I have only had my tea leaves read once. I was a teenager visiting New Orleans in the early 2000s, so obviously I had to go to the Bottom Of The Cup specifically for a reading. It was a relatively benign reading, all things considered; I was, after all, still a kid, and I have no doubt that most practitioners go easy on the narrative when they’re reading for kid. Mostly, I remember being told that there was a bicycle in my cup, and that I was likely to travel extensively in the future.
I had only the roughest idea of how reading tea leaves worked at the time; I don’t think I even knew that there were other, more… well, maybe scientific isn’t the right word, but maybe technically adept will do — more technically adept terms for the practice: Tasseography, tasseology, or tasseomancy, from the French “tasse,” or “cup.”
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The root is a hint, by the way — because when it comes to the history and origins of tasseography, it is likely both more recent and from other geographic regions than some commonly-cited origin stories would have you think. Still, though: Wherever it came from and whenever it emerged, it remains a popular method of divination, whether you do it yourself or visit someone else to read your tea leaves for you.
So: How does it work?
Let’s start where we always do: With a history lesson.
A Brief History Of Tasseography
Although the origins of tasseography itself are somewhat hazy, we do know that humans have been drinking tea since “the veiled dawn of prehistory,” as Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss’ 2007 book The Story Of Tea: A Cultural History And Drinking Guide puts it — specifically within the geographic regions of Assam in northeastern India, the Yunnan Province in the southwest of China, and the northern borders of Myanmar, as well as in Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. In China, which is often cited as the birthplace of tea, tea drinking — from its uses to its brewing methods — evolved alongside each dynasty based largely on “the fashion of the day and the whims of the emperor,” continue the Heisses.
Indeed, although it’s more a story than anything else, a popularly-cited legend pins the discovery of tea drinking in China to one such emperor around 2737 B.C.E.: Shennong (神農), who, it’s said, drank boiling water into which dried leaves from a nearby camellia bush had accidentally fallen and found it to be quite a refreshing experience.
Shennong is one of those fascinating figures who walks the line between legend and history. He may have been real; if he was, it’s thought that he was born at the mountain Lishan in Hubei Province. But he’s also viewed as a mythological figure: His parentage is sometimes said to have been a princess and a divine dragon, for example, and he reportedly had a human body topped with the head of a bull — not exactly the stuff of reality. Additionally, per George van Driem’s 2019 book The Tale Of Tea: A Comprehensive History Of Tea From Prehistoric Times To The Present Day, the earliest mention of Shennong in Chinese literature is dated some two millennia after the year in which the tea invention incident is meant to have occurred. In that source, Sima Qian’s Records Of The Grand Historian, Shennong is positioned as one of five ancestral emperors who ruled over China during antiquity, each of which was associated with a different cardinal direction — that is, the emperors are legendary figures, rather than strictly historical ones.
In any event, Shennong is often credited with a number of technological and medicinal inventions and advancements in China, including the plow, agricultural irrigation, and the properties and uses of various herbs. He even makes an appearance in the earliest-known piece of writing about tea in the world, The Classic Of Tea, written by Lu Yu (陸羽) sometime around 760 C.E. Citing a (presumably now lost) work by Shennong, Lu Yu noted, “It is written in Shennong’s Treatise On Food, ‘If one drinks tea regularly, one will be more physically active, be contented of mind with a strong determination and focus in work.’”
There are lots of other origins stories for tea drinking in other places of the world, of course, but I’m focusing here on the history of tea in China for a specific reason: Some sources state that Shennong’s discovery of tea led directly to the development of the earliest tasseography techniques—that is, that tasseography is an “ancient Chinese art.”
However, as Danny Kane noted at the Medium publication Exploring History in September of 2020, there are virtually no reliable sources supporting the idea of tasseography having originated in ancient China — or, really, in any other ancient societies. I’ve also found this to be the case in my own research; there are plenty of random websites out there that repeat, in more or less the same terms, over and over and over again, that tasseography was invented in China by monks or simply a group of friends shortly after Shennong popularized the drinking of tea — but none of them cite any primary or reputable academic secondary sources for this “fact.”
