The public bathhouse is a cultural institution that’s just about as old as human history. One of the world’s earliest public bathhouses — earliest to our knowledge, at least — dates back to around 2500 BCE in Mohenjo-daro, the lost city of the Indus Valley. Things have changed quite a bit since then, but it’s no wonder that spa culture has become as ubiquitous as it is today.
The bathhouse is not only a public utility, but also a social and cultural hub. Many ancient societies had elaborate rituals around bathing that weren’t just about physical hygiene; they were about spiritual maintenance and communal exchange.
Public baths were a major feature of life in ancient Rome, with sprawling bath complexes that included relaxation rooms, saunas and pools of various temperatures, along with places to socialize. Though Roman baths were not necessarily the basis for the entire world’s surviving bathhouse customs, you can see traces of this model reflected in contemporary spa culture all around the world.
The bathhouse remains an important cultural artifact that is loaded with meaning and symbolism. Here’s what bathhouse culture looks like today in various corners of the globe.
Spa Culture Around The World
The Russian banya was historically an animated place — not just because it was full of people, but because it was a place for spirits too. Spirits called banniki dwelled inside, waiting to throw hot water or rocks at disrespectful visitors. This is thought to be the reason why telling someone to “go to the bathhouse” — Иди в баню! (Idi v’banyu!) — is a common insult in Russia. The presence of nefarious spirits at the banya makes this phrase somewhat analogous with “go to hell.” The banniki weren’t merely there to antagonize patrons, however. The physical pain was thought to have the power to cleanse one’s soul of guilt and fear, and people would consult the banniki for omens about their future (if the answer was negative, they would let you know by clawing your back).
Modern-day banyas have maintained the old practice of using a bundle of birch branches (venik) to open pores and increase circulation, usually by having an attendant smack or fan you with them). Visitors also wear felt hats soaked in cold water to protect them from the heat.
Roman-style bathhouses were likely the precursor for Turkish baths, also known as hammams. Since roughly 600 CE, hammams were both social gathering places and quasi-religious centers for purifying the body and soul. This concept was endorsed by the prophet Muhammad himself, and hammams often serve as an annex to the mosque, with high arched ceilings and intricate embellishments to match. Back in the day, bathing rituals also played a ceremonial role in weddings and births.
A typical Turkish bath today will often consist of a hot room, a warm room and a cool room, where visitors can relax and drink tea. When they enter, visitors lay on a large hot stone in the hot room where they’re first given time to warm up and sweat. Then, an attendant will administer massages, scrubs and soaps as part of a purifying ritual.
Korean bathhouses, or jjimjilbangs, have cultural origins dating back to the 15th century, as far as current research can tell. Back then, there were kiln sauna-like facilities where priests would heal sick people. Known as Hanjeung, these facilities also included areas where one could wash off with warm or cold water before returning to the sauna, as well as common areas, where people could have a drink of water or tea.
Many modern-day Korean spas are open 24 hours a day and feature a variety of saunas and rooms (including sleeping rooms), as well as services like body scrubs and massages (think deep, thorough exfoliation). You can spend a whole day meandering between the various saunas, steam rooms, pools, ice rooms and cafeterias. Many of the saunas are hot kilns used for charcoal production, with temperatures reaching up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. The wet areas of Korean bathhouses are sex-segregated, and full nudity is the norm in these areas.
The Finnish sauna arose as a response to the brutally cold climate of Finland. Not only are sauna visits a means to cleanse the body, prevent sickness, relieve muscle tension and lift one’s spirits, but also they’re where births, marriages, politics, and business deals would take place — even where people went to die. They’re so integral to the spa culture of Finland that the ratio of saunas to people is roughly 1:2. You’ll find them at the offices of major companies, state institutions, city apartments and country cottages. But public saunas are still an important cultural touchstone.
Back in the day, Finns would also use saunas as an extension of their kitchens: to cure meat, dry flax, prepare malts. Young women would also turn to the sauna to boost their odds of marriage via magical rites performed during Whitsuntide and Midsummer.
Like Russians, Finns also use birch branches to aid circulation and perspiration. Options for cooling off later can even include rolling around in the snow outside or jumping into a freezing lake.