September 8, 2015

The Art of Reading Tea Leaves.

drinking tea meditation

The Role of Divination in History and Today

Divination has a long and varied history that stretches back through numerous cultures and places. Defined as “the practice of seeking knowledge of the future by supernatural means,” it is an umbrella term for a number of rituals, from well-known practices such as palmistry (palm-reading) and gazing into crystal balls to lesser known customs like poe divination, which was practiced at Taoist temples.

In pagan times divinators were highly regarded throughout society. The Ancient Greeks regarded the prophecies of the oracles as being directed from the gods, for example. But as monotheistic religions began to dominate the Western world, these practices were outlawed, leading to fortune tellers becoming outcasts among their communities. Today many countries still ban people performing certain divination rituals for money unless it is clearly stated it is being done purely for the sake of entertainment.

While the scientific community wholly rejects all forms of divination, there’s no doubt that these rituals have shaped our culture. While we might think the role of divination in our lives has completely disappeared, studies suggest that it may still influence many of us today; a 2013 Harris Interactive poll found that 29% of Americans believe in astrology, for example.

The history of reading tea leaves

It’s believed that in Western Europe the art of reading tea leaves—or tasseography, as it’s also known—evolved from similar divination rituals practiced by medieval fortune tellers. These fortune tellers would interpret the shapes made from the drops of molten substances such as wax to make predictions about what lay in store. As trade routes flourished between east and west, the Dutch merchants introduced Chinese tea from China. Fortune tellers soon developed a new way to interpret the future. Unsurprisingly the practice became particularly popular in tea-loving England. Some of its finest potteries even developed tea cup sets designed specifically for tasseography.

How to read tea leaves

While reading tea leaves isn’t particularly difficult, it helps to follow some clear instructions if you’re doing it for the first time. This infographic created by Lottoland provides a clear and useful guide to the basic steps involved in reading tea leaves.

  • Make your favourite loose leaf tea in a tea cup. You don’t need a tea strainer or any other special equipment, as the tea leaves will remain in the cup while you drink—try not to swallow any! Black tea with a white cup is easiest, but there’s nothing stopping you from using other teas and lightly coloured cups.
  • As the tea steeps try to clear your mind of any worries. This is much easier if you are in the right environment without any distractions, so try to choose a time when you know you won’t be interrupted and turn off your phone. You may want to play some calming music or instead sit in silence.
  • When the tea is ready drink it slowly. Use your weaker hand to hold the cup; if you’re right handed use your left hand and vice-versa.
  • Leave a small amount of liquid in the cup. Swirl the remaining tea three times, and then turn over the cup into a saucer to dump out the rest of the tea into the saucer.

Now comes the fun bit—looking at the shape and positions of the tea leaves and making interpretations based on these. You should start from the cup’s handle and work your way clockwise, making a note of the symbols you see, and where you see them.

Where the tea leaves are situated is important to the meaning of the symbols. It’s believed by some, for example, that the area around the cup’s handle specifically refers to the self and home, while whether the leaves are on the rim or base of the cup determines if they relate to the past or distance future.

Having access to a symbol dictionary may help you to interpret the symbols, although the meaning of some symbols will be obvious—a horseshoe could be a sign of good luck, for example. It’s also important that you acknowledge the personal significance of any symbols. For example, while a cat can be a sign of trickery, if there is an important Catherine in your life the leaves may be telling you something about your reputation with them.

Are there any real benefits to tasseography?

Even if you don’t believe that that the formation of tea leaves could offer a window to your future, there could be benefits to practicing this centuries-old ritual that go beyond being able to enjoy a hot drink. Having the time to try and clear your mind before personally interpreting the leaves may give you an insight into what is important in your life and allow you the time for introspection that we simply don’t give ourselves in our hectic modern lives. Seen in this way, maybe reading our tea leaves can give us a little glimpse into what our lives have in store for us.


Author: Dan Hawkins

Editor: Caroline Beaton

Image: Cody Meeks/Flickr


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