The History and Legend of Yerba Mate

The Yerba Mate tree is found in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina.  The dried leaves of the tree are used to make the quintessentialSouth American tea: Yerba Mate.   This tea has a flavour profile comparable to green tea, but is much stronger; many people find it takes time to acquire a taste for it.  Even more interesting than the tea itself, are the history and legends surrounding the tea.

The first people who drank Yerba Mate are the indigenous forest people of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.  They called it the “Drink of the Gods,” and believed it significantly improved their stamina and overall health.

When the Spanish colonizers arrived in Argentina and conquered the Guarani tribes, the Conquistadors were struck by the robust stature and extreme stamina of the locals.   The Guarani told the Spaniards the secret is the tea they drink every day.  According to their beliefs, they explained, a god had given the Yerba Mate tree (whose leaves are used for the drink) as a reward to their ancestors for righteous behaviour.

The Spaniards were shocked by the pagan lore, and claimed the “God” was actually the Devil in disguise; one cleric even claimed the drink to be a powerful aphrodisiac.  Accordingly, Yerba mate was banned and declared Taboo in Argentina

Concurrently, the conquistadors in Paraguay took a different stance of this beverage.  They determined that the god who gave the Tree to the aboriginals was not the Devil, cleverly disguised as a pagan deity, but The God of the Christians.

Therefore, consuming this Drink of the Gods (or, God) was encouraged.  Likely, the money the conquistadors could make from slave labour growing the plants and selling it back home in Spain was the reason for this judgment.

tea-garnish

Of the legends about the Yerba Mate, the one most likely told by the indigenous people to the Conquistadors is about two rival brothers who sailed across a vast ocean and landed in South America.  One brother, the Tupai was fierce and war-like.

Tupai and his followers rejected peaceful ways and agrarian pursuits in favour of battle and glory.

The younger brother, Guaraní was pious and peaceful.  He and his followers settled in Argentina and Paraguay and built settlements.  There, they awaited the god who would come from the mountains and reward the Guarani for their respect and reverence.

Eventually, this god did come and showed them how to live in balance with the land.  He taught the Guarani about plants and their properties, including the Yerba Mate tree.

The god showed them how to properly harvest, brew and prepare the plants in order to obtain all the benefit of the leaves.   He showed them to use the stevia plant to sweeten the brew since it was very bitter on its own, and to use a straw to filter out the leaves.

Thus, the Gourd Ceremony was born and the Yerba Mate became one of the most sacred plants of the Guaraní.

The Gourd ceremony is still common today.  People (usually men) brew the tea and serve it communally to their guests.  The tea is sipped through a filtered straw while the friends banter and talk.

According to tradition, the host takes the first sips so the guests don’t get the initial bitter taste.  If, however, someone is served bitter Yerba Mate, it signified that person is not welcome.

Flash forward a few hundred years, and the Gauchos (South American “cowboys”) consumed Yerba Mate with the same dedication as the Guarani. To them, Yerba Mate was a staple and their “liquid vegetable: which allows them to travel or work with sustained energy throughout the day.

Today, this South American brew is becoming increasingly popular for its uplift and the belief it helps cure various health issues.   There is no conclusive evidence, but those who drink the tea swear by its effect.

(Author’s note:  Some recent studies indicate drinking Yerba Mate in excess may lead to certain types of cancers.  The studies are not definitive, and are contested by tea companies who point out the subjects also smoked, which could be the actual cause of the cancers.  The Mayo Clinic suggests that consuming moderate amounts of tea is not likely to be harmful, but not to drink excessive amounts.  This blog and the author do not endorse any viewpoint or medical claim.  Please consult a doctor or other expert for more information. This article is provided for entertainment only).

Sources:

  1. http://www.wisdomofancients.com/tea-talk/58-the-history-of-yerba-mate
  2. http://www.wisdomofancients.com/the-legend-of-yerba-mate
  3.  http://guayaki.com/mate/130/Yerba-Mate.html
  4. http://guayaki.com/mate/2611/Mate-Gourd-Ceremony.html

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