Monday, 30 January 2017


In my post "Fulacht fiadh - sweat lodge" I proposed that fulachta fiadh could have been seasonal temporary campaign camps built by Fianna hunting bands, and that they consisted of wigwam type shelters which could have been used as both lodgings and steam rooms.

At the end of that article I said that, 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...

That place is Western Russia, Ukraine, Belarus where the same type of temporary travel "sweat lodges" are still made today and are known as "походная баня" (pokhodnaya banya) meaning "hiking bathhouse".

This is a type of temporary sweat lodges, very popular among the Russian military, mountaineers, hunters and other people who travel for extended periods in harsh environments. It consists of a stone oven set up in a small makeshift tent. Hiking banyas are usually made near a lakeshore or riverbank where many big, round stones are available to build the banya's oven and there is plenty of cool water available for bathing. Large stones are made into a dome-shaped circular oven, one meter in diameter and a half to one meter in height so that there is space left on the inside to make a large fire. Firewood is burned for several hours in this improvised stove until the stones on the surface of the pile become so hot that water poured on them turns into steam. Around the pile, a space is tarped to form a small tent and the banya is ready when it becomes very hot inside. Fresh twig tips can be cut from nearby birch or oak trees and a bath broom called venik can be made and used for sprinkling the hot oven stones with water and for massage.

Bathers using banya can take turns cooling off in the ice-cold river or lake water.

Here are some examples of makeshift "hiking banya" sweat lodges. You can see that all they are basically a very flimsy makeshift huts built over a stone oven.

These Russian videos shows how to make banja stone oven from stones found on a beach:

How to make banja video 1
How to make banja video 2
How to make banja video 3 (and how to use it)
How to make banja video 4

On this great web page you can see pohodnaja banya made in the old style with the cover made from evergreen branches:

Couple of things to note. As you can see from the above pictures the "hiking banya" sweat lodges are extremely easy to make and a single person can put one together in less than an hour. Once you have the frame in place you can use whatever you have at hand as the cover: hides, blankets, tarp, plastic sheet or evergreen or broad leaf branches. Once you make the oven that is. This oven is basically a corbelled roof dry stone dome.

If you want to heat large number of stones, this is the most efficient way to do it. Because the fire is burning inside the stone oven, under the stone dome, and because the hot gases produced by the combustion rise, there is no heat waste. Almost all the heat produced by burning wood inside this type of oven gets absorbed by the stones and then is radiated out long after the fire has gone out. A stone oven heated by the burning fire for 3 hours will radiate heat for 12 hours after the fire is note out. This is incredibly efficient way of heating. Compare this with a hearth which becomes stone cold as soon as the fire is out. Also because the fire is completely contained inside the oven there is no danger that it can spread to its surrounding. This allows these ovens to be positioned next to the walls of the huts even if these walls are made of flammable material like wood.

Now imagine if you wanted to make a permanent banya. A village banya. You would instead of a makeshift shelter make a more permanent shelter, a wooden hut maybe, a log cabin. In my post about log cabins i explained that it was Central European Slavs who inherited the tradition of building log cabins from Central European Celts. The Slavs then passed this building tradition to the Scandinavians during the middle ages. So if Slavs wanted to make a permanent banya, they made a log cabin like this one:

And then inside they built a corner stone stove, just like the one from pohodnaya banya. Like this one.

And this is exactly what the oldest and the most traditional type of banya known to have been used in Slavic countries looked like. The original village banyas were detached, low-lying wooden structures (log cabins) heated by a corner stove which was made of large round stones. Once the stones are heated, the fire was put out, the ashes were removed and smoke was let out before the bathing began.  Hence the soot covered blackened interior and the term "black bathhouses" ("chernaia banya" or "Баня по-черному").

Here is the black bathhouse while the stove is being heated. You can see the smoke bellowing out through the open door.

And here is the interior of the black bathhouse. It's black :)

After the hut was aired, the door was closed. The super heated stones would radiate the heat and the inside of the hut would soon reach temperatures as high as the 90 degrees Celsius. People would come in and would sit naked on benches in the dry heat (sauna) or would splash water on stones creating steam (steam room). They even took stones from the top of the stove and used them to heat water in large wooden throughs which were then used for bathing...

The banya tradition is extremely old in Slavic lands. No one really knows how old. But if we are to believe Radzivill Chronicle, preserved as a 15th-century copy of a 13th-century original, banya was in wide use in Kieavan Rus in the 10th century AD. In this manuscript we find the story of Princess Olga's revenge for the murder of her husband, Prince Igor. Prince Igor was killed by the Slavic tribe of Drevlians in 945 AD. The leader of the Drevlians had hopes of marrying the widow Olga and sent messengers to discuss the idea. 