“What’s far more likely,” observed Kane, “is that this ‘fact’ is a little piece of historical revisionism to lend credence to the practice by its actual creators — Europeans.” It’s also worth noting that we’re talking specifically about white Europeans, and that tasseography is, in actuality, likely only a handful of centuries old. It’s not the first time something like that has happened (see also: Tarot’s supposed “ancient Egyptian” roots); nor is it the last. White people love to call something “exotic” and believe that doing so is a compliment, despite the fact that it’s really, really not.
Tea came to Europe around the 16th-17th centuries. Portuguese colonists established a port and trade base in Macau in 1557, thereby introducing tea to these colonists, who in turn wrote home about the drink; for example, in a letter dated 1569 addressed to Portugal’s king at the time, Alfonso VI, a missionary wrote of a drink called “cha” he had encountered — “cha” being the English alphabet’s spelling of the Chinese word for tea. As trade routes developed throughout the early 17th century — largely those forged by the Dutch — tea gradually made its way to a variety of European countries, including the Netherlands, Russia, France, and Britain; and, as it arrived in Europe, particularly Britain, tasseography emerged.
As Laurel Dalrymple wrote at NPR in 2015, in Britain, tea was initially aristocratic — something only the wealthy had access to or could afford to drink. As trade picked up, though, prices fell, putting tea within reach of your average, everyday citizen, as well. Also popular among the general public at the time were methods of divination that relied on the interpretation of odd shapes formed by various substances — ceromancy or carromancy, for example, which involved allowing hot wax to drip into cold water and reading the resulting formations, or plumbomancy, which functioned similarly using lead instead of wax.
Tea, incidentally — when brewed using loose leaves, as it was exclusively then — left sediment in the bottom of the cup when you were done drinking it, which seemed to form shapes if you looked at it the right way. And, well… you can put two and two together, right? It was only a matter of time before people began using tea leaves in their divination practices — and voila: Tasseography.
Tasseography, or “throwing” or “tossing cups,” as it was sometimes called, gained a great deal of popularity during the Victorian era — an era known for its preoccupation with ghost stories and its interest in the supernatural and occult. (See also: Spiritualism, ghost photography, seances, etc.) It could be played as a parlor game or performed privately as an independent practice; the leaves could be read by a medium, or by Roma fortune tellers traveling door to door or practicing within tea and coffee houses. And for at least half a century, it retained that popularity, diminishing only with the invention of the tea bag in the early 20th century.
But tasseography never vanished completely; indeed, it’s even seen something of a resurgence in recent years as loose-leaf tea has come somewhat back into vogue. Tasseographer Amy Taylor told Laurel Dalrymple in 2015 that her services “are still very much in demand”: “People often need someone to give them some direction, and that’s where a good reader can come in,” said Taylor. “My job is to help people get through what they’re going through.”
But how does one read tea leaves in the first place? As always, there’s a believer’s argument and a skeptic’s argument — although I’d also posit that, not unlike the tarot, just because the skeptic’s argument doesn’t entertain the possibility that the supernatural is involved doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s all fake, either.
Let’s tackle the arguments one at a time.
The Believer’s Argument
Before you can read your tea leaves, you need to toss or throw your cup — that is, you need to give yourself some leaves to read in the first place.
Typically, this starts with choosing your cup. It’s recommended that you use one that has slightly sloped sides, as opposed to straight-up-and-down sides; cups with perpendicular sides, notes the quintessential English language treatise on tasseography, 1881’s Tea-Cup Reading And The Art Of Fortune Telling By Tea Leaves, written by “a Highland Seer,” “are very difficult to read, as the symbols cannot be seen properly.” The size also matters — you’ll need to Goldilocks the problem, choosing one that’s neither too big, nor too small. And, of course, you’ll probably want to use a cup sporting a white interior; patterns or dark colors might, again, make it difficult to see the symbols lurking around the bottom and sides of the cup.
Then, make yourself some tea. Use loose-leaf tea, and don’t use a strainer or infuser — just spoon the leaves right into your cup and pour your boiling water over them. (You do have to use proper loose-leaf tea, by the way. Don’t just cut open a teabag and use what’s inside; the leaves inside tea bags are cut too fine to work well for tasseography.) Some tasseographers recommend that you use the time while the tea brews — and while you wait for the tea to cool enough to drink without burning yourself — to focus on your intentions and what you hope to get out of the reading; others, however, specify that you should be doing this throughout the entire process, not just this particular step. Do whatever feels right to you.
