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The secrets of Löyly – the meaning, the history, and what makes the perfect löyly!
by Miika Vanhapiha – a real Finnish sauna connoisseur!
What makes an authentic Finnish sauna?
Finnic people have a long tradition of bathing in saunas. Their sauna culture is rich, and saunas are an integral part of the way of life in Finland. For many Finns, going to sauna is not just about relaxing and getting physically clean, but also about being enjoyably silent and still for a while. Often Finns feel that sauna is a special space, where even spiritual aspects of life can be felt, observed, and mused over. Sauna is also an egalitarian place, where titles and hierarchies disappear. For many decades business and politics have also taken place in Finnish sauna. The heat and relaxation of the sauna makes anything but being open and honest, a difficult task.
The heart of sauna is its ´kiuas´, or sauna stove/heater. Traditional saunas have wood burning stoves, but these days’ electric heaters are also popular, especially in the cities. While electric kiuas stoves are nice and easy to use, most Finns would agree however, that wood burning kiuas have the best feeling, delivering the truly authentic sauna experience. These stoves have an enclosed space for burning firewood (like any traditional stove), and on top (and often the sides) of the stove structure, the olivine diabase sauna stones are placed. Similarly, sauna stones are placed in the electric stoves, around a heating element.
Most Finns feel that the act of heating up sauna is part of the overall sauna experience. Preparing leafy, fragrant boughs of silver birch, making firewood, carrying or otherwise preparing the water, and lighting the fire are all seen as important but fundamentally relaxing tasks. As the sauna room is slowly warming up, it feels like it is coming to life.
What does löyly mean?
The Finnish word ´löyly´ is the name for the evaporating hot steam that rises from ´kiuas´ stoves after water has been carefully thrown on top of them. It is precisely this löyly that turns sauna space into hot and humid paradise, capable of slowly relaxing even the most tense muscles and worried minds. Often Finns discuss different saunas they have enjoyed, and the most frequent question asked is, "Was the löyly any good?" While various technical aspects of sauna affect the löyly (like the quality of kiuas, stone capacity of the kiuas, size and shape of the sauna room, quality/type of firewood, amount of water thrown etc.), it often seems that best löylys result from something that cannot quite be described. Due to the somewhat esoteric nature of the term, it is worthwhile to stop and take a look at old Finnish traditions and folk beliefs.
What is the origin of the word löyly?
According to old Finnic spirituality, all humans have at least three souls or three parts to their soul. These are ´itse´ (self), ´luonto´ (nature), and ´löyly´. Yes, you noticed... The last one is our familiar löyly, which is used to denote ´life force´ of any living thing. You and I, we all have this löyly according to ancient Finnic faith, and if we lose it, we die. Hence, while the self (itse) and nature (luonto) souls take care of things like personality, charisma, luck and so on, löyly is the one we depend on for dear life. It makes our hearts pump, our blood flow, our bodies warm and so on.
In Finnic tradition, this idea of life force is anthropomorphically extended to saunas as well, so as we throw water onto the hot kiuas stones, what rises up is the life force of sauna itself, the healing löyly of gods, which is often called the "sweat of Väinämöinen". He is one of the three creator gods of ancient Finnic mythology, a wise and old shaman-like figure. No wonder the question "How was the löyly?" is a loaded one for Finns, and always stirs up long discussion and detailed analysis.
Good löylys to all!