Erithi Tea Ceremony
Written by Chief Scholar Isienaka of the Eloth Dai
The rai'kan, or tea ceremony, is a formal and ancient custom of the erithi people. Its origins are lost to time, but over the centuries the ceremony has been refined to a meaningful art form, much like erithi poetry or skyfire. The term itself, rai'kan, is understood to mean soul-tea. More than likely, the full name originally was slightly different, "rai" being a shortened version of "raiyatha" meaning soul, and "kan" being a conflation and then truncation of the words for tea and ceremony. Scholars debate this, but the outcome is still the same: the tea ceremony is known as "soul-tea" and the erithi term for this is rai'kan.
Like their poetry, rai'kan have many layers and levels. Symbolic meaning is rife throughout, but the symbolism varies from family to family and generation to generation, and thus is very personal and individualized. Regardless of who is doing a traditional ceremony or why, the ceremony itself is always considered formal and is taken seriously.
The standard rai'kan involves three or more people gathered together, either inside or out, in surroundings considered artistically pleasing and/or politically or socially important. The surroundings are extremely important to the ceremony, and they are always chosen by the host with care and intent. Some families have a room or area specially designed for use with the rai'kan, but this is not necessary.
Arranging of a tea ceremony may be done for many purposes. It can be a strictly social gathering born of a desire to connect formally and through ritual, as such situations are seen as relaxing to the erithi. However, it can also have undercurrents of socio-political messages, such as a matriarch calling together squabbling townspeople and forcing them into a formal ceremony. The latter has been remarkably effective in soothing such squabbles as people relax into the traditions of the rai'kan and common grounds are re-established.
A full-blown, fully traditional rai'kan takes days of preparation by both host and attendees, and the ceremony itself will take the better part of the day. Hosts carefully pick out and prepare the location, the implements, and the tea choices, and each stage is accompanied by rituals such prayers to Fash'lo'nae and Lumnis or offerings to nature. Guests carefully pick out clothing and prepare themselves through meditation and kata for the special ceremony. The day of the ceremony starts early with final offerings to the Arkati and nature by the host, and then the guests begin to arrive, in a predetermined order and by a predetermined method. Care must be taken to feed the guests so no one wants, and then after a few hours of arrivals and casual socializing, they are called into the ceremony, again in a predetermined order. The stages (discussed below) are elongated in the full rai'kan, and it is seen as a great insult to misstep at any juncture.
This lengthy rai'kan is rarely done. Some occasions that may warrant a full rai'kan include a family gathering to welcome home someone who has not been seen in years, as a precursor to a wedding ceremony, or before the imminent death of a revered individual.
Typically, however, a less time-consuming and less stressful, but no less important, ceremony is held. Hosts still often spend days or weeks in initial preparation, but without the ritualized elements. Guests are still expected to come in formal attire, but they do not feel the need to have new attire made, and there is not a pressure to arrive in a specific order. Nor is there great pressure to not misstep. In short, the typical rai'kan is formal, but relaxed; traditional, but soothing. Guests arrive just prior to the start of the ceremony itself, and once gathered, they enter the area and the rai'kan begins.
There are a few sub-sets to the rai'kan, that of a couple and of an individual. Tea ceremonies that involve only two people are either for two lovers, a married couple, teacher/student, or parent/child. Already wedded couples might do a romantic rai'kan and drink again from their wedding bowl to affirm their love and commitment. Lovers might participate in a rai'kan to formalize their relationship. For example, one might ask their lover to marry them during a rai'kan. A teacher will hold a rai'kan for a student at key points in a student's learning progress, such as when they are ready to move on from student to teacher themselves. A student might hold a rai'kan for their teacher as a method of honoring the teacher and showing respect. In a similar vein, a parent might hold a rai'kan for a child as they meet milestones in their life, to reconnect with them individually, or to say goodbye as they move into adulthood. A child would hold a rai'kan for the parent as a manner of honor and respect. For the parent/child and the teacher/student rai'kan, it is more common for these to involve multiple people. The most common two-person rai'kan is between lovers and married couples.
The individual rai'kan is not simply the pouring of tea for oneself. It involves going through the stages of the ceremony, and it is usually done when an individual wishes to center himself and his thoughts. It is often done before embarking on a new stage in life or before large decisions are made.
Symbolism & Philosophy of the Rai'kan
As mentioned, symbolism varies. Some interpret it as a meditation, and they place great value on precise movements and ritualized settings. They feel that the shared meditation of the group brings a closeness that cannot be replicated by other means. These ceremonies will tend to be quiet and contemplative. Others stress the social ritual, the interaction between host and guests. These ceremonies, while still formal, are often more relaxed and involve casual conversation. Still others meld philosophy, art, meditation, and the social together.
There is a whole branch of philosophy within erithi culture on tea and the tea ceremony. Some ascribe different emotions or methods of thought to different sorts of tea. These are so varied, however, that to go into them would be akin to attempting to explain every possible nuance of a symbol within our poetry--in short, an exercise in futility.
Thus, the meaning of each rai'kan is individualized and the tone set by the host. Erithi are more than happy to follow the host's lead and do the ceremony on his or her terms, for they will soon repay the honor and host their own tea ceremony.
Stages of the Rai'kan
The Arrival & Greeting: Guests arrive at the designated time and are greeted by the host. Often, a small refreshment is offered. Once all guests have arrived, the host leads them to the rai'kan location. In the full ceremony, this stage can take several hours.
The Gathering at the Table: Guests gather about the tea table and its sitting cushions. They make appropriate offerings, and then sit. Offerings can be compliments to the host, a murmured prayer of thanks, an appreciation of nature, etc.
