From Myth to Medicine

KG-where did kava originate? 211X300While I’ve discussed the origin of Kava and the mythological accounts of Kava a bit – I’ve not really given a thorough account of the movement of Kava through the South Pacific ancestral myths to the Western world’s medicine cabinets. So, now I will reveal the all-inclusive article on the origin of Kava. I will do this in hope of divulging a more detailed and rigorous account of the origin of Kava – from when it arrived on earth from the Kava gods to its growth by South Pacific locals, to its  Western acquisition, and finally to the actual medicine cabinets of Europe and the rest of the Western world.   It’s a lot, but I think it’s just about time I sit down with a cup of Kava and trace the history of this dear plant – fully.

Myth and the Origin of Kava:

To find the origin of Kava, we first need to take a look at the origin of the people who have Kava (or ‘awa as most throughout Oceania call it) deeply entwined within their culture and mythology – the Polynesians. Although historical references are unfortunately scarce and often recorded by “outsiders” such as the European missionaries, the Polynesians nonetheless offer many clues as to how deeply important Kava was to their daily existence and their sacred rituals. Many of these clues can be found trailed through their myths and oral traditions.

The oral traditions, or mythological accounts of the Polynesian people are considered to recount history or ancient happenings through non-written form.   Oral tradition is a flexible method of relaying a particular story and is filled with dramatic story enhancers like metaphors and the personification of animals or gods. In oral traditions there isn’t a concrete structure to the stories being told and as a result the same story might vary from orator to orator. While the essential principles or message might remain the same, the setting or character names might change to suit the needs of the person telling the story [12].

While the Western conception of history is based in constructing a set knowledge about the past, Polynesian oral traditions are intended more to gain an understanding or legitimacy for the present way that things are [12]. Given the very different method of constructing the past as non-written, varying stories – it is needless to say quite difficult to determine any kind of  factuality about Polynesian history, including the use of Kava.

The true origin of Kava essentially must be left to an account of the myths and legends of South Pacific localities and details of its arrival in the islands and use by the people are essentially left to the gods and deities that flow through Polynesian oral tradition.

From Myth to Cultivar:

While our exact knowledge basis of Kava and its use by the Polynesian people is quite limited — because of the nature of the historical records – we can nonetheless construct a semi-thorough understanding of the ancient use of Kava through an analysis of bits and pieces collected from research papers, myths, and other texts. One thing that many ethnobotanists seem to consistently agree upon is that Piper methysticum – the kava kava plant – came from Piper wichmannii, a wild plant that scientists say is in the direct botanical lineage of Piper methysticum. Given that Piper methysticum is a cultivar, it essentially cannot propagate or adapt without human interaction and as a result it is believed that it was adapted from a wild plant of the same species [7].   Vincent Lebot, along with several other authors on Kava, stated that essentially all of the worthwhile evidence on the topic indicates that the plant Piper methysticum is a cultivar of Piper wichmannii. Piper wichmannii is a fertile plant that is morphologically similar to Piper methysticum. Furthermore, Piper wichmannii is the only known varietal in the wild to carry a high quantity of kavalactones like Piper methysticum, and it has an almost identical chemotype as some Piper methysticum cultivars [1].

The points highlighted above only touch the surface of evidence indicating that Piper methysticum is the direct result of Piper wichmannii cultivation, but they nonetheless serve to illustrate just how vastly detailed the body of evidence is. Over the centuries each South Pacific region has established a unique cultivar with its own chemical profile [5].

Although New Guinea has the most varied population of Piper wichmannii, and is thus a contender for the origin of its cultivar Piper methysticum, there isn’t enough concrete evidence or historical data to determine just where Piper wichmannii came from or how it evolved. Where Piper wichmannii came from is perhaps a story that must be left to the gods of South Pacific mythology. One myth tells of a godly and heroic entity named Mwatiktiki, who comes from some far off place to Tanna – an island in Vanuatu. This being places the original kava kava plant between rocks by the shore. Two local women happen upon the plant and have pleasurable experiences with it. They then bring it back to their localities and cultivate it, eventually sharing its joys with their fellow villagers [10]. Presumably, this mythological story is speaking of the discovery of Piper wichmannii, which was then farmed and cultivated by the people of Vanuatu.

