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How To Read Tea Leaves

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A later edition of the Nelros Cup of Fortune, made by Aynsley, with zodiacal and planetary astrology symbols
A plain green Omen Cup by Paragon decorated with symbols inside
A salmon-pin and green Low Doris Cup of Knowledge by Aynsley with cartomantic playing cards inside

“Tea Leaf Reading, A Brief Introduction” is the text of a flyer which i wrote and printed for a class i taught in 2009 at the annual Hoodoo Heritage Festival sponsored by Missionary Independent Spiritual Church. This was one of my favourite workshops because i collect and sell antique fortune telling cups, and it was a pleasure to bring out and display the best and the rarest of these, and then to present each participant with a Jane Lyle Cup of Fortune boxed set, complete with a 96-page booklet on tea leaf reading. We brewed and drank tea together and practiced reading each other’s grounds, and in addition to the introductory flyer, everyone who attended took home their beautiful tea cups and books.

In 2012, the flyer was reprinted in "The Black Folder: Personal Communications on the Mastery of Hoodoo. Here is the text, as distributed to my students.

catherine yronwode

The Mystic Tea Room

Contents

History

Tea Leaf Reading is also known as Cup Reading, Tasseomancy (French “tasse” [cup] plus Greek “mancy” [divination]), Tasseography (“cup writing”), and “Tasseology” (“cup study”). As a form of divination, it is probably as old as the invention of cups. Some claim it originated in China, where tea was first commercially grown, but it seems to have been known in Scotland, Ireland, and England before trade with China developed, and probably developed there with herbal teas. In 1899, John Hanley, an American of Irish descent, described tea reading by “Figures and Signs as Interpreted by Our Grandmothers,” implying that the art was already old in his era. Around the same time, Harry Roseland, a popular American genre artist, made several paintings featuring a Black female tea leaf reader divining for young While female clients.

In the early 20th century, tea leaf reading became a widespread form of divination. Women entrepreneurs opened tea rooms — small, cozy, domestic restaurants serving light lunches and non-alcoholic beverages. Getting one’s cup read was a popular adjunct to dining out in such restaurants, especially between World War One and World War Two. Some tea rooms of that era featured fortune telling waitresses, who dressed as Gypsies and offered patrons “a free reading with every meal.” In some tea rooms, the “Gypsy” waitresses also offered palm readings to guests.

How Tea Leaf Readings are Conducted

Tea leaf reading is almost always performed in person rather than by phone or email, as it is the cup of the client or “sitter” that is read. In addition to being conducted in the home by family members or between friends, it is also a form of divination for which one can seek out a professional “cup reader” who will brew the tea, perhaps drink a cup while chatting with you, and then tell your fortune in the leaves.

Tea leaf symbols are not read “intuitively.” rather, each symbol has one or more traditional meanings. The amateur reader will have learned 50 or so, while a professional may have a repertoire of 100 to 200 symbols memorized.

Special Tea Cups for Tasseographic Reading

Tea leaf reading can be performed in a plain white cup, and many folks prefer that type of cup because the emblems are clearly discernible against a plain backdrop. However, since the late 19th century, designers and potteries have produced many forms of special “fortune telling cups.” These generally fall into one of three types: Astrology, Symbol, and Cartomancy cups.

Astrology Cups and Saucers

Astrological cups and saucers are decorated with the twelve signs of the zodiac and symbols of the seven ancient planets. Read more about Astrology Cups and Saucers

Symbol Cups and Saucers

Symbol cups and saucers contain popular signs from tea reading plus other omen-symbols, such as a snake, anchor, or horseshoe. Read more about Symbol Cups and Saucers

Cartomancy Cups and Saucers

Cartomancy cups and saucers are decorated with images of scattered playing cards, usually either from a 32-card euchre deck (as used in Lenormand style card reading) or a 52 card poker deck (as used in Italian and English style card reading). Read more about Cartomancy Cups and Saucers

Space, Time, Danger, and the Stranger in the Cup

Cup reading proceeds in an orderly manner, following a prescribed pattern of examination.

Home and Away

The handle of the cup is the “home” and any signs found along its vertical axis relate to events close to the home. Across from the handle is “away” and its vertical axis represents events away from the home. Tea leaf signs falling between home and away are said to be leaving. Those that fall between away and home are said to be coming closer.

Four Turns to the Bottom

When reading the cup, it is customary to proceed clockwise in a downward spiral of four turns — the rim, the center, and the bottom of the cup’s wall, followed by a final turn around the floor of the cup. This spiral starts at the handle and finishes at the bottom center of the cup.

Symbols that are found in the first turn of the spiral, along the cup’s rim, are timed to occur within a week. The middle turn around the cup’s wall is two weeks away. The bottom turn along the base of wall is three weeks away. The fourth turn, spiraling into the bottom center of the cup, represents events about a month away in time.

Events at the bottom of the cup are generally interpreted in their darkest and direst aspects and represent dangerous conditions. Symbols which are fortunate at the top of the cup rapidly become less fortunate as they “fall” to the bottom. For this reason, some makers of astrological and symbol cups place an emblem of safety in the bottom of the cup, to obviate any negative symbol that might fall there. The most common of these protective signs are the ship or the anchor, which represent safety and ward off drowning at sea.

The Stranger in the Cup

One special tea leaf symbol that stands apart from all the others is when a twig or stick from the tea plant is found among the leaves. This special divinatory mark is called “The Stranger in the Cup” and it foretells a visitor. If the cup is being read for a young woman, the Stranger in the Cup signifies that she will shortly meet her husband-to-be.

The Love Drop

"The love drop" is a tea leaf reader's term of art referring to the last drop that falls from the cup as it is swirled and prepared for image-reading. The love drop is always dripped into the saucer and, unlike the rest of the tea leaves, which may symbolize diverse life situations, it provides a special glimpse into love affairs only. Its use may derive from the traditions of Irish tea leaf readers, who tend to read the leaves in the saucer, not in the cup.

A Basic List of Tea Leaf Symbols

A proficient domestic tea leaf reader will probably have fifty or more tea leaf symbols memorized; a professional tasseomancer will likely have 200 or more committed to memory. Read more to learn the meanings of the most commonly encountered tea leaf symbols.

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