A beginner's guide to reading tea leaves

an illustration of a hand holding a cup of tea. The angle is looking down into the tea to read tea leaves

A cup of tea is many things — a pause in your day, a moment for quiet contemplation, and a soothing brew that can calm and uplift. It provides hydration, relaxation and, according to the ancient practice of tasseography, a means of divination.  

The origins of reading tea leaves

The practice of reading fortunes in tea leaves originated in China many centuries ago. One story of its origins suggests that a group of friends sat and spoke of their affairs as they shared a pot of tea, before someone realised that the tea leaves in the bottom of their cups reflected the topics of their conversation.  

As tea was introduced to India, Europe and the rest of the world, the art of tasseography infiltrated many different cultures. The term also applies to the reading of coffee grounds practised in Middle Eastern tradition. The name is derived from the Arabic word tassa (cup) and the Greek suffix graph (writing)—the writing in the cup.  

The art of tasseography taps into the preoccupation that humankind has always had with knowing what the future holds. It had its heyday in the Victorian era, when it was a popular parlour game for gentry, and when travelling gypsies were sought out for their fortune-telling services. With the invention of teabags in the early 1900s, tasseography’s popularity waned.  

We wouldn’t advise basing any life-changing decisions on the results of your tea-leaf reading, but if you fancy a bit of woo-woo with your daily brew, put the kettle on and consult your humble cuppa for intuitive insights into your future and your fortune.   


First things first: you need to choose the right kind of teacup. The best kind for the purposes of divination is a rounded cup with a handle and a smooth, shallow bowl. White or a pale colour is ideal so the leaves will contrast against the cup and make the shapes and symbols easily visible. Your grandma’s Royal Doulton would do very nicely. You’ll also need a saucer or small plate.

Next, choose your brew. Teabags aren’t going to cut it. To read your tea leaves, you’ll need to brew up some loose-leaf tea. Check the texture—it needs to be not too coarse and not too fine. Black tea varieties are best, and if there are spices or herbals in the blend, that’s okay.

Put a teaspoon of leaves directly into your cup, pour boiling water over and let it steep for three or four minutes. You can brew it in a teapot, but you’ll need to be sure that there is no built-in strainer on the spout that prevents the leaves being poured into your cup along with the liquid. Stir the pot before you pour so there are lots of leaves in the brew. Let them settle in your cup, and then sit back and sip.

Drinking your way to divination

Drink your cuppa holding the handle in your non-dominant hand. (So if you’re left-handed, hold it with your right, and vice versa.) According to tasseography tradition, it’s important that you take time to relax and enjoy your beverage. A calm environment is ideal—so turn off any music or screens and take a few minutes to quieten your mind.

If you have a specific question you want answered in the reading, keep it front of mind as you sip your tea. Questions such as “Would a move be beneficial for my family?” or “Should I seek a new job?” are probably more relevant than “What should I cook for dinner tonight?”.  If you don’t have a question, that’s fine—you’ll end up with a general reading of your future and fortunes.

Drink your tea until there is only a small amount of liquid left in the bottom of your cup, and then swirl the dregs around three times in an anticlockwise direction. The idea is to spread the leaves up and around the sides of the cup. Next, put a paper towel on the saucer and gently invert the cup. Leave it upside down for a couple of minutes so that any excess liquid can drain out. Tap the bottom of the cup three times with a finger before picking up the cup to see what secrets lie within.

Reading the leaves

Now that you’ve enjoyed the restorative effects of a cuppa, you’re primed for the process of divination. Hold the cup with the handle pointed towards your heart and study the contents. Turn the cup to view it from different angles and note any shapes or symbols that jump out at you. Look for shapes in the leaves themselves as well as the shapes they make in the white spaces between them. Take your time—the longer you look, the more you’ll see.

The shapes you see may not be perfectly formed, but if you get an impression of a certain image, go with that. They may seem random or they may not make much sense, but trust your hunches. Don’t second-guess yourself, as intuition plays a key role in reading tea leaves. It’s a bit like looking for shapes in the clouds: everyone will see something different.

Refer to the accompanying diagram (below) on how the placement of the symbols relates to your path. Images near the handle of the cup are related to self, home life and close family. They might indicate something you are currently experiencing or issues weighing on your mind.

‘Read’ the leaves in a clockwise direction, beginning at the rim of the cup from left of the handle and working your way in a spiral to the bottom. Shapes near the rim represent the immediate future—within the next few days. Shapes in the middle relate to events within a couple of weeks, and shapes at the bottom, within the next month.

Interpreting symbols

Symbol charts for tasseography should be used as guidelines—the real art of divination is to intuit the meanings on your own. For instance, if you see a book in the tea leaves, it may relate to your love of reading or it may refer to a new chapter in your life. It could be literal or symbolic. Traditionally, a bird means good luck, but to someone with a phobia of birds it could mean they need to face their fears. Letters represent a name of a person or a place. See how the symbols relate to each other, think laterally as to how their meanings could be linked and form a story from them.

No harbingers of doom or destruction should be revealed—for, according to tea-leaf lore, there is only positive magic in tea leaves. Thanks to tea’s antioxidant compounds, the stimulating effects of caffeine and the undeniable comfort gained by imbibing a fragrant, steaming brew, you don’t need to be a psychic to know that you’ll find only good things in a cuppa.

an illustrated guide on a pink background showing basic symbols shown in tea leaves

  1. Wheel: inevitable change, progress 
  2. Dashes: brief travel, busy
  3. Mountain: journey 
  4. Heart: love, romance, home 
  5. Fish: good news 
  6. Spiral: creativity, energy
  7. Anchor: stability, difficult to change
  8. Lines: change
  9. Arrow up: yes, good direction. Arrow down: no, wrong direction
  10. Chain: responsibility
  11. Scissors: arguments
  12. Knots: anxiety, stress
  13. Sun: energy, success, new beginnings 
  14. Apple: long life 
  15. Owl: sickness, poverty 
  16. Tree: happiness 
  17. Pear: wealth, social status 
  18. Cat: gossip 
  19. Umbrella: difficulty 
  20. Squares: comfort, peace 
  21. Hammer: challenges overcome 
  22. Horseshoe: good luck 
  23. Star: excellence, success 
  24. House: business success 
  25. Crescent moon: prosperity


A Beginner's Guide to Reading Tea Leaves was written by Kate Veling. Top illustration by Sakuya Higuchi for Lunch Lady Magazine Issue 10

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