Looking northward: Eastern European banya and the hot springs of Iceland
The earliest description of the Eastern European banya, or steam bath, comes from 1113, when the Apostle Andrew visited the region. He wrote of the small, wooden bathhouses which the Slavs would heat, and how, after sitting in the heat and lashing their bodies with switches, they would douse themselves in cold water.
In the southwest, the baths were built after the Islamic and Roman models. Portable sweat baths were used by the nomads of central and eastern Russia, resembling the sweat lodges of the Native Americans. Sweat bathing has always been popular in Eastern Europe, and even in areas where wood is scarce, such as the snowy reaches of Siberia, banya are built from turf or clay. Sweating and health go hand-in-hand in Eastern Europe, where folk medicine continues to advocate the healthful properties of the sweat bath.
In Iceland, the natural hot springs have always been lauded for their medicinal characteristics and the sense of relaxation they impart. Today, in addition to providing free electrical power for the entire country, Iceland’s natural hot springs have become a popular tourist destination.