Reading the Tea Leaves: The History and Practice of Tasseography

Fascinated with the occult and with the self-analysis of Sigmund Freud, Victorians reached for their cups.

by Jake Cordero
For The Austin Séance

In this installment of our online journal we explore  tasseography” —  better known as tea-leaf reading.  Like the parlor séance, tasseography hit its heyday during Victorian times.  I’ve included here a bit of history about tasseography, some instructional tips and also sample interpretations from a famous work on the subject.

THE HISTORY

The word tasseography derives from the French “tasse,” meaning “cup,” as well as the Greek suffix “graph” that signifies “writing.” Related terms include “tasseomancy” and “tasseology.” Other traditional divinatory practices include molybdomancy, which is divination through the examination of molten metal; carromancy, which is divination using hot wax; and — my personal favorite  haruspicy, divination using animal entrails.

Tasseography became popular in Europe during the 17th Century after tea found its way to England through newly expanding trade routes with China. Among the first Europeans to embrace the practice were traveling Roma people, who sometimes offered their services door-to-door for a fee. On occasion Victorian ladies would bring Roma women into their homes for parlor readings.

Victorians wishing to learn more about tasseography might also have reached for a copy of Tea-Cup Reading and Fortune-Telling by Tea Leaves, which originally appeared in 1881. It is the earliest known English book on the topic. Authored by someone identified only as “A Highland Seer,” Tea-Cup Reading includes descriptions of common tea leaf patterns and a small bit of history about “spae wives” which were traditional Scottish tea leaf readers. We’ve included some sample symbol interpretations  and images from the book, just below.

Sadly, tasseography began dwindling in popularity in the early 1900s after the invention of the teabag. Loose tea, however, is making a comeback and with it, presumably, the popularity of tea leaf reading.

HOW TO: TURN, TAp & Toss

Speaking recently to an NPR radio journalist, British historian Alec Gill described the process  of tasseography in a  few short sentences.  “Tossing the cup involved spinning it anti-clockwise in the left hand three times,” he said. “With the dregs swirling around, the dregs were flicked upside-down into a saucer, thus getting rid of the remaining liquid. The fortuneteller — usually a local wise woman in the village or terrace — then set about divining what the talking tea leaves had to say.”

This description is as good as any, although to this some readers would add one additional step: after flipping the cup over, tap the bottom of it three times. This bit of ritual helps extract the water and spread the leaves.

Here are a few more tips:

  1. Traditional ceramic or porcelain tea cups works best — that is, the sort with wider rims and more narrow circular bases.  The interior surface should be white, without any sort of decoration or writing to complicate the reading. Also, you’ll need a saucer. Stay away from coffee mugs. They’re more difficult to work with.
  2. Use loose tea and don’t use a strainer. That is, drop the loose leaves directly into the cup, pour the water and let them steep.  Alternatively, steep the leaves in a tea pot, and pour the tea into the cup without a strainer. The loose leaves should remain at the bottom of the cup as you drink.
  3. Focus! While the tea brews, turn inward. Think about your life or some unanswered, vexing question. This will bring added significance to the experience.
  4. Drink. … With a clear mind, while you are relaxing, quietly sip your tea. Drink most of it, all the while careful to keep the leaves at the bottom. When you get down to just a half teaspoon or so of liquid, swirl the remainder around in the cup and then flip it over in the saucer. Turn the inverted cup three times, counter-clockwise, in the saucer (expect a screeching noice) and then tap the back as noted above.
  5. Now, flip the cup right-side-up and peer inside. The leaves will have left a pattern. Look for suggestive shapes. These may include letters, numbers or figures of animals.

INTERPRETATIONS

Each tea configuration may hold multiple meanings. As you consider their significance, keep in mind the old spiritualist adage: “The spirits always speak first.” When applied to tasseography, this means you should assign the greatest significance to your first impression. Clear your mind before you read the leaves and then allow them to speak to you directly. Trust your instincts.

Traditional readers often interpret those leaves that appear within the cup’s circular base as corresponding to more immediate events, while leaves nearer the rim representing more remote events.  The only exception to this rule would apply to those leaves that settle close to the handle. These leaves can signify pending events or particularly important ones.

