Tea Mythology

The following series of posts is drawn from a series Twitter threads I posted earlier this week.

When it comes to the history of drinking tea, the origin goes back beyond history and into legend. There are 2 main myths, one of which I’d never heard before. Both of these come from China.

The, um, cleaned up version is that Emperor Shennong (who is a mythological character from Chinese pre-history; there are a variety of ways to spell his name in English but this one is, in my opinion, the easiest for westerners to get handle on the pronunciation) was out one day drinking boiled water when some leaves fell into it. The Emperor continued to drink, and decided he liked the way it tasted, and found it very refreshing and revitalizing. Viola! Tea!

I mean, who doesn’t continue drinking after random stuff falls into their glass (so says the girl who is resigned to forever drinking water with cat hair in it/water that has been shared with the cat).

AlternaTEAvly (HA!), said emperor had a habit of chewing random leaves to search for medicinal herbs.

He also like to eat poison, you know, just for funsies, and discovered tea was an antidote for EVERYTHING. (Spoiler: It’s not. Please don’t try this. I appreciate the enthusiasm, but pretty sure tea doesn’t cure everything in a medical sense…).

Story number 2 is that Bodhidharma or sometimes Gautama Buddha was meditating and fell asleep. Apparently he’d been at it for 9 years, so understandable. I fall asleep after 15 minutes, so points for tenacity.

But this guy was so disgusted with himself that he cut off his own freaking eyelids and threw them on the ground, where they sprouted into tea plants.

Image result for sips tea gif

I think I’ll pass on that one, thanks.

Moving over to Japan we have my new favorite deity: Inari Ookami. Inari comes to us from Japan’s Shinto tradition. Inari may be female. Or male. Or androgynous. Also may be 5 different kami (spirits) rolled into one. So if you’re looking for nonbinary & mental health rep in mythology, Inari is your girl. Guy. Kami, let’s just go with kami.

Two of Inari’s many variants.

How Inari is depicted depends on the region (see above). Many people actually believe that Inari is a kitsune (trickster, shape-shifting fox spirit), though both Shinto and Buddhist officials discourage that idea for some reason I don’t really understand. Possibly because kitsune are often a bit mean in their tricks, and Inari is usually more benevolent?

Even if they aren’t a kitsune, they are usually depicted riding or escorted by white foxes. So yes, automatic points in my book because. White. Foxes. I mean, look at these guys:

Image result for white foxes

Adorable, right?

Anyway. “Inari” means “rice load.” Which is a pretty stupid name, but okay. Inari’s male aspect is usually an old man carrying a big basket of rice on his back, so if the name fits wear it I guess.

They’re a food deity, and as such one of the main deities in Shinto, which includes tea and sake in addition to rice. But there’s a dark side to all this, too: Inari also carries a whip that can be used to burn rice crops.

In other words, be nice to the queer.


Since rice was a measure of wealth in Japan for centuries, Inari was also the patron of prosperity…and actors and prostitutes, since their shrines were usually near pleasure quarters. Inari is so popular that roughly 1/3 of all shrines in Japan are dedicated to them.

So if, like me, you’ve come to rely on tea as an essential and are very glad it’s no longer the equivalent of $600/pound and are perhaps thinking about going to find a mountain cave somewhere to dedicate yourself to whatever diety introduced tea to humanity, Inari seems like a pretty good candidate. And one that would not be opposed to rigging up wifi in said mountain cave.

Further reading:

Tea Wiki
A collection of other short tea myths
More info on Inari

Like what you see? Check out My Favorite Witch Trial.