Kava Origins: Ethnobotany, Legends, & Origin Stories

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Illustration of Polynesian guy and girl with kava leaf

Kava kava has a long history of use throughout the pacific islands. For a plant that’s unable to mate and produce any seeds, it’s managed to scatter itself across the many islands of the pacific ocean.

This herb is prevalent around the pacific where it’s used as an object of sacrifice, a source of inspiration, and a means to connect with ancestors as a source of new information.

Kava’s long history of use comes along with a lot of folklore regarding its origins and meaning.

In this guide, we’ll cover some of the clues as to where the very first kava plant ever came from in terms of an ethnobotanical perspective and cover some of the most famous mythological origin stories and legends.

Kava’s Origin

The exact origin of kava as we know it today remains unknown. This plant can be found growing on various islands of the pacific ocean spread over thousands of miles of sea despite being utterly incapable of sexual reproduction via seeds.

It’s clear kava was brought to these islands by early human explorers — who carried the root with them on their journey in search of new islands to colonize. Once they landed, they would plant the rootstock of the kava plants they brought to establish a steady source of kava for the new community.

It’s believed the original Piper methysticum originated somewhere in Northern Vanuatu. It was likely a random genetic mutation from the wild kava (Piper wichmani) that was already growing in the region.

The new mutation created a sterile version of kava (unable to reproduce sexually) that was somehow discovered by humans and cultivated. Today, all kava is essentially a clone of this original plant — which is thought to be somewhere between 2500 and 3000 years old.

Kava Origin Stories

The scientific data suggests kava was a random mutation that occurred during the sexual reproduction of wild kava (Piper methysticum), which was lucky enough to be discovered and perpetuated by humans ever since.

Various pacific island cultures have their own explanation for how kava came to be. There are hundreds of different origin stories for the plant, but almost all kava origin stories follow the same plot.

There are two general types of origin stories:

Type A: Death & Rebirth Origins

  1. Typically, kava is grown out of a human corpse — someone of significance has died (usually a woman), and from their body sprouted the kava plant. It’s most common for this to come from a woman and usually sprouts from her vagina. Sometimes kava is born in conjunction with sugarcane.
  2. It’s almost always a rat that first eats the newly formed kava (sometimes a pig), which causes it to become drunk. This shows the locals that the plant is safe but has some sort of inebriating qualities.
  3. After observing the drunken rat, humans learn to begin using it themselves.

These stories almost always feature depictions of death and rebirth. A loved one dies but is then “reborn” or “gives birth” to a new life in the form of kava. It’s an ode to kava’s ability to connect the mortal world with the other side and its life-giving qualities.

Type B: Gift From The Gods Origins

In these stories, a god, hero, or ancestor descends from the sky or arrives by boat to the island. He bestows the kava plant to them and departs. The god is usually male and gifts the plant to a female.

In most cases, the god that brings kava to the Earthly world does so by accident. He orders kava to be brought to him while visiting earth, or as a way to heal or revive a mortal, the god kills out of frustration. The kava is then gifted to humans or left behind through careless accident.

Kava Meanings

Kava origin stories have many common elements:

  • Supernatural intervention
  • Animal or womanly origins
  • Poison, death, and corpses
  • Fertility and sexuality
  • Association with the vagina
  • Often discovered in conjunction with sugarcane
  • Drunkenness and inebriation
  • Heavenly origins for the Piper methysticum strain, earthly origins for Piper wichmani

Kava: Death & Rebirth Origin Stories

Story #1: The King of Tonga

(Tonga)

One day the king of Tonga went fishing with a friend.

After spending the entire day fishing without a single bite, they pulled in to the small island of Eueiki to find something to eat. They were starving.

There was only one couple living on the island at that time. They had a small daughter whose name was Kava’onau. She was sick with leprosy, and it was a time of famine. There was only one source of food on the entire island for the family to eat — a large kapé tree (Alocasia macrorrhiza).

When the king landed, he sat down against the tree to rest.

As soon as the couple had realized who had arrived, they began to prepare an earth oven to make their important guest some food. However, they could not use the fruit from the kape plant because their king was leaning against it.

The couple killed their daughter and baked her as a meal for their king because they had nothing else to give him.

The king’s friend saw this happen and informed the king, who was very moved by their sacrifice.

The king instructed the couple to bury their daughter and left the island.

Two plants grew from the daughter’s grave — one at the head and one at the food.

One day, the couple saw a rat bite the first plant at the head and begin to stagger. It then took a bite from the second plant at the foot and regained its balance.

A while later, a god visited the island (Lo-au). The couple told him about everything that had happened. Lo’Au was deeply moved and fell silent for a long time as he thought. He then instructed the couple about what to do and how to use the two plants.

The one from the head was to be made into a drink — this was the kava plant.

The one at the foot was to be eaten with the drink — this was the sugarcane.

He also instructed the couple to bring the plants and these instructions to the king. They did so, and it was here that the tradition of kava began, and the rules and procedures for making it were established.

Story #2: Suicide by Kava

(Pentecost Island, Vanuatu)

A very long time ago, two orphans, twins, a brother, and a sister lived happily on the island of Maewo.

One night a stranger asked to marry the girl. She refused, and the stranger became angry. He tried to kill her, and despite all attempts to save her life by her brother, she was shot and killed with an arrow.

The boy brought his sister’s corpse home, dug a grave, and buried her.

