feet on the table somehow breaks some of them. Period.

We often stop short of explaining cultural norms because most of them were created by people who perceived reality differently. These rules were born from a traditional worldview, a highly symbolic way to see the reality that escapes our rationalist explanations. According to this worldview, every action, everything, and everyone is turned into a symbol that contains a multitude of meanings, which, in turn, exist within multiple narratives. There is no distinction between sacred and profane – everything is both all the time, and nothing is accidental. So, the shoes aren’t just shoes, the meeting isn’t just a meeting, and the table is not just a table. In this worldview, the table divides the living space into two planes: one closer to the ground and underworld and another one – oriented towards the sky. Mixing them has always been a taboo, a way to introduce chaos into the ordered system. The traditional worldview sees the world as a text that needs to be read and interpreted.

What will you do if this little buddy crosses the road in front of you?

No matter how much we want to pretend that we evolved away from it, this view of the world lives within us. I had a highly educated Ph.D. tell me not to put keys on the table (bad luck). I make a funny face in the mirror every time I come home to pick up something I forgot (also to avoid bad luck). Otherwise rational people, swayed by scientific arguments, engage in daily rituals, are superstitious, interpret dreams, and go to the Burning Man. Whether we care to admit it or not, we see the world as a collection of symbols that convey meaning that is beyond rational.

The Burning Man ritual

Banya as Anti-Home

Banya was born in this symbolic world and came to occupy an exceptional place in it. By the expression of Russian ethnographer Dmirty Baranov, this place is that of an “anti-home,” a threshold, a meeting place between our world and the world beyond. It is a place of transformation, where one washes off the dirt (therefore, an “unclean” place), but also a place where one becomes clean. Interestingly, “the dirt” in many traditional cultures did not have the negative meaning we give it today. Dirtiness was a sign of life, while sterile cleanliness was reserved for the dead. According to one strange Russian custom, a newborn had to be wrapped for a few minutes in dad’s dirty trousers (for a boy) or mother’s skirt (for a girl), bringing them to the world of the living.

In Russian villages, banya was the only place made for humans that did not have the “red corner,” a collection of sacred objects, mainly icons, that every Russian house had to have. Built from a different type of wood than a typical house (mainly aspen that was considered to be “an evil tree”; you’d also use it to kill vampires, by the way), the place was not under the protection of God. It was a dangerous portal into the supernatural world, populated by spiritual entities. Because of that, it had to be highly ritualized and regulated since the more dangerous the place was, the more taboos there had to exist to protect a human entering it.

Banya Spirits

Traditional worldview populates the world with spirits. They are in every river and lake, in your house, and in household items (Japanese folklore, for instance, has a spirit of the bottle gourd called Hyotan-kozo). Life in such a world is a negotiation between yourself and “something else.” You reach agreements about how to live, as opposed to mastering and conquering the world as we do today.

Banya, the border between the worlds, has its own spirit. It’s called bannik and is known to be one of the most horrifying in Russian folklore. Its northern version, “obderikha” (“the one who tears”), is known to rip the skin and hair of people for disobeying banya rules. Anthropologists recorded multiple stories about “obderikha” burning people’s bodies on the hot stones leaving only skin and hair to hang from the ceiling for going to banya alone after sunset.

Bannik, the spirit of banya.

The quality of banya that made it a portal in another world made it indispensable in all rituals that required transition from one state to another assisted by the supernatural: birth, marriage, death, as well as healing and magic.

Ritual of Birth

In Russian folk tradition, people don’t speak of “birth.” The word itself is banned. Even when a husband calls a midwife to assist in childbirth, the term cannot be uttered; instead, he would say that his wife “broke her leg.” The children are thought to come from the supernatural world, and therefore they are not “born”; they are “found” or “brought.”

The meeting of the mother and child happens in the supernatural environment of banya. When a woman goes to banya to give birth, she is seen as embarking on a long, arduous journey. It is seen not as a journey that takes you far away from home but as one characterized by obstacles and difficulties.

