Visiting South America, we have often been invited to share a mate, by friendly and curious locals. Having a mate or terere means sharing stories and being part of a deeply cultural ritual. Discover legends, myths and folklore of the Yerba Mate tree in Paraguay and South America and its use in traditional Guarani and Tupi culture.
Table of Contents
Some historians believe that the tradition of tereré drinking originated in Paraguay. Tereré drinking, in common with the traditional ritual of maté drinking, is based around the idea of sharing.
Mate is a proud cultural bond of a continent colonized by immigrants of disparate ancestries, it is a link to the nation’s first people and Spanish colonial heritage.
The elaborate custom of preparing and consuming it, is shown me by Signora Maria, she works behind the “Monumento al Mate” in Bellavista, Paraguay, sitting on a simple desk in the little information center.
Mate: more than a drink
She tells me the mate legend while demonstrating with reverence the proper technique for drinking mate.
Signora Maria nearly fills her mate, which technically refers to the calabash rather than the herb, with the crushed leaves of the yerba (herb) from a half-kilo package. Her brand, Pajarito, it’s the one we visited the factory, it is near Bellavista. Then she inserts the bombilla, a silver tube with an oval filter that keeps the herb from entering the tube.
Signora Maria dampens the herb with tepid water, out of the thermos can-the water on mate must never boil, sacrilege to devotees because that would burn the leaves, not to mention the mouth. She adds more water and some sugar, creating a dark green foam on the surface at the small opening of the mate. The brew is thick, almost pasty.
Then, leaning back in her chair, she sips slowly, careful not to let the bombilla move within the mixture, which is bad form.
After three or four sips the mate is empty.
Signora Maria adds more water from the thermos and gingerly shifts the bombilla to the opposite side of the mate, where the herb has not yet been exhausted, readying it to be sipped and passed around.
She passes the mate with the words “unos mates?” or in English, “want to drink a mate?”
And adds some drinking rules: Just sip the bombilla… do not touch it with your hands and por favor – please pass the mate back to me, never to the person next to you. It is my pleasure to prepare and pass the mate, not yours.
Now we try mate and slurp loudly at the end:
Our taste buds, located on the tip of the tongue, perceive a sweet sensation at first, in the middle of the mouth it is salty and acid, in the end the bitter notes, the tannins of the yerba mate linger on the palate. We love it.
Traditionally you say “Gracias” when you no longer want to drink mate. It’s a sign of respect, knows Signora Maria.
” Mate is sacred to us, it can never be lost. When I visit my mother and father, we sit down and drink mate constantly, any guest will always been offered mate. Mate is always there, moving around the group at the table.”
Preparing and consuming the mate promote inclusion, friendship, dialogue, respect and solidarity.
Family: Aquifoliaceae (holly)
Guarani- Tupi: Ka’a, CA´A, Caá-y, yerba verdadera, yerba por excelencia
Spanish: Yerba, Yerba mate, Mate, mate cocido, cha mate, terere
Portuguese: Erva mate, Chim arrão
English: Mate tea
Other names: Paraguay tea, Jesuit’s tea.
The name in Guaraní, is ka’a, which means “herb“. The Guaraní called the mate gourd ca’iguá. Ca’á means ‘yerba mate’, i means ‘water’, and guá means ‘of’ or ‘for’. So ca’iguá was a very specific term that referred to the object where they put the water for the yerba mate.
Congonha, in Portuguese, is derived from the Tupi expression, meaning something like “what keeps us alive”.
Mate is derived from the Quechua “mati”, a word that means container for a drink, infusion of a herb, as well as gour, or cup.
The word “mate” could also come from the Aztec tecomate, which also refers to the gourd. This term comes from the náhuatl, tecomatl, a compound word that means “solid container” – te means ‘solid’ and comatl, ‘container’.
There are several different hypotheses around its origin. However, they all have in common that in fact, mate never referred to the drink. Apparently, Spanish conquerors misunderstood the term for the cup and the drink, using the first as the latter. In Spanish ‘mate’ still means both the drink and the gourd where it is drunk from.
The similarities between these theories speak to the rich and complex cultural exchange among the different cultures that lived on the continent.
Enjoy the STORIES about how the Yerba-Mate came to this peoples:
CaáYarîi y CaáYará
Protectores della Yerba-Mate
Cuenta la leyenda que una tribu guaraní viajaba cerca del arrollo Tabay. Un viejo indio, agobiado por el peso de los años, no pudo seguir a los que partieron obedeciendo al espíritu errante de la raza. Quedó refugiado en la selva en compañía de su hija, la hermosa Yarîi.