"When the Drevlians arrived, Olga commanded that a bath should be made ready for them and said, 'Wash yourselves and come to me.' The bath-house was heated and the unsuspecting Drevlians entered and began to wash themselves. Olga's men closed the bath-house behind them and Olga gave orders to set it on fire from the doors, so that the Drevlians were all burned to death."

Now a lot of people would here say that banya was probably brought to the Slavic land by the Scandinavian Rus. After all banya is a type of sauna and "everyone knows" that sauna is a Finish invention which was then adopted by the Scandinavians, who then brought this custom with them when they invaded the the Slavic land. Right? I would dare say wrong...

The sauna in Finland is an old phenomenon but it is difficult to trace its roots. Finnish bathing habits were poorly documented until the 16th century. This is substantially later than the above mention of banyas in the Kievan Russ. Did Fins use saunas earlier than the 16th century? Maybe. How much earlier? As early as the 10th century? Maybe but we have no written records of it. However we do have written records that Slavs used banyas much much earlier than the time when first Scandinavians arrived into Central Europe.

An early description of the banya comes from the East Slavic Primary Chronicle of 1113. According to the Chronicle, or as it was called by its authors, The Tale of Bygone Years, the Apostle Andrew visited the territories that were later to become Russia and Ukraine during his visit to the Greek colonies on the Black Sea. The belief was held that Andrew crossed through East Slavic lands from the mouth of the Dnieper River, past the hills on which Kiev would later be founded, and went as far north as the ancient city of Novgorod. He had this to say about the Slavic bathing customs:

"Wondrous to relate," said he, "I saw the land of the Slavs, and while I was among them, I noticed their wooden bathhouses. They warm them to extreme heat, then undress, and after anointing themselves with tallow, they take young reeds and lash their bodies. They actually lash themselves so violently that they barely escape alive. Then they drench themselves with cold water, and thus are revived. They think nothing of doing this every day, and actually inflict such voluntary torture on themselves. They make of the act not a mere washing but a veritable torment."

If this source is to be trusted, Slavs used banyas every day in the first century AD. Now some people will say this is just a fairy tale, but this fairy tale is supported by archaeological evidence.

This is the map of the Prague-Penkov-Kolochin group of archaeological cultures identified with early Slavic populations in the 6th and 7th centuries. Please note that they cover the whole area between the Balkan and Baltic and that they are centered around Carpathian mountains, a land of forests, rivers and lakes, containing all the material one needs for making log cabins with stone ovens....

These cultures are descendants of the Kiev culture, an archaeological culture dating from about the 3rd to 5th centuries, named after Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. It is widely considered to be the first identifiable Slavic archaeological culture. It was contemporaneous to (and located mostly just to the north of) the Chernyakhov culture which was a mixed Slavic and Gothic culture.

The settlements of these Early Slavic cultures were no larger than 0.5 to 2 hectares. Settlements were often temporary, perhaps a reflection of the itinerant form agriculture they practiced. Settlements were often located on river terraces. The largest proportion of settlement features were the sunken buildings, called "grubenhäuser" in German, or "poluzemlianki" in Russian. They were erected over a rectangular pit and varied from four to twenty square meters of floor area, which could accommodate a typical nuclear family. Each house contained a stone or clay oven in one of the corners, a defining feature of the dwellings throughout Eastern Europe. On average, each settlement consisted of fifty to seventy individuals.

In the article entitled: "Prague type culture houses, aspects of form, function and meaning" published by Martin Kuna, Nad’a Profantová we can see drawings of the actual Prague culture archaeological sites showing houses with corner stone ovens still standing intact...

On this web page "Как жили и чем питались наши предки" you can see reconstructions of these Slavic houses with stone ovens. Here are two examples of the interiors of these Slavic sunken houses.

They look very much like interiors of black banyas don't you think? Actually they look exactly like like black banyas. Black banyas are just houses used for bathing, bath houses, as opposed to houses used for living. But the construction was identical. The stone ovens are not just amazingly efficient heaters. They are fully functional cooking stoves. You can bake or roast inside the oven, just like inside a pizza oven.

A pot or a cauldron of water placed on top of the oven will quickly boil and can be used for efficient cooking. Here is a cauldron placed on top of a stone oven inside a black banya used for heating water for washing.

What is a house?

A house is permanent dry warm shelter.
Banya hut is just such shelter. The construction of black banya huts is identical to the construction of the early Slavic houses. They are both half sunken log cabins.
A house has a heating and cooking facilities.
Banya oven is just such facility. Identical ovens were found in every early Slavic house.
A house has place where people can sit during the day and sleep during the night.
Banya has benches built along the walls are just such places. They are used by bathers for sitting or reclining.
Identical benches were built in early Slavic houses for sitting during the day and sleeping during the night.
Basically there is no difference between earlySlavic banyas and early Slavic houses. They are one and the same.