European Acquisition, Captain Cook and the Missionaries:

While many history texts construct Captain Cook as a hero of sorts, a person of great determination and one to be thanked for many things – the account of locals from the places he landed during his adventures tells of quite a different character. Even the historical references recorded by “outsiders”, such as the European missionaries and Captain Cook himself, offer many clues as to how deeply important Kava was to the South Pacific Islanders’ daily existence and their sacred rituals and how this divine root made its way to Europe and other continents.

The sources are inconsistent with regard to Captain Cook and his involvement with Kava and the culture surrounding it. Some sources depict his adventure to the South Pacific Islands as one of great immersion and enjoyment in Kava culture, while other sources emphasize his and his crew’s disdain for the drink and their especial disgust with the process of making it: “Kava is made in the most disgustful manner that can be imagined…they swallow this nauseous stuff as fast as possible…” [13].

One source that highlights Cook’s disapproval of the drink states the following as coming from Cook’s own texts:

“The Excess with which the Chief[s] drink the Kava, destroys their Strength & makes them sad objects of Debauchery, they far outdo in the use of this pernicious root all the other Indians we have vist’d; the more Scaly their bodies are, the more honourable it is with them. . . . Many before they are forty are miserable Objects, their whole frame trembles, their Eyes are so sore & reddened, that they seem in Constant pain; yet I believe in a short time by disusing this liq- uor the soreness of the Eyes goes away; at least we made some of our friends refrain & they re- covered amazingly”[5].

Yet, Gananath Obeyesekere – the author of The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific – illuminates another side to the story:

“Sociability and decorum drew Cook into the Kava circle of Tongan chiefly life. They were repelled by the way that it was brewed, but Cook was impressed by the sociability it fostered. Cook was invited to a Kava circle by Paulaho the “king” on 7 June, only four days after landing in Nomuka. Soon Cook was fully ensconced in the Kava circle, so that Lieutenant Williamson noted on 17 July that ‘Captain Cook often drank of it, holding it as an argument that seamen should eat and drink everything…’” [8]

While it’s unclear whether or not Captain Cook actually favored the Kava drink, given that the sources on the matter are inconsistent – it can be said for certain that the missionaries loathed the entire concept of Kava and Kava culture and its religious underpinnings. Unfortunately, even from a purely objective viewpoint, these European missionaries, according to their own recorded documents, went to great lengths to obliterate the culture of the Polynesians in order to overlay Christianity onto various peoples with a brutality that I will do my best to only touch upon as necessary to illustrate key points on this particular journey of discovery. As part of this, the missionaries made it their Christian duty to obliterate Kava and its consumption.

First, it appears that Polynesians were so intricately connected with nature, that they had no concept of the “supernatural” or “spiritual” as defined by modern or “book” religions as I call them.  To the Polynesians, everything belonged to nature, whether it was their own existence, the plants and animals they coexisted with and often consumed, the living gods among them as chiefs (we would call them demigods), or the gods who ruled the plants, the land, the seas, the skies, and the stars that guided their daily lives and controlled the forces of nature.

The Polynesians revere their gods as “departed ancestors” who lived among them long ago. The Polynesian reverence for their elders thus makes complete sense, as their elders are the closest living connection to their gods.  Chiefs were typically chosen because of their physical prowess, their robustness in size and stature, and were trained in warfare from the time they were boys. Chiefs were also on the front lines in battles, and weren’t just warriors, but were also decision makers in every aspect of Polynesian life.

There are several “venerated spirits” in Polynesian culture that stand out from the rest.  These gods were the most distant ancestors, and the greatest providers of “mana” (spiritual power).  These gods are “Tu” (Ku in Hawaiian), “Tane” (Kane in Hawaiian), “Kongo” (Lono in Hawaiian), and “Tangaroa” (Kanaloa in Hawaiian).  All were children of the sky father and earth mother.  Kava is often mentioned in Hawaiian culture along with Kane and Kanaloa; Kane is a god of good and Kanaloa is a mischievous, rebellious god often associated with the Christian devil.

