PARAGUAY: On the origins of MATE

Visiting South America, I was often invited to share a mate, by  friendly and curious people. 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.

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. She tells me a legend while demonstrating with reverence the proper technique for drinking mate.

She nearly fills his 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 I visited the fabric, it is quite 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. She passes the mate, 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 again.

 ” 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.”

Ilex Paraguariensis

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
Quechua: Mati
English: Mate tea
Other names: Paraguay tea, Jesuit’s tea.


T he name in Guaraní, is ka’a, which means “herb“.

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.

Please enjoy this STORIES about how the Yerba-Mate came to the first peoples:

Leyenda Guarani

CaáYarîi y  CaáYará- Protectores della Yerba-Mate 

C uenta 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.

Guarani legend

 CaáYarîi  and CaáYará- Protectors of Mate tea “Yerba-Mate”

T he 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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Guarani legend Yerba Mate Version II


T here 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.

Thee 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.

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Legend of Yarí


Y arí, 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.

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Legend of the the Tupi Brothers

T here 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

“…these paths were watered by the sweat and blood of thousands of aborigines, and paved with their bones.”…

and to harvest the plant.

~ collected by Dr Myrtha Elba Ruiz de Pagés and Fernando Pagés.

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Traditional use of Yerba Mate

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 you cope better with hot weather, especially if consumed as Terere, the Yerba mate prepared with ice water and\ or ice cubes and fruit juice.

*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.


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.
  • Portal Guarani. Multilingual: arts, literature, and history, created or written by guaranies.