Dear Kava Guru,
Did shaman ever use kava?
This is an interesting and complicated question, and I’ll do my best to give a clear answer. Kava is unlike many plant medicines used in ceremonies in that it was used in many other non-ceremonial contexts as well, including as a social relaxant that commoners as well as nobles could easily access. However, kava also did—and still does—have its place in ritual divinations and ceremonies in which indigenous priests and magic workers made contact with their gods and ancestors. So yes, in a sense indigenous shamanic figures have used kava sacramentally! However, kava has also been used ritually in far broader contexts than divination and religious ceremonies, a fact that sets it apart from many ritual shamanic plant medicines.
Substances for shamanic or ritual use are usually plants or fungi with physiological and psychoactive effects, some of them subtle, some less so. Many shamanic plants are used only in ceremonies and are considered quite powerful, necessitating their removal from the realm of the everyday. Others, such as kava, wine, coca leaf, and even coffee, are used both in ritual and social contexts . According to traditional belief systems, kava is believed to facilitate contact with ancestors, gods, and spirits of the departed . For many indigenous South Pacific Islanders, consuming kava is not only a ritual act but one that maintains the connection to the spirit world . However, a big difference between kava and many other ceremonial plant medicines is that its consumption was not restricted to priests or shaman but could be experienced by anyone.
In fact, the kava ceremony has remained an integral part of social bonding all across the South Pacific probably for hundreds if not thousands of years. Important occasions such as coronations, weddings, and naming ceremonies for infants all include ritual kava consumption in the proceedings. In ritual contexts like these, consuming kava is believed to encourage good fortune and propitiate gods and ancestors . On the Hawaiian Islands, common folk such as farmers and fishers would frequently offer the gods libations of ‘awa (kava) to ensure a bountiful harvest or catch . Along with red fish, cocoa nuts, and wild boar, kava was among the traditional offerings made during the crafting of a koa (wooden canoe): a kahuna, or Hawaiian shaman, would retire to the forest for a few days to consult the gods and find the perfect tree to harvest. Then he would lead a party from the village into the forest to make the ritual offerings before felling the tree and taking it back to the village . In a similar ritual use in Fiji and nearby regions, libations of kava are sometimes poured on the ground to commemorate the naming of a new ship.
You might be able to see why it can be difficult to separate kava’s magical uses from its larger ritual context; yet there are some traditional kava ceremonies that carry a distinct shamanic tone. For instance, Hawaiian kahuna have long taken kava as a way of obtaining divine inspiration from indigenous deities. For this purpose, a special varietal of kava called Hiwa, or black kava, was often used . Typically the kahuna would first offer some of the sacred ‘awa to the deity he wanted to call on for inspiration, by sprinkling or pouring some of the prepared ‘awa onto a carved image of the deity. In cases where there was no image, the kahuna might sprinkle a bit of ‘awa into the air before consuming the leftover portion .
Priests also used kava brews as a divination tool: in a practice similar to reading tea leaves, the practitioner would blow on the surface of a bowl full of prepared kava and interpret the pattern made by the bubbles to determine lucky courses of action . This kind of kava divination was used to name infants (especially boys), diagnose illnesses, and predict the sex of unborn children . Sounds pretty shamanic to me!
Native Fijians also used kava as a divining tool, though there the practice would be done by lay diviners—ordinary people, in other words—as well as priests . Kava has always had a strong connection to themes of death and rebirth in Fijian myth, and some stories claim that kava was a gift from the creator god Degei to the first humans to inhabit the islands . Similarly, indigenous Hawaiians consider kava a gift from the gods Kane and Kanaloa . Kane and Kanaloa are companion deities in the Hawaiian pantheon, with a deep connection both to humans and the natural world that surrounds them: Kane is said to be the ancestor of both chiefs and commoners, and is also the god of sunlight, fresh water, forests, and the growth of plants. Kanaloa—sometimes also called Kane-ma—is the companion of Kane and is the god of the ocean, marine life, and healing . According to legend, in ancient times Kane and Kanaloa brought the kava plant to Hawaii from Kahiki, the ancestral homeland of Hawaiian myth. They planted kava all over the islands, sometimes causing springs to flow in areas where there was no water so that the kava could grow there . There are similar connections between kava and indigenous gods in most areas of the South Pacific, and as a result the plant is always harvested and used with the utmost respect.
It probably comes as no shock that Christian missionaries to the South Pacific Islands tried to ban kava kava. Many believed it allowed the devil into the mind—a common rationale for attempts to ban indigenous plant medicines with ritual use throughout the non-Western world. Of course, kava was also problematic because of the connection it created between indigenous peoples and their deities and spirits, which got in the way of the missionaries’ conversion efforts.
Luckily, today kava kava has returned to its popular status in the South Pacific as a herbal libation that can be enjoyed by one and all. Though kava kava has never been the exclusive province of shamans or priests, I hope this article has helped you gain a bit more appreciation for this wonderful herb’s ritual dimensions, as well as the deep history of reverence and spiritual significance behind its use.
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