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Can the Future Be Seen in Tea Leaves?

Updated on August 9, 2017

According to legend, a Chinese princess turned to tea-leaf reading after being let down by the infinitely more precise method of predicting the future that is astrology. That’s supposed to have happened in 229 BCE.

The practice made its way into the Middle East, probably along the trade routes, in the same way diseases travelled.

Tea became popular in Europe in the 17th century and with it came practitioners of the art of divination, which can be defined as a way of relieving the gullible of their excess wealth. Apparently, the Romany Gypsies have proved themselves especially gifted in this craft.

The technical term for staring into the bottom of a tea cup and seeing the future is tasseography (also known as tasseomancy or tassology). The skilled clairvoyant can foretell the approach of a lover or the arrival of a massive fortune. They can also see, we assume, the coming of a demented axe murderer or a stunning bankruptcy, but letting the client in on these catastrophes is bad for business, so they don’t get mentioned.

How to Read Tea Leaves

It goes without saying, or it should, that the whole process is undermined by the use of tea bags.

Tea made with loose leaves and poured into a white cup without a strainer is step one. Although the sceptic might think the accuracy of the reading can be just as good if the cup is black. All the tea should be drunk except for a small amount. Ben Schott (Schott’s Food and Drink Miscellany) then describes the process: “… the drinker should agitate the cup to loosen the leaves. The cup should then be inverted, placed upon its saucer, and rotated three times.”

The reader then takes the cup and studies the patterns created by the leaves being careful to make sure the handle of the cup is pointed towards the subject. Most tasseographers interpret the arrangement of the dark leaves. However, others read the white spaces between the leaves, demonstrating how incredibly scientific this process is. Probably, wearing a brightly coloured headscarf and hoop earrings will add to the authenticity of the reading.

According to the Food Network, convivial company and pleasant chit-chat should be a part of the experience. This allows “for the energy and things on the mind of the tea drinker to invigorate the reading of the leaves.” Once the leaves have absorbed the ambience they are able to decide what patterns they are going to create for the mystic to interpret.

What the Leaves Say

Is that a dog or a hammer? Only an expert can tell. The fortune teller starts at the rim, which is the present. A single leaf stuck on the edge is highly auspicious. But, this is most likely good news for the reader who is about to receive a fee for the reading. The sides of the cup are where the near future lurks and the bottom, of course, is the distant future.

Patterns handed down by practitioners of the craft over centuries reveal the fate of the subject - or not. A bird means that good news is coming from home, while a cat signifies jealousy. Nobody wants to see wavy lines because that foretells of trouble or woe, but if the lines are straight peace and harmony will guide your life.

The Tea Association of the U.S.A. says “The ‘sitter’ should approach the oracle in all seriousness and during the ritual should concentrate on his or her future destiny and ‘wish’ that the symbol shall correctly represent happenings to come.”

It seems that bursting into uncontrollable giggles is not advised. This may disturb the occult equilibrium of the visionary and who knows what distress that might cause in the spirit world.

Coffee Reading

The claim is that the sludge left over from any drink can tell us which horse is going to win the fourth race at Belmont. If that’s so, why aren’t readers at the track cleaning out the Pari-mutuel? Just another of the knotty questions that goes unanswered in the world of tea-leaf reading.

In the Middle East it is more common for fortune tellers to read coffee grounds. But, this is a practice that got Sana Kuma into a whole heap of trouble. Her clientele, says McClatchy News, was “Israeli models, actresses, and businessmen. Her fawning customers consider Kuma a sage and soothsayer.”

But, the Israeli government said in 2007 that she was a witch and a fraud and charged her with practicing magic. The indictment stemmed from an interaction with a policeman named Avraham Beihou. He sought advice “about his ailing father. Kuma told the police officer and his sister that their father was likely to die in two months if they didn’t act quickly.”

However, fortunately for the cop, there was a solution close at hand. It involved Officer Beihou paying “another $2,200 for a series of amulets, which he was to dip in honey, burn or throw into the sea.”

Sadly, Papa didn’t get better.

In the end, the state dropped the charge after it concluded it couldn’t get a conviction and Beihou got his money back.

The take away from this affair is two-sided. Is it comforting to know that a police officer has not been so jaded by his profession that he is still able to trust other people? Or, is it deeply troubling that a cop would be so stupid as buy the flim flam tossed his way by a charlatan?

Bonus Factoids

Thanks to Serena’s Guide to Divination we know that money is coming your way if there are bubbles on the surface of your cup of tea. If leaves are floating on the surface visitors are on their way. Two teaspoons placed accidentally on a saucer means someone you know is going to have twins.

Scatomancy is telling the future by looking at poo.


“Reading Tea Leaves.” Tea Association of the U.S.A., undated.

“Schott’s Food & Drink Miscellany.” Ben Schott, Von Holtzbrinck Publishing Services, 2003.

“Reading the Tea Leaves or Coffee Grounds.” Serena’s Guide to Divination, undated.

“5 Things You Didn’t Know About Tea Leaf Reading.” Abellaarthur, The Food Network, January 29, 2014.

“Coffee Grounds Brewed Trouble for Israeli Fortune Teller.” Dion Nissenbaum, McClatchy Newspapers, July 20, 2007.


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