Coffee: Myths of Origin
Updated: Mar 20, 2019
Posted by DANIEL THOMAS MOLLENKAMP
Author’s note: In this highly anticipated and exceptionally late post, I look at the traditional account of coffee’s discovery. This will set us up for later when we look at the spread of coffee worldwide, as well as the social, economic and political implications of taking caffeine. (Next week: another, less well-known myth about coffee’s origins.)
Along a plateau in Ethiopia, near Kaffa, a boy named Kaldi herds his goats.
One day Kaldi’s goats find an unfamiliar bush with bright red fruit. Kaldi notices his goats dancing and leaping ecstatically, and has a hard time shepherding them home.
The next day his goats return to the bush, and the herdsman decides to try this fruit himself, noting it cannot be poisonous as his goats seem unharmed.
Grasping some of the fruit, he begins chomping on it. He feels an ecstatic jitter. He doesn’t sleep that night.
Kaldi brings this new mystical fruit to a mufti, who delights in the almost spiritual energy it provides.¹ It catches on, and spreads quickly, like a scandalous rumor or a forbidden dance.
It is before the fourteenth century, possibly the third or fourth.²
However, this apocrypha does not seem to cut a historical record. It exists in the absence of evidence, to fill a gap in the record.
Highlights of that record in an incisive, magazine style: ³
Persian thinker Rhazes wrote about “bunchum” in his medical anthology. His is the first known mention of coffee.⁴The first documented coffeehouse, known in Arabic as “kaveh-kanes” or “oahveh-khaneh”, appears in Constantinople during the reign of the Ottoman Empire.⁵Sufi mystics knew coffee as “qahwa“, an Arabic word meaning wine, and they used a coffee-based infusion in their ritual chantings.It seems to have become known in Mecca around the beginning of the fifteenth century, later popping up in Egypt by way of Mocha, a Yemeni port.By the middle of the sixteenth century, coffeehouses could be found in Cairo, Aleppo and Istanbul.From Istanbul, the Ottoman capital, coffee made its way across the globe, though it would be a while before fertile coffee plants were planted in the Americas.The myth of Kaldi’s jittery goats first makes an appearance in a Roman treatise on coffee, De Saluberrima potione Cahue seu Cafenuncupata Discurscus, in 1671.⁶
Whether this apocrypha cuts a historical account or not, it is the most common way of mythologizing the discovery of coffee. And when taken in conjunction with knowledge of the historical record, it may be a useful way of imagining coffee’s mysterious beginnings.
Next time, we’ll look at other possible origin stories, including the one relayed by the Reverend Doctor Krapf and his civet cats.
Notes (1). Or monk, depending on the account… By the way, “mufti”: someone recognized as an Islamic legal expert, entitled to give rulings on matters of religion. (2). Estimates differ. For another popular discussion of this, see: Milos, Giorgio. “Coffee’s Mysterious Origins.” The Atlantic, 6 Aug. 2010. Web. Or, see: Baskerville, Peter. “Coffee drink origins – The myths, the fables and the legends.” Quora, 15 Sept. 2013. Web. (3). Not by any means extensive. Caffeine Confessions is not like those other sites that shun bulletpoints and footnotes. (4). Full name: Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya El Razi. “Bunchum” recieves mention in Rhazes’ medical dictionary, Kitab al-Hawi fi al-tibb. Though, I admit, this drink is an alternate way of extracting caffeine, not the decoction we now recognize as coffee. (5). In Milos’ words: “Coffee became a substitute for wine, and was given the name kahve—literally, ‘wine of Arabia.’ The word came from the Arabic term oahwah, itself from the verb oahiya, signifying the action of feeling sated.” Sate me sideways: the phrase “drunk on coffee” has a rich etymological tradition. (6). Naironi, Antonio Fausto. “De Saluberrima potione Cahue seu Cafenuncupata Discurscus”. 1671.
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