Kaldi (his dancing goats) and the Origin of Coffee

In Ethiopia, the origin of coffee depends on who you speak to, and where they come from. The legend of its discovery that still endures today is that of Kaldi. For such an important find, the story has an unlikely cast of characters that include a goatherder, his wife, a monastery of monks, and a troupe of dancing goats. Here is just one version of that story:

A young Abyssinian goatherder named Kaldi – or Kalid as he was known locally – who lived around the year AD850 noticed to his amazement, that after chewing the bright red berries from a certain tree, his goats pranced around in an unusually exuberant manner. Curiosity got the better him and he tried a handful of the berries that were growing on the bushes nearby. Feeling a novel sense of elation, Kaldi realised that there was something out of the ordinary about this fruit and, filling his pockets, rushed back to his wife to share his discovery. ‘They are heaven sent!’ she declared, ‘you must take them to the monastery.’ Kaldi then presented the cherries to the chief monk, relating the miraculous effect they had on him, and his goats.

On hearing the story and the cherries’ extraordinary properties, the monk threw them onto the fire denouncing them to be the work of the devil. Within minutes, the monastery began to fill up with the heavenly smell of roasting beans and the other monks gathered to investigate. Raking the spitting and popping beans from the embers, they were placed in a ewer and covered with hot water to preserve their freshness.

That night, the monks sat up drinking the rich and fragrant brew and vowed that they should drink it daily to help with their nightly prayers.  Word of the cherries’ magical properties spread far and wide. It was not long before the monastic folk across the realm became accustomed to drinking the invigorating beverage as an accompaniment to their nocturnal devotions…

But don’t take my word for it. Here is an early account of the origin of coffee retold by an Italian historian of coffee, Faustus Naironi, in 1671:

“A certain person that look’d after camels, or, as others report it, goats, [this is the common tradition amongst the Eastern people] complained to the religious of a certain Monastery in the Kingdom of Ayaman [Yemen], that is Arabia Felix, that his herds twice or thrice a week, not only kept awake all night long, but spent it in frisking and dancing in an unusual manner.

The Prior of the Monastery, led by his curiosity, and weighing the matter, believ’d this must happen from the food of the creatures: Marking, therefore, diligently, that every night, in company with one of the monks, the very place where the goats or camels pastured, when they danc’d, found there certain shrubs or bushes, on the fruit or rather berries of which they fed.

He resolv’d to try the virtues of these berries himself; thereupon, boiling them in water, and drinking thereof, he found by experience, it kept him awake in the night. Hence it happen’d, that he enjoin’d his Monastery the daily use of it, for this procuring watchfulness made them more readily and surely attend their devotions which they were obliged to perform in the night.

When, by this frequent use of it, they daily experienced its wholesomeness, and how effectually it conduced to the preserving them in perfect health, the drink grew in request throughout the whole Kingdom, and in progress of time, other nations and provinces of the East fell into the use of it. Thus by a mere accident, and the great and wonderful providence of the Almighty, the fame of its whole­someness spread itself more and more, even to the Western parts, more especially those of Europe”.

There is now a consensus amongst historians and botanists that coffee – especially the genus Coffea Arabica – is indigenous to Ethiopia where it still continues to grow wild in the Bale Mountains, Gamo Gofa, Ilubabor and Kaffa Forest regions. Many etymologists interpret ‘coffee’ from the name of the ancient Ethiopian kingdom, ‘Kaffa’. Others assert it comes from ’qahwah’ (meaning ‘wine’) as it came to be known in the Arabian peninsula , especially Yemen, where there is evidence of coffee roasting as early as the 13th century. (It’s not by accident or sheer coincidence that Yemen has a sea port called Mocha). But if I were a betting man? My money’s on Kaffa.

Whether there is any basis to the story of Kaldi and his dancing goats or not, the undeniable fact is that the legend of Kaldi is a masterstroke in public relations. (Whenever has PR allowed the facts get in the way of a good story?).  In an attempt to separate reality from myth, I spoke to a number of people who said that coffee was first used by the Oromo tribes people. By way of preparation, the ground beans were mixed with butter or fat to form a ‘chewing gum’ that could be carried easily. It was then taken to help sustain them in covering long distances on foot to graze their cattle and no doubt, on the battlefield. This was the portable precursor to the Oromiya speciality – Buna Quala – arguably the world’s first ever energy drink.

In many respects, I think it’s a good thing that Kaldi’s reputed discovery continues to remain shrouded in the mists of antiquity. It’s all part of the bean’s magic. Chasing ghosts? Chasing goats more like… Long live Kaldi!

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