© 2018 Bryon

The Steam Room

Dark. Dingy. A bit dirty, even.

Steam rooms in rural banyas like this aren’t the well-lit, unblemished steam rooms of the saunas heated by electric stoves at gyms and health spas across the United States and, even, in Moscow.

One window, small. Two wooden benches wide enough to lie upon, one higher than the other. A stove of brick, or metal. A wooden floor. A lone light fixture, or bulb.

That’s about it for most rural steam rooms.

The steam room pictured above (in Russian a steam room is called a parnaya, from the root, par, or steam) is a serious, working steam room.

The basins on the bench below the window are for soaking veniki, the bundles of leafy twigs used to massage the body and maneuver steam, and for dousing oneself with water to rinse, and cool.

The pots to the left might be used to do laundry (whites are often “cooked” in Russia), but also to make herbal broths that can be hurled into the stove, imbuing the steam with scent, and to heal the sick.

For more than a millennium steam rooms have served as ad hoc operating theaters for “the ones who know,” or znakhari – typically women of middle age, or older, who practice folk medicine, which, in Russia, is primarily herbal.

Mint. Wormwood. Horseradish root. Garden lovage. Stinging nettles.

A znakhar or herbalist (travnitsa) in Russia might have a war chest of 77 or 99 herbs, roots and berries that were gathered when they were believed to be most powerful – at certain times of day, and certain times of year.

A sort of chiropractor uses steam rooms, too. So do midwives – for, historically, women have given birth in steam rooms, lending a literal element to the well-known saying, “The banya is your second mother.”

Steam rooms are said to be home to the bannik, one of the country’s legion of domestic goblins.

They also are the unrivaled setting for practicing magic, or – as chronicled in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Pushkin’s Yevegeny Onegin – divining one’s future.

For steam rooms are no less than a crossroads of the natural and unnatural worlds, a locus of transition in human life: women gave birth there; the betrothed steamed separately the day before their weddings, and together, as newlyweds, the day after; the dead were anointed there before burial.

In 946 Princess Olga even used the steam room to avenge the death of her husband, Prince Igor. When a delegation of Drevlians, the Slavic tribe that killed him, arrived to ask for her hand on behalf of their prince, she had a steam prepared, as was customary, and locked the emissaries inside the banya.

Then she ordered it set aflame.


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