Every significant contribution to humanity has its origin, story, or myth. Coffee comes complete with a rather charming myth of its discovery. This story has held intact with some variations throughout the ages for hundreds of years now.
I will paraphrase the myth as the true focus of this article is the meaning behind the legend. For those of you that do not know, it is said that coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia by a goat herder named Kaldi, a poet with an artistic spirit that played pipes and cared for the animals. One day he noticed the goats acting strange, running about and dancing on their hind legs in pure joy. Kaldi noticed they were eating berries from a peculiar plant he had not seen before. He soon joined them, and within a short time, poetry and dance were spilling out from him as well.
Kaldi eventually took these magic cherries to the local monastery of the Sufi monks.
Skeptical at first, the Sufi then tried them, and they too were impressed. They decided to embrace the fruit as it allowed them to engage in prayer well into the night.
Myth is an essential part of culture as well as psychological development and well being. The myths and stories of people’s past were formed, refined, and perfected over generations until distilled into the perfect allegories to help our archaic brains process our changing earth and changing lives.
The myth of Kaldi is innocent and straightforward enough. However, it does reveal what I believe is truly important and powerful about coffee in our lives.
First and foremost, a goat discovers coffee, three goats, to be specific. Goats are an ancient symbol of energy, virility, and life force. They also were a symbol of purification. So much so that they were seen as guardians in some societies. Goats were kept as lightning conductors of bad luck to protect the village by absorbing evil. Further, goats are associated with the moon, lunar creatures of the night.
Not only was coffee discovered by these guardian goats but by three. The number “three is regarded universally, expressive of an intellectual and spiritual order in God, the cosmos or mankind.” (Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, p.993, 1996). In China, it is called the perfect number (ch’eng), an expression of wholeness, nothing to be added. 1 This gives extra weight to the goats’ discovery as it signifies that through the coffee cherry, wholeness is achieved. I think we have all experienced this after a bad night sleep.
Furthermore, the goat herder, the guardian of the guardians, recognizes the revelation. The herdsman or shepherd symbolizes the nomad. “He is rootless and stands for the soul which is not native of this Earth but always a stranger or pilgrim.” (PDS, p.874, 1996) In relation to his flock, Kaldi is linked to knowledge and observes the sun, moon, and stars to predict the weather and is sensitive to their behavior and his surrounding environment. The herder also signifies the bygone era of the hunter-gatherer and humanities freedom before the combines of agriculture spread throughout the world. Who better to discover a foraged treasure than a representative of this period.
When Kaldi finds his goats, they are acting erratically and displaying this in the form of dance. Goats were dancing on their hind legs. Dancing is the symbol of the body and soul in oneness and ecstasy. This can be seen throughout history from various shamanistic spiritual dances meant to create a fervor into an alternate state. The Whirling Dervish is a perfect example of someone dancing themselves into an elevated state of ecstasy. Kaldi joins the goats in the fruits of their discovery and begins to dance as well.
Kaldi eventually brings these magic cherries to the local Sufi Monks. The word Sufi is derived from ṣūf, which means goat-hair cloth or one who wears wool. The goat-hair cloth is what the Sufi Dervishes would wear as their ritual garments due to their purification powers.
The monks eventually embrace the coffee cherry as it allows them to stay awake, praying into the night—the night showed under the moon. The goat being attached symbolically as a lunar animal. Goat herders would often travel in the night under the moonlight as it was cooler and more comfortable to get around.
To summarize our symbolic summation, we have the discovery of a red cherry (red being a color of the life-principle, diurnal, male, stimulating activity and like the sun casting its glow on all things.2) This red sun, cherry is discovered by three of our lunar goats known for purifying all things and the sacred aspects of three. It is thus found safe and first tried by a humble, nomadic goat herder. This goat herder brings the fruit to the wearers of goat-cloth, the Sufi monks. The Sufi’s who have been restricted by the night and their fatigue embrace the sun red cherry as it casts its glow upon them and gives them new energy to pursue their more aspirational selves. The Sufi was the symbol of cultivation as they were planted people in their Zawiya (monastic lodges).
The myth communicates that coffee is a sacred fruit that aids in the human endeavor for the aspirational goal of self-actualization. It is a pure and innocent fruit that is balanced by both the moon and the sun. Coffee serves as a bridge between people and times from the nomadic to the modern agricultural communities. It became so popular over the centuries that it was known as the “wine of Islam.”
What resonates most with me from the myth is that the first person to experience coffee was a humble wandering goat herder. To this day, coffee is not wine. Coffee is not exclusive. Coffee is a drink for everyone at all levels of society. The price of coffee is still very affordable, and because of that, the finest coffee in the world can be afforded by the most humble of drinkers. Not so much with wine, where you’d have to mortgage your home for a fine vintage.
Coffee is a unifying beverage that has made its way around the globe and continues to give energy and empower humans to pursue their greatest selves or at least get out of bed in the morning. All this at a modest price so that all may participate and afford the same opportunity.