Other tips: any series of dots may signify connected ideas or movement.  Also,  if travel or movement is suggested, consider the handle as denoting “South” and then other sections of the cup denoting corresponding compass points. In this way, according to traditional readers, one can look into the tea leaves and not only forecast a visitor or a trip, but also get some sense of direction.

Plenty of books exist on tasseography and in many of them you can find sample configurations and possible interpretations. For convenience, we have included at the bottom of this post interpretations from one such book,  Tea-Cup Reading, that we’ve referenced elsewhere.  You can find a public domain copy of it online, at this link:  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18241/18241-h/18241-h.htm

However, if you wish to proceed on your own and without a book, you certainly can do so. Four broad categories to keep in mind as you venture forth are People, Nature, Animals and Objects. Into each of these categories fall most of the meanings readers will derive from tea-leaf reading.

PEOPLE:  Into the category of “People,” seekers often include both individuals and categories of people — such as children or loved ones. Body parts also fall into this category.

NATURE: The category of “Nature” could include how natural forces influence us. However, one can never control nature. This means that any sign falling broadly into this category could portend either good luck or bad.

ANIMALS:  “Animals” often signify a helping or comforting presence. Spotting an animal figure may also suggest fears, dreams and hopes. In this sense, animals may reveal some of our innermost thoughts or doubts.

OBJECTS: “Objects” relate to items created by human hand or human ingenuity. An object figure appearing at the bottom of your tea cup may suggest your life’s progress.  “Objects” can carry both a negative and positive significance.

Also note that some traditional practitioners find the divinatory process from tea-leaf reading most useful for looking into the immediate future, as opposed to revealing information about more distant events. For this reason,  some Victorian practitioners would read the leaves each morning, after breakfast, as a part of their daily routine.

SYMBOLS AND SIGNIFICATIONS

As noted above, one can find a public domain copy of Tea-Cup Reading online.  There you will find several pages of  useful tea leaf symbols and interpretations. As a parting gift, we include all of these interpretations here, as well as some images.  Enjoy your cups!

ABBEY, future ease and freedom from worry.

ACORN, improvement in health, continued health, strength, and good fortune.

AIRCRAFT, unsuccessful projects.

ANCHOR, a lucky sign; success in business and constancy in love; if cloudy, the reverse must be read.

ANGEL, good news, especially good fortune in love.

APES, secret enemies.

APPLES, long life; gain by commerce.

APPLE-TREE, change for the better.

ARCH, a journey abroad.

ARROW, a disagreeable letter from the direction in which it comes.

ASS, misfortune overcome by patience; or a legacy.

AXE, difficulties overcome.

BADGER, long life and prosperity as a bachelor.

BASKET, an addition to the family.

BAT, fruitless journeys or tasks.

BEAR, a long period of travel.

BEASTS, other than those mentioned, foretell misfortune.

BIRDS, a lucky sign; good news if flying, if at rest a fortunate journey.

BOAT, a friend will visit the consultant.

A sample from Tea-Cup Reading by A Highland Seer. Notice symbols of hare sitting on its side and butterfly near the rim.

BOUQUET, one of the luckiest of symbols; staunch friends, success, a happy marriage.

BRIDGE, a favourable journey.

BUILDING, a removal.

BULL, slander by some enemy.

BUSH, an invitation into society.

BUTTERFLY, success and pleasure.

CAMEL, a burden to be patiently borne.

CANNON, good fortune.

CAR (MOTOR), and CARRIAGE, approaching wealth, visits from friends.

CART, fluctuations of fortune.

CASTLE, unexpected fortune or a legacy.

CAT, difficulties caused by treachery.

CATHEDRAL, great prosperity.

CATTLE, prosperity.

CHAIN, an early marriage; if broken, trouble in store.

CHAIR, an addition to the family.

CHURCH, a legacy.

CIRCLES, money or presents. They mean that the person whose fortune is read may expect money or presents.

CLOUDS, serious trouble; if surrounded by dots, financial success.

