Like its hot beverage sibling tea, coffee is an incredibly popular drink all over the world. Director David Lynch reportedly said, “Even a bad cup of coffee is better than no coffee at all” (James n.d.).
Here in the UK, we imported £780 million worth of coffee in 2020 (Ridder 2022).
And, like tea, coffee also enjoys an incredibly long and tumultuous history. From Ethiopia to Yemen, and then on into Europe, coffee was even referred to as the Devil’s drink until Pope Clement VIII tried it. According to legend, he decided it might be a better option than alcohol and gave coffee his blessing.
So let’s take a look in this post at some of coffee’s origin stories, rituals associated with the drink, and even how it helps boost a little daily magic. This is the fourth post in the Folklore of Drinks series.
Keep reading to learn more about coffee folklore or hit play to hear the podcast episode version!
Coffee Origin Stories
One of the most popular legends as to the origins of coffee comes from Ethiopia. In the 6th century, a goatherd named Kaldi in the Kaffa region came across his goats eating the cherries from a tree. He didn’t know what these cherries were, but one thing was certain—they livened up the goats!
Out of curiosity, Kaldi took the cherries to the monastery nearby. The monks started experimenting with the stones inside the cherries, eventually making the first batch of coffee. They realised that this new drink helped them stay alert. Word spread, and thus coffee became popular. Ethiopia’s largest coffee chain is even called Kaldi’s (Kaldi’s Coffee 2014). Ethiopia’s Buna coffee ceremony is still an important way to share coffee in a communal way (see Palmer 2010).
Another legend in coffee folklore finds the drink discovered by accident in Yemen. Omar the Healer was cast out of his village, and took to foraging to keep himself fed. He came across some strange red berries he’d never seen before. He found you could roast them, and drink the cooking water. Local patients tried his new drink and found it soothed many ailments. People named the drink ‘Mocha’ after the nearest town, since its inhabitants viewed Omar’s survival as a good omen (Binney 2018: 103).
Whatever its origin story, coffee even became a currency in Tanzania for the Haya people (Gershon 2017).
Coffee Becomes Popular
Yemen became a major source of coffee for 250 years, something that had a huge impact on the Ottoman Empire (Gershon 2017). Keen to read more about the history of the coffee trade? Check out Jane Hathaway’s article, ‘The Ottomans and the Yemeni Coffee Trade’.
But it wasn’t all positive. Some were concerned about the growing popularity of coffeehouses. Merchants had to actually brew the coffee for customers since they didn’t know what to do with the beans. This meant coffeehouses became places for people to socialise and enjoy discussions. Some scholars worried that they might replace mosques as central social spaces (Gershon 2017).
The association between intellectuals and coffee first began in these original coffee houses in East Africa and Southwest Asia (Chrystal 2019).
Coffee in the West
Africa and Southwest Asia enjoyed coffee well before 1000 CE. It only became widely popular in the west in the 17th century (Binney 2018: 103). The original coffee was dark and unsweetened. Europeans didn’t like the taste, but they enjoyed its medicinal properties (Gershon 2017).
Samuel Pepys claimed England’s first coffee house appeared in 1650 in Oxford. London got a coffee house two years later, in St Michael’s Alley near Cornhill (Chrystal 2019).
Edward Lloyd opened a coffee house in 1668. Shipowners, captains and merchants regularly drank there, and it spawned Lloyds of London, the insurance company (Binney 2018: 103).
Ironically, similar concerns about the power of the coffee house as a site of sedition also popped up in Europe. The fears turned out to be well-founded. Revolutionaries used them to plan their acts for the revolutions in France (1789), Berlin (1848), Budapest (1848), and Venice (1848) (Gershon 2017).
Not everyone was a fan. Women couldn’t enter coffee houses unless they were sex workers. A 1674 petition even claimed that husbands had abandoned their domestic duties in favour of spending their time in coffee houses (Chrystal 2019).
Sir Henry Salter recommended black coffee to treat asthma in the 19th century. Interestingly, caffeine is related chemically to the xanthines, or modern asthma medicines (Binney 2018: 103). While some note its lack of nutritional content, caffeine offers a range of benefits, including better concentration, boosted stamina, and even lower risks of diabetes (Binney 2018: 103). Obviously, check with your doctor first because caffeine can also aggravate high blood pressure, anxiety, and heart palpitations (Binney 2018: 103).
I mentioned the Buna coffee ceremony from Ethiopia earlier. And following the drink’s spread across the west, others have created their own rituals around drinking coffee.
