Monday, 19 December 2016

Fulacht fiadh - sweat lodge?

Some fulacht fiadh reconstructions, such as the one at Ballyvourney, include circular, hut-type structures based on the post holes found at the sites. One theory is that these small buildings on site were used as sweat houses. This theory was based on:

1. In Irish legends, Fulachta Fiadh were not just described as "the cooking place of the Fianna" (Fianna - small, semi-independent warrior bands in Irish mythology). They were also said to have been used by Fianna for bathing. 

2. Ireland has a very long tradition of sweat houses which are in Ireland called "Tigh 'n Alluis" meaning houses of sweat.

Traditionally the Tigh 'n Alluis was built in the form of beehive huts made of dry-stone walls covered in clay and turf, with seats within which were covered with straw or grassy sods upon which the subject sat or lay. It usually had a small opening in the roof and a low doorway, both were covered by flag-stones when the subjects were inside.

The Sweat House was heated by a variety of means, most commonly by igniting a large peat fire in the hut’s centre and clearing the ashes before entering. The fire would heat the stone walls which would then radiate the heat towards the inside of the hut. Another method was by heating bricks, which were carried into the house in a creel in which herbs had been placed, especially when inhalation was a part of the cure.

This description of the use of sweat houses is taken from ‘Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland’ by W.G. Wood-Martin:

"When men used it as many as six or eight stripped off and went in, when all openings were closed except what afforded a little ventilation. A person remained outside to attend to these matters. When they could suffer the heat no longer, the flag was removed, and they came out and plunged in a pool of water within a yard or two of the sweat-house, where they washed, got well-rubbed and put on their clothes. In case of women, they put on a bathing dress whilst using the bath, and generally omitted the plunge…"

Another description of the Gaelic sweat houses and their use can be found in the book "A smaller social history of ancient Ireland, treating of the government, military system, and law; religion, learning, and art; trades, industries, and commerce; manners, customs, and domestic life, of the ancient Irish people" by Joyce, P. W. (Patrick Weston):

"The hot-air or vapour bath was well known in Ireland, and was used as a cure for rheumatism down to a few years ago. It was probably in use from old times; and the masonry of the Inishmurray sweating-house, represented opposite, has all the appearance—as Mr. Wakeman remarks—of being as old as any of the other primitive buildings in the island. The structures in which these baths were given are known by the name of Tigh 'n alluis [Teenollish], 'sweating-house' (allus, 'sweat'). They are still well known in the northern parts of Ireland—small houses, entirely of stone, from five to seven feet long inside, with a low little door through which one must creep: always placed remote from habitations: and near by is commonly a pool or tank of water four or five feet deep. They were used in this way. A great fire of turf was kindled inside till the house became heated like an oven; after which the embers and ashes were swept out, and water was splashed on the stones, which produced a thick warm vapour. Then the person, wrapping himself in a blanket, crept in and sat down on a bench of sods, after which the door was closed up. He remained there an hour or so till he was in a profuse perspiration: and then creeping out, plunged right into the cold water, after emerging from which he was well rubbed till he became warm. After several baths at intervals of some days he commonly got cured. Persons are still living who used these baths or saw them used."

Knowing this, it easy to see how the theory that the fulachta fiadh were used as sweat houses - baths could have sprang forward.

In the "Cois tSiuire – Nine Thousand years of Human Activity in the Lower Suir Valley" by Eogan, J. and Shee Twohig we can see this reconstruction of a Fulacht fiadh used as a sweat house.

On the above artist's depiction of a fulacht fiadh used as a sweat house, you can see the low domed yurt type hut full of people. On the left if the hearth where stones are heated. These stones are then brought into the hut to create heat. In front of the hut is the through used as a plunge pool. Again I have to repeat, that only throughs cut into a well drained dry soil, or into the reiver bank or a beach could have been used as plunge pools. It is quite possible that the fulacht fiadh through found on the Coney island could have been used as a bath.

