Historical references to massage have been found in cultures around the world. Ancient civilizations often used massage in conjunction with various kinds of water therapy like bathing, steam rooms, hot springs and applications of moist cloth, in order to purify and cleanse the body, and to help dispel disease. Many of these rituals combining massage with water therapies still exist today.
In this column I’ll be taking a journey through time, looking at the history of massage, its evolution in different areas of the globe, and how it eventually developed into our modern-day massage and bodywork profession. I’ll begin with the first time massage and related therapies were mentioned in ancient texts, scriptures and wall paintings.
Ancient River Valley
civilizations (7000-1000 BCE)
Since large groups of people need dependable sources of water to flourish, some of the oldest civilizations on our planet that left documentation of their existence were found in ancient river valleys in four areas of the world: The Yellow River in China, the Indus and Ganges rivers in India, the Nile in Egypt, and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in ancient Mesopotamia.
Early records of massage being used in healthcare are found in documents from all of these ancient cultures, often referring to “anointing,” a process of rubbing oil into the skin, which was among other benefits also believed to banish evil influences causing disease.
In ancient records of the Yellow River valley culture, also referred to as Shang China, or Ancient China, widespread and extensive references to massage have been found. One of the oldest Chinese terms for a massage-like therapy is commonly written as “moshuo,” and can be found in the “Nei Ching,” the Yellow Emperor`s classic of internal medicine, one of the oldest medical references that still exists today. Moshuo is mentioned in the context of massage and finger pressure used to energize someone, or to treat paralysis, chills, fever and poor circulation. With the Chinese language developing over time, massage techniques were called “Anmo” (to press and rub) and “Tuina” (to push and hold).
From China, bodywork made its way into Japan, where it provided some of the few professions available to blind people. With refined perceptions of touch, blind acupuncturists and massage therapists were very successful and able to gain respect in those fields. Among the many forms of bodywork developed in Japan, Shiatsu is probably the best known.
The Indus Valley civilization, discovered in the 20th century near current day Pakistan, left four original scriptures, the “Vedas,” which may have been written over 5,000 years ago. The Ayur Veda, a supplement to one of the four main Vedas, and probably written a bit later, discusses pharmacology and health, and provided the basis for Ayurvedic healthcare, a holistic approach aiming to balance body, mind and spirit to maintain health and prevent illness. Some of the therapies in this system include herbs, diet, massage, aromatherapy, meditation and yoga.
Ayurvedic references to massage mention samvahana (hand rubbing), mordan (to rub), and shampooing, a medical treatment done with a brush and the hands for treating health problems.
Now called Northern Africa, this ancient river valley civilization was located on the Nile River. There is evidence of massage being used in ancient Egyptian healthcare from as early as 4,000 BC, when the goddess queen Isis included massage as treatment for health and healing. She also trained her priestesses to perform the duties of a physician, massage being one of them. Medical conditions, prescriptions and diagnoses, as well as surgical treatments and details about the mummification process were documented in various papyri. The mummification process required the removal of internal organs, leading the Egyptians to a thorough understanding of human anatomy.
Located between the Tigris and Euphrates River, what is now called the Middle East near present day Iraq, ancient Mesopotamians developed a written language called Cuneiform, for which wedge-shaped dents were made into wet clay tablets that were then left to dry. Some of these tablets, as well as paintings on the walls of tombs have shown evidence of massage being used for healthcare in that society. Both physicians and priests practiced medicine in Mesopotamia, had some understanding of anatomy and were able to diagnose and prescribe treatment for many specific conditions as well as perform surgeries.
Next time, I’ll look at the first “gymnasiums” in ancient Greece and Rome, where the foundations for our modern-day “sports massage” were laid, and follow the history of massage through the Middle Ages.
Information for this article has been compiled from: “Introduction to Massage Therapy” by Mary Beth Braun and Stephanie Simonson (2nd edition) published by Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Ata Susanne Morse has been a certified massage therapist since 1996 and is licensed in the state of Utah since 2009. She has a private practice — Massage and Bodywork — in Moab and can be reached at 435-260-2874, via e-mail at email@example.com. Her website is: www.ombodyworkmoabmassagetherapist.com.