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What is Kava?

Kava (Piper Methysticum)

Kava is one of the classic enigmas of Oceanic ethno botany. It is consumed throughout the Pacific as a relaxing beverage for social interaction and as a support to religious inspiration. Because of its many beneficial qualities it is superior to alcohol, nicotine, tranquilizers and other substances that serve to reduce stress an improve mood. Interest in Kava is growing worldwide and its consumption is now extending well beyond the Pacific Rim as new products are developed from it for pharmacological and recreational markets worldwide.

Kava Plant

Kava (Piper Methysticum), a member of the pepper family Piperaceae, is an outstanding ethno pharmacological species. Kava is a handsome shrub that is propagated vegetative, as are most of the Pacific’s major traditional crops. Its active principles, a series of Kava lactones, are concentrated in the rootstock and roots. Islanders ingest these psychoactive chemicals by drinking cold-water infusions of chewed, ground, pounded, or otherwise macerated Kava stumps and roots.

The Kava plant is a robust, well-branching, and erect perennial shrub. It grows well in altitudes 150-300 meters above sea level in stony ground. It prefers warm, humid conditions with a lot of sunlight and can grow up to nine feet tall. The leaves are heart shaped, green, smooth, pointed, and about 4- 10 inches wide. The heavy, knotted mass of root grows about 60 cm below the ground and is used medicinally. Kava meaning "intoxicating drink," grows in the South Pacific in Polynesia, Indonesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia which makes up Oceania. It is also found in Hawaii where it means "bitter," "sour," "sharp," and "pungent."

Exhaustively researched, Kava: The Pacific Elixir written by Vincent Lebot, Mark Merlin, and Lamont Lindstrom, offers an extensive survey of this amazing plant from the perspective of the horticulturalist, the ethno botanist , and the pharmacologist. It provides compelling insights into this plant and has been an integral part of the religious, political, and economic life of the Pacific Islands for centuries. It contains information that is invaluable to the serious scholar yet is not written with the specialist alone in mind. Beyond its soporific qualities Kava is also used throughout the islands of the Pacific as an analgesic, a diuretic, and an anesthetic. There is even evidence suggesting it is effective in the treatment of asthma, tuberculosis, and venereal disease.

Numerous chemical and pharmacological studies of Kava have been published over the past 140 years, producing a wealth of data.

The Kava Tradition

Traditional Purposes of the Kava Ceremony
Kava can be found in recreational and social gatherings. It has been used as a social drink for high-ranking chiefs and elders, drank as a form of WELCOME and PEACE for honored guest, consumed for preparation and completion of an even or of work, to validate status, observe births, marriages and deaths, to relieve stress, remedy illnesses, etc.

Types of Kava Ceremonies:

Full ceremony -- on every formal occasion
Meeting of village elders, chiefs, and nobles, and for visiting chiefs and dignitaries
Less formal -- social occasions
Preparation for ceremony:

Originally to prepare the Kava drink, a young boy or girl would cut the root, chew, and spit the macerated mass into a bowl where some milk of coconuts was poured on top. The coconuts were then strained, and the chips were squeezed until all the juices are mixed with the coconut milk. The whole liquor was decanted into another bowl and drank as fast as possible. Now a more sanitary preparation is required since the previous method is unsanitary, and therefore illegal. The new method involves grinding and grating instead of chewing and spitting.

After the preparation, a group of young men dressed in ceremonial attire carry the Kava bowl and deliver it to the chief guest. If the whole bowl is drank without stopping everyone yells "a maca" (pronounced "a matha"), meaning "it is empty" and then claps three times. The Kava bowl is then served to the next person of importance or rank.

It is the drink of pleasure for chiefs and essential on occasions of hospitality and feasting. Commoners were subject to penalty of death if caught drinking Kava at one time, and therefore the sacred nature of the drink warrants that its preparation and use are always done with respect.

In Hawaii, Kava is drank during divination ceremonies, naming of children aged one years old, the consecrating of a male child, or initiating of young girls into traditional hula and chanting.

It is drank in kinship and chiefship rituals, for public atonement of misdeeds. Many people were pardoned for their crimes after a Kava ceremony.

Sharing a Kava bowl allows for socialization and friendship to occur. Fears are allayed and friendships cemented.

Kava has a key role in social ceremonies. It is usually the only way to welcome honored visitors. Former Pope John Paul II drank upon their visit with the Fijian prime minister and guests during the pontiff’s visit to Fiji in 1986.

In Fiji, Kava ceremonies allows participants to communicate with the supernatural.

We expect that the religious, economic, and political functions and meanings of Kava ceremonies will continue to evolve, both within the Pacific and beyond.