A Brief History of Kava Kava

Throughout the Pacific Islands, which figure so prominently in our romantic literature, there is cultivated a shrub that produces a slightly bitter, slightly soapy, aromatic resinous brew. Now found all over the South Pacific and as far west as Hawaii, botanists believe that kava kava originated somewhere in the archipelago of Vanuatu, possibly on Pentecost Island.

Piper methysticum is the binomial by which the botanist characterizes this plant, which is related to the black pepper of commerce. The mouths of children are generally more disease free than those of adults, and their teeth are stronger. As they gnaw away a mouthful of the root, it is spit into a large wooden bowl.

The alkaline saliva of the mouth with its salivary enzymes promotes the extraction of the active constituents known as kavalactones. According to the native peoples of these islands, the brew produced in this manner is much tastier than that which is mechanically grated.

Hygienic considerations led the French and English to prohibit such chewing and spitting. Normally the saliva-root bark mixture is diluted by the addition of water; and the mixture is strained into coconut bowls. Kava brews have the property of producing relaxation, calm, and mental tranquillity. Such a contentment seems to bring no cessation of reason, and active discussions occupy the participants during the evening gatherings where kava is traditionally consumed . . . It is now possible to purchase bags of dried and powdered root bark. A brew from this source lacks the aromatic properties of the freshly made kava and is not true to the flavor.

Oceanic cultures vary in the importance they attach to the use of kava. Samoa has perhaps the greatest historical use of the brew, and in Manua legend states that kava was first given by the Sun God to Tagaloa Ui, the first high chief of the Samoans. The legend begins with the sacrifice to the sun of a young virgin, Fituita, at the place where the sun rises.

Her fate was to be that of other virgins who were each year devoured by the sun. However, one year a girl by the name of Ui was offered, and so great was her beauty that the sun took her to be his bride. When she became pregnant by this solar deity and wished to return for a visit with her people to give birth, consent was granted and she was sent flying through the sky at a tremendous speed.

Unfortunately, she miscarried and the foetus fell into the ocean. All was not lost, for a hermit crab attended to it, along with a plover and a shrike. The boy grew under the guidance of this unlikely trio into Tagaloa Ui. It was he who taught mortals how to make kava, as well as the reverential ceremony that surrounds its use. Pava, the first mortal to participate in the ceremony, had a son who laughed at the antics of his father as he attempted to prepare this brew for Tagaloa Ui.

In god-like wrath Tagaloa Ui cut the son into two pieces to the dismay of Pava, and then proceeded to instruct Pava in the correct manner of preparing kava. After a wooden bowl was filled with kava, Pava offered it to Tagaloa Ui, who did not drink it, but poured it on half of Pava's dead son and uttered "soifua," or life. At this pronouncement the boy was made whole again and Pava clapped his hands in joy.

With the admonition that kava pertains to high chiefs and is sacred, Tagaloa Ui took his leave. Rituals since that day involve the pronouncement and clapping of hands.

This elaborate myth contains all of man's relationships to sun, sky, water, earth, plants, and animals as well as attributes of the "Divine Being," the mortal self, birth, death, resurrection, marriage, mystical spirit flight, and shamanic transformation. It seems to embody the essence of many myths in diverse areas of the world . . .[for instance,] it parallels the Osirian mysteries with no trans-cultural contact.

This ritual use of kava remains most intact today in Samoa, but in the Oceanic area in general kava bars are not uncommon and are becoming the coffeehouses of this great area.

Excerpted from "Narcotic Plants" by William Emboden. Despite the title of the work, kava is not classified as a narcotic plant in the U.S., where it is freely used as a dietary supplement.