A centuries-old tradition with enduring appeal, Estonian smoke sauna leaves intrepid first-timer Mark A. Thompson feeling reborn in Tallinn. A sensuous revelation for body and mind.
If someone told you that you could restart your life like you restart your computer, most likely you would be as tempted as I am – even if it means plunging into the bone-chilling waters beneath the ice of a frozen pond in Southern Estonia in the dead of winter. And not just once, but repeatedly; and naked at that.
“Inhale, and now, four more times,” counselled Eda Veeroja, proprietor of Mooska Farm where the smoke sauna traditions of Old Võromaa date from the 13th century.
Though I have visited Estonia previously – and fallen in love with the medieval Old Town charms of Tallinn, as so many visitors do – this is my first experience of its UNESCO-listed smoke sauna traditions. It is the middle of winter, snow blanketing the ground and the pond covered in ice thick enough for a hockey tournament. I am freezing even before I step out of the car; yet now I’m naked as a newborn, walking barefoot across the snow, returning to the sauna to be whipped with birch branches.
Due in part to the efforts of the indefatigable Veeroja, the smoke saunas of Estonia were added to UNESCO’s cultural heritage list in 2014 and it is Veeroja who functions equally as shaman and spiritual guide throughout the three- to five-hour smoke sauna experience. As she explains, smoke sauna in Estonia is a way of life and a member of the family, a sacred space inhabited by sauna spirits, a place for birth and for death and rebirth.
Within the dimly lit wooden structure, fragrant with honey and birch and heated to 80°C, it is easy to succumb to the mystical atmosphere, enhanced by Veeroja’s chanting and storytelling. Reclining on the ancient wooden bench, I inhale and follow her lead in an attempt to honour the ancestors. We are here to purify the flesh, as well as the spirit.
Lulled into a reverie by her Estonian chants, I am reminded anew of the power of music in the story of Estonia. Throughout its history, Estonia has been something of a pawn in the centuries-long chess match of occupying forces: Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Russia have all claimed ownership of Estonia over the course of nearly a thousand years. But, with the country still under Soviet rule in 1988, spontaneous singing demonstrations burst into bloom at various music festivals all over Estonia. Over the next few years, more than 300,000 citizens protested Soviet occupation with the singing of forbidden patriotic songs and hymns – until, finally, Estonians regained their independence in 1991. In a land where music imparts liberation, Estonia’s UNESCO-listed song festivals are testament to the triumph of the human spirit.
“I am freezing even before I step outside; yet now I’m naked as a newborn, walking barefoot across the snow, back to the sauna to be whipped with birch branches.”
And now, here I am, serenaded by this soft-spoken Võro woman who perpetuates the traditions of her ancestors by imparting their wisdom to me. Southern Estonia is home to both Võro and Seto cultures, with Setomaa to the east, historically straddling the Russian border. Throughout the region of Setomaa, the Seto culture has been kept alive by women who, unable to read or write, committed to memory hundreds of folk songs and rhymes that tell the story of their forebears.
For Seto people, their singing traditions are as natural as breathing, as much a part of one’s life as the sauna: the preservation of one’s culture for future generations. Fortitude in the face of adversity… And what do I know of fortitude, save for the name of the lion in front of the New York Public Library?
“Yes,” I reply to Veeroja, who asks if I’m ready for another plunge into the icy waters.
Sometimes the bigger nations of the world, such as my own, miss the bigger picture. Sometimes smaller is better to help an individual see what is most important. Across the Gulf from Finland in Northern Europe, Estonia is one of the smallest EU countries. Yet its thickly forested mainland, sprinkled with myriad lakes, fens, and bogs, recalls a mystical Elysium, a prelapsarian realm, where it’s easy to imagine elves and nymphs frolicking in the woodlands, feasting on wild blueberries, lingonberries and chanterelles. It’s no wonder that Estonian mythology is populated with sprites and spirits of the forest.