Una tarde, cuando el sol desde el otro lado de las sierras se despedía con sus últimos fulgores, llegó hasta la humilde vivienda un extraño personaje que, por el color de su piel y por su rara indumentaria, no parecía proceder de aquellos lares. El viejo indio cocinó al visitante los más preciados platos de su tribu. Una sabrosa carne de aguti e el tambú [Gusano de carne blanca y abundante, criado por el Guaraní en los troncos del pindó, que no solo proporciona su abundante carne, sino también un aceite muy codiciado, con él curaban algunos males, apuraban las digestiones y se precavían de los innumerables insectos de la selva.], brindó también el dueño de casa a su huésped.
Al recibir tan cálidas demostraciones de hospitalidad, quiso el visitante (que era un enviado del dios del bien Tupá), recompensar a los generosos anfitriones.
Así, les proporcionó el medio para que pudieran siempre ofrecer generoso agasajo a sus huéspedes y para aliviar también las largas horas de soledad en el refugio: hizo brotar una nueva yerba en la selva y nombró a Yarîi su diosa protectora y a su padre, guardián de la planta.
Con los tiernos cuidados de la joven (que fue llamada desde entonces CaáYarîi) y bajo la atenta vigilancia del viejo indio (conocido como CaáYará), creció la nueva planta, con cuyas hojas y tallos se prepara la amarga y exquisita infusión de Mate, que es hoy genuina expresión de la hospitalidad.
La imagen da la Diosa ha sido esculpida por la naturaleza como símbolo imperecedero, en una roca de las imponentes Cataratas del Iguazú desde donde, en el centro geográfico mismo de su limitado reino, sigue esparciendo sus gracias y bondades sobre la planta que tutela.
CaáYarîi y CaáYará Protectors of Mate tea “Yerba-Mate”
CaáYarîi and CaáYará
Legend has it that a Guaraní tribe traveled near the Tabay river. An old Indian, overwhelmed by the weight of the years, could not follow his tribe (those who left obeying the wandering spirit of the race) anymore, so he chose to stay in a shelter in the jungle with his daughter, the beautiful Yarîi.
One afternoon, when the last sun rays where disappearing behind the mountains, a strange person came to the humble shelter, strange because of the color of his skin and his rare clothing, he did not seem to be from here . The old Indian made a fire and cooked the most precious dishes of his tribe for the visitor.
He offered him a tasty meat [a large South American rodent, an agouti] and el tambú [a worm with white and abundant meat, raised by the Guaraní in the trunks of the pindó, which not only provides abundant proteins, but also the oil, is said to healed some evils, help the digestions and beware of the innumerable insects of the jungle.], the host also offered his guest a toast.
Upon receiving such warm demonstrations of hospitality, the visitor (who was an envoy from god Tupa) wanted to reward the generous hosts.
He thus provided them with the means so that they could always offer generous hospitality to their guests and also relieve the long hours of solitude in the shelter: He sprouted a new herb in the forest and named Yarii as protecting goddess and his father as guardian of plant.
With the tender care of the young woman (who was then called CaáYarîi) and under the careful watch of the old Indian (known as CaáYará), the new plant grew, with the leaves and stems of which the bitter and exquisite infusion of Mate is prepared, which is today a genuine expression of hospitality.
The image of the Goddess has been sculpted by nature as an imperishable symbol, on a rock of the imposing Iguazu Falls from where, in the geographic center of its limited kingdom, she continues to spread its graces and goodness on the plant that she protects.
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On the origins of the Guarani in the Forests of Paraguay
There is an old Guarani Native American legend that relates the origins of the Guarani in the Forests of Paraguay. According to the myth, 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 stayed 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.
The legend goes 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 Yary, 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 Yary 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 Yary to our tribe”.
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.
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.
Legend of Yarí
Yarí, the moon, curiously looked at the deep woods with which Tupá, the powerful god of the Guaranies, had covered the earth. And little by little her desire to come down to earth was getting stronger. So Yarí called Araí, the pinkish cloud of dusk, to ask her to go down to Earth with her. The following day as they were walking along the woods, they turned into two beautiful ladies, but they were getting tired when, in the distance, they saw a small hut and they went towards it to look for shelter. Suddenly they heard a noise and it was a jaguar that was about to jump on them, when an arrow shot by an old Guarani hurt the beast on its side. The furious animal fell on its wound, at the same time that a new arrow went through its heart. Once the fight had finished, the Guarani offered the ladies hospitality so they went to his simple hut. He lived with his wife and daughter who treated them kindly and told them that Tupá does not like the ones who do not offer hospitality to their visitors.
