How To Read Tea Leaves

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A Victorian era painting by Harry Roseland depicting a reader looking at tea leaves for a client
A Victorian era trade card depicting a woman reading her own tea leaves
Ardalt-Lenwile Zodiac high-footed cup and saucer, made in Japan, with astrological signs on the exteriorand saucer
A plain green Omen Cup by Paragon decorated with symbols inside
A salmon-pink and green Cup of Knowledge in the Doris shape by Aynsley with cartomantic playing cards inside
A Nelros Cup of Fortune showing the anchor of safety as a reassuring design in the symbolically dangerous area at the bottom of the cup.
"The Love Drop," a Victorian era painting by Harry Roseland, reproduced as a postcard; a tea leaf reader is pouring the love drop into a saucer on the floor
"The Stranger in the Cup" is a term so specific to tea leaf reading, that it became the title of a 2020 book on Tasseomancy that i co-wrote with Gregory Lee White
"Cup Tossing" engraved by C. W. Smalle from a painting by Nicholas Crowley, became a popular commercial print of the late 19th century; it depicts an older rural woman reading the tea leaves for a younger woman.

“Tea Leaf Reading, A Brief Introduction” is the text of a flyer which i wrote and printed for a class i taught in 2009 at the annual Hoodoo Heritage Festival sponsored by Missionary Independent Spiritual Church. This was one of my favourite workshops because i collect and sell antique fortune telling cups, and it was a pleasure to bring out and display the best and the rarest of these, and then to present each participant with a Jane Lyle Cup of Fortune boxed set, complete with a 96-page booklet on tea leaf reading. We brewed and drank tea together and practiced reading each other’s grounds, and in addition to the introductory flyer, everyone who attended took home their beautiful tea cups and books.

In 2012, the flyer was reprinted in "The Black Folder: Personal Communications on the Mastery of Hoodoo. Here is the text, as distributed to my students.

In 2020 it was partially incorporated into the book i co-authored with Gregory Lee White, "The Stranger in the Cup."



Tea Leaf Reading is also known as Cup Reading, Cup Tossing, Tasseomancy (French “tasse” [cup] plus Greek “mancy” [divination]), Tasseography (“cup writing”), and “Tasseology” (“cup study”). As a form of divination, it is probably as old as the invention of cups. Some claim it originated in China, where tea was first commercially grown, but it seems to have been known in Scotland, Ireland, and England before trade with China developed, and probably developed there with herbal teas. In 1899, John Hanley, an American of Irish descent, described tea reading by “Figures and Signs as Interpreted by Our Grandmothers,” implying that the art was already old in his era. Around the same time, Harry Roseland, a popular American genre artist, made several paintings featuring a Black female tea leaf reader divining for young While female clients.

In the early 20th century, tea leaf reading became a widespread form of divination. Women entrepreneurs opened tea rooms — small, cozy, domestic restaurants serving light lunches and non-alcoholic beverages. Getting one’s cup read was a popular adjunct to dining out in such restaurants, especially between World War One and World War Two. Some tea rooms of that era featured fortune telling waitresses, who dressed as Roma "Gypsies" and offered patrons “a free reading with every meal.” In some tea rooms, the “Gypsy” waitresses also offered palm readings or crystal gazing to guests.

How Tea Leaf Readings are Conducted

Tea leaf reading is almost always performed in person rather than by phone or email, as it is the cup of the client or “sitter” that is read. In addition to being conducted in the home by family members or between friends, it is also a form of divination for which one can seek out a professional “cup reader” who will brew the tea, perhaps drink a cup while chatting with you, and then tell your fortune in the leaves.

Tea leaf symbols are not read “intuitively.” rather, each symbol has one or more traditional meanings. The amateur reader will have learned 50 or so, while a professional may have a repertoire of 100 to 200 symbols memorized.

Special Tea Cups for Tasseographic Reading

Tea leaf reading can be performed in a plain white cup, and many folks prefer that type of cup because the emblems are clearly discernible against a plain backdrop. However, since the late 19th century, designers and potteries have produced many forms of special “fortune telling cups.” These generally fall into one of three types: Astrology, Symbol, and Cartomancy cups.

Astrology Cups and Saucers

Astrological cups and saucers are decorated with the twelve signs of the zodiac and symbols of the seven ancient planets.

