The Hermit’s Cup
Or the origins of coffee
We sometimes forget that most human history is undocumented – not just the history that predates writing, but all the hopes, fears, ideas and experiences that weren’t recorded. And what ideas some were. The discovery of fire and all that followed: cooking, pottery, metals; the invention of bread, cake and coffee.
Because nobody knows their origins, some of these discoveries have acquired wonderful creation myths and legends: stories of amazing heroes and marvelous events. This is true of no beginning more so than coffee.
As our faithful blog readers will know, The Yorkshire Wordwright has become something of a specialist in supporting coffee shops with copywriting and design. Our interest in coffee has grown accordingly. We have learned to love coffee stories and, in particular, the stories of coffee beginnings.
The Dancing Goats
“Once upon a time, in old Ethiopia, there lived a goatherd called Kaldi. Now Kaldi had a fine herd of goats and a seriously fine and sensible Billy Goat of which he was especially proud. One fine morning, as Kaldi was watching his goats feed on the mountain plants, the Billy Goat began to dance. And he danced and he danced, baaing in time with his capering. Kaldi watched the Billy and noticed he was eating from a particular plant that he had not noticed before. Curious, the goatherd tried some of the plant himself and soon he was dancing too.
A priest was wandering by and gazed in amazement at the scene. He asked Kaldi for an explanation and, on hearing it, gathered up samples of the plant. This was cunning. The priest was known for his long, boring sermons and he intended to use the plant to keep his followers awake. The next night he experimented by giving his disciples coffee, for that was what it was, and the fame of the Dervishes and their great preacher spread quickly throughout the Islamic world.”
The Wandering Hermit
If you have drunk a Mocha, you may be surprised to know that, unlike much coffee [see our blog ‘Etymology’ of 5th March], its name is not Italian in origin, but is the name of a port in Yemen, more properly called al-Mukha. This, in times past, was the entry point for goods and slaves arriving in Arabia from the Horn of Africa. If coffee did originate in Ethiopia as is most likely, then it would almost certainly have reached the Arab peninsula through al-Mukha.
The mosque at Mocha. Picture by Julian Harneis who has worked for UNICEF in Yemen.
“An Arab hermit was once wandering in the Arabian desert near al-Mukha, fasting and praying, when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to him in a vision. God’s messenger had a very special revelation. He showed the holy man a picture of coffee beans which he was instructed to brew with water to make a marvelous potion with great power. Amazed by the results, the hermit lived only on the beans for twenty years.
One day, during this time, a Portuguese trading vessel berthed in al-Mukha, on which were malnourished sailors on the point of death. In accordance with the tenets of his religious calling, and using his magic potion, the hermit nursed the crew back to health. Sending them on their way, he said to them ‘Remember this, the drink of al-Mukha.’ Reaching home, they were quick to tell the story. They showed the beans they had brought with them and, in this way, the fame of al-Mukha and its potion was spread.”
This second myth or legend has many more versions than the Ethiopian one, but we cannot say that either is true, or whether any of it is true. What is likely, however, is that the coffee plant we use today was first chewed or drunk in Ethiopia as leaves. Most probably, Ethiopian slaves then took it to al-Mukha and the Arab world. There it became much more like the coffee we drink, with the beans replacing leaves and coffee drinking entering the culture. Alcohol was forbidden in Islam and when, after much deliberation, scholars allowed coffee to be drunk, its success was assured. From Arabia, it spread along Ottoman roads to Istanbul, thence to Venice, to Marseilles and to Western Europe.
The coffee we drink in coffee shops is from the Arabica plant. It is named for its history. It only grows well at altitude and that, of course, is why it was discovered by a goatherd.
The coffee origin stories are widely known and reproduced, but, for the versions I quote above, I am most indebted to ‘The Devil’s Cup’, by Stewart Lee Allan. This is a good read through the history of coffee, intertwined with a travel book recording the author’s following of that history on the ground in ways now sadly impossible. It’s available second hand for not very much. Let us know what you think.