CLOVER, a very lucky sign; happiness and prosperity. At the top of the cup, it will come quickly. As it nears the bottom, it will mean more or less distant.

COCK, much prosperity.

COFFIN, long sickness or sign of death of a near relation or great friend.

COMET, misfortune and trouble.

COMPASSES, a sign of travelling as a profession.

COW, a prosperous sign.

CROSS, a sign of trouble and delay or even death.

CROWN, success and honour.

CROWN AND CROSS, signifies good fortune resulting from death.

DAGGER, favours from friends.

DEER, quarrels, disputes; failure in trade.

DOG, a favourable sign; faithful friends, if at top of cup; in middle of cup, they are untrustworthy; at the bottom means secret enemies.

DONKEY, a legacy long awaited.

DOVE, a lucky symbol; progress in prosperity and affection.

DRAGON, great and sudden changes.

DUCK, increase of wealth by trade.

EAGLE, honor and riches through change of residence.

ELEPHANT, a lucky sign; good health.

FALCON, a persistent enemy.

FERRET, active enemies.

FISH, good news from abroad; if surrounded by dots, emigration.

FLAG, danger from wounds inflicted by an enemy.

FLEUR-DE-LYS, same as LILY (q.v.).

FLOWERS, good fortune, success; a happy marriage.

FOX, treachery by a trusted friend.

FROG, success in love and commerce.

GALLOWS, a sign of good luck.

GOAT, a sign of enemies, and of misfortune to a sailor.

Another sample from Tea-Cup Reading. Notice the coffin near the center, a flag and rifle on the lower left side. There’s also the letter “V” near the flag and rifle.

GOOSE, happiness; a successful venture.

GRASSHOPPER, a great friend will become a soldier.

GREYHOUND, a good fortune by strenuous exertion.

GUN, a sign of discord and slander.

HAMMER, triumph over adversity.

HAND, to be read in conjunction with neighboring symbols and according to what it points.

HARE, a sign of a long journey, or the return of an absent friend. Also of a speedy and fortunate marriage to those who are single.

HARP, marriage, success in love.

HAT, success in life.

HAWK, an enemy.

HEART, pleasures to come; if surrounded by dots, through money; if accompanied by a ring, through marriage.

HEAVENLY BODIES, SUN, MOON AND STARS, signifies happiness and success.

HEN, increase of riches or an addition to the family.

HORSE, desires fulfilled through a prosperous journey.

HORSE-SHOE, a lucky journey or success in marriage and choosing a partner.

HOUR-GLASS, imminent peril.

HOUSE, success in business.

HUMAN FIGURES must be judged according to what they appear to be doing. They are generally good and denote love and marriage.

INTERROGATION (mark of), doubt or disappointment.

IVY, honour and happiness through faithful friends.

JACKAL, a sly animal who need not be feared. A mischief maker of no account.

JOCKEY, successful speculation.

JUG, good health.

KANGAROO, a rival in business or love.

KETTLE, death.

KEY, money, increasing trade, and a good husband or wife.

KITE, a sign of lengthy voyaging and travel leading to honor and dignity.

KNIFE, a warning of disaster through quarrels and enmity.

LADDER, a sign of travel.

LEOPARD, a sign of emigration with subsequent success.

LETTERS, shown by square or oblong tea-leaves, signifies news. Initials near will show surnames of writers; if accompanied by dots they will contain money; if unclouded, good; but if fixed about by clouds, bad news or loss of money.

Another sample from Tea-Leaf Reading. Notice several triangles spread throughout, as well as the initials “L” and “v”. There’s also a trident in the center, and a bird just outside the center.

LILY, at top of cup, health and happiness; a virtuous wife; at bottom, anger and strife.

LINES indicate journeys and their direction, read in conjunction with other signs of travel; wavy lines denote troublesome journeys or losses therein.

LION, greatness through powerful friends.

LYNX, danger of divorce or break off of an engagement.

MAN, a visitor arriving. If the arm is held out, he brings a present. If figure is very clear, he is dark; if indistinct, he is of light complexion.

MERMAID, misfortune, especially to seafaring persons.