One example is a standard prayer of offerings in exchange for health for individuals and their families; “O Kane, O Kanaloa, here is the taro, the bananas, here is the sugar-cane, the ‘awa.”

According to Hawaiian Mythology, “Kane and Kanaloa are described in legend as cultivators, ‘awa drinkers, and water finders, who migrated from Kahiki and traveled about the islands.  It is as ‘awa drinkers that the water-finding activities of these gods are employed in some stories, because ‘awa is their principal food and they must have fresh water with which to mix it.”

‘Kahiki’ is the Hawaiian, somewhat out of use, name for Tahiti – a region in the South Pacific. The Hawaiian people revere Kahiki as the ancestral land from which the Hawaiian people came from and from where their ‘akua’ or supernatural being originated [3]. This understanding of Kahiki, as an ancestral land, probably also sheds some light on the question of how Kava came to Hawaii.   As mentioned above the Polynesians believed their gods to be born from their ancestral lineage. Furthermore, much of Kava mythology explains that Kava came from the gods or a god [10], thus providing the link between Hawaiian ancestry – as understood by them – and the acquisition of Kava.

However, given this indigenous religion of the South Pacific island communities, Christian missionaries found it fit to invoke a dogmatic cleansing of the culture – a cleansing that included banning and destroying Kava. In Hawaii during the 1820’s, Queen Ka’ahumanu declared that neither chiefs nor anyone else were permitted to drink ‘awa and that it was also not to be planted; this happened just a few years after the missionaries arrived and were implementing Christianity. However, one missionary – John S. Emerson – wrote of how these prohibitions were being greatly violated.   As a result of further pressures and dogmatic action, ‘awa was thrown into the legal books and laws surrounding its use were enacted – its permitted use was solely medicinal.   Sadly, there are far fewer cultivars now in Hawaii as a direct result of this ‘purity cleansing’ – some estimate that there may have been up to 35 various cultivars prior to missionary involvement [5].

Yadhu Singh explains how when the evangelical missionaries arrived in various places within the Polynesian islands, there was a “disruption of the traditional way of life”, and that alcohol and other more pharmacological substances began to be introduced and replaced Kava.

Despite the missionaries’ attempted indoctrination of the Polynesian communities, Kava survived and has made a come back and is actually very much still popular in most South Pacific island communities. Singh suggests that the resurgence might have been due in part to the development of the John Frum cargo cult, which was an uprising directly in repudiation of Christian teachings. Carlton Gadjusek – a noble Laureate – noted that the Kava-drinking tradition of Tongariki was more like that of the Kava-drinking tradition of the Frum cult out of Tanna, given its lack of formality and restraint [10].

Transition into Western Medicinal World:

There was however one beneficial result of the missionaries’ circulation throughout the islands. It’s quite likely that many of the nations neighboring the Polynesian Kava-growing communities learned about Kava from the missionaries who had traveled through those islands. Singh tells us how the Australian Aborigines were unaware of Kava until the early 1980’s when missionaries came from islands like Fiji and Tonga [10]. Although, other island nations like Hawaii, probably received ‘awa from neighboring island communities, as their mythology suggests [5].

While there is no direct documentation of how Kava first arrived in Europe and other continents outside of the Polynesian regions, it’s fairly safe to assume it was brought over by the missionaries and crew of the Captain Cook voyages. However, until the mid 1990’s the major demand for Kava remained within the South Pacific islands – after 1996, import into Europe and elsewhere began to increase dramatically, with a decrease during the reign of Kava bans [10]. While there was a growing interest in Kava – throughout Europe and elsewhere – with an especially keen interest in its anxiolytic qualities, there was a ban in the early 2000’s that reverberated throughout many North American and European countries, nearly wiping out the export of Kava from the South Pacific islands. I speculate and draw out the details of this ban in other articles and so I won’t go into much detail here. But, essentially the ban was initiated by the German  Bundesinstitut für Arzneimittel und Medizinprodukte (in English, Federal Institute for Drugs and Medicinal Devices) and was later (fairly recently) declared to be unfounded and the ban was lifted in Germany; the ban was lifted in North America and other places prior to the recent developments in Germany [9].

