Of all the systems of divination tasseography, the art of tealeaf reading, is one of the most well known. At one time it was even more popular in Britain than Tarot cards, thanks in part to its’ accessibility. All you needed was to make a pot of loose leaf tea, pour it into the cup, and drink most of it leaving a shallow pool at the bottom of the cup containing the remaining small leafs. The cup would be ritually spun, inverted over the saucer and then returned to the upright and the patterns made by the leafs adhering to the inside would then be read.
Recently this skill has fallen into disuse thanks to the introduction of the tea bag. Tea can now be made much more quickly and with less fuss and mess but the bag means there are no loose leaves to make the pictures. Also there seems to be a bigger switch to mugs, as opposed to cups, which make tealeaf reading difficult if not impossible. Fortunately teapots are easily available and you don’t have to look too hard to find a traditional teacup so you can still make tea the traditional way. The only adaptation you may have to make is to cut open a tea bag if no loose-leaf tea is available
Making tea in a pot is becoming something of a lost art too so it is as well to explain how to do it. Empty the kettle and fill it with fresh water, while this is coming to the boil assemble the other items for the ritual including the teapot, cups, milk (if you use it), and anything else that may seem appropriate. When the water is almost boiling pour a little into the teapot, swill it around anticlockwise and pour it out. This cleanses the pot, and prepares it as a snug matrix for the tea.
Having prepared the pot we come to the tea. What many people don’t realise is that tea in many parts of the world is prepared to the tastes of the country in which it is bought. In the UK tea is generally drunk strong with milk so the tea in both loose leaf and bag form is made using a leaves from a strongly flavoured plant. In countries where tea is drunk without milk the taste is for a mild flavoured type of tea that will not overpower the taste buds, and blends well with additives such as lemon. This is why Brits abroad complain of the ‘weak tea’ (to put it mildly) and are frequently seen to use several bags to get the taste they are used to.
Bearing this in mind you may well have to alter the traditional “one heaped teaspoon of tea per person plus one for the pot” depending on where you are reading this. It works well in the US and Mediterranean regions, but do this in the UK for more than two people and you end up with something more suited to soothing sunburn than drinking! There is an exception for large leaf high quality tea such as Earl Grey, but usually one heaped spoon of tea per person is enough. You may have to experiment a bit with the quantities to get the right taste for where in the world you are, but this is part of the learning process
Having added the tea to the warmed pot your preparations are almost finished, all you have to do now is wait for the kettle to finish boiling. When it does come to the boil immediately take the pot to the kettle, for safety reasons, and pour the boiling water into the pot. The reason to do this immediately the water boils is to avoid the metallic or ‘hard’ taste you get if water boils for too long in some areas of the world. Then leave it for two minutes for the leaves to release their flavour. Once again this is a generalised time, depending on the type of water and the tea, so you may have to adjust the brewing time accordingly.
When the brewing time is over you pour the tea into the cup. If you have milk in your tea there used to be - and still is - a great controversy whether it was placed in before the tea was poured in or afterwards. The source of this was the type of cup used when tea first became a popular drink in Britain. Delicate bone china, used in aristocratic households was first imported from the Far East, and later manufactured in the UK. Its thin structure meant that the hot tea could be poured directly into the cup with no noticeable effect, and the milk added. But the thicker, cheaper, cups used by the majority of people would crack and break under the heat stress due to unequal expansion of the inside and outside of the thicker cup when heated by the hot tea. To counter this milk was put in before the tea to cool the tea by acting as a heat sink.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries there was a strong awareness of societal hierarchy and ‘class’. However, due to the changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution there was also a lot of social mobility as entrepreneurs and innovators bought their way into high society. This was not popular amongst the established elite, and many of the new arrivals sought to disguise their working class origins by inventing false backgrounds and mimicking the behaviours of the aristocracy. It wasn’t the big things that revealed their origins but the everyday behaviours such as how they prepared and drank tea. Hence the big controversy over when the milk is put in.
The cups themselves evolved from the bowls with gently sloping sides and a flat base that tea was originally drunk from in China and Japan. In the 1750’s handles were added to cups in England that not only made the drinking experience easier and safer, but also provided one of the key structures that made tasseography possible. Indeed, the classic English teacup is the best vehicle for tealeaf reading in size and shape. Mugs have too steep a side, and the base has a ridged corner, whereas a cup slopes gently up from the base enabling the reader to see and sense the flow of events
In the next article I will explain the ritual of ‘unwinding the future’ using the appropriate ritual, and some of the symbols and science of tasseography.