Massage is a method of manipulating soft tissue using compression and decompression for therapeutic, palliative, and self-care/wellness, or recreational purposes. The history of massage is long and multifaceted. Archaeologic and historic evidence indicates that massage, in various forms, has been practiced for thousands of years across the globe. Most of the historic literature about massage before the 1800s is devoid of the word “massage.” In fact, the origin of the word is unclear but can be traced to numerous sources: the Hebrew mashesh, the Greek masso and massin, the Latin massa, the Arabic mass’h, the Sanskrit makeh, and the French masser. By the early 1800s, the term “massage” was used by most European-based cultures. Additionally, there is a lack of detailed or comprehensive definitions of massage in historical documents; massage was referred to by its techniques such as friction or simply rubbing. The next sections include the history of massage from prehistoric to ancient times.


Prehistoric times refers to the period between the appearance of humans and the invention of writing systems. Archaeologists have uncovered artifacts depicting the use of massage during this time. For example, European cave paintings (c. 15,000 BC) portray what appears to be the use of massage after battle. Massage-like grooming behaviors are also observed in animals such as primates, which may play a role in social structures.


The ancient world is the period from the invention of writing systems to the end of the Roman Empire in AD 476. The use of massage during this time period is well recorded, and there are extensive written and pictorial records. Countries where evidence exists include China, India, Egypt, Persia, Japan, Greece, Italy (Rome), and the Americas. Most ancient cultures described the use of massage combined with other traditional treatments, particularly herbal remedies and various types of baths.

China. Written records regarding the practice of massage go back to 3000 BC in China. At the time of Hwang Ti, various ideas and beliefs were compiled under the name of the Yellow Emperor (died in 2599 BC) which became the classic scripture of traditional Chinese medicine known as the Nei Chang. The Nei Chang was written about 2760 BC, and this work contains detailed descriptions of massage procedures as well as herbal medicines.

During the Tang dynasty, four primary types of medical practitioners were recognized: physicians, acupuncturists, masseurs, and exorcists. During this time, a Chinese ministry of health and a public health system were established. The term used to describe massage was amma, amna, or anmo. In fact, amma is now regarded as the original massage technique and precursor to all other Chinese therapies, manual and energetic. Acupuncture was not mentioned in Chinese medical writing until 90 BC.


India. Knowledge of amma massage traveled to the subcontinent of India from China, and massage became part of Hindu tradition. Massage is described in India’s first great medical works, the Ayurveda books of wisdom (about 1800 BC), and recommend it as an almost indispensable healing procedure. Later ayurvedic texts, such as the Samhitas (c. 1700 to 1100 BC) and the Manav Dharma Shastra (c. 300 BC), also mention massage.

Egypt and Japan. Massage traveled from China to both Egypt and Japan by the sixth century BC, and these ancient cultures used massage in conjunction with plant essences. The temple of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Nyuserre Ini (Fifth Dynasty during the Old Kingdom period) depicts the king enjoying what appears to be a foot massage. The tomb of Ankhmahor (Sixth Dynasty during the Old Kingdom) depicts two men having work done on their feet and hands. There is much debate whether this image is of massage or another type of procedure such as manicures, pedicures, or surgery. Also, the ancient Egyptians were the first to study essential oils and codify their effects.

In Japan, amma was practiced for many years and evolved into shiatsu, which means finger pressure. Shiatsu is a Japanese method based on the same traditional Chinese medicine concepts as acupuncture, namely that energy flows in the body in channels or meridians. According to shiatsu teaching, pain and discomfort occur when these channels are blocked or depleted. Whereas acupuncturists use needles at specific points to balance the flow of energy, shiatsu therapists use their fingers, thumbs, forearms, elbows, and even their knees and feet to press into points called tsubos.

shiatsu oldskool-2

Greece and Rome. The ancient Greeks used massage widely to maintain health and ensure lasting beauty. Various ideas of healing treatments in Greece merged into a techne iatriche, or healing science. Among the followers of this new science was Hippocrates of Cos (460 to 375 BC). Hippocrates is reputed to have been a fine physician, founder of a medical school, author of numerous books, and advocated for the use of massage or “rubbing.” These works are collectively known as the Corpus Hippocraticum, and summarized much of what was known about disease and medicine in the ancient world. Hippocrates is generally recognized as the father of modern Western medicine, and he believed that physicians should avoid causing harm to patients. In an essay entitled On Joints, Hippocrates discussed treatment of a shoulder dislocation after reduction and wrote, “And it is necessary to rub the shoulder gently and smoothly. The physician must be experienced in many things, but assuredly also in rubbing; for things that have the same name have not the same effect. For rubbing can bind a joint, which is too loose and loosen a joint which is too hard. However, a shoulder in the condition described, should be rubbed with soft hands and above all things, gently; but the joint should be moved about, not violently, but as so far as it can be done without producing pain.” Additionally, Homer (800 to 701 BC) described how “war torn” soldiers were massaged back to health in his book the Odyssey.


The ancient Greeks, perhaps more than any other culture, are responsible for giving massage a high degree of social acceptance. The Greeks built elaborate bathhouses where massage and exercise were available, but bathhouse patrons were seeking luxury instead of health, and Grecian bathhouses became the playgrounds of the rich and powerful.

The Romans inherited much of their massage tradition from the Greeks, and it was widely used, especially in combination with hot baths. Roman politician Julius Caesar (100 to 44 BC) is said to have had himself pinched all over as a remedy for a condition similar to epilepsy. Aulus Cornelius Celsus (25 BC to AD 50) compiled numerous volumes collectively called De Medicina. This is the primary source of medical knowledge in ancient Rome, and it included pathology, pharmacology, surgery, and orthopedics; the latter discussed the use of friction or massage.

A later follower of Hippocratic medicine was Galen of Pergamon (AD 130 to 201). Galen was the most famous physician in the Roman Empire and wrote extensively on the topic of massage. In at least 100 treatises, Galen combined the Greek knowledge of anatomy and medicine and included the use of exercise, the baths, and massage. Galen strongly recommended that in preparation for impending combat, gladiators be rubbed all over until their skin was red. Galen’s influence on all aspects of medical thinking cannot be overstated, and it is probably because of him that massage survived long after the fall of Rome.

Picture Credits:


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