Kava has an interesting and colorful history. Almost all origin myths come from one of two types. The first talks about local indigenous generation origins of kava. Typically, kava first grows from a female human buried corpse. An additional mythic element associated with many germinated corpse tales is the drunken rat.1 The second type of tale recounts kava’s external beginning. Some god, ancestor, or hero descends from the heavens or sails from across the horizon and bestows kava upon the society. Like the other type of myths these tales give animals or women creative roles in the introduction of kava2. All these elements appear in a few selected examples that I give below. I say this because of the rather colorful stories from some of the islands is best sought out, if desired, by the individual.
The first example that comes from internal origins stems from the Pentecost Island, Vanuatu. “A very long time ago, orphan twins, a brother and sister, lived happily on Maewo [an island just north of Pentecost]. One night the boy, who loved his sister very much, had to protect her from a stranger who had asked her to marry her but whom she had refused. In the struggle the frustrated suitor loosed an arrow that struck the girl and killed her. In despair, the boy brought his sister’s body home, dug a grave, and buried her. After a week, before any weeds had grown over her tomb, there appeared a plant of unusual appearance, which he had never seen. It had risen alone on the grave. He decided not to pull it up. A year passed and the sorrowful boy still had not been able to overcome the suffering he felt at his sister’s death. Often he went to mourn by her grave. One day he saw a rat gnaw at the plant’s roots and seemingly die. His immediate impulse was to end his own life by eating large amounts of these roots, but when he tried, instead of dying, he forgot all his unhappiness. So he came back often to eat the magic root and taught its use to others.”3
The second type of myth cites external origins. The myth from Samoa is a good example of this external origin of kava. “Tagaloa, the miracle working god of the eighth Heaven, chanced to pay visit to the earth. He had been accustomed to drink kava in the sky world, where it was the ‘nectar’ of the gods, and he sent his attendants to obtain some. They brought down not only a bowl, strainer and cup, but also the whole of a kava plant, which they had, in their hurry, torn up by the roots. Of this Tagaloa threw away the most part, as it is only the root that he chewed. Pava, a mortal, who saw all that was done, watching for an opportunity, gathered up the portions which the god rejected, and planted them; they grew luxuriantly, and thenceforward man enjoyed the god-like drink.”4
By reading the myths of origin about kava we can start to see the indigenous people’s understanding of kava. Perhaps the most common theme throughout the mythology is the association of kava and its effects with death, which is a very emotional event for everyone involved. In the myths the people who drink the kava seem to gain some relief from the emotional drama. Kava is used in this same way today. To release stress, worry, and anxiety. This is as far as I want to go into the symbolism of kava in connection with the myths because of the explicit sexual nature of many of the myths. If you want to understand more completely the mythology and symbolism of kava, I would suggest reading Kava-the Pacific Elixir by Vincent Lebot. It goes into it quite extensively.
Kava (Piper methysticum) is member of the Piperaceae genus. It is found throughout the Pacific Islands. Piper methysticum is a binomial for sterile varieties of the wild Piper wichmannii, a fertile Piper indigenous to New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. There is convincing morphological, chemical, and genetic grounds for considering these two species of Piper to be wild and cultivated forms of the same species. P. methysticum consists of sterile cultivars cloned ultimately from P. wichmannii. I believe farmers first domesticated kava in Vanuatu around 3000 years ago. From there it has spread throughout the islands in the pacific. Kava has lost its ability to reproduce on its own, and has long been dependant on humans for its survival. Farmers have carefully selected varieties of this plant throughout time for different purposes, including medicinal, recreational, and ritual uses. This explains the wide diversity of the varieties rivaling that of potatoes, coffee and corn. It is important to remember that although Kava cannot reproduce by itself, it has survived invasion, colonization, religious conversion, tourism, social upheaval, political reform and development of the pacific islands5,6. When European explorers first landed on the pacific islands , they encountered societies in which kava dinking was an important part of their religious, political, and economic life. Scientific observation of the use of kava dates back to the earliest European voyages of exploration. James Cook, a 18th century British explorer, noted in his log that adventuresome members of his crew who sampled heavy doses of kava seemed to experience symptoms similar to those of opium. Cook’s comparison was inaccurate, because kava is neither a hallucinogen nor a stupefacient. Rather, it is a mild narcotic, a soporific, a diuretic, and a major muscle relaxant. George Forster, a young naturalist on Cook’s second Pacific voyage, gave us an early account of drinking kava. It was Sept. 1773, and Cook was moored off the island of Raiatea, 250 kilometers or so west of Tahiti. A Tahitian youth named Porea, whom cook had picked up earlier, brought a new Raiatean acquaintance on board. Although clearly not a kava lover himself, Forester does tell us something about the significance of kava in the pacific islands societies. Two new friends meet to cement their friendship over a bowel of kava. They do so in the most prestigious, perhaps even sacred, space they can find-inside Captain James Cook’s cabin on the Resolution7. In his own words ”Kava is made in the most disgustful manner that can be imagined, from the juice contained in the roots of a species of pepper-tree. This root is cut small, and the pieces chewed by several people, who spit the macerate mass into a bowl, where some water (milk) of coconuts is poured upon it. They then strain it through a quantity of the fibers of coconuts, squeezing the chips, till all their other bowl. They swallow this nauseous stuff as fast as possible; and some old topers value themselves on being able to empty a great number of bowls. . . . The pepper-plant is in high esteem with all the natives of these islands as a sign of peace; perhaps, because getting drunk together, naturally implies fellowship”(Forster 1777). When missionaries came to the islands, they forbade the use of kava. This was partly due to the traditional way of chewing the root before consumption, which added saliva to the final concoction. It also may be due to their traditional political and religious significance. The missionaries and colonists were there to convert, exploit, and administer the south seas. The idea to snuff out kava was made to eventually eliminate their traditional religion and government because kava was an essential part of both. Then they would substitute the islander’s religion and other traditions with there own. Efforts to eradicate kava succeeded in a number of pacific communities including Tahiti, Polynesia, Hawaii, and Micronesia. Ironically the decline of kava drinking on some islands coincided with a rapid increase of alcohol consumption. The goal of this increase in alcohol has been disputed by many historians to be an intentional aim to increase alcohol trade. I always tend to look on the positive and hope that the missionaries only misunderstood kava and therefore rejected it. The total eradication of kava, however, was unsuccessful. In Vanuatu, particularly, local traditions of kava preparation and consumption are tending to change toward a modern norm. Today all over the pacific island the ethno botany of kava and its consumption are being resurrected by cultural pride and creative innovators. Its use is growing rapidly and is becoming an important commodity for these islands.