Once the tea is ready, drink it until there’s only a small amount of liquid remaining in the bottom of the cup — about a teaspoon is usually the recommended amount. Then, hold the cup in your left hand, keeping the vessel upright, and swirl it three times, moving from left to right in a clockwise motion. (If you’re familiar with wine tasting, the motion isn’t dissimilar to how you would swirl a wine glass to test the legs of the wine inside.) When you’ve completed the swirling, turn the cup upside down onto its saucer and wait for the liquid to drain away.
For what it’s worth, the one time I had my tea leaves read, the tasseographer placed a small napkin on the saucer before I turned the cup over onto it; I’m pretty sure that was mostly to help keep the mess down, though, so my sense is that the napkin is optional.
In any event, after the last of the tea has drained — it should take about a minute — turn the cup upright again so you can see inside it. Some tasseographers note that you should actually rotate the cup three times before you turn it upright, while others don’t; similarly, some specify that once you turn the cup upright again, you should also position it so the handle is facing south, while others simply note that the handle represents the querant (that is, the person who’s having their leaves read) or the “home” or “house.” Again, do what feels right to you — there’s not one particular way that must be adhered to faithfully in order for the whole thing to work. The important thing is that, once the cup has been turned upright again, you can see clumps of damp tea leaves lining the bottom and sides of the cup.
From here, the work is largely interpretive: Your goal is to examine the clumps of leaves in the cup, figure out what they look like to you, and then determine what the meanings of those symbols might be. Books and other written resources exist that essentially function as tasseography dictionaries — that is, they list various symbols alphabetically and offer possible meanings for each one; you might, for instance, see something in your cup that looks to you like a bird, which might generally indicate good luck.
But due to the fluidity of this kind of interpretation, there’s ultimately more than one way to read a cup. For example, a bird might mean not just good luck, but something else depending on how many birds there are, what direction they look like they’re flying, whether or not they resemble a specific kind of bird, and so on and so forth. Or, what you see as a bird might look like an airplane to someone else, which in turn could mean something entirely different. (The “Highland Seer” of Tea-Cup Reading And The Art Of Fortune Telling By Tea Leaves, for example, considers airplanes to be indicative of “unsuccessful projects.”)
Pay attention, too, to where precisely in the cup the symbols lie — although note again that some tasseographers interpret these locations differently. For instance, the “Highland Seer” states that “the bottom of the cup represents the remoter future foretold; the side events not so far distant; and matters symbolized near the rim those that may be expected to occur quickly”; however, according to Tea-Cup Fortune Telling: The Signs Simply Explained, which was published in 1931, “leaves at the bottom of the cup generally forebode ill fortune,” while those to the left of the handle “can be interpreted as to events passed or opportunities thrown away” and those to the right of the handle as “present and future, usually good, except when cloudy or thick.”
As for the actual mechanism of what makes tasseography tick, so to speak? Well… that, unfortunately, doesn’t have a straight answer. It’s typically chalked up to “energy,” “intention,” and, in a word, magick — some kind of force or power that simply can’t be explained.
This is where most skeptics run up against a wall with regards to tasseography: Some of us just have a hard time believing that this kind of magick actually exists.
So, with that in mind, let’s move onto:
The Skeptic’s Argument
It will surprise longtime readers of TGIMM not at all to find that tasseography is an example of apophenia — specifically the form of apophenia known as pareidolia — in action. Yep: The same phenomena we talked about during the Dear David saga, during our look at spirit boxes, and during numerous other examinations of various bits of divination and/or ghost hunting.
Apophenia is the general tendency of humans to perceive meaningful connections between things that are, in reality, unconnected; pareidolia, meanwhile, refers specifically to the perception or interpretation of random visual or auditory information as meaningful. When applied to tasseography, what this amounts to is that random clumps of tea leaves sitting in the bottom of your cup aren’t actually symbols of any kind; they just look like they are. That is, that’s not a bird in the bottom of your cup — it’s just a, well, random clump of tea leaves.
There’s plenty of evidence to back up the existence of both apophenia and pareidolia. In 2008, for example, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin found that, when presented with random data meant to look like it was from the stock market, participants proceeded to find patterns in the numbers where none actually existed; what’s more, the same was true when they were presented with television static — that is, they saw pictures and images where they weren’t any.