If we look at the Wiki article about Finish saunas we will see that:

"...the ancestral type of finish sauna is the so called "savusauna" (smoke sauna). This is a special type of sauna without a chimney. Wood is burned in a particularly large stove and the smoke fills the room. When the sauna is hot enough, the fire is allowed to die and the smoke is ventilated out. The residual heat of the stove is enough for the duration of the sauna."

"...One reason the sauna culture has always flourished in Finland has been because of the versatility of the sauna. When people were moving, the first thing they did was build a sauna. You could live in it, make food in the stove, take care of your personal hygiene, get warm, and, give birth in an almost sterile environment due to constant smoking of the interior of the black sauna and a very high temperature."

Basically Finish saunas are black banyas, which are nothing else then the traditional Early Slavic houses. Now you could say that maybe Fins also had the same traditional houses. But the thing is that during the late iron age, early medieval time, semi sunken log huts with corner stone ovens (black banya, smoke sauna) were exclusively built by Slavs. They were so characteristic for the Slavic culture, that a discovery of these corner stone ovens in an archaeological site immediately classifies the site as a Slavic settlement...So the sentence "When people were moving, the first thing they did was build a sauna." should actually be "When Slavic people moved into a new area, the first thing they did was build a house, which was of identical construction as a black banya or smoke sauna and which could have been used for living or bathing."

The article about Finish saunas continues to say that "smoke saunas are still extant not only in Finland but also in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia". All countries which have been hugely influenced by the neighboring Slavs and their culture.

Now remember "inipi", the Native American sweat lodge? The translation of Inipi is actually not "sweat lodge". The actual translation is "The way we live" or "We live" or "A house, and a sweat lodge and a birthing place and a spiritual place and....".

For Early Slavs, banya was truly "the way they lived". It was a house, a sweat lodge, a birthing place and a spiritual place, considering that a corner stone oven was the most sacred place for every Slav, the place where the spirits of the ancestors lived and protected the house and its inhabitants....

Still think that sauna was a Finish invention? When even the word sauna is not of Finish origin. In the Wiki article about sauna we can read that "Originally borrowing from the early Proto-Germanic *stakna- whose descendants include English stack, the word sauna is an ancient Finnish word referring to the traditional Finnish bath and to the bathhouse itself. In Baltic-Finnic languages other than Finnish, sauna does not necessarily mean a building or space built for bathing. It can also mean a small cabin or cottage, such as a cabin for a fisherman." 

The word stack probably originally referred to the stone oven, basically a stack made of stones, which was something completely new and previously unseen by the Germanic and Finish people who used central open hearths, which as I already said are very inefficient heating systems. Those Germanic speaking people, probably Norse, who adopted the Slavic custom of building cornet stone ovens (stack of stones) continued to call every house that had these stone ovens "a stack"...They then passed this custom to Fins...And for the name being used for "a small cabin or cottage, such as a cabin for a fisherman" this is a perfect description of an early small Slavic house with the corner stone oven...

Let me present the chronology here:

The Russian chronicles say that Slavs used banya sweat and steam lodges every day in the 1st century AD.

Archaeological evidence shows that Slavs built "black banya" type objects in the 3rd century AD. We don't know if these objects were used only as houses or if they were also used as sweat or steam lodges, but we can deduce from the ethnographic data that they were probably used as both.

Kievan Russ, a loose federation of Slavic and Norse Germanic tribes which existed in Central and Eastern Europe from the late 9th to the mid-13th century, under the reign of the Rurik dynasty. During this time Slavs continued to live in the same "black banya" type houses and to use "black banyas" as sweat and steam lodges.

The word Sauna is of Germanic origin.

The first mention of Finish Saunas dates to 16th century AD.

But was it Slavs who invented banya or did they borrow it from someone else? Is it possible that Slavic Banya is a cultural continuation of fulacht fiadh?


  1. In Japanese, a bathroom is benjo, I don't know if related to banya etc.

  2. Does this explain the "Burnt mounds" we find in Britain?

  3. Burned mounds are British equivalent of Fulachta in Ireland. I believe that this was one of the uses of possible uses of these structures. You can find other possible used discusses (cooking, brewing, salt extraction, acorn leaching) on my blog. Two more posts discussing meet pickling and skin pickling (tanning) are going to be published soon

    In the north of Italy we have this kind of structure used to make cheese in the summer season. Thanks for informations, your blog is fantastic.

    1. This is amazing. Thank you very much for this info

  5. Great article! Thank you!