The History of Massage as a modern phenomena or definable school of thought and practice can only be traced back to the 1800’s. Despite this, there are many references to rubbing with oils and unguents for health and medicinal purposes going back to around 1500 B.C. in China. Many sources take this number back even further but at such a point, the historiography begins to get shaky and the evidence becomes isolated into fragmentary images depicted in stone or the odd text that managed to survive the ravages of time.
For instance, The Nei Ching or The Yellow Emperors Classic of Internal Medicine which describes massage, can only be reliably dated to 1500 B.C. but many scholars attempt to push that date back further to 2500 B.C.
The historical debate centers on the Chinese custom of attributing new works to popular figures such as a favorite Emperor as a gesture of respect. I am willing to leave such historical speculation to others and choose instead to concentrate on the most reliable facts and figures.
Ancient Egyptian carvings depict massage and Julius Caesar was known to have massage administered for neuralgia. The ancient science of Ayurveda also advocates the use of massage and massage was common for participants in sporting events in ancient Greece. In ancient Rome, as in ancient Egypt, massage was offered to the public in bath houses and temple complexes as part and parcel of the process of relaxation and bathing.
You may be surprised to learn that there is no written definition of massage from ancient times. Early physicians advocated friction and rubbing of the body and while they did describe how to do this rubbing and why, none wrote a definition of the discipline. Greek physician Galen gave us a description when he wrote Hygiene, stating that ‘the rubbing should be of many sorts with strokes and circuits of the hands, carrying them not only from above, down but from below up, but also subvertically, obliquely, transversely and subtransversely.” Despite there being no professional definition, what we do know, is that people have been rubbing one another for a variety of purposes almost as long as we have existed and that the practice shows no signs of dying out.
Massage is a healthy and vibrant expression of care and compassion for ourselves and our fellow human beings. In the Western world, massage was part of movement therapy and gymnastics before it was adopted by medical physicians. Ambrose Pare and Clement Joseph Tissot both wrote about massage in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but it was not until Per Henrick Ling arrived on the scene that massage as we know it began to take shape around advances in medical knowledge. Lings work combined movement therapy and gymnastics with soft tissue manipulation and became known as Swedish massage. In fact, it isn’t until the turn of the 20th century that the word massage comes into its own as a medical term. It was John Harvey Kellogg of Battle Creek Sanitarium who defined the traditional Swedish terms, effleurage, petrissage, and tapotement, as ‘massage.’ Despite this and many other early references to massage by Western medical doctors, massage is still regarded as a complimentary and alternative health practice or CAM by the AMA and not as a medical one. The standard-bearer for Professional Massage Therapy is the AMTA, which was formed in 1943 and is itself a partner with the American Medical Association. In 1992, the AMTA initialized the creation of the NCBTMB or National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork, which is one of the primary organizations for certified massage therapists. A newcomer to the field is the FSMTB or Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards. The FSMTB also offers a recognized certification for its adherents.
There are many types of massage and I could not name them all if I tried! The most common therapeutic forms are Swedish, Sports, Deep Tissue and Neuromuscular Therapy to name only a few. There are more ‘exotic’ derivatives, such as Shiastu, Lomilomi and Reflexology as well as the more intensive varieties such as Rolfing, Trager and the Alexander technique which require separate and additional training. All fall under the broad rubric of massage.
The etymology of the word massage itself is fraught with political history. As it stands, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Indian and Semitic origins for the word massage are all touted by various vested interests with axes to grind about why their position is the correct one and how History itself, is validated by their point of view. Note its not the History of Massage that is validated but History for its own sake. As an example of the seeming lack of consensus have a look at the following examples of the etymology of the word massage, all from online and verifiable sources.
- Merriam-Webster @ M-W.com: French, from masser to massage, from Arabic massa to stroke. First Known Use in English: circa 1860
- Webster’s New World @ YourDictionary.com: French < masser, to massage < Arabic massa, to touch
- American Heritage @ YourDictionary.com: French, from masser, to massage, from Arabic masaḥa, to stroke, anoint; see mšḥ in Semitic roots or massa, to touch; see mšš in Semitic roots.
- Collins English @ Dictionary.com: 19thCentury: from French, from masser to rub; see mass [NOTE: at ‘’mass’’, ‘’mass’’ is stated to be from Latin ‘’massa’’]
- Chambers Dictionary @ ChambersHarrap.co.uk:: 19th Century: French, from masser to massage, from Greek massein to knead. [question: directly modern Greek? or ancient Greek along unspecified path?]
- Concise OED @ OxfordDictionaries.com: late 19th century: from French, from masser ‘knead, treat with massage’, probably from Portuguese amassar ‘knead’, from massa ‘dough’
- Random House @ Dictionary.com: 1875–80; < F, equiv. to mass ( er ) to massage (< Ar massa to handle) + -age
I am not a linguist, but it seems that there is a great deal of work to be done when it comes to the History of Massage etymology, as there is no definitive agreement. But I am willing to believe that at least one of these dictionaries is correct. What interests my inner nerd about such issues are the implications of each position historically and how those positions relate to broader worldviews. I don’t have the linguistic training to discern the answer for myself, so I have to come to a conclusion by going the long way around. It comes from my contextual nature and the style of learning I picked up as a child who loved to read and discern big words from the contexts in which they were used. I know I may have lost many of you with this tangent and I apologize if so!
Suffice it to say, the history of massage is varied and vast and encompasses the history of almost every culture on the planet. My hope for Massage in the 21st century is that it will not be afraid to redefine itself as required to meet the needs of its practitioners and those who seek them out. Any practice that has survived for so long throughout and across history should not be relegated to the backwaters of Empire but should be embraced by the best and the brightest among us as offering something of tremendous value and lasting significance.
This article is also available on my personal blog My Coign of Vantage.