After giving birth, the child is splashed with water to wash off the signs of the other world. The mother would stay in banya with her child for three days, with only a few (themselves mothers) being allowed to visit her and bring food (usually sour and salty, to wake her taste senses back to life). The mother and child are considered “steamed” or soft, not yet hardened by human reality; the transition back requires time.

Mother on a journey to meet her child.

By the way, this particular ritual is easy to rationally explain. The warm and humid banya eases the transition for a child – think about the current interest in water birth with a similar aim.

Ritual of Marriage

Before marriage became about signing papers and partying, it was another transitional ritual. The bride had to become a wife, which required a symbolic death of a girl to be reborn as a married woman. The veil that today’s brides consider to be a fashion accessory was there to make her unseen and prevent her from seeing others, hence resembling a spirit (by the way, the white color of the bride’s dress is another reference to death and morning as it was used to cover the body of the deceased).

In the Russian tradition, the bride sings laments, a mixture of a song, chant, and sorrowful crying, often rocking back and forth, bringing her into a trance. She starts violently shaking, crying, and smashing anything she can reach. When anthropologists interviewed women who went through this ritual, they found out that they could only remember it if they re-entered the same trance state.

Preparing for the wedding (1884). This painting by Konstanin Makovsky is on display in Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco.

Then, the bride is brought to the banya, often by a village sorcerer. Before the entrance, he drags her arms in different directions, symbolizing the tearing apart of her physical body. In the supernatural space of banya, she is splashed with water, washing away her girlhood and symbolically bringing her back to life. She emerges from the banya transformed; she is now considered a married woman.

Ritual of Death

It is easy to relate to the idea that death is a breach of the established order. Perhaps, because of it, in the traditional Russian culture, death was considered to be liminal and thus dangerous for everyone around. The dead aren’t “here” anymore but aren’t “there” either. In this situation, the ritual becomes especially important to bring back order to the life of the family.

Therefore, the ritual related to death is focused on sending the dead to the other world and necessarily included banya. The deceased is brought to the banya and washed. Just as the newborn was washed to clear out the signs of the other world, the deadman is washed to remove the dirt, the symbol of life.

Medicine and Magic

The sickness is seen as a version of death – chaos entering people’s lives. To expel the chaos and restore order, one has to cast it back into the other world, which can only be done in banya. The Russian people used several tools to treat people in banya – herbs, massage, and… magic.

Banya was also a place where magical skills could be transferred. Anthropologist Dmitry Baranov recalled the following instruction from the village sorcerer in northern Russia: If you want to acquire supernatural powers, enter banya at midnight, and turn towards the benches. There you will see a frog (often representing wisdom and knowledge in folklore). You need to quickly swallow it. In other areas, the instructions differed: the frog was said to inflate and eventually swallow you. No matter who swallows whom, you emerge a sorcerer.

With such ties to magic, there is no wonder why banya is considered to be a perfect place for fortunetelling. Young women run into the banya at midnight and grab pieces of coal. Then, they have to run out and examine those pieces. If the coal is coarse, she will get a rich husband; the smooth coal is a sign of poverty. However, there is a caveat: the last girl to exit the banya will die within a year. Crossing the border into the other world to see the future comes with risks.

Another fortunetelling ritual. You see your future in between two mirrors if you stare without blinking.

This worldview may seem impossible to experience and relate to for us today. But although these traditions may seem bizarre, they were shaped over centuries by people like us, who were trying to negotiate a way to live in a world they did not understand. They explained the world in a way that, although objectively untrue, was practically aligned with reality. We inherited these traditions from our cultural ancestors. They are still alive in our minds, no matter how much we want to pretend of the opposite.

The symbolic view of the world reigned in the chaos but always left a not-so-secret door to the other side of reality. In Russian culture, this door was the door of banya.

If you are a Russian speaker, I strongly recommend watching the full interview of Dmitry Baranov, referenced in this article.