Kava plays a very special role in the cultures and communities that grow this unique plant in the South Pacific.
Unlike coffee, tea, coco, and other highly exported items, the cultivation and sale of kava transplants part of the culture and tradition from the villages and towns in Fiji, Vanuatu, and Tonga where kava originates to the homes and nakamals around the world where it’s finally enjoyed.
As we learned in examining the origin of kava myth from the Tongan culture, kava often represents a connection between the past and present. In the Tongan myth, the sacrifice of Kava kilia mai Faa’imata by her father Fevanga so touched the king that he declared her name would never be forgotten. When a mysterious new plant sprouted from their daughter’s grave, it was given the name kava in honor of the woman whose sacrifice in honor of the king symbolized so many things inherent in the Tongan culture.
A respect for the ancestors that created and established existing traditions. A duty to serve the King of Tonga, and honor him with kava. A connection between the present and the past that’s formed through the land both have shared. All of these characteristics can be seen expressed in how the Tongan culture chooses to mythicize the creation of kava.
A myth surrounding the origin of the plant also exists in Vanuatu. And while the Vanuatu origin of kava shares some similarities to the Tongan myth, the two have some very definite and distinct differences.
The Origin of Kava Myth in Vanuatu
Long ago, orphaned twins lived alone on one of the northern most islands of the Vanuatu archipelago. Despite their isolation and the loss of their parents, the siblings were able to create a happy and loving home. By living off the land, the twins had all they needed, and were content in their isolation.
One night, a stranger appeared from out of the forest. Generous and kind, the twins offered to share their food and provide shelter to the stranger for the night. As the evening progressed, the stranger became increasingly smitten by the young woman’s charm and beauty. When morning came, the stranger insisted that the young woman come home with him, and that they would be married upon returning to his village.
Happy living with her brother, the young woman refused the man’s offer. However, the man would not take no for an answer, insisting that he would drag the woman back to his home if she did not come willingly.
Defiantly, the brother leaped to his sister’s aid, and began to fight with the stranger. Unfortunately, tragedy struck during the struggle. An arrow fired from the stranger’s bow missed the brother, but fatally wounded the sister.
Horrified, the stranger fled the sibling’s home, leaving the brother to mourn the loss of his sister.
The young man was inconsolable in his grief over his sister’s death. Most days would pass with him sitting at the side of his sister’s grave, mourning her death.
One day, about a week after her death, a small plant began to sprout from his sister’s grave which the young man had never seen before. The plant had emerged from the soil alone, with no other weeds or vegetation growing from the young woman’s grave. As means of honoring his sister, the young man decided to allow the plant to continue to grow.
A year passed, but the young man was still unable to overcome his sorrow. Sitting beside his sister’s grave, the young man noticed a small mouse nibbling on the root of plant that had now fully grown and matured. To his shock, the mouse died after eating the plant. Consumed by a grief that felt never-ending, the young man decided to eat large quantities of root himself and finally join his sister on the other side.
However, eating the root did not cause the young man to die. Rather remarkably, eating the root caused all of the pain and sadness he had experienced over his sister’s death to simply disappear. From that point on, whenever the young man would feel sadden by the loss of his sister, he would return to her grave and eat the roots of this magical plant we now know today as kava.
Eventually, with the help of kava, the young man came to accept the loss of his sister. He then began to travel throughout Vanuatu teaching others of the magical properties inherent in the plant.
A Separation of Myth
Unlike the Tongan origin myth, the Vanuatu kava creation myth focuses on the actual medicinal properties inherent in kava. From reducing anxiety and improving sociability to pain reliever and sleep enabler, people today consume kava for a range of perceived benefits.
Where the Tongan myth focused primarily on the connection between ancestors and the land, the Vanuatu myth expresses a more tangible relationship. Taking kava makes people feel better. As the young man was able to overcome his grief, so to do people today in Vanuatu take kava for a variety of reasons that don’t just relate to the sacred nature of the plant.
While both cultures honor kava as a means of connecting with the past, the Vanuatu myth shows kava as something everyone should enjoy.
In the Tongan myth, Kava kilia mai Faa’imata was sacrificed in honor of the king. From Kava kilia’s grave, two plants grew - kava and sugar. Kava was reserved for the king while sugar was for the people. Even today, when a new king of Tonga takes his place upon the throne, kava is used during the coronation.
While both nobility and the people both enjoy kava today in Tonga, the people of Vanuatu developed a very different relationship with the plant that these different myths help to illustrate.
Despite whatever differences may exist, kava still plays a vital role in both country’s cultures. An inherent pride exists in the kava grown in this region of the world. So, whether in our Portland kava bar or at a nakamal in another place in the world, that heritage comes across with every sip and shell we drink.