Symbol Cups and Saucers

Symbol cups and saucers contain popular signs from tea reading plus other omen-symbols, such as a snake, anchor, or horseshoe.

Cartomancy Cups and Saucers

Cartomancy cups and saucers are decorated with images of scattered playing cards, usually either from a 32-card euchre deck (as used in Lenormand style card reading) or a 52 card poker deck (as used in Italian and English style card reading).

A Basic List of Tea Leaf Symbols

A proficient domestic tea leaf reader will probably have fifty or more tea leaf symbols memorized; a professional tasseomancer will likely have 200 or more committed to memory.

Study Cups

When learning to see the symbols and put them together to form a coherent narrative, it is traditional to learn from sample cups. It is also a good idea to take one cup of tea every day and to read your own leaves. Cups brewed and tossed for the purpose of learning are called study cups. You will also find sudy cups printed in books or on postcards or trading cards. Here are a few study cups to get you started.

A collection of 40 study cups, with extensive interpretations according to traditional symbolism can be found in "The Stranger in the Cup" by Gregory Lee White and catherine yronwode.

How Best to See the Images in a Cup

Memorizing the meaning of the 144 most common tea leaf reading images is not useful if you cannot see any images in the tea leaves left in a cup. In order to see the images, i recommend these four techniques:

  • Use a long-leaf tea, such as Pu-Erh, Oolong, or Swee-Touch-Nee, not merely a cut-open tea bag, which contains finely cut-and-sifted tea.
  • If you are reading for yourself, hold the cup in your dominant hand and tip it slightly towrd you, as if about to take a drink, then consider what images appear.
  • If you are reading for a sitter, start by holding the cup the way the sitter did (right handed or left handed) and tipping it toward you as he or she did when taking the last sip from the cup. If you see nothing, rotate the cup slightly, a few degrees at a time, until an image comes into view. Remember, even "non-images" like a row of dots do have a meaning.
  • Do not set the cup down until you finish your reading, for if you do, the residual liquid in the cup may cause the images to slide, change, and become disfigured.

Space, Time, Danger, and the Stranger in the Cup

In addition to a grasp of the basic images, you also should know that cup reading is not a random or entirely "intuitive" act. Actually, the reading proceeds in an orderly manner, following a prescribed pattern of examination.

Home and Away

The handle of the cup is the “home” and any signs found along its vertical axis relate to events close to the home. Across from the handle is “away” and its vertical axis represents events away from the home.

Tea leaf signs falling between home and away are said to be leaving. Those that fall between away and home are said to be coming closer.

Four Turns to the Bottom

When reading the cup, it is customary to proceed clockwise in a downward spiral of four turns — the rim, the center, and the bottom of the cup’s wall, followed by a final turn around the floor of the cup. This spiral starts at the handle and finishes at the bottom center of the cup.

Symbols that are found in the first turn of the spiral, along the cup’s rim, are timed to occur within a week. The middle turn around the cup’s wall is two weeks away. The bottom turn along the base of wall is three weeks away. The fourth turn, spiraling into the bottom center of the cup, represents events about a month away in time.

Events at the bottom of the cup are generally interpreted in their darkest and direst aspects and represent dangerous conditions. Symbols which are fortunate at the top of the cup rapidly become less fortunate as they “fall” to the bottom. For this reason, some makers of astrological and symbol cups place an emblem of safety in the bottom of the cup, to obviate any negative symbol that might fall there. The most common of these protective signs are the ship or the anchor, which represent safety and ward off drowning at sea.

The Stranger in the Cup

One special tea leaf symbol that stands apart from all the others is when a twig or stick from the tea plant is found among the leaves. This special divinatory mark is called “The Stranger in the Cup” and it foretells a visitor. If the cup is being read for a young woman, the Stranger in the Cup signifies that she will shortly meet her husband-to-be.

The Love Drop

"The love drop" is a tea leaf reader's term of art referring to the last drop that falls from the cup as it is swirled and prepared for image-reading. The love drop is always dripped into the saucer and, unlike the rest of the tea leaves, which may symbolize diverse life situations, it provides a special glimpse into love affairs only. Its use may derive from the traditions of Irish tea leaf readers, who tend to read the leaves in the saucer, not in the cup.

catherine yronwode
curator, historian, and docent
The Mystic Tea Room

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