A History of the Scandinavian Spa

A History of the Scandinavian Spa

Scandinavia is renowned for its long, cold, dark winters.  Getting through these requires mental and physical strength.  It’s therefore hardly a surprise that Scandinavia is also renowned for its emphasis on self-care.  Scandinavian spas have long played an important role in this. Here is a history of the Scandinavian spas.

The original Scandinavian spas
For many people, the phrase “Scandinavian spa” effectively means “sauna”.  There’s a lot of truth in this.  Saunas were the original Scandinavian spas.  They are still hugely important today.  Nobody knows exactly when or where saunas were invented, let alone by whom.  Saunas were, however, definitely around in Northern Europe by about 2000 BC.

A History of the Scandinavian Spa
Vidalux sauna 2 person full spectrum

Saunas for survival
Modern saunas are used to enhance health and wellness.  In the early days of their existence, however, they were used to help people survive.  The original saunas were essentially tents made out of animal skins.  They were places for people to live, often together with animals.

During the day, a fire was kept burning underneath a pile of rocks.  At night, when the fire went out, the stones continued to warm the tent.  People learned to pour water onto the rocks to make steam.  This made the tents even warmer and cosier.

Although the main benefit of these early saunas was heat, they also helped to promote cleanliness.  Even in the 21st century, steam is regarded as being one of the best cleaners there is.  This cleanliness (by the standards of the time) helped to keep people healthy.  It also provided a relatively sanitary environment for activities such as childbirth.

A History of the Scandinavian Spa
People began to make the connection between the atmosphere in the sauna and their health and wellness. Photo: Ron Lach/Pexels

Related: All You Need to Know About the Scandinavian Sauna Culture

The development of the sauna
As human civilization developed, the sauna developed along with it.  Dwellings improved but for a long time they remained dependent on saunas for heat.  People began to make the connection between the atmosphere in the sauna and their health and wellness.  It was far too early for this connection to be validated by science but it was grasped by the public.

The basic principle of the sauna spread far and wide, literally across the world.  Its precise implementation varied from place to place.  In some locations it was a sweat lodge, in others a public bathhouse.  The underlying concept, however, was always essentially the same.  There was heat and water and at some point in the experience, these were usually combined to create steam.

Scandinavian spas by country
Over time, the basic practice of having a sauna developed into a more formalised health and wellness experience.  As it did so, different parts of Scandinavia developed their own individual variations of it.  Here is a quick guide to Scandinavia spas by country.

A History of the Scandinavian Spa
A typical thermal bath experience will involve taking dips in hot, cold and scented pools. Phoyo: YouTube

Modern Norway still has saunas but nowadays thermal baths are more popular.  Since Norway does not really have natural hot springs, thermal baths tend to be public facilities.  They are often provided at hotels and spas.  A typical thermal bath experience will involve taking dips in hot, cold and scented pools.  These may be indoors or outdoors.

Related: World’s Largest Sauna – In Norway

Another key part of the Scandinavian spa experience in Norway is “friluftsliv”.  This is often translated as “forest bathing” although it doesn’t have to involve forests or even trees.  It simply means getting out and about in the fresh air.  The benefits of this have been recognized in Norway for hundreds of years.  Science is now catching up with them.

A History of the Scandinavian Spa
Swedish educator Pehr Henrik Ling is often considered the father of Swedish massage (and modern gymnastics). Photo: Wikimedia commons

Sweden is another country that prefers thermal baths to saunas.  What Sweden is really famous for, however, is Swedish massage.  Swedish educator Pehr Henrik Ling is often considered the father of Swedish massage (and modern gymnastics).  He did not exactly invent it but he did study, prove and publicise its benefits.

Today, Swedish massage is available all over the world.  In fact, it’s considered an essential skill for many health-and-wellness professionals.  Its spiritual home, however, remains in its native Sweden.

Related: Sweden’s New Floating Sauna Hotel

Swedish massage stimulates the body’s systems.  It therefore encourages the delivery of oxygen and nutrients and the removal of waste.  It also eases any tension in the muscles and helps the mind to relax.

A History of the Scandinavian Spa
Saunagus at Scandic Amager strand. Photo: Gusmaster.dk

Up until relatively recently, saunas were fairly niche in Denmark.  Over recent years, however, the sauna has been making a major comeback.  Its use, however, is very different from established sauna practice in neighbouring countries.  Instead, it’s been driven by the practice of saunagus.

This actually originated in Germany (where it’s known as Aufguss) but has become popular in and popularised by Denmark.  Saunagus combines elements of a traditional sauna with aromatherapy and mindfulness.  It’s been practised in Denmark since the late 19th century but only really went mainstream fairly recently.

Even though saunagus is becoming increasingly popular, it’s still nowhere near as popular as Denmark’s two major wellness trends, hygge and winter swimming.  Hygge is the principle of cherishing simple acts and small pleasures.  These can and often do involve spa experiences, particularly home spa experiences such as having a bath or even a shower.

Winter swimming is one of Denmark’s oldest wellness traditions (although it’s practised in other countries as well).  It’s long been believed that it stimulates the body and the mind.  Science now agrees.  Scientists have studied the effect of cold on the body and agree that it can be stimulating.  In particular, it can boost the production of white blood cells.  These are the cells that fight off infection.

A History of the Scandinavian Spa
People insaide sauna in Lahti. Photo: Julia Kievala/Visit Finland

Honourable mentions to Finland and Iceland
Neither Finland nor Iceland is a part of Scandinavia.  It would, however, be unfair to finish an article on wellness traditions in Scandinavia without an honourable mention of them.  Finland is widely regarded as the home of the sauna.  The country is certainly the sauna’s spiritual home and has done a lot to keep the tradition of the sauna relevant to a modern world.

Iceland may well have provided the inspiration for the thermal baths that are now so popular in Norway and Sweden.  Unlike Scandinavia, Iceland is famously blessed with hot springs.  These have been popular with residents throughout the entirety of human history.  They are now a major tourist attraction.  It helps that they’re famously full of minerals and often come with great views!

A History of the Scandinavian Spa
Andrew Ellis

A History of the Scandinavian Spa, written exclusively for Daily Scandinavian by Andrew Ellis. Ellis is the owner of Steam Shower Store. Andrew is an avid sauna user, wellness enthusiast and a leading expert and an extremely well-respected voice in his field having been published and featured in many leading publications.

Feature image (on top) © Pixabay