The wife of a cavalry colonel, Mrs George S. Andrew Jnr, wrote to the Hollywood Citizen News about cowboy coffee. According to her, the cavalry would boil their coffee and toss a horseshoe into the brew. If the horseshoe floated, the coffee wasn’t done yet. It was only considered done when the horseshoe dissolved (quoted in Clar 1957: 60).
You might wonder what this has to do with folklore, but I do think personal traditions do fall under the heading of folklore. Merriam-Webster claims that folklore is the “traditional customs, tales, sayings, dances, or art forms preserved among a people”. Yet people have to do these personal traditions before they become more widely adopted!
I asked about rituals on Twitter to find out more about personal coffee folklore. Plenty of people drink their coffee first thing to start their day. Some people take it outside to enjoy the morning sun and birds on the feeders. Others use the process of actually making the coffee as a meditative ritual. One person replied to say they took coffee with them in a flask on their walks to share with their ancestors. Others also recommended using coffee as a time to do daily ancestor devotion.
It was surprising to see how many people also grind their own beans! This was partially a moment to let people gather their thoughts for the day ahead, but for others, just part of the ritual. Quite a few people commented on the smell of freshly roasted coffee, which is a fantastic link back to an earlier time.
In the 19th century, roasted coffee became the favourite domestic method to clear noxious smells from a house (Binney 2018: 103)! I think we can all agree with Hugh Jackman when he said “The smell of fresh-made coffee is one of the world’s greatest inventions” (James n.d.).
Coffee Folklore and Superstitions
And as with anything that becomes popular, there is a range of superstitions associated with coffee. For example, accidentally spilling coffee means money is on its way to you.
But the rest of the superstitions in this section all come from Volume 1 of Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World.
Stirring your coffee with a fork stirs up trouble.
Forgetting to put coffee in the pot was a sign of “a joyful surprise” (Daniels 2003 : 415).
You could bring yourself good luck by throwing coffee grains in the fire. But dropping a grain of coffee on the floor would bring bad luck if you didn’t pick it up straight away.
Drop a sugar lump into a cup of clear coffee. If bubbles collect in the middle, a fair day will follow. But they can also mean a kiss or money is coming. If the bubbles stick to the sides, then rain is on the way.
If you drink coffee made from grounds, then check the grounds at the bottom of your cup. A circle means a wedding is coming. Long straight lines mean a funeral. If the grains cluster and stick to the side of the cup, you’ll get a letter. Grains stuck high up to the cup’s side mean a visitor is on the way.
One particular superstition caught my eye. Want to find a lost jewel? Drink black coffee at midnight! (Daniels 2003 : 415) I tweeted this, and Bera gave it a go…and it actually worked!!
It worked! I found my earrings in a little red box in a box of perfumes on my windowsill. I was sure this box was empty and wanted to put it away and only opened it when I remembered the spell. I’ve been wondering for quite a while where they could be https://t.co/EwPzRQI7M5 pic.twitter.com/sY06z0VsN1— Bera (@BeraHugs) April 19, 2022
Icelandic Coffee Superstitions
According to Valur Grettisson, it’s important to follow particular rules when drinking coffee in Iceland (2019). Don’t put the cream in before your sugar or you won’t marry for seven years. Also, drinking coffee hot makes you ugly, while drinking it ice cold makes you more attractive.
If you end up with two spoons in your cup, it can mean you’re either going to be invited to a party soon or you’re going to have twins. Avoid using a mismatching cup and saucer because it means you’ll either marry twice or have an affair.
But on the good side, you’ll be rich if you find bubbles in your coffee and you manage to sip them.
It’s interesting to note that these superstitions, aside from the temperature of the drink, are also the same for tea outside of Iceland.
The term ‘tasseography’ doesn’t just apply to reading tea leaves. It also works for reading coffee grounds.
It works with Turkish coffee because it leaves thick sediment in the cup. This gives you the raw material to read the coffee grounds and the symbols they form. That means you can’t just use any old instant coffee—it must be Turkish ground coffee.
Mario Baker recommends making your coffee in a proper Turkish coffee pot with an extra half teaspoon of ground coffee. You also need to use a plain white cup, but an ordinary espresso cup will do.
Baker also recommends not interpreting your own coffee grounds, unless you’re simply practising how to read the symbols. You start from the cup’s handle and go from right to left to right-handed people, and left to right for anyone who is left-handed.
The whole process is a little more involved than reading tea leaves since you need to swirl around the sediment and let it settle. You can also put an object on the bottom of the upside-down cup related to your question. For example, a ring would represent relationships, while a coin would represent money matters.
You can also interpret the symbols made in the coffee grounds on the saucer, as well as the cup. Hop over to Baker’s website since he gives all the instructions for trying this at home.
