People have been using some form of a sauna since ancient times. Steam baths were the cornerstone of Greco-Roman civilisation and for centuries the Native Americans purged their bodies of sickness in sweathouses across North America. Bathhouses were among the first buildings erected by the Ottoman Turks when they occupied Budapest and modern-day Finns would probably rather endure a life without alcohol than one without a good sauna.
Steam seems to have been an integral part of many cultures throughout history and the Latvians and their ancestors were no strangers to its ‘magical’ properties. The pirts, as a sauna is known in Latvian, served not only as a washing facility and temporary smokehouse for meat and sausages, but also as a birthplace for many Latvian babies in years gone by. The warmest and cleanest structure on a Latvian farm was also the location where mother and baby celebrated the pirtīžas ritual. Although we won’t delve too deeply into the pagan past, suffice it to say that it was the first time that mother and child washed together and symbolic acts were performed to ensure the health and prosperity of the two.
Today, in the sanitary, politically correct EU you’d probably have your child taken away for doing as the ancients did. To many Europeans, accustomed to a day at a gym or a spa, a sauna now consists of a cedar or birch lined closet with a glass door and an electric stove with volcanic rocks inside. Although this watered-down experience is fine for most people, Northern Europeans like the Latvians will tell you that the real McCoy is much better.