Before there was Piper methysticum (domesticated kava kava), there was Piper wichmannii – the beautifully original form of the Kava kava plant – wild and perfectly untouched by human contact or cultivation. We can imagine a tropical world totally innocent of discovery, a world void of commercial extraction and consumption, a world where humans hadn’t yet arrived – or evolved – and the work of spiritual beings was at play. We can envision spiritual entities that created a fantastical set of islands, populated by creatures and botanical beauty not even imaginable to our human minds – islands where Piper wichmannii was divinely placed to sit and await the fate of her discovery, when the mortals of human kind would be graced with the gift of Kava kava and the origin of kava to be born.
My guru insight tells me that Piper wichmannii very likely evolved alongside many other wild plants whose exact origins are unknown, and it is likely a member of a very long line of botanical ancestry that is quite difficult to trace. Exact knowledge as to where the alluring Kava kava first originated pretty well escapes historical records. In order to reconstruct a coherent historical account as to the exact mythological origin (probably usage origin as well) of kava, we are dependent upon antiquated and mythical accounts of Piper methysticum’s wild sister – Piper wichmannii.
Fortunately, Tongan and Vanuatu mythology is rife with tales of Kava’s spiritual and ancestral origins. There are two conceptually different strains of mythology with regard to the origin of kava kava: the external and local. The external tales tell of how Piper wichmannii was graced upon the South Pacific peoples by a godly and heroic entity that brought it from a spiritual or far off earthly realm, with varying tales of just who this heroic spirit was or just what exactly happened; whereas the local tales tell the story of the ancestral usage or the cultivation of kava kava [2, p. 14-15].
Mythological accounts of Kava (or the external and local mythological stories) are meant to provide an understanding of the physical origin of Kava kava and its use – the mythological answer to the question of where Kava came from. These external tales are brimming with heroism and spiritual beings that are held in the highest esteem for gracing mortal creatures with the gift of the Kava plant. Many of these folk tales revolve around conceptual structures of life and death, where kava is often idealized as the bringer of life [2, p. 14-15].
One such Tongan legend is of the origin of kingship and is thought to symbolically refer to the origin of Kava itself; it can be categorized as an external account. It tells of a spiritual entity having intercourse with a female mortal being who then gives birth to a half-god son named Aho eito. The son, eager to meet with his divine father, climbs an incredibly tall ironwood tree and is met by his father who mistakes him for a spiritual being that is even greater than himself. The father brings the son to meet his half-brothers who become incessantly jealous of his beauty and received admiration. The divine siblings then rip Aho eito to pieces and proceed to consume him. The father suspects what the other sons had done to Aho eito and has them vomit into a bowl. The vomit is then submersed in water and Aho eito slowly emerges as a whole and living being once again. The father then sends Aho eito to earth to be the first Tu i Tonga, or king of Tonga [1, p. 287-288].
The vomiting into the bowl by the brothers of Aho eito is thought to symbolically represent the chewing of Kava that is then communally spit into a bowl and mixed with water [1, p. 288]. The resultant Kava drink is then traditionally consumed during ceremonies, often during the installment of chiefs and other cultural heads [3, p. 109-110]. The traditional uses of Kava kava do seem to outline a theme that is similar to the death and rebirth of Aho eito who is eaten and then spit up, mixed with water and reborn as a king on earth, just as the kava plant is traditionally used.
Another such external tale tells of the deity Tagaloa Ui who happens upon the house of the mortal chief Pava while wandering through a field of Kava. At Pava’s home the first mortal ceremony involving Kava is held. Pava’s son is rambunctiously running about and making noise and Tagaloa Ui asks Pava to quiet his son. Pava does not obey and the boy’s behavior continues until Tagaloa Ui cuts the boy into two pieces using a coconut frond that has been formed into a knife. The deity then instructs Pava to eat his boy and Pava declines. The deity then uses kava from his mountain home to create a drink that is poured over the pieces of Pava’s boy, while he says “Soifua (life)”, and the boy is then brought back to life. Again, we can see the theme of divine and mortal interplay interwoven with death, life and high social positions [2, p. 13].
Accounts of the local origins of Kava tell fantastic tales of how the plant was first discovered, grown and used by the South Pacific island peoples. These local tales are often sexualized and there is frequently a prominent female presence; this presence can manifest in the tales in several forms, such as symbolically as a female sexual organ or as female creatures (human or otherwise).
One such local tale is interwoven with the mythology of the external origin of Kava as having come from a divine hero – which highlights the interconnectedness and consistency of Kava mythology. This story begins with the hero Mwatiktiki on Tanna – an island in Vanuatu. Mwatiktiki arrives on Tanna with a Kava plant, which he hides between rocks near the shore. Two female ancestors of the Tanna people go to the shore with yams and begin to peel the yams there. One of the women is surprised, as she is squatting in the grass, by the presence of the Kava plant on and within her nether regions – the plant is meant to be a phallic representation. The Kava root had sprouted and risen up, penetrating the women – bringing her much enjoyment. The women pull the wild plant out from between the rocks where Mwatiktiki had hid it and bring it back to their garden in Isouragi – their home – where they presumably began to cultivate it and spread its pleasurable benefits [2, p. 13].
Another local tale tells of the burial of a sister by her brother after the brother had tried to protect her from a suitor she had refused to be with. The suitor shoots an arrow intended for the brother, misses and kills the sister. The boy buries his sister and within a week an unusual plant that he hasn’t ever seen before sprouts from the grave of his sister. At first he leaves the plant alone for quite some time. One day when he is mourning the death of his sister at the site of her burial he notices a rat nibbling on the plant. The rat shortly dies. After observing what happened to the rat the boy, unable to bear the death of his sister any longer, decides to kill himself by eating the plant. Something unexpected happens. Rather than dying the boy is rejuvenated, filled with life and happiness. He forgets his misery and comes back to consume the plant and rejoice and goes on to share the plant with many others [2, p. 12] Once again, we can see how the theme of an external spiritual origin of the kava plant and an adaptation of the central themes of life and death, are woven throughout this tale.
Although we do not presently dwell in these mythical worlds, and may never have dwelt in these worlds – they nonetheless paint a historical account of Kava similar to how religious books might construct a historical account of various religious developments; namely, through symbolic story telling. These folk accounts can be pieced together to construct an understanding of how aspects of kava culture and tradition began. Whether these tales give an accurate account of how Piper wichmannii first came to be on this earthy rock of ours, is something that goes beyond my guru wisdom. But one thing can be said for certain: Piper wichmannii was discovered a long, long time ago in a far-off South Pacific island, amongst creatures and botanical entities too wonderful to comprehend. A mythical legacy thus began and is sure to be carried on for many upon many generations of islanders to come…
1. James, K.E. “The Female Presence in Heavenly Places: Myth and Sovereignty in Tonga”. Wiley and Oceania Publications: June 1991. Oceania, Vol. 61, 4 pp.287-308.
2. Singh, Yadhu N. “Kava: from ethnology to pharmacology”. Taylor and Francis LTD: 2004.
3. Singh, Yadhu N. “Kava: An Old Drug in a New World”. University of Minnesota Press: winter of 2009. Cultural Critique, No. 71 pp. 107-128.