As with most beverages, you can easily use coffee in a magical fashion. Lisa Wagoner suggests a meditative ritual. While your coffee brews, meditate on the transformation taking place from water to coffee. Ask yourself what you need to transform in your life. What do you need to stimulate? Think of your desired outcome while drinking your coffee (2019).
She also suggests a simple practice of stirring your coffee clockwise while visualising positive things for the day ahead. Stirring counterclockwise can help to chase away negative things (Wagoner 2019).
Magical coffee also appeared in the responses on Twitter. It becomes a way to cast a simple spell, wherever you are!
Large mocha, made with South American or Asian Arabica beans, and oat milk. Holding cup in left or right hand, a simple spell is said out loud. “Plant and Bean, sight unseen, blessed for my body be.” I get the occasional odd look, but what the heck.— Arte n Cræft (@brotherurth) April 18, 2022
One respondent suggested adding a dash of cinnamon while repeating positive affirmations. Wagoner certainly recommends adding extra flavours to match your intentions. For example, vanilla can bring sweetness while ginger helps bring strength. Stir your coffee clockwise three times before you drink it.
Coffee also appears as an offering in different religious and magical traditions.
I’m initiated into the Ifa tradition and, my particular branch, offer it to every Orisha and Lwa in some form or another.— Granny Moon Boots (@grannymoonboots) April 18, 2022
If you’d like to learn more about coffee in these traditions, then I highly recommend Lilith Dorsey’s book, Voodoo and African Traditional Religion.
Black coffee could even make a good Saturnian or Martian offering, since 10th-century Islamic astrologer Al-Biruni associates narcotics with Saturn and drugs with Mars (Warnock 2012). Personally, I’d go with Mars due to the invigorating ‘get up and go’ boost you get from coffee!
What do we make of this coffee folklore?
As with the other drinks in this series, it’s not surprising that a popular drink would accrue various legends and superstitions. The relatively low price of the product and ease of access makes coffee an obvious choice for daily rituals. While some use it to literally wake up for the day, others use coffee as an opportunity to take a break. The irony of using a stimulant to get some peace and quiet is somehow fitting for coffee!
But coffee folklore just goes to show that we have more in common than we have differences. So next time you brew your favourite beans and take a sip of the Devil’s drink, just think…someone else is doing the exact same thing somewhere else in the world. And that simple act is a wonderful way to ease into a connection with others!
How do you take your coffee? Let me know below!
Baker, Mario (n.d.), ‘Turkish Coffee Reading – Cup Symbols Telling Fortune’, Turkish Style Coffee, http://www.turkishstylegroundcoffee.com/turkish-coffee-reading/.
Chrystal, Paul (2019), ‘A drink for the devil: 8 facts about the history of coffee’, History Extra, https://www.historyextra.com/period/medieval/history-coffee-facts-discovery-use-drink-social-revolution/.
Clar, Mimi (1957), ‘Cowboy Coffee’, Western Folklore, 16 (1), p. 60.
Daniels, Cora Linn and C. M. Stevans (2003 ), Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World, Vol. I, Honolulu, HI: University Press of the Pacific.
Gershon, Livia (2017), ‘How Coffee Went from a Mystical Sacrament to an Everyday Drink’, Daily JSTOR, https://daily.jstor.org/how-coffee-went-from-a-mystical-sacrament-to-an-everyday-drink/.
Grettisson, Valur (2019), ‘Icelandic Superstitions: A Dangerous Cup Of Coffee’, Reykjavik Grapevine, https://grapevine.is/icelandic-culture/2019/08/28/icelandic-superstitions-a-dangerous-cup-of-coffee/.
James, Geoffry (n.d.), ’21 Best Quotes About Coffee’, Inc, https://www.inc.com/geoffrey-james/21-best-quotes-about-coffee.html.
Kaldi’s Coffee (2014), ‘About Us’, Kaldi’s Coffee, http://kaldiscoffeeethiopia.com/.
Palmer, David (2010), ‘The Ethiopian Buna (Coffee) Ceremony: Exploring the Impact of Exile and the Construction of Identity through Narratives with Ethiopian Forced Migrants in the United Kingdom’, Folklore, 121 (3), pp.321–333.
Ridder, M. (2022), ‘Coffee market in the UK – Statistics & Facts’, Statista, https://www.statista.com/topics/6188/coffee-market-in-the-uk/.
Warnock, Christopher (2012), ‘Al-Biruni on the Planets Ruling Animals, Vegetables and Minerals’, Renaissance Astrology, https://www.renaissanceastrology.com/albiruniplanetsanimalstrees.html.
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