The following day Yarí announced that it was time to leave. The woman and the daughter saw the two adventurous ladies to the door and the Guarani went with them a little while. He told them why he lived in isolation: when his daughter grew up, uneasiness, anxiety and fright invaded his spirit, so he decided to get far away from the community where he lived so that his daughter, in isolation, could keep the virtues that Tupá had given her.
When Yarí and Araí were alone, they lost their human shapes and went up to heaven, where they looked for an appropriate prize. One night they guided the three people in the hut into a deep dream. While they were asleep, Yarí sowed light blue seeds in front of the house, and from the dark sky she lit up the place. At the same time, Araí poured a sweet and soft rain that wetted the ground. Morning came and in front of the hut there were short unknown trees, and their white, thick flowers appeared shyly among the dark green leaves. When the old Guarani woke up and went out to go to the forest, he got astonished to see the marvel that appeared in front of his house.
He called his wife and daughter and when the three of them saw what had happened, they fell onto their knees on the wet ground. Yarí, in the shape of the woman that they had met, came down and told them:
“I am Yarí, the goddess who lives in the moon and I am here to give you a prize for your goodness. This new plant that you see is the yerba-mate, and from now on it will be, for you and for all the men of this region, the symbol of friendship. Your daughter will live forever and she will never loose the goodness and innocence of her heart. She will be the owner of the yerba.”
After saying this, the goddess made them stand up and taught them how to toast the yerba and to drink the mate.
After several years, time of death came for the old couple. Then, once their daughter had fulfilled her ritual obligations, she disappeared from earth. From time to time, it is possible to see among the Paraguayian Yerba fields a beautiful blonde girl whose eyes reflect the innocence and candidness of her soul.
~ collected by Dr Myrtha Elba Ruiz de Pagés and Fernando Pagés.
Legend of the the Tupi Brothers
There is an old Guarani myth 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. There were two brothers that vied for leadership of the people: Tupi and Guarani. Eventually they feuded and divided the people into two separate nations. Each nation, or tribe, adopted the name of the brother who was its leader.
The Tupi tribes adopted a more fierce, nomadic lifestyle, rejecting the agricultural traditions of their fathers. They engaged in the practice of drinking large quantities of a caffeine-containing drink prepared from the guarana tree.
The Guarani tribes became a stable, God-fearing people who 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, eventually did appear and was pleased with the Guarani. He imparted religious instruction and taught them concerning certain agricultural practices which would benefit them in 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 Jesuits discovered how to domesticate the tree ~1645 but kept it a secret and took it with them when expelled in 1767 by Carlos III. Yerba mate would not be grown on plantations again until the 1890s.]
The mati beverage was meant to ensure health, vitality and longevity.
The choice of favorite drink by the Tupi and Guarani came to symbolize opposition between the respective groups. The yerba mati of Guarani, reflecting the agricultural and domestic nature of these Indians, provided many more beneficial properties than the Tupi’s guarana, which symbolized their preoccupation with running wild and free and their reliance on brute strength and the need to physically excel.
Yerba Mate became also a symbol of opposition against imperialism, colonialism, and general exploitation.
The conquistadors were extremely brutal as they enslaved the first nations to build streets for the transport of Mate and to harvest the plant.
“…these paths were watered by the sweat and blood of thousands of locals, and paved with their bones.”…
~ collected by Dr Myrtha Elba Ruiz de Pagés and Fernando Pagés.
Buenos mates buena vida
“El mate es como la pipa de la paz,
que circula de boca en boca
en intimidad colectiva, eje de un círculo
que siempre es de amistad fraternal”.Manuel Seoane Chorrillos, Perú, 1900. Washington, EE.UU., 1963.
Mate is like the pipe of peace, that circulates from mouth to mouth in collective intimacy, axis of a circle which is always of brotherly friendship, writes Manuel Seoane Chorrillos, Perú, 1900. Washington, USA, 1963.
Mate is widely consumed in Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay and in some areas of Brazil (mainly the states of Rio Grande du Sul, Santa Catarina, Parana y Mato Grosso do Sul). It is also drunk in the South of Chile and in the rural areas of the central region.
Each people of Southamerica has its own preference in terms of the type of yerba, temperature of water and different ways of preparing and drinking mate.
