The Legend of Yerba Mate

Mate has lately been rising in popularity in the modern world. It can now be found as a common ingredient in energy drinks and iced tea flavors, but the legend and the tradition goes back for centuries.

The tea itself is a very popular drink in South America. The tea contains large amounts of caffiene and is used as a social drink as well as for the supposed health benefits. The social tradition is an important one, and is practiced daily by a large percentage of the population of countries like Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. On any given day, you can see groups of people sitting in circles, passing around a mate gourd. It gives one energy and the general feeling of well being though some extremists claim it can help with the ailments associated with AIDS and cancer. Students use it to help the stay awake and cram. I drink it before I go to the bar because I think it helps with hangovers.

The legend is actually pretty interesting and dovetails some of the elements of People of Paper:
The Guarani was a group of people who lived in South America before the Europeans came over. These tribes worked the land and became excellent craftsmen. They foretold the coming of a tall, fair-skinned, blue eyed, bearded God (Pa’ i Shume) who would descend from the sky and bless the Guarani. He brought religious knowledge and imparted to them certain agricultural practices to be used during hardships. He showed them the secrets of health and medicine and revealed the healing qualities of native plants. One of the most important of these secrets was how to harvest and prepare the leaves of the Yerba Mate tree which was meant to ensure health, vitality and longevity.

The tribe would clear part of the forest, plant manioc and corn, but after four or five years the soil would be worn out and the tribe had to move on. Tired of such moving, an old Indian refused to go on and preferred to stay where he was. The youngest of his daughters, despite her friends’ pleas, ended up staying sadly behind with her father.

Her father felt that this lovely gesture deserved a reward, but had no way to give her one until one day when an unknown shaman (Pa’ i Shume?) arrived at the ranch. The shaman sensed the young girls sadness and asked what she wanted in order to feel happy. The girl did not ask anything, but the old man asked the shaman to find a way to ease his daughter’s sadness, to find a way to reunite her with the rest of the tribe.

The shaman gave him a plant, infused with kindness, and told him to plant it, pick the leaves, dry them on fire, grind them, put the pieces in a gourd, add cold or hot water and sip the infusion. The shaman told him: “In this new beverage, you will find an healthy company, even in the sad hours of the cruelest solitude.”

Sipping the tea, the old man and his daughter recovered, gained new strengths and were able to embark on their long journey toward meeting their kinsmen. They were received with joy and the whole tribe adopted the habit of drinking the green herb, bitter and sweet, which gave strength and courage and would comfort friendships at the sad hours of utmost solitude.
With the legend in mind, especially with lines like “comfort in the sad hours of utmost solitude” it’s pretty easy to see why Frederico resorts to the drink to try to relieve his sadness. Not only does it help him to stay awake in the lonely nights, but many claim that the drink is good for your soul. I imagine that many of the remedies that the apothecaries in People of Paper use have similar origins. There is little use of science in the story (the turtles being one of the few instances), and a lot of is based on the supernatural, much like this legend. This tale involves movement, heart break, love, longing and a reliance on an old tradition in order to bring relief and comfort.

One of the most important aspects of the story is how the old and traditional will cope with the new and the modern. Mate is significant because it is one of the few ancient traditions that seems to be able to withstand the test of time. It is in fact spreading, and is used today exactly how it was used at its origin and for the same reasons, though different circumstances surround it.


~ by scootielou on March 28, 2010.

One Response to “The Legend of Yerba Mate”

  1. I’m so glad someone covered this, one of my favorite myths and a delicious beverage to boot.

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