Research has also found that some people are also more prone to pareidolia than others. According to a study published in 2015, people who score highly on the trait of neuroticism in the Big Five personality inventory are more likely to see faces in animate objects — one of the most commonly encountered forms of pareidolia. (This perhaps explains why the @FacesPics Twitter account is one of my favorite things on the internet; to adapt a well-worn phrase, I, myself, am strange and neurotic.)
It’s thought that the disconnect between the reality of the stimuli and how we interpret it has something to do with what some scientists refer to as “top-down processing” in the brain. As David Robson wrote over at BBC Future in 2014, “Although we tend to think that our eyes faithfully report whatever is in front of us, the retina records an imperfect and confusing image that needs to be tidied up by the brain.”
Research co-authored by Kang Lee of the University of Toronto has studied how this kind of top-down processing plays out, finding that, in addition to the high activity in the primary visual cortex that occurs when people start processing a visual image, other regions — the frontal and occipital regions, which deal with “higher-level thinking” like planning and memory — also start firing specifically when people think they see a face. And when those regions fire, they trigger yet another region, the right fusiform face area—which, in fact, responds to faces. Said Lee to BBC Future, “If [that region is] activated, we know they really are ‘seeing’ a face.”
Of course, not every “symbol” that might appear in your teacup is necessarily a face — but the point is, our brains, as Benjamin Radford noted at LiveScience in 2013, are “very good at finding (or creating) meaning even when there is none, such as in random patterns.” And it’s not just in tasseography, either, Radford observed; most forms of divination rely on apophenia and/or pareidolia in some way, shape, or form. “Whatever form the fortune-telling takes, the basic process is the same: seeking meaning in random patterns and phenomenon,” Radford wrote. “Some essentially random event is observed in nature (animal sounds are created, dreams are recorded) or caused to happen (tea leaves are stirred, cards are shuffled), and people closely examines the results trying to make meaning or sense of them.”
At the same time, it’s perhaps worth noting that even if there’s no underlying, mystical mechanism that makes tasseography “work,” it can still be used in a similar way to tarot: As a method of looking at your own situation from a different angle, which, in turn, can help figure out how you want to proceed moving forwards. In this sense, it’s like meditation or journaling — as I put it in my examination of the tarot, “The act of reading facilitates self-reflection and self-discovery by engaging you in outside-the-box thinking.” In this case, we’re talking about reading the “symbols” in the bottom of your teacup, rather than in the spread of cards — but the end result is much the same.
You drink your tea.
You determine the symbols.
You tell yourself a story about yourself utilizing the symbols.
And, through this act of personal storytelling, you get to know yourself and how you feel about a particular situation just a little bit better.
What Do You Believe?
As always, it’s worth noting that whether something of this nature “works” or not isn’t necessarily an all-or-nothing kind of situation; nor is whether you believe in it or not. Sure, you could fall on either end of the spectrum and believe that, absolutely; you could also, however, believe in tasseography as a possible tool for self-reflection, but not necessarily due to any supernatural influence. Or, as tasseographer Amy Taylor commented, consider it a way to find direction when you feel like you don’t totally know where to go — and, perhaps, be uninterested in the underlying workings of the whole thing.
Sometimes, it’s enough to know that something works for you; you may not necessarily need to know how it works.
My reading all those years ago was recorded on a cassette tape, which I was given before I left the shop. I kept it for years, and although I’m not entirely sure whether it’s still somewhere in my or my family’s possession — we’ve all moved a lot since then — I still think of it from time to time. Not necessarily because it was accurate, or even because it was inaccurate; indeed, it was sort of middle-of-the-line, which makes sense, given that most psychic readings involve cold reading techniques and the formulation of stories simultaneously broad enough and specific enough to apply to just about anyone while still feeling unique to the individual.
But it was comforting at the time, and terribly exciting. It represented possibility — all the places I could go in the future.
It didn’t necessarily tell me exactly where those places would be, either literally or metaphorically; but it didn’t really need to, either.
I’ve been plenty of places in the nearly two decades since — again, both literally and metaphorically. And I still think of where I might go in the future.