Skip to main content

The Skeptics Guide to Tea Leaf Reading

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Will I will the lottery? Will I have children? Where is the love of my life? The answers to all these and other questions can be found in the dregs from a brew of Orange Pekoe, or not.

A Brief History of Tea-Leaf Reading

According to legend, a Chinese princess turned to tea-leaf reading after being let down by the infinitely more precise method of predicting the future that is astrology. That’s supposed to have happened in 229 BCE.

The practice made its way into the Middle East, probably along the trade routes, in the same way diseases travelled.

Tea became popular in Europe in the 17th century and with it came practitioners of the art of divination, which can be defined as a way of relieving the gullible of their excess wealth.

The technical term for staring into the bottom of a tea cup and seeing the future is tasseography (also known as tasseomancy or tassology). The skilled clairvoyant can foretell the approach of a lover or the arrival of a massive fortune.

They can also see, we assume, the coming of a demented axe murderer or a stunning bankruptcy, but letting the client in on these catastrophes is bad for business, so they don’t get mentioned.

I see a map if Italy, a French-cut poodle, and the bottom of a parrot's cage. Does this mean the New York Yankees will be playing in the National Football League next season? Maybe, maybe not.

I see a map if Italy, a French-cut poodle, and the bottom of a parrot's cage. Does this mean the New York Yankees will be playing in the National Football League next season? Maybe, maybe not.

How to Read Tea Leaves

Tea made with loose leaves and poured into a white cup without a strainer is step one. Although the skeptic might think the accuracy of the reading can be just as good if the cup is black. There must be no milk, sugar, or lemon in the brew, such additives might disrupt the connection to the auguries that are going to determine your future.

All the tea should be drunk, except for a small amount. Having a few leaves stuck between your teeth is a small price to pay for knowing what waits around the next corner of your life.

The folk at teahow.com tell us that next you “Take the handle of the tea cup in your left hand and quietly ask for help to read your future.” This is a step you may want to avoid doing in a crowded space because people can be so negatively faultfinding about mental health issues.

Ben Schott (Schott’s Food and Drink Miscellany) then describes the rest of process: “The drinker should agitate the cup to loosen the leaves. The cup should then be inverted, placed upon its saucer, and rotated three times.” Mr. Schott does not specify whether clockwise or counter-clockwise. This could be a crucial omission.

The reader then takes the cup and studies the patterns created by the leaves being careful to make sure the handle of the cup is pointed towards the subject.

Most tasseographers interpret the arrangement of the dark leaves. However, others read the white spaces between the leaves, demonstrating how incredibly scientific this process is. Probably, wearing a brightly coloured headscarf and hoop earrings will add to the accuracy of the reading.

The fortune teller starts at the rim, which is the present. A single leaf stuck on the edge is highly auspicious. But, this is most likely good news for the reader who is about to receive a fee for the reading. The sides of the cup are where the near future lurks and the bottom, of course, is the distant future.

According to the Food Network, convivial company and pleasant chit chat should be a part of the experience. This allows “for the energy and things on the mind of the tea drinker to invigorate the reading of the leaves.”

Once the leaves have absorbed the ambience they are able to decide what patterns they are going to create for the mystic to interpret. Tea leaves, as we all know, being sentient.

It goes without saying, or should be, that the whole process is undermined by the use of tea bags.

Tea bags lack the reputed soothsaying abilities of loose leaves.

Tea bags lack the reputed soothsaying abilities of loose leaves.

What the Leaves Say

Those seeking to unlock the predictive power of tea leaves are strongly advised not to do so themselves; a lack of objectivity will interfere with the accuracy of the reading. It's the same reasoning that dictates medical trials use a double-blind system. And, it's probably not a brilliant idea to have Aunt Alice handle the chore at a family gathering. No, you need the highly trained skill of a Madam Zorah.

Is that a dog or a hammer? Only the truly knowledgeable can tell and the passing of serious coin determines the level of expertise.

Patterns handed down by practitioners of the craft over centuries reveal the fate of the subject―or not. A bird means that good news is coming, while a cat signifies jealousy. Nobody wants to see wavy lines because that foretells of trouble and woe, but if the lines are straight, peace and harmony will guide your life.

“From now on, I don't care if my tea leaves spell 'Die, Ron, Die,' I'm chucking them in the bin where they belong.”

— J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

The shapes and symbols that appear are open to interpretation; it's a bit like a Rorschach test. What looks like a lion to one person might resemble a pig to someone else. This is why you need the professionalism of a Madam Zorah―ka-ching. Here are a few of the reputed connections between shapes and the portents they signify:

  • A cow means prosperity, but so does an anchor, clover, a crescent moon, sheep, and trees;
  • A cross means death, along with a coffin, a shark, and a kettle;
  • Snakes and arrows are bad omens;
  • Positive love-related themes turn up in a swan, angels, and bouquets, but unfortunate outcomes are likely when there's a mushroom or owl lying in the bottom of the cup; and,
  • Rutabagas do not appear to signify anything.

Delightedcooking.com tells us that “If the tea makes stain rings in the cup, this can symbolize many things, from longevity in life, to the amount of children someone may have, to the number of decisions that will come before them.” This rather troubling lack of specificity suggests tea-leaf reading may not be an exact science.

The Tea Association of the U.S.A. says “The ‘sitter’ should approach the oracle in all seriousness and during the ritual should concentrate on his or her future destiny and ‘wish’ that the symbol shall correctly represent happenings to come.”

It seems that bursting into uncontrollable giggles is not advised. This may disturb the occult equilibrium of the visionary and who knows what distress that might cause in the spirit world. Cream pie fights might break out.

Bonus Factoids

  • In the Middle East where coffee is the preferred hot beverage, there are practitioners of the divination art who draw information from sludge in the bottom of the cup. One such was a woman called Sana Kuma. She advised an Israeli policeman to buy amulets from her worth $2,200 and to then dip them in honey and throw them into the sea. The plan revealed in the coffee grounds was to save the cop's father from the approaching grim reaper. It didn't work of course and Sana Kumar was charged with practicing witchcraft. The charges were later withdrawn when it became clear a conviction was unlikely.
  • Thanks to Serena’s Guide to Divination we know that money is coming your way if there are bubbles on the surface of your cup of tea. If leaves are floating on the surface visitors are on their way. Two teaspoons placed accidentally on a saucer means someone you know is going to have twins.
  • Scatomancy is telling the future by looking at poop.
  • “What Is a Tea Leaf Reading? Chris Kohatsu, delightedcooking.com, February 25, 2022.
  • “How to Read Tea Leaves – the Complete Guide, and Symbols.” teahow.com, undated.
  • “Reading Tea Leaves.” Tea Association of the U.S.A., undated.
  • “Schott’s Food & Drink Miscellany.” Ben Schott, Von Holtzbrinck Publishing Services, 2003.
  • “Reading the Tea Leaves or Coffee Grounds.” Serena’s Guide to Divination, undated.
  • “5 Things You Didn’t Know About Tea Leaf Reading.” Abellaarthur, The Food Network, January 29, 2014.
  • “Coffee Grounds Brewed Trouble for Israeli Fortune Teller.” Dion Nissenbaum, McClatchy Newspapers, July 20, 2007.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

Related Articles