After a week, before any weeds could appear over the freshly dug grave, sprouted an unusual plant — nothing the boy had ever seen before. He decided not to kill the strange plant.

A year later, the boy was still in deep despair over the loss of his sister. He was unable to quell his suffering and often went alone to mourn by her grave.

One day, as he was mourning, he saw a rat chew on the plant and die.

He decided he would end his own life to free himself from his sadness. He ate large amounts of the root.

But the boy did not die. Instead, he forgat all his unhappiness.

He came back often to eat the root and taught others to do the same.

Story #3: Miru, the Goddess of Death

(The Cook Islands)

The kava plant came from the upper world (heavens) after breaking off an enormous ever-growing plant in Avaiki. Three pieces fell off, creating the three different types of kava.

Miru (the goddess of death) directed her four daughters to prepare a strong bowl of kava from these roots so she could feed it to unsuspecting visitors.

After drinking the brew, they became stupefied. They no longer resisted Miru as she took them away to bake them in the oven as food.

This is one of the darker stories of kava. Some cultures are superstitious about how they dispose of discarded pieces of kava and used kava root. They are careful not to let the kava end up in the hands of evil spirits who wish to use the root maliciously.

Story #4: Tangaloa & Pava

(Samoa)

The god Tangaloa Ui walked through a grove of kava plants leading up to the house of the mortal, Pava.

Pava invited the god into his home. The two partook in the first-ever shared kava ceremony between mortals and gods.

As Pava prepared the kava, his small son, Fa’alafi, laughed and played loudly nearby.

Tangaloa Ui told Pava to make his son sit down and shut up, but Pava did nothing.

After several warnings, Tangaloa Ui grabbed a coconut frond and cut the boy in half. He then turned to Pava and said, “this is the food for the kava. This is your part, and this is mine.”

Pava mourned the loss of his son and could not drink his kava.

Tangaloa Ui called his servant to bring him his special kava plant from his faraway mountain home. He prepared the first cup and poured it onto his piece of the dead son and then onto Pava’s.

Instantly, the two halves came together, and the boy lived.

This story represents both life and death. The boy is first killed for his irreverence before being mended and brought back to life by the superior kava root delivered by the god Tangaloa Ui.

This is likely an ode to the poisonous apprehension often regarded towards kava at first — but upon further examination, it becomes clear the plant has life-giving qualities instead.

it’s interesting to note that this theme played out in modern society as well. Kava was thought dangerous for nearly a decade after reaching mainstream popularity around 2002. After a few years of further research, it was found the plant isn’t toxic, and these laws were disbanded.

Kava & Sex

Kava has a strong correlation with sex. It’s sometimes portrayed as masculine, with a phallic shape that copulates with a woman in order to eventually propagate itself throughout the rest of the community (such as in the story above).

Other times, kava is symbolized as having more feminine energy — often originating from a woman’s vagina or breasts.

Sometimes, most often, kava is bisexual — exhibiting traits of male sexual energy and female sexual energy.

Most pacific island cultures make an effort to separate any sexual acts or desired from the use of kava. Kava drinking and sex are regarded as being very similar. People who drink too much kava don’t want to have sex, and people who have too much sex can’t feel the effects of kava.

Many of the origin stories of kava involve a strong sexual component.

Story #5: Impregnated By Kava

(Tanna, Vanuatu)

A long time ago, people only drank one type of kava — wild kava.

One day, a woman was peeling yams alone by the ocean. As she kneeled by the water, a spirit took advantage of her and slipped a magic stone into her vagina.

As soon as she realized what had happened, she took it out to examine it.

The woman brought the stone back to the village and showed the chief. He took it to the evening kava ceremony to discuss the stone with the other men.

Suddenly a spirit appeared. He showed them a kava plant larger than anyone had ever seen and told them this was the true kava. He also warned them to respect the stone, which gave them the magic ability to be able to grow kava.

The men placed the stone in a bow and filled it with water.

The next day, the bowl was overflowing with many more stones, which were then distributed to members of the community. People from villages all over traveled to get a stone for themselves.

There are several other versions of this story that are much more x-rated as well. Kava is often discarded by a god and is then found after the root enters a woman’s vagina as she sleeps or sits nearby where the plant was discarded.

Kava: A Gift From The Gods

Story #6: Tangaloa Refuse

(Samoa)

Tangaloa-le-Mana — a god — was once visiting earth.

He often drunk kava in heaven and grew a craving for this “nectar of the gods.” He sent his servant back to heaven to get some for him, along with a strainer, cup, and bowl.

The servants returned with the entire root — however, only the rhizome is used, so Tangaloa separated the rhizome and threw away the rest.

Pava, a mortal, watched what had happened and went to collect the pieces the god had thrown away. After bringing them back to his home, he planted them. New plants grew from the rejected pieces, and he learned to drink the heavenly plant himself.

Summary: Kava Origins

Although the exact origin of kava is unknown, most signs suggest the original kava plant (Piper methysticum) formed as a random genetic mutation of a related species (Piper wichmani) somewhere on the Northern part of Vanuatu. From here, the plant was carried by early explorers as they left in search of new islands to colonize across the pacific ocean.

Like any traditional plant, especially one as old as kava, there is a lot of lore around the use of the herb. Every region has its own origin story for how the plant came to be. While every island is different, there is a lot of overlap — which suggests these stories may have stemmed from a similar source and have gradually changed and evolved over the years.

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