Here’s the tea on the centuries-old practice of tasseography (aka reading tea leaves)


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Photo: Stocksy / Cameron Whitman

With all the goings-on of modern life, sometimes it’s nice to call upon some woo-woo practices to guide us to see what’s to come rather than leave our mind to its own (often catastrophizing) devices. Tools in your toolbox for accomplishing this include—but are certainly not limited to—a meditation ritual, an astrology app, and tarot, but reading tea leaves definitely also deserves a place in your rotation.

Enter tasseography, which comes from the French word tasse, for cup, and the Greek suffix graph and mancy, meaning writing and knowledge. Upon adding it all together, you get the art of finding messages in tea leaves. But, ahem, why? “A lot of times, people are looking for the future. Sure, sometimes it comes out. Like ‘Around March, it looks like you’ll get a big check,” occultist Katelan Foisy, who is familiar with the practice of reading tea leaves, tells me. “Sometimes it’s more about what’s going on with you—looking at blocks or what’s helping you.”

If, like me, your only point of reference for reading tea leaves is that Harry Potter scene when Professor Trelawney freaks after seeing a bad omen in Harry’s cup—no worries. With Foisy’s help below in explaining the centuries-old method for fortune telling, you’ll likely be a tasseography pro in no time.

Where did tasseography come from?

When tea arrived in Europe via China in the 17th century, some used leaves instead of divination tools, like hot wax. Fast-forward to the Victorian era, when the occult and self-analysis (think Freud) became ultra trendy: Tea rooms and parlors were the place to be, where visiting Roma performed readings.

How to read tea leaves

Want to become a pro in reading tea leaves, or even simply learn how to decode the messages? Here’s a step-by-step guide to tasseography:

  1. Prepare your cup and tea

Tasseography is about intention, so even the cup you drink from is important to note. To create a connection right away, Foisy asks people to pick a cup they’re drawn to. But if you’re on your own, try and stick to a white or light-colored cup and saucer so you’ll actually be able to see shapes and patterns clearly.

Next, pick a loose-leaf tea to sip. Black tea is an easy-to-read choice, but Foisy suggests going for a tea that correlates with the question you want answered. “I like to add a little of the different flavors to it, because I think it add a magical purpose,” she says. Take Earl Grey with bergamot in it, which works for career success and money. Try black tea with roses to tackle love (naturally), or opt for Rooibos (Foisy’s favorite) to cleanse negative patterns and gain clarity.

  1. While you sip, focus on what’s present

Meditate on a specific question, like if you should find a new job or if there’s a new beau in your future. In Romani culture, Foisy notes, saliva is considered a life source and goes into the cup with every sip. “As you’re drinking, whatever you’re thinking about is going to go into that reading,” she says. Sometimes an unexpected message will pop up, but the reading is usually about what’s top of mind.

  1. Stop when you have one sip left

Resist the urge to down the dregs of your tea. You’ll want to leave a bit of it in the bottom of the cup, and then blow on it three times. “That puts more of the life essence in it,” Foisy says. Next, swirl the cup counterclockwise three times with your left hand, flip it facedown on the saucer and back up. Then the juicy part of the reading commences.

Foisy points out what she sees, like a man fishing or an alligator—but don’t get discouraged if all you can see at first is just a bunch of sopping-wet tea leaves. “I tell people to put your eyes out of focus for a moment and see if there’s any shapes that come through,” she says. “Because when they’re not trying to look, they’ll see it.”

  1. Interpret what you see

Ready for answers? Foisy starts at the cup’s handle and reads clockwise. Typically, each part of the reading symbolizes a future month, and it’s possible to see a year in advance. While the symbols you see explain a lot, notice what thoughts come up, too because your intuition is important.

“When people are learning, I tell them whatever feels comfortable to you, and whatever starts coming out as the symbols, that’s what’s right to you,” she says. An elephant with its trunk up might symbolize money coming in; a cluster of horseshoes shows an abundance of good luck.

You can read about over a hundred symbols in books about tasseography, like Reading Tea Leaves, but here’s a list to get you started:

  • Alligator: Stillness, but watch out for false friends
  • Anchor: Business success
  • Bird: Good luck and good journey
  • Butterfly: Success and pleasure
  • Circles: Energy influences and cycles
  • Crosses: Dramatic changes
  • Curved or broken lines: Creativity
  • Crescent moon: Prosperity and fortune
  • Dog: Faithful friends (top of the cup), untrustworthy friends (middle), secret enemies (bottom)
  • Dragon: Sudden changes
  • Frog: Success in love
  • Ladder: Travel
  • Man: Arriving visitor
  • Separated dots: Money and possessions
  • Wavy lines: Need for structure or new direction

“Tasseography is about your path and what you’re going through,” Foisy says to remember. “I always see it as a roadmap. Here are the symbols, and here’s what you can do to move forward on your path.” But, of course, the messages are up for interpretation, and the future is yours to live.

If drinking tea is more your thing, check out the benefits of peppermint tea and oolong tea, which might help bust your stress levels.

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