Massage through the ages

Drawing on the long lineage of massage in history, how do past theories filter into today’s massage practice?

The historical perspective

Massage is a universal instinct. Humans have always instinctively known to ‘rub it better,’ and that touch is so beneficial. Massage dates back through the millennia, with references appearing in writings from across ancient Asia and Arabia and closer to home in Greece and Rome. 

Dating as far back as 2,700BC, ancient eastern Chinese cultures practiced massage to heal a variety of ailments from labour pain to paralysis. Ancient Egyptian tombs have been discovered adorned with images of figures being massaged. The Ancient Egyptians were the first to codify and study essential oils and their therapeutic benefits. As well as concocting beautiful perfumes and fragrant incense for personal and ritual use they applied this knowledge to develop massage and reflexology as therapeutic tools – the god Nefertum is reputed to have used therapeutic massage as a cure for a number of ailments.

In India, a branch of traditional medicine – Ayurveda, therapeutic massage was performed using a variety of aromatherapy oils and spices for their healing properties.

Closer to home, in Rome, Julius Caesar was said to have been a daily massage to treat neuralgia (oh the luxury, I hear my clients say!)

In western culture, the most practiced form of massage is derived from Swedish massage. Henrik Ling developed Swedish massage in the early 1800’s from a system based on physiology, gymnastic movements and massage techniques. His ideal that, “we ought not to consider the organs of the body as the lifeless forms of a mechanical mass, but as the living, active instruments of the soul.” The implications of this concept for massage are that we should integrate the mechanics of each bodily system but also its role in life and the positive impact that massage may have on it. Much of Ling’s original massage theory has been adopted by other complementary therapies such as aromatherapy, reiki, reflexology, Rolfing and osteopathy.

During the 20th century, massage was to develop further during both war time periods. In the First World War, massage was used to treat the injured. On the outbreak of the First World War, Almeric Paget and his wife Pauline Payne Whitney, offered the services of 50 trained masseuses to the British War Office The offer was accepted and by November 1914, 50 women had been placed in military hospitals. At this time the demand for physiotherapy (or Massage and Electrical Treatment as it was known) increased and the Pagets were asked to open a day centre in London to relieve pressure on the military hospitals in London. Lady Alexander Paget offered her house at 55 Portland Place and soon over 200 men were being seen at the clinic seen every day. The idea that one clinic was seeing 200 clients a day, seems incredible. The number of massage therapists soon increased to 200 and became attached to the staff of most military hospitals. They became known as the ‘Society of Trained Masseuses’ and were awarded a charter in recognition of their valuable contribution in the war years.

Massage continued to be used during the healing and rehabilitation process to treat the body and mind of the injured for issues such as nerve damage and shell shock. The now highly respected Chartered Society of Massage and Medical Gymnastics became the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy in 1943.

Despite ongoing research into the benefits of massage and its successful use during the two world wars, in the 1950’s massage therapy began to change as western medicine began to make dramatic advancements in scientific development and technology. With the introduction of mechanical and electrical-based treatments and the radically increased use of drugs, massage to treat medical conditions declined. Massage ceased to be part of medical training in the west and massage became the preserve of the spa as medicine began its path into an outcome-based methodology.

As world travel became mainstream, new ideas (or old) gained vogue as people questioned their medical treatments and began to pursue eastern concepts, the cycle began again as people began to re look at the ancient methods of massage and complementary medicine started to reemerge.

Today massage is considered to be the most widely practiced complementary therapy. Used in a wide range of settings to treat a wide range of conditions, massage has once again become mainstream and for many an essential part of their personal wellbeing and maintenance programmes. Once again, recognition that massage treats the whole person, mind, body and spirit has become an accepted normal practice.

Heather is a registered member of the Massage Training Institute. For more information on the history of massage and how the Institute incorporates that history into the training of their therapists, visit:

For more of what Hippocrates thought of massage:

Leave a Reply