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Kava prepared from the fresh roots and rhizome is said to have stronger narcotic effects than that prepared from the dried material. Some authors emphasize that kava prepared by the Tongan (chewing, mixing with saliva) is stronger than when the rhizomes are simply crushed by means other than chewing and macerated in cool water, then strained. Fresh kava that is prepared by boiling is said to have a stronger and quicker effect than when prepared by cool maceration. I have noticed only mild relaxing effects from consuming two cups of hot kava tea prepared from the commercially-available cut and sifted rhizome, but commercial dry forms of kava have been said to be adulterated, and quality differs widely, depending on the variety and probably the length of time the root has been stored.
There are a number of variations on the reported psychotropic effects of consuming kava. One early observer (Hocart) said "As I experienced it, it gives a pleasant, warm, and cheerful, but lazy feeling, sociable though not hilarious or loquacious; the reason is not obscured (Gatty)."
Kava drinking is often associated with the "noble class" or royalty, but several authors report that the noble class drank socially and for pleasure, the priest class used it ceremoniously, and the working class for relaxation.
Kava was very much used as a medicine, and some varieties were considered better for this purpose than others.
Priests often used kava for divination, and the drink was "offered to such supernaturals as the shark patron." "Psychic diagnosticians" drank kava to increase the power of the spirits, and in Samoa it was used to "bring forth inspiration."
Bingh (1983) has summarized the uses of kava in the islands of Oceania:
"It is used in ceremonies to welcome distinguished visitors, at formal gatherings of initiation or completion of work, validation of titles, celebration of marriages, births or deaths, as a libation to the gods, to cure illnesses and to remove curses, in fact in almost all phases of life in the islands."
Kava is variously used in different cultures to relieve fatigue, possibly by relaxing and helping to provide a deep sleep. As mentioned, kava was widely used for its medicinal effects. It was often valued as a diuretic, and energy-promoting herb, as a cure for rheumatism, asthma, worms, obesity, as a poultice for headaches, and as a diaphoretic, to induce sweating during colds or fevers (Gatty). It was very popular for various skin diseases, such as fungal infections and even leprosy. Finally, it was considered safe enough to give to children who were weak and recovering from illnesses.
Kava enjoyed a short-lived popularity in Germany about 1896, when patent remedies were sold as urinary tract antiseptics and diuretics.
The main use for kava today is in the treatment of anxiety. (1) It is also an excellent muscle relaxant and has diuretic and urinary antiseptic properties, so it may be useful in urinary cystitis and prostatitis. (4,5) Kava also shows pain-relieving properties, working differently from standard pain relievers such as aspirin and morphine-type analgesics. There is no loss of effectiveness with long-term use even in high doses and no addiction potential. (1) It is thought that some of the effects of kava are attributable to its effects on the limbic system, the part of the brain that governs emotions. This helps explain kava's ability to improve mood and reduce anxiety and may play a role in its pain-relieving qualities. Studies have shown kava to be effective in helping the emotional symptoms of menopause, such as anxiety, depression, irritability, and insomnia, and may also be used to help with PMS symptoms as well. The relaxant qualities of kava allow it to be used for relieving tension in the neck, shoulders and back muscles and make it appropriate as a treatment for tension headaches.
Traditional Uses – It is thought that Kava was first cultivated in Vanuatu, about 3,000 years ago. Its use spread by the major migrations in Polynesia, with cuttings being taken along and transplanted. Gradually, it was used as a currency in some societies, as a trade good, and for weddings and other religious ceremonies and festivals.
It was first mentioned by Captain Cook on coming back from one of his voyages, and thus introduced to Europe.
In many areas, virgin boys/girls were selected to masticate the root, since they were considered to be pure
Many chants and hymns were used in Kava ceremonies.
This chant from Hawaii, in 1894, “ Ka Leo o Hawaii”, is an offering to the Gods
Here is ‘awa from me, Awini.
A fisherman am I
Of the inaccessible cliffs
Of greater Lauphoehoe and lesser Laupahoehoe.
A plan set out by Kane and Kanaloa,
My Gods of the heaven above and the heavens below.
The ‘awa popolo of Kane, that existed above,
Grew above, leafed above, ripened above.
It was seized by Makali’I, and hung on high.
The rat ascended and chewed the rope that held it.
Down it fell, multiplied and spread over the earth.
The bird carries some up into the trees,
The ‘awa hiwa and the makea come down.
A pair were they.
The mo’i and the mokihana,
A pair were they.
The nene and the ka-wai-maka-a-ka-manu,
A pair were they.
The ‘awa of Kane is mixed with water
The ‘awa is drunk, fish is eaten for an after taste.
This is your offspring, Hanoalele.
Amana, it is freed, it has flown.