In Brazil and North of Argentina people usually use a big mate gourd, whereas in Uruguay, South of Argentina and Chile it is more common to drink from a small mate gourd. Paraguayans usually drink from guampa (a cup made of horn).
Cimarron (“unsweetened mate”, literally “feral mate”);is the preference in Uruguay, South of Argentina, Chile and south of Brazil.
Today in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile, mate is widely used. Perhaps because Yerba mate increases mental energy and focus, improves mood, and can promote deeper sleep. Yerba mate now is thought to help with rheumatic and intestinal problems (amongst others), and is also taken as a sort of energy drink. Further research has indicated that the Ilex Paraguariensis tree, let us cope better with hot weather, especially if consumed as Terere.
There are those who believe that cold mate or terere arose from the war that Paraguay waged against Bolivia, when fire could not be lit to heat the water because of the danger of being spotted by enemies. Consequently they began to consume cold yerba mate, with the addition of some herbs, and it became the national drink.
Paraguayans and North Argentinians drink tereré. Cold mate with iced water or fruit juice (orange or lemonade) and herbs such as mint or lemon grass and/or lime, lemon and/or orange slices.
Adding medicinal plants to the yerba mate helps mask unpleasant flavors, controls dosage, and is an important social ritual in its own right.
Yerba mate is consumed many times a day, most days of the year, and nearly always with some medicinal plant, which is selected sometimes for general preventive properties in addition to those preventive properties attributed to yerba mate itself, or else simply for flavor.
Yerba mate is drunk both hot and cold, and medicinal plant preference is influenced by this custom. Some plants are associated with either the hot or the cold version because of flavor. Bitter and sharp flavors such as wormwood and anis are preferred in the hot drink, while smooth flavors like mint, lemon grass and saffron are preferred in the cold.
Terere in the culture of Pohã Ñana (medicinal plants) – Guaraní ancestral drink in Paraguay
Since 2011, terere is considered part of Paraguay’s cultural heritage.
Pohã Ñana – a Guaraní term for plant based medicine, is widely practiced throughout Paraguay.
Terere, drunk in the culture of Pohã Ñana is an infusion of yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis) prepared with cold water, a lot of ice and mixed with Pohã Ñana crushed in a mortar.
Pohã Ñana (medicinal plants)
Herbal shops and the yuyo vendor can help choose the right herb for the customers. This is a form of ancient knowledge that is transmitted from generation to generation.
Both refreshing or medicinal herbs are added to terere, such as pererina, cocú, mint, sarsaparille, horsetail family, burrito, agrial or wax begonia, batatilla, verbena, spikesedges, ajenjo, slender dayflower, escobilla, lemon balm, saffron crocus, ginger, taropé, perdudilla blanca and others.
Fennel or burro’s tail, are used as a remedy for stomach problems. Horsetail, as a urinary facilitator, or ginger, as a flu preventative, are some of the herbs used for a medicinal mate drink.
Plants considered energetic, are mixed in “tereré levantol”, a formula composed of lemon verbena, sarsaparilla and other roots that is also used as a male aphrodisiac and stimulant.
Or white perdudilla, the Santa Lucía flower and bitter herbs. This traditional preparations are served like this:
Letting the terere rest with the yerba mate and reserving the first sip for Santo Tomás.
Reserving the first sip of a drink for the gods or saints is a custom we widely witness and been part of in South America. The first sip of beer spilled on the ground for Pacha mama (the earth mother) is such a ritual.
Traditional use of Yerba Mate
*Stem and leaf
– boost energy.
– fights fatigue.
– rich in antioxidants and minerals, (Among the polyphenols in Yerba Mate are caffeine, caffeic acid, quercetin, catechin, epicatechin gallate).
– reduces appetite.
– treatment for gastrointestinal disorders.
– balances the body in all its functions and contains less caffeine than coffee or even green tea.
– contains saponins which have been shown to stimulate the immune system.
Mate and the people
Yerbamatero, on his website wrote the following summary of ‘El mate’ by Javier Ricca, to give an idea of the expansion of yerba mates use:
Guaraní is an umbrella-term for groups of different tribes. They shared different aspects of their culture, such as language, history and myths, traditions, etc. At the time of Spanish conquest, they lived in the central region of South America. Present-day central Paraguay, northeast of Argentina, south and southwest of Brazil and southeast of Bolivia were part of their influence area.
