Smoke sauna tradition

South Estonian smoke sauna tradition, UNESCO cultural heritage, reconnects generations.

Smoke sauna, a sacred place tied to the life cycle of rural people for centuries, reconnects generations in South Estonia.

The ancestral cultural heritage is ever more captivating for people searching for their roots in today’s globalizing world. How to find clues to your people’s identity and values passed on for centuries through oral tradition? In South Estonia, smoke sauna practices, documented by photographer Andres Treial over several years, offer one possibility.

There are an estimated 3000 smoke saunas in South Estonia, both old and recently built ones. Community elders advise younger people how to build, heat, and use a smoke sauna. Smoke sauna was a sacred place for our ancestors as it was tied to a person’s entire life cycle: from child-making and birth to consecrating all essential life events, and finally to passage from this world.

A smoke sauna was traditionally built in a specific place on a farm and regarded as a gate, a portal from this world to the next. It was a place to communicate with ancestors and ask for their advice. Ritual whisking consecrated important undertakings, ended one period of life and started a new one. Every region and family developed its own sauna rituals but sweat bathing was often divided into three parts: cleansing, healing, and expressing gratitude.

Still alive in Old Võromaa, South Estonia, and inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2014, the smoke sauna tradition refers to a culture shared by all peoples of the northern temperate zone nearly 3000–4000 years ago. Smoke sauna was believed to purify both the body and the soul, being in everyday use also for other purposes, such as meat smoking. It continues to deliver these functions in South Estonia, reconnecting generations.

Building a smoke sauna

Characterized by a log house, absence of a chimney, and an open fireplace for heating the steam stones, smoke sauna is used in South Estonia all year round. Preparing sauna is more complicated in winter, but the more invigorating it is to jump into an ice hole or wallow in the snow after whisking in the heat.

Smoke saunas are traditionally built as log houses in South Estonia, but there are also a few stone saunas and cave saunas. Building a smoke sauna was traditionally started in a dry period during waning moon to ensure that the sauna would be strong and good. Logs were fastened with wooden pegs instead of nails, and stuffed with moss.

Going to sauna involves the entire family. Typically, men steam bathe first and women with kids after them – it’s simply too hot for them at first. People usually go to smoke sauna wrapped in a plaid or towel, leaving most clothes in the house. Traditional sauna beverages have been water, birch sap, some sourish drink, or kvass, and ever more often beer.

Smoke sauna is also used for smoking meat and drying barley malt, herbs, onions and sheep wool. For getting a fresh smoked meat, it takes two days to ripen in a smoke sauna. Before smoking, meat is salted for 5–7 days.

This content is provided for the National Geographic Magazine Estonia (July 2021).

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