A Basic List of Tea Leaf Symbols

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According to this 1907 Fred Lounsbury postcard, when tea leaves form an image of an Anchor, it is an omen of success in business
A Bamforth comic postcard, circa 1930, showing the image of a black cat in the tea leaves
According to this 1907 Fred Lounsbury postcard, when tea leaves form an image of a Star, it is an omen of a long and happy life
Your Fortune in a Tea Cup postcard: "Promotion for you is indicated by the mountain of leaves. The square formed by 4 leaves foretells an important letter in which money will be forwarded; if not money, very good news, indicated by [the] dot in [the] centre of [the] square."
A Bamforth comic postcard, circa 1930, showing the image of an approaching figure in the tea leaves
According to this 1907 Fred Lounsbury postcard, when tea leaves form an image of a Square, it is an omen of peace and happiness
A Bamforth comic postcard, circa 1930, showing the images of a horseshoe and a lucky old boot in the tea leaves; it is signed by the artist [Arnold] Taylor
According to this 1907 Fred Lounsbury postcard, when tea leaves form an image of a Tree, it is an omen of good health
A Bamforth comic postcard, circa 1930, showing the image of an arriving visitor
The tasseomancy instruction book "The Stranger in the Cup: How to Read Your Luck and Fate in the Tea Leaves" by Gregory Lee White and catherine yronwode, published in 2020, contains 800 lea leaf images and their meanings. Nine dollars (plus shipping) will help support this project and get you a copy of "The Stranger in the Cup" from The Mystic Tea Room Gift Shop. Read all about the book, and order it here: https://luckymojo.com/thestrangerinthecup.html

This basic list of 144 tea leaf reading symbols was developed for “Tea Leaf Reading, A Brief Introduction," a class i taught in 2009 at the annual Hoodoo Heritage Festival sponsored by Missionary Independent Spiritual Church. The list appeared on a flyer that i wrote and distributed as part of the workshop materials. In 2012, the flyer was reprinted in "The Black Folder: Personal Communications on the Mastery of Hoodoo.

In 2020 a much expanded list of 800 symbols found in tea leves was published in "The Stranger in the Cup," a book i co-uthored with Gregory Lee White.

144 Tea Leaf Symbols

This set of images should be enough to get you started as a tasseomancer. In my opinion, the best way to learn is to read this list over once or twice, then make a printed copy. When you read a cup of tea leaves, consult the list, but also read a few more symbols that begin with the same letter of the alphabet. Don't rush yourself. Learning these symbols and their meanings is the equivalent of learning a song with 36 quatrain verses -- that neither rhyme nor scan.

