Tea History & Culture

How to Read Tea Leaves

June 14, 2017

You may be able to predict the future just by looking in your teacup.

That’s the idea being tea leaf reading, also known as tasseography or tasseomancy. Those fancy words come from the French word for cup—tasse—and the Greek suffixes graph and mancy, which mean writing and divination, respectively. According to tasseography, the tealeaves left over at the bottom of a teacup aren’t random. Rather, their shapes can be interpreted to predict one’s good or bad fortune.

People have been looking for ways to see into the future for centuries, with reports of fortune telling dating as far back as 4000 BCE.  Humans have attempted to predict the future by studying the stars, reading tarot cards, and peering into crystal balls.  The earliest book written in English on reading tea leaves hails from an 18th century Highland Seer, but tealeaf reading really took off in Victorian Great Britain (1837-1901). During this period of British world dominance, self-reflection became very trendy, in part thanks to the introspective work of psychologist Sigmund Freud, creating an environment in which reading tea leaves would be most appealing. As tea became popular with the British masses in the 19th century, they not only drank it enthusiastically, but also embraced reading tea leaves as an alternative method of divination to more painful and messy methods like haruspicy, carromancy, and molybdomancy, which used animal intestines, hot wax, and molten metal to predict the future, respectively.

During this period, an invitation to a tea party could mean not only a delicious brew of tea, but also a tea leaf reading, perhaps conducted by one of many gypsies (or Roma) who practiced the trade door-to-door in homes and tea parlors.

But just how did they do it?

Here’s the skinny, per the Tea Association of the USA, Inc.

Start with a cup of loose-leaf tea. After drinking the liquid, twirl your teacup in a clockwise circle very quickly three times. If there’s any liquid left over, turn the teacup upside down on a saucer and wait for all the liquid to drain away. The tea leaves should cling to the cup.

Next, you’ll analyze the tealeaves in your cup for any obvious symbols, keeping in mind that the rim of the cup indicates the present, the sides of the cup represent the near future, and the bottom of the cup represents the distant future.

What symbols should you look for?

Anchors, hearts, palm trees, and birds are just a few.

Check out this key from the Tea Association of the USA to see what these common symbols mean for your future:

Be on the lookout for letters in your teacup, too, which may indicate the first letter of the name of an important figure in your life.  Depending on how close the letter is to a particular symbol, this person may be a friend or a foe. For example, an “L” next to an owl might indicate that your new boss Larry will prove your financial downfall.  Or the letter “B” next to a heart may suggest that your boyfriend Barry is “the one.”  And remember, the closer to the rim the symbol, the sooner you’ll experience its meaning.

On a scale from Picasso to Annie Liebovitz, just how clear should these symbols be?

Here’s an example, also from the Tea Association of the USA:

Armed with this information, you’re set to host a tea reading for one, host your very own tea party with an added element of the occult, or seek out a professional tea leaf reader in your city.

Happy reading!

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