Sacred Grounds: The Surprising Religious History of Coffee
The humble coffee bean has a surprising religious history that weaves together many fascinating tails and origin stories.
Would you call your morning cup of coffee a mystical experience? In our quest to power up for the day, we probably don’t think about coffee’s origins. Yet this humble bean has a surprising religious history. It’s a fascinating and complex tale that began in Africa many centuries ago.
Coffee’s Ethiopian Origins
Coffee cultivation takes place in over 80 countries today, most of them located in tropical regions. One popular legend claims that an Ethiopian goat herder discovered the plant after noticing strange behavior out of his goats. After finding a green shrub decked with bright cherry-colored berries, he picked some of the fruit and brought it to a local monastery. The caffeine enabled the monks to stay awake, and the rest was history.
Except that it wasn’t really history.
Journalist Livia Gershon explains that the coffee plant did first grow wild in Ethiopia. However, the local tribespeople discovered it first. Thanks to its energizing properties, the bean was used as a sacrament in communal ceremonies. Hunters also imbibed it to stay alert and stave off hunger while seeking their prey. It eventually made its way to other parts of Africa, where other cultures found more uses for it. Some brewed a drink from the vivid red berries, while others roasted them in fat or chewed them without any prep. The Haya people of Tanzania even traded the beans as currency.
Java and Midnight Meditations
Just in case you thought the Ethiopian goat herder would get all the credit, there are two other myths about coffee’s origins. The Spruce‘s Lindsey Goodwin mentions one story in which a Sufi mystic finds and chews the berries during his journey through Ethiopia. Another tale claims that an exiled sheik on the verge of starvation discovered the plant in the wild. When he tossed the berries into his campfire, he fell in love with their aroma but found them too hard to chew. After trying to soften them in water, he drank the liquid and felt invigorated.
It’s hard to separate truth from myth, but we do know that Yemenite Sufi Muslims consumed coffee to keep alert during nighttime chanting rituals. Coffee eventually spread throughout the rest of the Muslim world, fueling Yemen’s economy for over 250 years. Many people drank it to stay awake during late-night Ramadan festivities, and coffeehouses sprung up to fuel the demand. More legends propagated about the bean’s origins, with some crediting Muhammed or the archangel Gabriel for gifting it to humanity.
Coffee Comes to Europe and America
Coffee was widely consumed in the Muslim world by the 1500s. Around this time, Europeans began encountering the drink during their travels. Although they found it bitter due to its initial lack of sugar, they loved its energizing effects. The drink soon came to Europe, where it was both loved and considered controversial. Just as in the Middle East, coffeehouses popped up in major cities throughout the continent. They became cultural centers and community meeting places, much like taverns were during America’s colonial era.
One often-repeated legend claims that several clerics asked Pope Clement VII to ban coffee, insisting that it was “Satan’s brew.” Yet when the pope tried coffee for himself, he enjoyed it so much that he gave it his blessing. From there, coffee came to the Americas, where early colonialists embraced the brew. “Coffee makes a man more reasonable, better able to concentrate and hardworking,” comments Laura Turner in the Washington Post. “No wonder people might see it going hand in hand with the Protestant work ethic.”
All Hail the Mighty Bean
Canada ranks third in the world for coffee consumption. For many of us, this bold brew is a must-have that fuels our bodies and minds. Whether or not we thank the divine for our daily drink, it certainly holds a revered place in our modern lives.
Thanatology: The Science of Death and Dying
Thanatology, the study of death, may help unpack our reactions as well as cultural and spiritual practices surrounding dying and grieving.
Are you afraid of death? How do you cope when a loved one dies? You may go to friends and family for solace, journal about your feelings, focus on other matters, or look to your religious beliefs for answers. These are common coping strategies in the face of death, but there’s often more lurking beneath the surface. Thanatology, the study of death and its psychological impacts, may help unpack our reactions as well as cultural and spiritual practices surrounding dying and grieving.
A Quick Overview of Thanatology
Oxford Dictionary defines thanatology as “the scientific study of death and the practices associated with it.” It is appropriately named after Thanatos, the Greek personification of death. The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying explains that Russian scientist Elie Metchnikoff stressed the importance of studying dying in the early 20th century. Yet it wasn’t until after World War II that anyone followed his suggestions. Some of the first texts include 1959’s “The Meaning of Death,” edited by Herman Feifel, and “The Psychology of Death,” published in 1972 by Robert Kastenbaum and Ruth Aisenberg.
Thanatology is an interdisciplinary field relying on science, medicine, psychology, and sociology, but it also draws from disciplines such as theological studies, history, economics, law enforcement, and philosophy. Its scope of interest covers how death impacts individuals, family groups, and societies. Besides the death event itself, thanatologists also examine the needs of terminally ill individuals and their families.
Religious Beliefs and the Death System
When a loved one dies, we rely on a collection of individuals and institutions to help. In 1977, Robert Kastenbaum coined the term “death system” for this interconnected matrix of people and groups. Depending on the society, the death system can include everything from hospitals to clergy. The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying breaks down its various functions:
- Predicting and warning about death
- Caring for dying individuals
- Creating funerary customs and practices
- Consolation for living family members
- Making sense of death
- Determining any morals and ethics of killing
Many of religion’s primary functions exist in relation to the death system. It attempts to explain what happens after we die, then suggests beliefs and practices for attaining the best afterlife outcomes. These ideas usually reflect what each society considers fair, just, and moral.
One great example of how a death system and culture interface comes from ancient Egypt. This society believed in immortality and viewed the world in terms of “ma’at,” a guiding principle that stressed truth, order, harmony, balance, and morality. While one’s good deeds or sins may have differed slightly according to class or profession, everyone was expected to deal honorably, honestly, and kindly with others. The Ancient History Encyclopedia explains that Kemetic people expected their hearts to be weighed against the Feather of Truth. Egypt’s Great Pyramids, elaborate funerary customs, religious hierarchy, and cultural beliefs supported its death system in hopes that the deceased would fare well in the afterlife.
Thanatology in Canada
While thanatology can look at wider cultural institutions and constructs, many study the field today to provide practical help to others. Courses and study programs are offered at King’s University College and Centennial College, with continuing education options becoming more prevalent. Career applications for thanatology often include bereavement counseling, palliative care, social work, and counseling and support for terminally ill people.
For much of human history, religion and culture have often been interconnected. A society’s attitudes toward death, funerary rituals, and religious practices can reflect quite a bit about its values. These may seem like disparate components on their own, but thanatology attempts to bring them together and view them as a systematic whole. When it comes to our faiths and spiritual beliefs, a deeper examination helps us comprehend how they may provide comfort or prepare us for our own mortality.