Legends about the origin of coffee
The way coffee made its way into our lives is shrouded in mystery. Myths and legends about coffee chase each other since time immemorial: every time we sip this much-loved drink, we get a taste of the arcane, enigmatic inheritance that has come to us from the ancient world.
The myth surrounding the magic power of coffee
From the legend of Kaldi and his acrobatic goats – the most popular myth about coffee in western literature – to the antics of an African ferret, the celestial vision of the prophet Mohammed and adventures of a mystic healer. Each of these stories probably contains a smidgen of truth.
Kaldi and his energetic goats
According to theologist Antonio Fausto Naironi, who wrote the first very essay on coffee in 1671, the origins of the drink date to 9th century Abyssinia. Goatherd Kaldi noticed that when his goats grazed on the berries of a certain bush, they would jump around excitedly all day and night. Kaldi took the berries to the nearby monastery where a monk, believing them to be the work of the devil, threw them into the fire. When a pleasant aroma arose from the flames, the other monks scraped up the roasted beans from the coals and dissolved them in boiling water. This was the birth of the first ever coffee, used by the monks during their long nights of prayer.
Mohammed’s divine potion
Exhausted and sick from the battle to conquer Arabia, the prophet Mohammed had no strength to continue the fight. The Archangel Gabriel appeared to him one night and handed him the qahwa of Allah – a miracle potion that was as black as the sacred Stone of Mecca. A tiny sip was enough for Mohammed to resume his journey. The outcome? Forty enemies were unsaddled, and forty virgins satisfied. This is one of the most famous stories about coffee.
The legend of Omar the healer
An ancient Persian myth, handed down from the 15th century by poet Abd al-Qadir Maraghi, attributes the origin of coffee to Ali Ben Omar, a Sufi monk who cured the sick with the power of prayer. Omar saved the people of Mokha from the plague but his enemies were jealous and convinced the Sultan to exile him; he took shelter in a cave in the desert and survived on infusions of Coffea beans. When news of the miracle potion reached the city, the sultan summoned Omar and allowed him to introduce to the people the drink that we now call coffee.
The ferret that gave us coffee
After Kaldi’s goats, another animal has starred in coffee’s epic history. German missionary Johann Ludwig Krapf left us an Arabian legend according to which the African civet – a friendly mammal similar to the ferret – brought Coffee seeds to the Ethiopian highlands. It was there that the coffee plant was jealously guarded by the Oromo tribe until an Islamic merchant managed to get a few beans to Arabia, where the drink spread and became popular throughout the world.
Waqa’s tears and the coffee plant
Oromo culture has a legend that describes the origins of life and the meaning of death. When the god Waqa still walked the earth, he predicted the day of a man’s death. “You will live for three hundred years”. The man, who wanted to live for ever, rebelled against the will of Waqa and fled, riding from dawn to dusk. He reached a recently dug grave. “We were waiting for you”, the men there said. He climbed down from his horse and died instantly. When Waqa saw the grave, he felt pity and cried; from his tears sprouted the first Coffea buds.
Why coffee myths fascinates people
Somewhere between reality and legend, coffee and its magical powers have always fascinated people.
In the fuzzy realm between truth and imagination, where experience and metaphysics meet, coffee, the ultimate symbol of hospitality and friendship, has entered the world of “once upon a time”, that place where words and image are eternally present.
Cover image: Kaldi and his dancing goats – from All about Coffee, William Harrison Ukers (1935)
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