A History of Massage

Ashley Montague, anthropologist and author of the acclaimed text “Touching”, states that soothing, nurturing touch is essential to life. Mother’s of newborn animals must lick their young if they are to survive. It’s true, apes groom each other. Certainly, the first massage occurred spontaneously when the first human instinctively rubbed a hurt. In fact, the sense of touch is the earliest of the senses to develop in the human embryo.

The word “massage” more than likely derives from the Arabic word “masah” which means to stroke with the hand. Cave paintings in the Pyrenees that date as far back as 15,000 B.C.depict the therapeutic use of touch.

The earliest mention of massage appears in a Chinese book dating from about 2700 BC.: ” Early morning stroking with the palm of the hand, after the night’s sleep, when the blood is rested and the tempers relaxed, protects against colds, keeps the organs supple and prevents minor ailments.”

The medical benefits of massage were prized by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Hippocrates (c. 460-c. 377 BC.), considered the father of Western medicine endorsed its therapeutic use. The Roman emperor’s physician Galen (AD. 129-c. 199) wrote at least sixteen books relating to massage and exercise suggesting that “…the strokes and circuits of the hand should be made of many sorts, in order that as far as possible all the muscle fibers should be rubbed in every direction.” He classified massage into firm, gentle, and moderate.

In India, mothers massage their babies, and later these children are taught to do the same for their parents. In Ayurvedic treatments – an Indian system of medicine dating back to 1800 BC. – massage is used with herbs, oils, spices, and aromatic oils being rubbed into the skin.

In the early nineteenth century, the modern Western practice of massage was systematized by Per Heinrik Ling (1776 – 1839). He based his system on physiology which was just then emerging as a science. His method became known as “The Ling System,” or “The Swedish Movement Treatment.”

His method consisted of massage and medical gymnastics and synthesized massage techniques used in the Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures. Today we refer to most standard massage as Swedish massage.