You definitely don't want to lay into a through cut into a marshy boggy soil which is full of acidic bog water...

Anyway, the hut on the above depiction of the fulacht fiadh looks very much like the "inipi" sweat house used by Native American.

This is a short instruction how to build this type of sweat lodge hut.

Building the "inipi" sweat lodge frame

The average sweat lodge hut has a diameter of about 9 feet. This is why. You need to dig a pit two feet in diameter in the center of the lodge. This is where the hot rocks are placed to heat the hut. You then need to be able to sit cross legged facing the hot rocks at about 2 feet from the rocks. Add about 5 feet for sitting area, enough for a person sitting cross legged leaning against the wall. You end up with 9 feet.

Use a short sharpened stick and stick it into the ground. This is the center of your hut. Attach a string to it. Stretch the string two feet from the stick. Attach another smaller sharpened stick (drawing stick) to the string and draw a circle two feet in diameter. This is where the hot rock pit will be dug later. Stretch the string another 5 feet. Reattach the drawing stick to the string and draw a circle 9 feet in diameter. This is where the hut wall will go. A nine foot diameter lodge will seat twelve people comfortably.

The frame can be made from willow or hazel, but any sapling will do. You need about 12 saplings with about two inches in diameter each. After the saplings are cut, the branches need to be removed and the bottoms need to be sharpened. Stick the sharpened ends into the ground at an equal distance around the drawn outer wall circle, leaving an opening for the doorway. You have to make sure the saplings are embedded deep enough into the ground so they hold firm when they are bent and tied together to form the domed frame. The bend of the sapling should allow for a large man to sit comfortably. Don’t build your lodge too tall or it will be difficult to heat. Bind the opposite saplings together to form arches and then tie the arches together to form a dome. To strengthen and reinforce the hut structure, weave sapling horizontally between the upright saplings and tie them together. The procedure is as if you are building a large upturned basket.

Covering the "inipi" sweat lodge

Originally the Native American sweat lodge huts were covered with hides, then blankets and then with hides again. This combination of materials provides both thermal insulation and is water resistant. Today you can use any combination of the materials with the same characteristics: plastic sheets, tarps, blankets...

The bottoms of the covers should lay on the ground for about a foot. Pile rocks on the bottoms, all around the sweat lodge. This is to seal the bottom up from drafts. You can make the door from several folded blankets wider than the opening.

Using the "inipi" sweat lodge

In order to turn the hut into a sweat lodge, you need red hot rocks. For the 9 feed diameter hut probably about 20 - 30 red hot rocks. Rocks are heated on the pyre burning in the fire pit which should be built facing the hut entrance. Like this one in the picture below.

The sides of the fire pit are covered with the rocks from previous sweats. They are not reused because most get pretty cracked. As the fire pit is cleaned for the next heating of the stones, the ashes and coals are swept on the sides of the fire pit. Then the stones from the last sweat get piled on top. This results in the creation of a U shape burned mound just like the burned mounds in fulachta fiadh.

When the rocks are red hot, they are dragged into the hut using long forked sticks or carried using into the hut using a long handled pitchfork. There they are pushed into the hut's rock pit which is positioned in the center of the hut.

Once the rock pit is full of hot stones, people sit inside the hut around the stones and the entrance is covered with blankets. As the temperature inside the hut rises, people will begin to sweat. Water can be splashed over the hot rocks to produce steam and turn the hut from sauna into a steam room.

It is very important to note that the Native American sweat lodges are temporary structures which once dismantled would leave very little to no footprint, apart from the burned stones and hearths used for their heating. Add the through used as a plunge pool and you have the fulacht fiadh...

Also these sweat lodges can be made by a small group of people in several hours. Fianna, the people who supposedly build fulacha fiadh (or as they are also known fulachta fian) were in the Irish legends small, semi-independent warrior bands. It is believed that they are based on historical bands of landless young men in early medieval Ireland known as kerns. Geoffrey Keating, in his 17th-century History of Ireland, says that during the winter the fianna were quartered and fed by the nobility, during which time they would keep order on their behalf, but during the summer, from Beltaine to Samhain, they were obliged to live by hunting for food and for pelts to sell.

