The Legend of Yerba Mate

There is an old Guarani Indian legend that associates the origins of the Guarani in the forests of modern-day northeast Argentina. 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 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: 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, an unknown shaman arrived at the ranch and asked Jary what she wanted in order to feel happy. The girl did not say anything. But the old man stated: "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 a healthy company, even in the sad hours of the cruelest solitude." After this, he went away. Thus was born and grew the "caŠ-mini," whence came the caŠ-y beverage that European white settlers would later adopt under the name of Chimarr„o in Brazil, and Yerba Mate or Cimarron 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, that 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 Argentina and Paraguay, Mate tea is made from the leaves steeped in hot water. Actually, a large quantity of ground leaves 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, that filters out the leafy material. It is also used as a cold beverage often, which is referred to as Terere (most common to Paraguay).

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