  • Acorn: At top, slow growth; at bottom, good health.
  • Airplane: Long journey; a rise in social position.
  • Anchor: At top, stability and rest; at bottom, safety.
  • Apple: Achievement; if bitten into, temptation.
  • Arrow: Point down, bad news; up, good news.
  • Axe: Difficulties; if at top, overcoming of difficulties.
  • Baby: Fretting and small worries.
  • Bag: A trap; if open, escape, from a trap.
  • Ball: Variable fortune, as ball bounces up and down.
  • Balloon: A celebration or party soon.
  • Basket: A treat, award, compliment, recognition.
  • Bell: Announcement; the nearer the top, the better.
  • Birds: Good news (see also species of birds).
  • Boat: A visit from a friend, protection, inheritance.
  • Book: If open, good news; if closed, hidden secrets.
  • Bottle: Drunkenness, temptations offered.
  • Broom: A new home; a thorough house-cleaning.
  • Bush: A secret friend or secret opportunities.
  • Butterfly: Fickleness of friends.
  • Candle: Ask for and receive help from others.
  • Cat: Gossip; black, luck; cat-head, female false friend.
  • Chain: Engagement, wedding; sequence of events.
  • Chair: A guest is coming.
  • Circle: Success, completion; with dots, a baby.
  • Clock: Better health if medical help is sought soon.
  • Clouds: Trouble; with dots (rain), many problems.
  • Coin: Money count the coins to tell how much.
  • Cross: Death, a funeral, suffering, sacrifice.
  • Cup: Reward of merit; overturned, justified criticism.
  • Dagger: Danger from self or others; beware injury.
  • Dish: Trouble at home; matters require cleaning up.
  • Dog: Good, true friend; at bottom, friend needs help.
  • Door: Opportunities arise through an odd event.
  • Duck: Money, and false gossip about money.
  • Eagle: Success by soaring over obstacles.
  • Egg: If unbroken, success; if broken, failure.
  • Envelope: Good news; with dots, news of money.
  • Eye: Look sharp; be cautious; you may be psychic.
  • Face: A change is coming, it may be a setback.
  • Fan: Flirtation, but it comes to nothing in the end.
  • Feather: Insincerity, undependability, lack of focus.
  • Fence: Limitations, minor setbacks, easily mended.
  • Finger: Extra emphasis on whatever it points to.
  • Fire: At top, achievement; at bottom, danger, haste.
  • Fish: Increase of wealth or increase in family.
  • Flag: Danger if you compromise your integrity.
  • Flower: Compliments, tokens of love and esteem.
  • Fly: Domestic annoyances require your attention.
  • Forked Line: You must soon make a decision.
  • Fruit: Prosperity, a successful outcome to labour.
  • Gate: Opportunity, future success beckons.
  • Glass, Water: Integrity and temperance.
  • Glass, Cocktail: Dissatisfaction with life.
  • Goat: Beware stubborn people; they may be enemies.
  • Grapes: Good health, fertility, happiness; inebriation.
  • Gun: Anger, discord, strife; danger where it points.
  • Hammer: Hard work is needed; avoid complainers.
  • Hand: Open, a friendly helper; closed, an argument.
  • Hat: Improvement, a new role or a new job.
  • Hawk: Suspicion and jealousy; watch with care.
  • Heart: Love, pleasure, romance, a thrilling meeting.
  • Horse: Galloping, good news; head only, a lover.
  • Horseshoe: Good luck, a winning bet, good fortune.
  • Hourglass: You must decide something soon.
  • House: Security and safety; parents.
  • Insect: Minor problems require immediate attention.
  • Jewels: Gifts will be offered to you.
  • Kettle: Minor illness; don’t worry; friends will help.
  • Key: Success, prosperity, understanding.
  • Kite: Ascent in social position by the help of friends.
  • Knife: A broken friendship; a justified fear.
  • Ladder: Job promotion, a rise in life, advancement.
  • Lamp: At top, a feast; at side, secrets revealed.
  • Leaf: Change in health: up, better; down, worse.
  • Letter: News; If cross near, death, if coins, a gift.
  • Lines: If straight, progress; if wavy, uncertain path.
  • Lion: An influential friend in a position of authority.
  • Lock: Obstacles too strong to overcome.
  • Man: Near handle, a visitor; elsewhere, a pen-pal.
  • Moon: A change in plans.
  • Mountain: Great goals beset by difficulties.
  • Mouse: Someone is stealing from you.
  • Mushroom: At top, country life; at bottom, growth.
  • Nail: Injustice, unfairness, unrighteous punishment.
  • Necklace: Whole, admirers; broken, losing a lover.
  • Nest: Save your money; take care of your home.
  • Needle: Recognition, admiration.
  • Oak Tree: Strength, health, long life; betterment.
  • Octopus: Danger.
  • Ostrich: Travel abroad.
  • Owl: Gossip nearby; a wise person will protect you.
  • Palm Tree: Success, honour.
  • Palm Leaf: Victory, martyrdom.
  • Parasol: A new lover.
  • Parrot: Foreign journey; people talk about you.
  • Pig: Greed and carelessness.
  • Pin: A new job awaits.
  • Pine Tree: High achievement.
  • Pipe: Reconciliation of a friendship.
  • Pistol: Danger is near.
  • Plough: A struggle ahead; hard going.
  • Purse: At top, profit; at bottom, loss.
  • Question Mark: Be cautious; future unsettled.
  • Rabbit: Bravery to overcome a fear of disaster.
  • Rainbow: The most difficult time is now over.
  • Rake: Watch details lest you stumble.
  • Raven: Bad news; love disaster; death for the aged.
  • Rider: Good news from afar, especially in finances.
  • Ring: At top, marriage; at bottom, betrothal.
  • Ring, Broken: Divorce or broken engagement.
  • Rose: Popularity, romance.
  • Scales: Balanced, justice; unbalanced, injustice.
  • Scissors: Quarrels, possibly separation.
  • Sheep: Good fortune; a friend does your bidding.
  • Shell: Good news from over the sea.
  • Ship: At top, a journey; at bottom, a safe journey.
  • Shoe: Hard work leads to a change for the better.
  • Sickle: Illness, sorrow, and pain.
  • Snake: An enemy, and wisdom to discern who it is.
  • Spider: Good luck, a reward for industrious work.
  • Spoon: Generosity.
  • Squirrel: Save up now for future times of want.
  • Stairs: Orderly progress leads to eventual success.
  • Star: Health, happiness, hope; absolute success.
  • Sun: Joy, success, power, children, well-being.
  • Sword: Small quarrels turn into serious arguments.
  • Table: A social gathering at which you’ll find favour.
  • Teardrops: Sorrow and tears.
  • Tent: Travel for which you are not well prepared.
  • Thimble: Changes at home; a need for mending.
  • Tortoise: Criticism, usually beneficial.
  • Tower: Disappointment and possible ruin.
  • Triangle: Something unexpected will happen.
  • Turtle: Slow progress; a sluggard is near to you.
  • Umbrella: Trouble, but you will be protected.
  • Vase: A friend needs your help.
  • Violin: A self-centered person.
  • Volcano: Harmful and emotional words may erupt.
  • Wagon: A wedding will ensue.
  • Wasp: Your romantic problems are due to a rival.
  • Wheel: If whole, good fortune; if broken, loss.
  • Wings: Messages from Heaven.
  • Wolf: Cunning and jealousy.
  • Zebra: Adventures overseas.

