Kava Kava: history, traditions and legends
The traditions of drinking Kava goes back three thousand years and probably began on the islands of Vanuatu or Tonga. Then it reached Fiji and other islands, eventually covering almost the entire Pacific. In most regions, Kava’s performance was so highly regarded that it was beginning to shape the local culture.
Kava as a ritual and proof of respect
The ritual of preparation and shared drinking performed many social, political, and religious functions. It was an important part of tribal ceremonies and customs: with Kava, for example, unions were formalized, or conflicts were resolved. It also gained an important role in commemorating holidays and celebrations. Kava was drunk by shamans and rulers, and the bowl was passed on in order to reflect the communal hierarchy.
Despite several regional differences, what is most valuable in the shared Kava drink has remained unchanged: everywhere it is a symbol of respect and lasting bonds, good intentions, and mutual trust. In the past, visitors from other islands were hosted with the extract and the roots were taken on a journey as the most expensive gift. Nowadays, Kava has been used to host, among others, Queen Elizabeth II and John Paul II (Fiji, 1963 and 1986 respectively) or recently Emmanuel Macron (Vanuatu 2023). As the legend goes, the best part of the crops had to be given to the gods and rulers, the second part to guests and friends, leaving at most the third, worst part for oneself. This was how a pacific culture developed, full of openness, mutuality, and respect.
Kava: pacific culture
In the Pacific islands, Kava not only took on different names and cultural functions, but also grew up with various legends and beliefs.
In Pohnpei (Micronesia), the methistine pepper is called sakau and, according to legends, it is a godly gift. Once, however, the gods decided that their gift was too valuable to share with the islanders and took their sakau from them. Fortunately one of the inhabitants of Pohnpei, during a visit to nearby Kosrae, stole valuable roots and smuggled them back to her home island. She hid sakau in her vagina. This is at least the explanation for the different aromas of the roots grown on Pohnpei and Kosrae.
In Hawaii, Kava is referred to as ‘awa’ and is also treated as a godly gift (in one legend, the birds brought awama to the island). Awa is a sacred drink and belonged to the gods in the first place. In the second: leaders and those who sit highest in the community hierarchy. But in Hawaii, it was also accessed by fishermen and farmers, as well as women, which was not obvious on other Pacific islands.
Tonga and Samoa have elevated Kava drinking to the level of extensive ceremonials that symbolically gather entire communities on the occasion of major events. Each such ceremony has a strictly defined scenario and importance: individual roles and functions are precisely assigned (e.g. in Samoa ‘Aumaga prepare ‘ava’, Palu’ava mix it, Sui’ava add water, Tufa’ava calls the names of the next drinkers), and the seating of guests and the process of sharing Kava accurately reflects the social hierarchy. In Samoa, ‘ava’ also functions as a separate title, given to selected heads of families.
Kava myths and legends
The most widespread legend about Kava and its origin relates to the Tongan islands. Here, on one of the isolated and food poor islands, Favanga and Felefafa were to live with their daughter Kava. One day their poor hut was visited by a king, hungry and tired after a failed fishing trip. The hosts, having nothing to offer the king, decided to sacrifice their only treasure: their daughter’s life. When the king learnt of the sacrifice made by the parents, he promised that her name would be remembered forever. Soon after, two plants grew on her grave. One filled with calm, the other with energy. The first was kava, the other sugarcane.
Today’s science points to Vanuatu as the place of kava’s origins, and these islands also have their own legend. Here are two sisters washing the food they had collected by the river a moment ago. Suddenly, one of them experienced an unexpected rush of pleasure. It turned out that a previously unknown plant had sprouted its stalk between her legs. The sisters took the plant to their garden and nurtured it for years until it was mature enough to share their findings with others.
The oldest records about Kava date back to year 1616: Dutch navigators write about it when visiting Futuna. The oldest illustration of the methistine pepper is in the Natural History Museum in London – drawn by Sydney Parkinson in 1769. Parkinson was a member of James Cook’s first Pacific expedition.