A Whirlwind Tour through the Entire History of Massage

Massage is a universal instinct. From the day they descended from the trees, humans have known that it helps to rub a sore limb and that to touch is beneficial. For that matter apes know this as well, and indeed so do most other mammals. Writing a history of massage is therefore a curious project, much like writing a history of breathing or of dancing or of mating: we know that it must have happened continuously throughout history, but it is almost impossible to get an accurate idea of precisely what was being done, where, and by whom. This essay should not be seen as a comprehensive or reliable chronicle: rather, it flits through the past and settles momentarily upon those documented characters and periods that seem colourful or interesting.


"Western button-lovers who secretly believe all things Eastern must be 4,000 years old and shrouded in a peculiar mystical aura that cannot be penetrated by the logic-bound Western mind."

New age practitioners will claim that massage extends back to 3000BC in China, or that it is documented in ancient Chinese writings from 2000BC. These claims seem rather dubious. The earliest known writing—Cuneiform, used by the Summerians—dates from shortly before 3000BC and almost all remaining fragments from the period are only administrative and economic. Chinese writing dates from around 1400BC, near the start of the Shang dynasty, and it from around this time that we can reliably date massage.

Two other medical techniques were used by the Chinese in addition to massage: moxa—the burning of herbs on specific skin areas to relieve disease; and acupuncture—insertion of narrow needles into the body in an attempt to block pain.

The first professional massage exam was instituted in China some fifteen hundred years later, with the introduction of Schools of Occult Studies to complement the more commonly accepted Confucian schools. These were devoted to such subjects as Buddhism and Taoism that transcended the practical ordered affairs of government. Students of medicine were examined in massage and acupuncture as well as treatment of general bodily diseases. The first level of qualification, the hsiu ts'ai (cultivated talent) was equivalent to the current British BA degree; the ming ching (understanding the classics) and chin-shih (advanced scholar) corresponded to a Masters degree and a doctorate. Possession of these qualifications was very prestigious.


The history of massage is typically written by doctors and so, as seen in the previous section, we are left with a very medical perspective. Indian massage, however, provides a delightful counterexample.

Most records of Indian massage focus not on its medical qualities but on its sensual. The erotc sculptures at Khajuraho and elsewhere, for instance, and the Kama Sutra, bear testament to a culture that understands and uses these properties to change peoples' moods, to arouse them and to calm them.

[India, though, does not hold a monopoly on indulgent massage. It is said that the Kings of the Sandwich Islands, off the coast of the Falklands, had themselves massaged after every meal to aid the digestion.]

Hindu Tantra taught that the vital life force, known as the kundalini, originates in the sacrum at the base of the spine and that it is part of the interaction and unity of the cosmic forces of male and female energy. The base of the spine was the particular focus of attention and was soothed and stimulated with massage, breathing exercises and yogic positions.

It seems likely that the English word massage comes from the Portuguese word amasser, to knead, which was used by the French colonists in India in the 18th century. But as mentioned above it is the current tradition to seek to give a subject dignity by ascribing to it improbable ancient roots; in this case, the Arabic massa, to touch, has been suggested as an alternate etymology.


While we could only guess that massage was widespread in other cultures, we have definite evidence that it was common in Ancient Greece. In the medical field, massage was a typical Hellenistic remedy along with poultices, occasional tonics, fresh air and a corrective diet. The top schools in Ancient Greece were those of gymnastics; the practice of athletic sports and the required nudity set apart the Greek way of life from that of barbarians. The schools were essentially open-shaped sports grounds with cloakrooms, washstands, training rooms, massage rooms and classrooms around the outside.

Although massage was common in Ancient Greece, we shall touch upon a few noteworthy individuals. Aesculapius worked in Thessalay (near Macedonia) in the 5th century BC. He is reported to have treated patients with relaxation, diet, hydrotherapy, herbs, massage, advice and tender loving care. Serpents were used at this stage as tools in curing patients; and it is the Staff of Aesculapius, with a serpent knotted around it, that has become the symbol of medicine.

A snake of Aesculapius'

Hippocrates, the founding father of medicine, lived in Thessalay from 460BC to 377BC. He used friction in the treatment of sprains and dislocations, and kneading to treat constipation. Hippocrates was also the first person to use the term aphorism in his eponymous book. "Life is short, Art long, Occasion sudden and dangerous, Experience deceitful, and Judgement difficult." "A physician must be experienced in many things but assuredly also in rubbing." He held that all disease results from natural causes and should be treated using natural methods—rest, healthy food, exercise, proper diet, exercise, fresh air, massage, baths, music and visits to friends—to restore the body to a healthy state, and that it essentially had the power to heal itself. Hippocrates is often described as holistic but, paradoxically, he is also noted for his rational approach to anatomy, medicine, therapy and prognosis, and for separating medicine from philosophy and religion.

Asclepiades of Bithynia (in Asia Minor) lived from 124BC to 44BC. He went to Rome to teach oratory before taking up medicine. Good food, fresh air, enemas, hydrotherapy, local applications to cleanse wounds and massage were his principle treatments. He was known for his common 'horse' sense and perceptive knowledge of human nature, and for inventing the shower bath. He became friends with such dignitaries as Cicero, Crassus and Mark Anthony, and did much to win acceptance for Greek medicine in Rome.