Guaraní people have highly influenced the present-day consumption of yerba mate, as they used similar techniques and tools. Moreover, they used comparable techniques to toast, mill and dry the yerba mate. They also used yerba mate in medicine and religious practices that still remain a mystery.
Related to the Guaraní people, the Tupí lived on the Atlantic coast. They chewed yerba mate leaves but they also used them for infusions. Several chronicles tell us about their technique to drink yerba mate. They would put the whole leaves and hot water in a gourd and waited for the yerba mate to release its properties. Then, they would drink it using their own teeth to ‘filter’ the leaves, or using a small, hollow reed.
Quechua people is an umbrella-term that comprises many groups and civilizations, including Chanka, Huaca, and Incas among others.
At the time conquerors arrived in South America, the Quechua people lived in what it is currently Peru and Bolivia. It is known that like many other civilizations, the Quechua people considered death and afterlife as important steps in their life. They designing and decorating their tombs with special care.
At the site of Ancon (near Lima, Peru), archaeologist found yerba mate leaves among some of the dead’s personal belongings. The tomb was over 1000 years old. This is one of the few dated proofs of yerba mate consumption in South America before the Spanish conquest.
The Ch’unchu tribe lived in what is now the northeast of Peru and they prepared Ilex guayusa as an infusion. On a chronicle in 1789, the Spanish priest Juan de Velasco described the plant and its benefits. It supposedly helped cure sexually transmitted diseases and had an almost magical effect on sterile women, who would easily get pregnant after drinking it.
The Xetás lived in present-day south of Brazil and southeast Paraguay. They chewed and ate the green yerba mate leaves. The Ilex paraguariensis leaves were also used to make an alcoholic beverage called kukuai.
The Kaingang people lived in the south of Brazil, Paraguay, and northern Argentina. The tribe called the yerba cangoy, which translates to “the one that feeds”. As in other groups, the yerba was drunk as a tea or infusion and had a role in ceremonies and rituals.
The Charrúas lived around the Uruguay river. They related closely to the guaraní people, using similar techniques and tools to drink mate.
According to chronicles from the 18th Century, Charrúas drank mate not as part of rituals, but as a social event. In fact, they would gather in a circle to share it. They would use a gourd or a horn as a cup, where they would put whole leaves and hot water. Then, after a while, they would drink the water and chew the leaves.
Pampas is a term that encompasses many tribes that lived in the central part of Argentina, such as the puelches, taluhets, and chechehets, among others. It is captivating to know how these people consumed yerba mate even though no Illex grows in the area. Félix de Azara explains that these people got the yerba from other groups from northern Argentina. In addition to being consumed, yerba mate was considered a valuable asset and it was used to exchange other goods with tribes from the south of the continent.
According to Daniel Vidart, Mapuche people also drank mate as part of a social gathering. This was particularly relevant in the community of Pulil, in the south of Chile. There, families would get together around a fire to drink mate and talk about their day. The woman would be the one serving the mate for the rest of the group. This tradition of one person in charge of the mate for the whole group still continues today. That person is known as the ‘cebador’ and we have written another article about present-day traditions.
The Creek people lived close to the Appalachian Mountains (east of the US), where the Ilex dahoon grows. This plant was used to prepare a beverage known for its black color and its bitter taste.
In 1562, the explorers René de Laudonnière and Gaspard II de Coligny described how the drink had a crucial role in rituals. They would consume the beverage in the course of three days, which caused hallucinations and vomit. This experience was believed to be magical and help to purify the body.
The Jibaro people, as well as other small tribes that lived in what is currently Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela fermented the yerba. Specifically, the variety Ilex guayusa, making a drink that had narcotic properties. It was mainly used to enhance the physical performance of dogs used to hunt and fight in wars.
Yerba mate (and similar types of Ille) have been drunk by many different cultures from the USA to southern Chile and Argentina. Being as part of ceremonies or magical rituals, or as a social event, there is no denying on the significance of the drink for South Americans.
Note: This post does not contain medical advice. Please ask a health practitioner before trying therapeutic products new to you.
If you do wish to experiment, I suggest doing further research.
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Works Cited & Multimedia Sources
- Video: Julio Brum. La yerba mate.
- Don Aníbal Cambas. Leyendas Misioneras. 1945. as on Compartiendo culturas
- The Guarani. Survival International.
- Dr Ruiz de Pagés Myrtha Elba and Fernando Pagés. https://www.scribd.com/document/177937932/Legends-of-Yerba-Mate#
- Portal Guarani. Multilingual: arts, literature, and history, created or written by guaranies.