So these hunting bands would set into the wilderness in May and would, once reaching their hunting grounds, need a place to rest, recuperate, clean up. And the "inipi" type sweat lodge plus a through serving as a plunge pool or a bath is easy and quick to make and run and is ideal for a hunting party which stays in one place for a week and then moves on. These hunting parties probably moved following rivers as the easiest ways to travel through thick forests. And they would probably follow the same route through their hunting grounds every year, camping at the same camp grounds and reusing the old sweat lodges year after year. After several years the amount of burned stones would accumulate to the point where we would see appearance of characteristic "burned mounds".

Now what is interesting to note that the Native Americans who built "inipi" sweat lodges, used exactly the same technique to build their lodgings, huts used for living. The Native Americans called these types of huts wigwam, wickiup or wetu.

This type of domed, round shelter was used by many different Native American cultures. 

This is Apache wickiup

This is Ojibwe wigwam

These videos show how to make a wigwam using primitive tools:

The rock pit in the center of the inipi sweat lodge became a fireplace in the center of the wigwam. The seating area along the wall used for sitting in the inipi sweat lodge, became sitting and sleeping area in the wigwam.  

What is very interesting is that some Irish archaeologists suggested that the Irish round houses didn't, as is commonly accepted, look like this:

 but that they were actually wigwam shaped domed structures. 

Here is a reconstructing a Late Bronze Age dwelling based on the continuous beehive basket weave method put forward by Damien Goodburn of the museum of London.
The layout of the dwelling is based on structure 12 which was excavated during the Ballyhoura hills project in Ireland. The basket walls were made from hazel coppice, young offshoots of the hazel tree which are ideal for basket weaving and are with willow coppice the best material for making baskets. To finish the shelter, you would proceed by covering the basket frame with some kind of waterproof material. 

But basically they could have been just build using the above described wigwam construction technique, which is identical to the the technique used for making sweat lodges, which is the same technique used for making wigwams. 

Please note how these huts look almost identical in shape to the "Tigh 'n Alluis" Irish sweat houses just made from different material....

Now interestingly the translation of "inipi" is actually not "sweat lodge". The actual translation is "The way we live" or "We live" or "A shelter which can be both a sweat lodge and a spiritual place and a lodging and a living place....".


Remember how fulacht fiadh were also called fulacht fían? Well the word fían does mean "a warrior" and "a hunter" and "hunt" but the word fían also means "bedding, cover" and "a hunting-bothy", "a hut made of branches or similar construction in a forest or wild spot, an improvised shelter".

Maybe something like this Mesolithic Ertebolle culture hunters hut perhaps?

Maybe Fiana hunting camp looked something like this:

It's easy to make, functional shelter used world over for millenniums...


Regardless what the permanent Irish bronze age houses looked like, is it possible that the hunter warrior gangs, like Fianna, built fulacha fiadh as their temporary campaign camps, consisting of a group of wigwam type huts plus a through, plus pit ovens? We have seen that these types of shelters are extremely easy to make. And that once built they could be used as lodgings, storage rooms and sweat lodges. Everything hunters and warriors on the campaign need in a camp. We also saw that these huts can be heated by fire-heated stones or hearths. And that once dismantled, they would leave very little trace behind except for hearths and mounds of burned stones. 

Is this what fulachta fiadh were? 

Interestingly, there is a place in Europe where we still find a particular type of temporary shelters which are built by soldiers, hunters and travelers on campaigns, which are very similar in construction to wigwams or inipis, which are heated by fire heated stones, and which are used as sweat and steam rooms...A permanent version of this temporary shelter was until very recently used both as a dwelling and as sweat and steam room. 

I will talk about this in my next post.

1 comment:

  1. The similarities between Old World and New World sweat lodges suggest that go back to the Eurasian Paleolithic.