Today, some places such as Australia still have restrictions on the import of Kava [2] – however, the restrictions are minimal and Kava is generally accepted worldwide now, slowly recovering from the bans placed throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s. For example, in Canada, Kava is no longer banned and the sale of Kava to individuals for personal consumption is permitted – although it’s unclear what the exact status is on commercial sales within Canada [6].

Outside of the South Pacific, Kava is predominantly used as a social beverage for personal relaxation and anxiety relief. For example, in the States there is a growing number of Kava bars – a social place where people can go to hang out with friends, relax and drink Kava beverages. However, probably its most widespread notoriety outside of the South Pacific islands is the use of Kava as an anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) substance in alternative medicine [5]. Many studies have been conducted that conclude that the use of Kava to treat anxiety is effective, and even better than pharmaceutical options, given that it is non-addictive and actually improves cognitive function rather than impairing it as other options do [11].

Ahhh, well I’m now through several shells of Kava and ready for a lovely snooze. I hope this somewhat historical document outlining the route of Kava, from myth to alternative medicine, has been helpful. Kava certainly has had quite the journey, from its divine origin, to its mainstream island culture, to its Christian prohibition and finally to its more recent debut in Europe and North America. I sure am grateful that the missionaries didn’t have complete success in their dogmatic infiltration and I’m also glad that Captain Cook didn’t totally hate Kava (as some sources might suggest) – as was noted above, even Captain Cook couldn’t resist the lure of the mystifying Piper methysticum.

Mahalo,

Kava Guru

Sources:

1. Applequist, and Lebot, Vincent. “Validation of Piper methysticum var. wichmannii (Piperaceae)”. Novon, Vol. 16 (1): April 2006, pp. 3-4

2. Australian Government – Department of Health. “Frequently Asked Questions on the Importation of Kava”. Online: http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/importation-of-kava

3. Cook, R. Kealani.“Kahiki: Native Hawaiian Relationships with Other Pacific Islanders”. Dissertation, University of Michigan: 2011.

4. Herbal Legacy, online: http://www.herballegacy.com/Wolsey_History.html

5. Johnston and Helen Rogers. Hawaiian ‘Awa: Views of an Ethnobotanical Treasure. Association for Hawaiian ‘Awa, 2006.

6. Kona Kava Farm. “Kava (not) banned in Canada”. Online: http://www.konakavafarm.com/kava-canada-banned.htm

7. Lynch, John. “Potent Roots and the Origin of Kava”. Oceanic Linguistics, Vol. 41 (2): December, 2002, p. 493-518

8. Obeyesekere, Gananath. The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific. Princeton University Press, Princeton New Jersey, 1992: p. 33.

9. Radio New Zealand: “German Court Overturns Kava Ban. Online: http://www.radionz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/246963/german-court-overturns-kava-ban

10. Singh, Yadhu N. Kava: From Ethnology to Pharmacology. Taylor and Francis LTD: 2004.

11. University of Maryland Medical Center. “Kava Kava”. Last modified: May 07, 2013. http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/kava-kava

12. Wikipedia. “Polynesian Myth”. Last modified, February 27, 2014: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polynesian_mythology

13. Wolsey, Lindsay. “The Benefits of the use of kava kava in Herbal Preparations: History of kava kava.” Dr. Christopher’s

 

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  1. […] kava (Piper methysticum) has become increasingly known in the Western world as a safe anxiolytic herb, tranquilizer, and relaxant made from the dried and powdered roots of the kava …. As the worldwide demand for alternatives to anxiety medications and alcohol increases, the […]

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