Placing this list of 144 symbols in context with other domestic divination systems may help explain the enduring popularity of tasseomancy:

There are 52 symbols in a deck of playing card, 64 symbols in the hexagrams of the I Ching, and 78 symbols in a deck of tarot cards. If you count tarot reverses, you get 156 symbols, but, truth to tell, half of them are simply reversed fortunes derived from the original 78.

With these 144 tea leaf symbols, however, you have not only uprightness and inversion of the symbol to consider, but also a large variation in placement and timing, with respect to where the image falls within the cup. And, of course, a cup may contain more than one symbol.

Divination systems that contain more than 78 symbols -- for instance the 256 changing lines of the I Ching or the 256 odus of diloggun -- are often reserved for professional readers. Those which are entirely open-ended, like the infinite possibilities in astrology or sangoma bone reading, are also, generally speaking, the provenance of professional diviners. Depending on the culture, professional readers of complex divination systems that produce more than 256 outcomes may be highly trained elders, learned scholars who consult books of outcomes, or licensed priests within a religion in which divination is a clerical occupation.

Tea leaf reading, as a domestic form of prophesy that is unlicensed by a church, and which has, historically speaking, been practiced almost entirely by women and gay men, has a complexity beyond that easily memorized by amateurs, and can extend well into the range only understood by professional seers.

Yes, a child equipped with a booklet can read the leaves, and a child with a good memory who knows 24 symbols by heart will make a good show of reading for friends and family - but if you want to tell fortunes for customers and clients, especially if you do so for a fee or tips by giving readings in in a tea room, you should try to get the above list of 144 symbols in your head. Then, if you have a little more free space in your head, try to pick up one new symbol per day for a few years.

As you look through "The Stranger in the Cup," its 800 symbols will begin to fall into patterns for you, and eventually you will find that any cup symbols you see which were not listed there will be easy to interpret, either by understanding their relationship to symbols which have been listed, or by taking a moment to consider their place in the natural world or in human society.

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

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