MITRE, a sign of honor to a clergyman or through religious agency.

MONKEY, the consultant will be deceived in love.

MOON (as a crescent), prosperity and fortune.

MOUNTAIN, powerful friends; many mountains, equally powerful enemies.

MOUSE, danger of poverty through theft or swindling.

MUSHROOM, sudden separation of lovers after a quarrel.

NOSEGAY, the same as BOUQUET (q.v.).

NUMBERS depends on symbols in conjunction with them.

OAK, very lucky; long life, good health, profitable business, and a happy marriage.

OBLONG FIGURES, family or business squabbles.

OWL, an evil omen, indicative of sickness, poverty, disgrace, a warning against commencing any new enterprise. If the consultant be in love he or she will be deceived.

PALM-TREE, good luck; success in any undertaking. A sign of children to a wife and of a speedy marriage to a maid.

PARROT, a sign of emigration for a lengthy period.

PEACOCK, denotes success and the acquisition of property; also a happy marriage.

PEAR, great wealth and improved social position; success in business, and to a woman a wealthy husband.

PEDESTRIAN, good news; an important appointment.

PHEASANT, a legacy.

PIG, good and bad luck mixed: a faithful lover but envious friends.

PIGEONS, important news if flying; if at rest, domestic bliss and wealth acquired in trade.

PINE-TREE, continuous happiness.

PISTOL, disaster.

RABBIT, fair success in a city or large town.

RAT, treacherous servants; losses through enemies.

RAVEN, death for the aged; disappointment in love, divorce, failure in business, and trouble generally.

RAZOR, lovers’ quarrels and separation.

REPTILE, quarrels.

RIDER, good news from overseas regarding financial prospects.

RIFLE, a sign of discord and strife.

RING, a ring means marriage; and if a letter can be found near it, this is the initial of the future spouse. If clouds are near the ring, an unhappy marriage; if all is clear about it, the contrary. A ring right at the bottom means the wedding will not take place.

ROSE, a lucky sign betokening good fortune and happiness.

SAW, trouble brought about by strangers.

SCALES, a lawsuit.

SCEPTER, a sign of honor from royalty.

SCISSORS, quarrels; illness; separation of lovers.

SERPENT, spiteful enemies; bad luck; illness.

SHARK, danger of death.

SHEEP, success, prosperity.

SHIP, a successful journey.

SNAKES are a sign of bad omen. Great caution is needed to ward off misfortune.

SPIDER, a sign of money coming to the consultant.

SQUARES, comfort and peace.

STAR, a lucky sign; if surrounded by dots foretells great wealth and honous.

STEEPLE, bad luck.

STRAIGHT LINE, a journey, very pleasant.

STRAIGHT LINES are an indication of peace, happiness, and long life.

SWALLOW, a journey with a pleasant ending.

SWAN, good luck and a happy marriage.

SWORD, dispute, quarrels between lovers; a broken sword, victory of an enemy.

TIMBER, logs of timber indicate business success.

TOAD, deceit and unexpected enemies.

TREES, a lucky sign; a sure indication of prosperity and happiness; surrounded by dots, a fortune in the country.

TRIANGLES, always a sign of good luck and unexpected legacies.

TRIDENT, success and honors in the Navy.

TWISTED FIGURES, disturbances and vexation; grievances if there are many such figures.

UMBRELLA, annoyance and trouble.

UNICORN, scandal.

VULTURE, bitter foes.

WAGON, a sign of approaching poverty.

WAVY LINES, if long and waved, denote losses and vexations. The importance of the lines depends upon the number of them and if heavy or light.

WHEEL, an inheritance about to fall in.

WINDMILL, success in a venturous enterprise.

WOLF, beware of jealous intrigues.

WOMAN, pleasure and happiness; if accompanied by dots, wealth or children. Several women indicate scandal.

WOOD, a speedy marriage.

WORMS indicate secret foes.

YACHT, pleasure and happiness.

YEW-TREE indicates the death of an aged person who will leave his possessions to the consultant.

ZEBRA, travel and adventure in foreign lands.

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