Yerba Mate, and the legend of the Guarani

There is an old Guarani Native American legend that relates the origins of the Guarani in the Forests of Paraguay. According to the legend, the ancestors of the Guarani at one time in the distant past crossed a great and spacious ocean from a far land to settle in the Americas. They found the land both wonderful yet full of dangers; through diligence and effort they subdued the land and inaugurated a new civilization.

The Guarani tribes worked the land and became excellent craftsmen. They looked forward to the coming of a tall, fair-skinned, blue eyed, bearded God (Pa' i Shume) who, according to legend, descended from the skies and expressed his pleasure with the Guarani. He brought religious knowledge and imparted to them certain agricultural practices to be of benefit during times of drought and pestilence as well as on a day-to-day basis. Significantly, He unlocked 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. The Mate beverage was meant to ensure health, vitality and longevity.

It was like this: 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, beautiful Jary, had her heart split: to go on with the tribe's youths, or remain isolated, helping the old man until death would take him to Ivy-Marae's peace. Despite her friends' pleas, she ended up staying with her father.

This love gesture deserved a prize. One day, a unknown shaman arrived at the ranch and asked Jary what she wanted in order to feel happy. The girl did not ask anything. But the old man asked: "I want new forces to go on and take Jary to the tribe that went away".

The shaman gave him a very green plant, perfumed 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. "In this new beverage, you will find an healthy company, even in the sad hours of the cruelest solitude." After which he went away.

Thus was born and grew the "caá-mini," whence came the caá-y beverage that white people would later adopt under the name of Chimarrão in Brazil and Yerba Mate in Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.

Sipping the green sap, the old man recovered, gained new strengths and was able to resume their long journey toward meeting their kinsmen. They were received with the greatest 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.

Mate became the most common ingredient in household cures of the Guarani, and remains so to this day. In current practice in modern Paraguay and Southern Brazil, Mate tea is made from the leaves steeped in hot water. Actually, a large quantity of ground leaf is first soaked in cold water, then the hot water is added, over and over again, until all the good stuff has been extracted. In between each addition of hot water the tea is ingested through a special wood or metal straw, called a bombilla, which filters out the leafy material. It is also used as a cold beverage, often referred to as Terere most common to Paraguay.

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