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The Drink of the Gods: Kava in Samoa and Hawaii

Religion and psychoactive substances, in the minds of most Westerners, do not belong in the same sentence.  The closest most Westerners come to making that connection is drinking a small swig of wine during the Catholic mass with a thin, unappetizing wafer. Western colonization of the New World resulted in the recreational use of substances once considered divine. The ‘shrooms college students consume by the bushel have been used by Mexican shamans for thousands of years for spiritual illumination and guidance. In the Native American Church, the hallucinogenic cactus peyote is an essential component of their ceremonies. And Brazilian churches like Sainto Daime have kept the ceremonial use of ayahuasca alive.  In the South Pacific, kava (piper methysticum) is no exception.  Many South Pacific cultures have managed to keep a lot of their spiritual beliefs intact even after the arrival of Christian missionaries.

Hawaii

According to traditional native Hawaiian belief, kava was a literal gift from the gods, in this case Kane and Kanaloa, to be more specific. Kanaloa is a god associated with squids and octopi, and with the underworld and was believed to be a teacher of magic. Kane is believed to be a complimentary force to that of Kanaloa, and with Kanaloa, is one of the four principal Hawaiian gods.  Hawaiians believe Kane is the god of procreation and the ancestor of both commoners and the chiefs who ruled over them.

During traditional Hawaiian ceremonies, the more prized kava strains were reserved for chiefs and other high-ranking villagers.  Participants sit in a circle and say a prayer to the gods.  After the prayers, it was customary to “share” the kava with the gods by dipping a finger into the liquid and snapping it upward, saying “This is yours and this is mine.”  Translated from the original Hawaiian, the literal meaning is “The (shadow) essence is yours and the substance is mine.”  This step is never avoided, because Hawaiians believe this would be an affront to the gods and could potentially invite divine retribution.

Once the kava is shared with the gods it is consumed, followed immediately with the drinking of wai (water) to rinse the mouth.  This is followed by consuming a bit of food, called pūpū, like mai’a (banana) or ko (sugar cane) to offset kava’s often bitter taste. Sometimes, instead of plain water, aumiki, a mixture of water and noni, was taken after the consumption of kava.

Samoa

Samoans have their own unique beliefs and ceremonies surrounding kava.  In Samoa, Kava is consumed during any ceremony of importance, including fonos (meetings of political leaders) malagas (visits from travelers) village holidays and after funerals.  These ceremonies are traditionally reserved for the title-bearing men of an extended family and women are rarely present.

At the beginning of the ceremony, the “talking chief” (second in rank to the highest chief of the village) introduces the kava to the assembled men, mentioning its form, size, and color.  Before the arrival of Christianity, the chief would invoke the names of various gods and demons, but this part of the ritual was discontinued.  The kava is prepared by young girls from a chief’s family.  The kava is broken up and prepared in a sacred bowl called a tanoa.  After preparation is finished, all those in attendance clap their hands four times before accepting the kava.

A series of speeches is given in a traditional order.  The first is “vi‘iga” which is a speech to praise all the gods.  The introduction of kava is next, followed by “tareao” which is a speech given to mention important historical dates in Samoan history.  Nowadays this speech also mentions the Lord Jesus and the arrival of Christianity to Samoa.  The next speech gives honorable mentions to all title-bearing men of the village, but in contemporary Samoa it is mentioned that all honor belongs to Jesus.  Traditionally, the final speech would be a request for forgiveness for every wrong word spoken.  Today it is also followed by a plea for mercy and forgiveness from God.

The kava is then distributed by a village member chosen for his impeccable knowledge of the family histories of those present and his self-confidence.  This is done according to set of rules that have remained unchanged for over 2,000 years.  During the ceremony, no one can walk or stand up except the man distributing kava.  This taboo stems from an ancient myth about a Samoan god named Tagaloa-Ui who killed and cut apart a participant of a kava ceremony because he refused to sit still.  Tagoloa-Ui was about to eat the dead man’s flesh, but the deceased’s father was so distraught at the death of his son that the god decided to eat coconut and taro with the kava instead.  The god also decided to magically heal the boy by putting him back together with kava.

Once it is the highest chief’s turn to drink kava, it is customary for him to spill a couple of drops on the mat he is sitting on.  This is a religious gesture to thank God for the gift of kava.

In earlier times, the kava would be distributed according to rank, with the distributor drinking last and the highest-ranking chiefs drinking first.  After the arrival of Christianity, it is now customary that the village preacher drinks first.

Matt Clark started Ohana Kava Bar in Colorado Springs because he wanted to bring his passion for kava to a wider audience.  Founded in 2015, Ohana Kava Bar was founded out of a respect for the traditional kava cultures of the South Pacific. The downtown Ohana Kava Bar location features authentic Polynesian masks on the walls, and books and other reading materials about kava cultures of the South Pacific.  If you have an interest in kava or the cultures that nurtured it, stop by Ohana Kava Bar.  Matt Clark or one of his friendly kava “slingers” (bartenders) will be happy to answer any questions you may have.  Ohana is welcoming to everyone, regardless of culture or background.