The Making of the Tea: The host makes the tea. No matter the wealth of the individual, this duty is not pushed upon a servant or guest. During a special ceremony in which a child is being celebrated as an adult, the host parent might call the child to assist and turn the duties over to him or her as a sign of their maturity. This is rare, however. Water is boiled in a kettle, which typically rests off to the side so smoke from the fire never reaches the guests. Makeshift stoves of stone are not uncommon in outdoor tea ceremonies. In indoor ones, the boiling kettle is most often brought from the nearby kitchen or is over a fireplace in the same room. The host selects the tea leaves and puts them in the teapot, which is situated in the exact center of the table, and then pours the water from the kettle into the pot. The host takes his seat while the leaves steep (the time varies depending on the tea chosen) and elaborates on the tea chosen and why. It is also appropriate to explain the water's origins at this time as well, if there is something special about it.
The Pouring of the Tea: Once the tea has steeped its desired length of time, the host pours the tea. Traditionally, the host will say something meaningful to each guest as she pours that person's tea. This is done with a calm demeanor but with an underlying quickness so no one's tea grows cold in the waiting. Guests are then offered additions to their tea such as crystallized lotus blossoms or drops of honey. The tea is then gently whisked or stirred.
Variation: some teas are best made within the individual bowl. In these situations, the boiling water is transferred by the host from kettle to pot, and each bowl already holds the tea leaves. The host pours from pot to bowl as normal, and while it steeps in the individual bowls, he talks of the choices made.
The Drinking of the Tea: Once all have been poured, the host drinks first and the others follow suit. After the first drink, everyone is free to sip at will. If they finish, the host will fill the bowl, but it is not considered polite to hurriedly drink the tea. It is in this stage that deviations occur. For a more meditative ceremony, the host might continue with small rituals, and the talk will be soft and to that purpose. For a social ceremony, a light snack might accompany it, and the talk will be more free-flowing. Poets might be asked to perform or a guest asked to sing. A small play might be put on for the benefit of the guests, or perhaps storytelling. The drinking of the tea often lasts long into the day, and subsequent pots of tea are made with less formality. However, the formality never disappears entirely. It would be a horrible breach of etiquette to devolve the ceremony into a party. Thus, the importance of the final stage.
The Departure: Once the drinking of the tea stage is completed, a host subtly indicates it is time for departure. Guests rise and formally thank the host, and they file out of the rai'kan area. Once a suitable distance away from the area (if it is outdoors) or out of the room (if it is indoors), the formal ceremony concludes, and the guests can return to talking. Often, guests will stay for a party or dinner at this point. In the full ceremony, the departure is final and all guests leave in a pre-determined order. By tradition, no one speaks at the end of a full ceremony. They bow in thanks and leave. The host will not speak until all guests have left and are no longer in sight of his or her house. Guests will not speak until out of sight of the house either.
Implements of the Rai'kan
Erithi often have several different sets of implements, and the occasion of the rai'kan drives the choice of which set to use. Families will pass down heirloom sets as well.
Tea: The tea will vary from ritual to ritual, and it is typically a matter of preference, except in the full rai'kan where specific tea leaves at specific times are designated by custom.
Tea bowls: Typically, erithi use small, handle-less cups, also called tea bowls, for their tea. These are made from a variety of materials, such as different kinds of jade, porcelain, agate, or pottery. When jade or agate are chosen, the bowls can be decorated by carvings, inlays, and intaglios, but are rarely painted upon. Porcelain varies in delicacy, and it too can be decorated, and painting on porcelain is common. Pottery tea bowls often become stunning works of art with the use of intricate glazing techniques. Some more elaborate tea bowl sets often have a favorite quote from book, song, or poem worked into the designs.
Teapots and kettles: Typically matches or complements the bowls. The pot is often more artistic as it is for steeping the tea, and the kettles more utilitarian.
Tea table and pillows: The table is low to the ground and usually quite light so as to be portable to the ceremony location (or families have multiple tables for different locations and uses). Pillows for sitting surround the table and usually complement its form and design. Both pillows and tables can come in a variety of styles and forms.
Tea Whisks/Spoons: Whisks or spoons are used to delicately stir the tea once poured into the bowl. These can range from the simple to the elaborate.
Water: The water used to brew the tea is very important. There are certain springs within the erithi continent that are said to have healing powers, so water from these hard-to-find springs are coveted. Water, like so much of the ceremony, is specific to the host. Some only want water used from their personal "tea springs" or water from their home village. Some are fine with any high quality water. Some Nathala enjoy distilling ocean water from their homelands and then, once all hint of salt is removed, using it in their ritual. They claim they can hear the sea calling to them through their tea, and it brings great peace to the wandering Nathala.
Wedding bowls: Wedding bowls are tea bowls, but approximately twice the size, and they are always carved from a single piece of agate and are unadorned except for an optional simple quote carved along the edge. A couple promised to one another will choose the type of agate and their wedding quote (if they desire one) with care. Couples drink from the bowl together at the end of their wedding ceremony. Wedding bowls are typically displayed with prominence in a home, and no one drinks from it except the couple.
Beyond the Rai'kan
Beyond the formal rai'kan, tea is a part of everyday life for most erithi, and hints of the rai'kan permeate this daily drink. It is easy for a stranger to mistake a normal tea drinking occurrence with a rai'kan, but an erithi knows the difference. It is also easy for a stranger, once making this mistake, to compound it to believe an erithi is violating the spirit of the traditional rai'kan when in reality, they are just enjoying a good cup of tea among friends.