Many people would argue that massage has been practiced for thousands of years, and that we can find evidence of it in the earliest recorded civilizations. As we will see, there is a large element of truth in this, but perhaps also an element of wishful thinking. We can be fairly sure that in the ancient world China and India, Greece and Rome some ‘massage-like’ activities were known. This doesn’t mean that they were doing anything identical to modern massage, and certainly not that they thought of it in the same way.
The evidence for massage in Egypt is based on interpretations of Ancient Egyptian art. This is naturally an imperfect science, but there are tomb paintings which appear to show some form of massage in progress. Proponents of reflexology have gone further: on the basis of a painting which shows one Egyptian touching the feet of another, they have claimed that reflexology was practiced in this culture.
India is a good example of how massage-like activities can be carried out without being thought of as massage. Ancient Indian traditions held close to what a Roman might call mens sana in corpore sano a healthy mind in a healthy body. That is to say, the physical and the philosophical were intricately linked. Many philosophies saw the body as a microcosmic reflection of the entire universe, or as a manifestation of a divine or transcendental power, constrained only by unawareness of the true nature of man.
Realizing this inner nature would allow for magical powers, or wealth, or escape from the cycle of reincarnation, depending on the wishes of the practitioner.
Where does the massage come into this, you might well ask. Well, once you have accepted the human body as linked to the divine, a natural next step is to start manipulating the body to control, or to experience, the divine. This approach bring us to yoga and tantra, both of which contain substantial elements of massage and bodywork.
If this explains the prominence of ‘religious’ massage, India also encountered massage at the other end of the spectrum, in erotic handbooks like the kama sutra. This taught ways of stroking and manipulating the body which seem very massage-like.
China probably shows the clearest evidence of the practice of massage. Our understanding of the early history of medical and bodywork practice in China remains poor but whereas in Egypt, Greece and Rome this is because of a shortage of written evidence, with China almost the opposite is true.
Scholars of ancient China are buried under the wealth of documents, let alone the range of evidence which can be gleaned from archaeological research across China. On this basis, we believe that massage in China can be dated back as far as the second, or possibly even the third, millennium BC.
These earliest dates, cannot, however, be proved on the basis of written evidence from the time, since writing not developed in China until perhaps 1400BC
Because of the continuity of Chinese culture over the millennia, we can also tell something of the nature of ancient practices by looking at what continues to this day. Traditional Chinese Medicine is the form of these ancient practices which is used today, having been codified and condensed under the control of the Chinese Government during the 20th century.
This Government control is hardly a new thing. China was the location for what are almost certainly the first massage tests in around the first century CE!
Central to ancient Chinese massage practices was Tui na. Tui na is first mentioned at around 200BC by the medical writer Zhang Zhongjing in his book “Prescriptions of the golden cabinet” (jing gui yao le). ‘Tui na’ literally means ‘poking and pinching’.
In the currently-known form, tui na is very similar to modern Swedish massage. Although this may be partly due to modern influence from other world massage traditions, it is safe to say that many elements of tui na have remained constant for hundreds or thousands of years. Moreover, tui na and related techniques probably had their own influence on Japanese and Korean massage, which in turn influenced the West.
Greece and Rome
Some of the practices which went on in Roman baths appear quite close to massage, although they do not appear to have been conceptualized in this way.
Even Julius Caesar, the man regarded as one of Rome’s greatest emperors, after whom are named Kaisers, Czars, and even the month of June, benefited from massage. Caesar probably suffered om epilepsy. According to the ancient historian Pliny, he had himself pinched all over the body on a daily basis a process which certainly sounds like a basic form of massage.
Another eminent ancient proponent of massage was Hippocrates. Hippocrates is regarded as one of the greatest early doctors, and his name lives on in the ‘Hippocratic oath’ which guides doctors in the ethics of their craft. Hippocrates wrote of the benefits of anatripsis and friction.
Frictio gives us the modern word ‘friction’, while ‘anatripsis’ literally means ‘rubbing up’. Such treatments, Hippocrates writes, brought benefits including relaxing, constricting, thickening, or thinning, depending on the way in which they were conducted. In much the same way as modern massage has found a home in sports medicine, the Greeks would perform massage on athletes.
So-called Swedish massage is the massage equivalent of vanilla ice-cream. It’s the basic massage, the kind that you’re likely to get if nothing else is specified.
‘Why Sweden?’ you might be wondering. All the other sources of massage seem to be in the Far East or around the ancient Mediterranean. Sweden, beautiful as it may be, doesn’t feel like somewhere you would expect to find a massage tradition.
It all goes back to 1813. Europe was convulsed by the Napoleonic wars, Britain was completing its conquest of India and, in Sweden, a man by the name of Per Henrik Ling founded the Royal Central Gymnastic Institute. Ling’s ‘gymnastics’ (also known as the ‘Swedish Movement Cure’) centered around “clappings, knockings, stroking, kneading, pullings, shakings and vibratings” the core elements of Swedish massage.
Massage was only one part of Ling’s program, but it was brought to the fore by later practitioners. In particular a Dutchman, Johan Georg Mezger, expanded on Ling’s ideas, and introduced more familiar French terms such as petrissage and tapotement.
So, in the work of Ling and his followers we can see the core of ‘Swedish massage’. Ling didn’t invent all this himself, but for a long time historians have had difficulty untangling his sources. Some of his ideas probably came from Turkey.