Tea Leaves Tea Leaves
Photo: Andreana Bitsis | Styling: Jessy Scarpone

Yes, You Can Read Tea Leaves

The ancient art of reading tea leaves, also known as tasseography or tasseomancy, is a fortune-telling practice with a rich folk history. An intuitive, domestic divination practice that requires no fancy materials or skill, tea leaf reading is a fun tool for examining our past, present, and future lives– and possibly for honing psychic skill.

Perhaps the most recognizable contemporary reference to tea leaf reading is the Harry Potter series’ Professor Trelawney, who habitually sees dark omens of death in her students’ cups. Not all tea leaf reading is as sinister or serious, however. Master tea leaf reader James Norwood Pratt writes that tea leaf reading “can be thoroughly frivolous from start to finish.” Unlike a tarot card reading, there is no set structure dictating what a reader can or will see, and no ultimate guidebook for interpreting these symbols.

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Photo: Andreana Bitsis | Styling: Jessy Scarpone

While there is no definite knowledge about the true origins of tea leaf reading, it has been practiced and handed down from generation to generation in Asia and the Middle East, and modern tasseography is also often associated with Scottish, Irish, and Eastern European cultures. Folk fortune-tellers have sought knowledge in the bottom of a cup, an arguably mundane but surprisingly intimate place. The tea, it seems, responds to the energy of the lips that touch it, the hands that hold it, and the heart that beats beside it.

“The tea, it seems, responds to the energy of the lips that touch it, the hands that hold it, and the heart that beats beside it.”

Tea leaf reading rose in popularity in the Victorian era, when a resurgence of interest in the occult piqued mainstream curiosity. A popular parlor game that related to the rise of interest in psychological analysis, tea leaf reading became a popular tool for tapping into the secrets of the subconscious.

Today tea leaf reading remains popular in “new age” circles, and master tea leaf readers still practice their craft for curious explorers of the future.

For those interested in learning the basics of this ancient art for themselves, here are some guidelines assembled from the writings of various notable tea leaf readers:

Photo: Andreana Bitsis | Styling: Jessy Scarpone

Materials Needed

In order to get the best reading possible, you’ll need a teacup with slightly sloped sides, rather than completely straight, perpendicular ones. The inside of the cup should be completely white, as any pattern or design will cloud the message of any symbols shown. For leaves, choose broken-grade, small leaf teas, but not so small that they are only powder. Toss only about a half-teaspoon of tea into the cup on its own, or if you like more flavor, it can be sprinkled into a cup that also contains a tea ball. Choose a tea that the tea-drinker enjoys, because they will have to savor it and drink the cup in its entirety. Feel free to add sugar, honey, or lemon, but no milk or cream, which will negatively alter the consistency.

Photo: Andreana Bitsis | Styling: Jessy Scarpone

Consider A Question

Before the reading begins, the tea-drinker should decide what they want from the reading and what specific question they will ask of the tea leaves. The more specific the question, the more helpful and accurate the answer will be. According to the oldest written book of the subject, Reading Tea Leaves, by “A Highland Seer,” most tea leaf readings are only horary, or pertaining to the next twenty-four hours.

If the drinker would like to inquire about the coming year, this should be specifically included in the question asked. The drinker should set an intention for what kind of energy they will bring to the tea leaves, and what kind of response they would like to receive.

Photo: Andreana Bitsis | Styling: Jessy Scarpone

How To Perform The Ritual

While thinking of a question they would like answered, the participant should slowly savor the cup of tea, drinking the contents until only about half a teaspoon of liquid remains. They should then take the cup in their left hand and swirl the liquid quickly three times, counter-clockwise, which will wash particles of tea up onto the sides of the cup. Then, they should slowly and carefully turn the cup upside down and set it on top of the saucer for about a minute or so, allowing the excess liquid to drip out of the cup and onto the saucer.

Photo: Andreana Bitsis | Styling: Jessy Scarpone

Read The Shapes & Symbols

After the cup has drained thoroughly, the tea leaf reader should slowly examine the inside of the cup, turning it all directions to examine all rotations of the shapes and symbols shown. The reader should take their time and not force the emergence of any symbols, but should allow them to appear and make themselves apparent.

In general, symbols closer to the bottom of the cup represents the further future, and ones appearing near the rim represent the present or soon-to-be present. Symbols closer to the handle of the cup represent the drinker themselves, and symbols opposite it might represent others in that person’s life.

“Just as most any child can look up at the sky and find shapes in clouds, anybody can have a fun time looking for symbols in the bottom of a teacup.”

Symbol significance can change depending on what they mean to the participant and where they are positioned in the cup, and the reader should be intuitive and relaxed, rather than rigid, when determining their nature. A letter, for instance, often refers to a person in the tea-drinker’s life, but that person’s significance can vary drastically depending on the positioning of the letter and the shapes or white space around it. Other common symbols include cats, trees, flowers, birds, and numbers.

If no apparent symbols are present, the reader should not stress about it. It simply means that either the tea-drinker did not focus on a question that was specific enough, or their mind is so confused with indecision that they were not able to manifest any clear symbols. In this case, it’s best to wait a few days and then try again with a clearer intention.

Just as most any child can look up at the sky and find shapes in clouds, anybody can have a fun time looking for symbols in the bottom of a teacup. To get deeper, more accurate readings though, it should be noted that tea leaf reading takes practice. Be patient with yourself and the tea, and eventually, you will surely be rewarded with hints about the future. 

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