The Romans too were keen on massage. Those who could afford it would start by bathing themselves or being bathed by attendants, and having any stiff muscles rubbed with warm vegetable oil. Then came a full body massage to awaken nerves, stimulate circulation and free the action of their joints. Finally their entire body was rubbed with very fine oil to keep their skin elastic and supple. This combination of bathing, cleaning and massage appeared in every country that the Romans conquered. Julius Caesar himself was 'pinched' every day.

Galen, who lived from 130AD to approximately 201AD, is the most notable figure associated with massage in Rome although he was originally Greek himself. (He came at a time when many Greek doctors thronged to Rome). Galen acquired his knowledge of anatomy and physiology from his experience healing the gladiators and from extensive vivisection and was a very able surgeon and bandager. He specified diets, prescribed drugs, emphasised exercise and advocated massage in the treatment of injuries and certain diseases, recognising its effect in eliminating the waste products of nutrition and the poisons of fatigue. "Life," he said, "exists better in moderation—work, food, sleep, drink and sex."

With the decline of the Roman empire, massage became a past-time associated with the 'pursuit of pleasure', used as a substitute for exercise and as a way of coping with the effects of excessive eating and drinking.


Medical knowledge, including that of massage, made its way from Rome to Persia in the middle ages. Many of Galen's manuscripts, for instance, were collected and translated by Hunayn ibn Ishaq in the 9th century. Later in the 11th century copies were translated back into Latin, and again in the 15th and 16th centuries, when they helped enlighten European scholars as to the achievements of the Ancient Greeks. This renewal of the Galenic tradition during the Renaissance played a very important part in the rise of modern science.

One of the greatest Persian medics was Avicenna, also known as Ibn Sina, who lived from 980AD to 1037AD. He was the foremost philosopher of medieval Islam and also a great philosopher, logician and medic. His works included a comprehensive collection and systematisation of the fragmentary and unorganised Greco-Roman medical literature that had been translated Arabic by that time, augmented by notes from his own experiences. One of his books, al-Quanun fi at-tibb (The Canon of Medicine) has been called the most famous single book in the history of medicine in both East and West. Avicenna excelled in the logical assessment of conditions and comparison of symptoms and took special note of analgesics and their proper use as well as other methods of relieving pain, including massage. Later in 1527 the bombastic, arrogant and brilliant medic Paracelsus was to burn Avicenna's books in a bonfire along with those of Galen to a crowd of cheering students in Basel: this symbolised his rejection of the old ways, and his preference for inorganic drugs and surgery.

Western Europe

An early record of massage in Western Europe comes from Ambroise Pare (1510-1590) who wrote about it in one of his publications, but was widely ridiculed. In 1780 Clement Joseph Tissot wrote the more successful Gymnastique Medicinale et Churgicale which covered occupational therapy as well as massage.

Henrik Ling (1776-1839) from Sweden has been called the father of modern Western massage. His system, based on physiology, formalised a series of gymnastic movements and massage techniques. "We ought not to consider the organs of the body as the lifeless forms of a mechanical mass," he wrote, "but as the living, active instruments of the soul." The implications of this idea for massage are that we should consider not only the mechanics of each bodily system, but also its role in life and the positive impact massage therapy may have on it. In 1813 he established with royal patronage the Royal Central Institute of Gymnastics. Ling's system is generally known as Swedish Massage. It spread quickly from Sweden. In 1895 a society of Trained Masseuses was formed in Britain to increase the standard of training (the date 1894 is sometimes quoted), and in 1899 Sir William Bennet inaugurated a massage department at St. George's Hospital, London.

Since then massage has moved away from the purely physiological back to the holistic ideas of Hippocrates and of the Chinese. Willhelm Reich (1897-1957), a contemporary of Freud, used the term 'character armour' to describe muscular tensions that are formed within the body in direct relation to the suppression of emotions and natural sexual feelings. He attempted to cure neuroses indirectly by releasing their corresponding muscle tensions. Reich's introduction of physical contact and massage into therapy alienated him from the classical psychoanalytical movement and outraged society. After this time he devoted himself to orgonomy, an attempt to measure orgones, which he thought were the units of cosmic energy and the fundamental particles that make up an orgasm. He considered a lack of orgones to be a common cause of illness and leased orgone-boxes to patients. This brought him into conflict with the law, and he was convicted and died in prison.

And so we appear to have come full circle, back to ancient Tantric practices and to the East. New age philosophies promulgate dubious doctrines unrelated to the physiological benefits of massage. As Gordon Inkeles writes in The New Massage about acupressure: "Elsewhere in the East shrewd businessmen have adroitly capitalised on the West's imperfect understanding of acupuncture. They insist that the human body is a living machine which is covered with exotic little pressure points. Once these points are pushed (by fingertips which are several hundred times wider than the point of an acupuncture needle), magical things begin to happen all over the body. Developed and refined in Japan a few years ago, this concept has found a huge audience with Western button lovers, who secretly believe all things Eastern must be 4,000 years old and shrouded in a peculiar mystical aura that cannot be penetrated by the logic-bound Western mind. Graduates of acupressure combine basic massage techniques with aggressive finger poking to the soft, relaxed inner tissues. The resulting pain levels around vital organs are often so great that speech is momentarily impossible. But if speech were possible, the victim might remind his smug tormentor that the human body is not, alas, covered with ubiquitous little push buttons like the dashboard of a Toyota."


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