Devil’s spawn or elixir of the gods? The brief, troubled, seditious history of coffee

“…Black as hell, Strong as Death, Sweet as Love” …There is truth in this Turkish proverb. Since coffee’s discovery in the 11th century, this beloved elixir of the gods has been banned, demonized, lauded, spiritualized, feared, and even used as a weapon of death. The story starts with a Shepherd, dancing goats, and Sufis.

Blessed be thy cup

There are two theories surrounding the discovery of coffee. The first, and most widely accepted concerns a humble, often weary, Ethiopian goat shepherd named Kaldi. One day Kaldi noticed that his often indolent charges enjoyed surges of energy and “danced (jumped)” after nibbling on small, red berries. Intrigued, Kaldi munched on a few himself. With surprise, joy, and increased energy, he brought his discovery to a local monastery where a Sufi abbot, disliking the taste, threw them onto the fire…et voila, coffee the drink was born. A competing theory involves a sleepy Sufi monk who had heard about, sought out, and brought the berries back to Yemen. Thrilled with his new discovery, he and fellow monks began drinking coffee stay alert through evening prayers. While we may never know who truly discovered coffee, we are certain that coffee had spread from Ethiopia to Yemen by the 14th century and that it’s dissemination throughout Arabia and the Middle East is very closely linked to Sufis and Islam.

By the 16th century, coffee and coffeehouses could be found in most Arabian and Middle Eastern cities. Affectionally known in Turkish as schools of the wise, coffeehouses were rapidly becoming popular gathering spots for intellectuals. This gathering and sharing and bonding of men outside of the mosque began to worry local authorities and in 1511, under the belief that coffee threatened his rule by encouraging radical thinking and sedition, governor Khair Beg banned coffee in Mecca. The wildly unpopular ban lasted 13 long years until Sultan Selim I, who considered coffee sacred, rescinded the ban and ordered Beg’s execution. Coffee’s first right to be drunk battle was hard won and short-lived.

By the early 17th century coffee had made its way to the streets of Venice where it was ruffling the feathers of Italy’s religious leaders. Dubbed the “bitter invention of Satin”, coffee was sorely condemned by Catholic clergy who viewed it as a toxic Muslim drink. Unable to sty coffee’s growing popularity, the leaders called upon the Pope to denounce the drink as evil…but things did not go as planned. Pope Clement VIII was a thoughtful man who insisted on trying a cup before casting judgment. It only took a few sips for the Pope to proclaim coffee delicious and even suggest it be baptized. With the Pope’s blessing, coffee was eagerly embraced by the West and cafés starting opening throughout Europe. Coffee had charmed great leaders in the East and the West — Grand Mufti Mehmet Ebussuud el-İmadi issued a fatwa confirming coffee could be drunk and the Pope had given our beloved drink the apostolic blessing. Coffee may have charmed religious leaders but its place in society was still far from secure.

The seeds of revolution

Coffeehouses in 17th-century Europe were lively community gathering spots, attracting individuals from all walks of life. They were a place where men could learn, drink, and be heard. This was not lost on the populace who referred to London coffeehouses as Penny Universities. For the price of a penny, patrons could enjoy coffee while they absorbed information from the vibrant, learned conversations buzzing around them. Soon, coffee’s gift for stirring up discussion caught the notice of local authorities, who, like the lost Governor of Mecca, associated coffee with social disruption. King Charles II of England was the first European leader to attempt to take action and in 1675 wrote a proclamation to ban coffee. At this time, there were believed to be near 3,000 coffeehouses in England and the King, fearing rebellion, denounced them all, claiming they encouraged idleness, disturbed the public, and promoted malice revolutionary discussion.

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Thankfully, several of Charles’s coffee-loving ministers helped kill the ban two days before it was to take effect. King Charles may have failed to outlaw coffee but his belief that coffee was tied to revolutionary thought was wellfounded. Just one century after his proclamation, the Green Dragon coffeehouse in Boston served as the unofficial headquarters of the American Revolution. With the Boston Tea Party in 1773, coffee became a symbol of American pride and independence. On the heels of the American Revolution, was the French Revolution– also planned in a coffeehouse, Paris’s famed Café de Procope.

Over the centuries, there were other attempts to ban coffee, including the 1532 attempt in Cairo, the 1633 attempt in the Ottoman empire, and the 1776 attempt in Sweden*. In England, women took up the cause by issuing an official complaint in 1663 and then a full petition against coffee in 1674. All of their attempts were short-lived and futile. Coffee had won over the people and no attempt to deny them their drink would succeed. In 1777, Frederick the Great of Prussia fought back in his own way. This mighty ruler, dismayed by coffee’s popularity, did not try to ban it, only to disparage its virtues by writing a lengthy manifesto purporting beer’s superiority over coffee.

From its mystical start to its revolutionary end, coffee’s history is rich, conflicted, and undeniably powerful. Be it the devil’s cup, the elixir of the goods, or the seeds of rebellion, coffee has shown us it is more than just a drink; it’s a feeling and it’s here to stay.  “Black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love”(1)…”Coffee is the common man’s gold, and like gold, it brings to every person the feeling of luxury and nobility (2).” Gather, dance, think, and drink on.

*King Gustav III of Sweden’s hatred of coffee was so intense that he condemned convicted murders to death of coffee, ordering that the men drink coffee until it killed them.

1. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord

2. Sheik-Abd-al-Kadir

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