The History of Massage

With a little rubbing, the ouch soon goes away

Massage is an instinctive human response that when we bump ourselves, we rub the sore spot and the 'ouch' soon goes away. This basic instinct has been slowly developed over the countless generations into a sophisticated healing art and science in some form in over most of the World.

Egypt had a well developed social structure 5,500 years ago and people may have used massage then. Imhotep, the physician and architect recorded his knowledge of aromatic oils or unguents made by mixing aromatic plants, resins and gums with oils or fats.

The use of massage in India goes back a long way with written records appearing around 1500 BC. But it seems likely that  likely that massage was already in use during the preceding era of the Indus valley culture from 9000-1500 BC. and influenced the development of lomi lomi, what is considered a Hawaiian approach to massage. In Hindu writings, some of the earliest texts appear between 1500 and 500 BC. Ayurveda, a Sanskrit word, translates to “life health” or “life science.” It is regarded as the basis of  all holistic medicine, combining yoga, meditation, diet, nutrition, lifestyle, massage and aromatherapy.

The Chinese inherited a great deal from India including martial arts, however Chines massage texts have existed from about 2700 BC with the  first known called “The Yellow Emperor’s Classic Book of Internal Medicine.” This book was published in English in 1949 and became an important learning tool within the field  of alternative medicines including massage, such as acupuncture, acupressure and herbology.

The origin of the English word massage is unclear, however it may have come from the Portuguese word amasser meaning to knead which was used by the French colonists in India in the 18th century or the from the Arabic word massa meaning to touch.

The origins of massage as a healing art for alleviating physical, mental and emotional ailments has references dating as far back back as 3000 BC China (although this may be a stretch of the imagination), however in 460 BC, Hypocrites prescribed it as a beneficial treatment for his patients and references in the bible refer to anointing the body with oil and massage was popularized by the Greeks and Romans.

Hippocrates, who is considered a father of medicine, said that all physicians should have experience of the techniques of rubbing, It is recognized that rubbing can bind a joint that is too loose and loosen a joint that is too rigid. Furthermore, rubbing can make the flesh and cause parts to waste, it is these latter beliefs that are so important for those concerned with figure improvement.

In 1813 under Henrik Ling, the Royal Central Institute of Gymnastics was established in Stockholm Sweden, and here the known massage movements were studied scientifically and systematized. This was the most important single development in the field in modern times and it is because of this that remedial massage is often called "Swedish".

It seems clear that in the ancient world massage had a dual role in medicine for the treatment of illness and injuries as well as for sensuality and pleasure. Robert Calvert's "The History of Massage" leads through Greek temples and Middle Eastern bathhouses, Chinese martial arts traditions and Native American sweat lodges, to discover the significant role of touch therapy in the life of the world's people.

Today with our increased population and overcrowding, rising crime rates, more difficult economic times and threats of global disaster and terrorism, massage is a valuable tool to assist people in overcoming life's difficulties. Massage not only releases stress and helps our bodies recover from injury, it also helps build stronger and more integrated communities. Just think; if everyone spent more time rubbing each other to create relaxation and well-being, there would be less crime and fear.

Unfortunately social, economic and political pressures are increasingly fragmenting our society and civilization. People are becoming more isolated, the family unit is being deconstructed and all of this despite all the rhetoric and best intentions of our leaders. Our human body has become politicized and dissected, my fat ass is an object of ridicule on one hand and to sexy to be touched on the other? It no wonder our kids are confused.

Our human body is a gift of creation, it is divine and worthy of respect and honor, but in much of Western society, the body has become sexualized and the front torso and hips are not respected or treated limiting the effectiveness of treatment.


There are many different attitudes, approaches and applications to massage reflecting aspects of massage's long history that can be losley categorised under:

  • Recreational massage
    Millions of people around the world understand the value of massage and it is widely practised from workplaces, to social events for relaxation and it even serves as a foundational exercise in social bonding and romantic foreplay.
  • Clinical massage
    This style is becoming the most common treatment in Western countries. It is available in beauty therapy salons along with waxing, manicures and other cosmetic applications. Typically it is a soft mildly relaxing massage that excludes massage to the hips or front torso which limits its effectiveness as a treatment for problems associated with those areas.
  • The medical or sports massage
    This approach to massage again segregates the body and usually treats the injured part only and does not recognize the body as a whole functioning unit, however it does help to relieve problems.
  • Holistic body work or full body massage
    Any massage style that regards the body as an 'integral whole' and seeks to create an overall balance without prejudice to any body part is holistic. This aids in relaxation, recovery from injury and restoration of health.

In all there are many recognized massage styles including:

  • Swedish Massage, a general whole body massage using oils on the skin to facilitate treatment. This is the basis of most Western forms of massage treatment.
  • Shiatsu, with this Japanese style you generally stay dressed and are treated on the floor. This system balances all bodily systems.
  • Deep Tissue, this approach is powerful and often painful although the benefits can be great. It is helpful in restructuring the body, improving posture.
  • Holistic Pulsing, clothes on, you are gently rocked, the rocking or pulsing releasing tension.
  • Holistic Bodywork; this is a full body balancing treatment.
  • Sensual Massage usually both the client and therapist are naked and there is usually some sexual arousal. This is excellent for couples to help develop intimacy.
  • Tantric Massage; represents a cultural function of massage linked to social, religious or ritual customs including sensuality and sexual practices. Today this is often a sensual massage and happy ending whereas it can be a restorative therapy for mental and emotional dysfunction. With a qualified therapist it can be of great benefit toward liberation of body, mind and spirit.
  • Lomi-Lomi rooted in Ayurveda modified by Hawaiian tradition or Kahuna massage massage originates from the Pacific Islands working to not only to release stress, but to balance physical structure, induce deep relaxation in a way that promotes spiritual awareness and empowers consciousness. Modern offshoots of this massage are Esalen Massage and Chiromassage.
  • Aroma therapy, the use of naturally occurring essential oils to enhance treatment. Often used as a treatment in themselves with different oils being applied to different parts of the body. Pure essential oils have great healing properties.

Massage Therapy is a safe and effective treatment which benefits people of all ages and conditions.

The History of Massage, An Illustrated Survey from Around the World by Robert Noah Calvert.
Lucian Wischik's Massage History


2 comments to The History of Massage

  • Massage Junkie

    Along with other technologies, massage or the art of rubbing people the right way has to be one of humanities great achievements

  • Wonderful post thank you for sharing. You wanna see Robert Calvert’s history covering the peoples of ancient Greece to the tribes of the Pacific Ocean, massage has been a significant element in medicine, midwifery, folk healing, and athletics. Yet the rich presence of healing touch is rarely manifest in the telling of human history. Now, for the first time, Robert Noah Calvert offers a comprehensive history of massage that spans the globe. Starting with the healing art’s ancient foundations, Calvert’s “History of Massage” leads us through Greek temples and Middle Eastern bathhouses, Chinese martial arts traditions and Native American sweat lodges, to discover the significant role of touch therapy in the life of the world’s people.

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