Talking about tea

Tea leaves are an interesting form of divination. The entry cost is low because most people have all the things they need to do it in their house already… but the free-form nature of the system makes it rather intimidating for beginners. At least in tarot there’s a set number of cards to remember – tea can show you pictures of literally anything. Does that mean you need to memorise entire encyclopedias worth of symbols and meanings? 


The prevailing wisdom on the subject would say yes, but I strongly disagree, for a number of reasons:

Firstly, no book of symbols is going to be complete. They might have ‘bird’ and ‘duck’ and ‘pigeon’, but they won’t have an entry for every possible species of bird you might see, doing every possible thing that bird might do. You need to be able to determine those unlisted meanings yourself.

Secondly, symbols and their meanings change over time, and differ from place to place. Objects common to some regions never appear in others, thus never gain symbolic meaning. Some cultures see bats as evil monsters, while others see them as good omens. Fashions that were once commonplace might be replaced or discarded, and people forget what occasions this or that particular type of hat was worn for. Wherever there’s a symbolic gap, new symbols rise to take their place.

Thirdly, meanings of symbols can be extremely contextual and extremely personal. Foxes are usually symbols of trickery and deception, so a fox jumping a fence might mean someone getting away with tricking your querent – but what if your querent plays for a sports team who’s mascot is a fox? The fox jumping the fence is likely to represent victory for their team.

By all means, read these symbol encyclopedias – but don’t be bound by them. Look at them, see the logic behind how each symbol was given it’s meaning, and then learn how to use that logic to translate symbols without the book. Even if you like the idea of memorising and using the traditional meanings, the skill of interpreting symbols without set meanings is going to be vital to your future success as a tea leaf reader.

So how do we build this skill of interpreting symbolic meanings?

Consider Cicely Kent’s book, Telling Fortunes by Tea Leaves – it’s an old book, from 1922 (hopefully this link doesn’t break any time soon, otherwise just google it. It’s in public domain). Kent’s book has a large collection of symbols and their interpretations. Unfortunately, many of the symbols listed are grossly out of date.

In Kent’s book, ‘gimlet’ is listed with the meaning: you will be unpleasantly reminded of a disagreeable fact.

Few people today know what a ‘gimlet’ is, let alone what it looks like… so that’s not something a lot of people are going to recognise if it appears in their cup. You shouldn’t feel like you’re giving an inadequate reading if you don’t know what a gimlet is, though – there are modern symbols that represent ‘disagreeable facts’, and trying to include weird and unfamiliar symbols is likely to result in more confusing readings. Work with the things you know. It doesn’t matter what it’s from – comics, popular TV, movies, video games – the symbols of these fictional universes have meaning that you can decipher. You won’t be sent messages that you can’t possibly decipher unless the message is being deliberately kept secret, and then it’s not much of a message, is it?

For the sake of argument, though, let’s examine the example of a gimlet more closely.

A gimlet is an old-fashioned tool used by shipwrights and carpenters for boring holes by hand. They’re usually T shaped, though sometimes the handle is a loop rather than a crossbar. Today, they’ve been mostly replaced by power tools. Gimlets haven’t completely disappeared from modern usage – the most common modern gimlet-type tool is a corkscrew. That’s in Kent’s book with a different meaning, though. She lists it as: ‘you will be vexed by inquisitive people who trouble you with questions.’ That’s it. This is a very limited interpretation – I would personally add connotations of things like celebration, parties, and possibly alcoholism, but that’s beside the point.

If a gimlet appears, most readers will see a corkscrew – they’re almost identical in silhouette. Even in Kent’s day, it’s likely that these symbols were very frequently a cause of confusion. There are some clues that might distinguish one from the other, but the fidelity of an image drawn in tea leaves isn’t always great, so even with the best of intentions a message like that might become indecipherable. This is where intuition should come in – if you feel like you ‘know’ which one it is, then you’re fine. If not… ignore the symbol. I’m not a fan of things that are deliberately confusing. It doesn’t make sense for messages to be sent via a symbol that is extremely likely to be misinterpreted without also providing an intuition for which it is. If you don’t have that, there’s little point in reading a symbol that you can’t properly interpret. Keep note of it if you like, it might be interesting to know down the track. But it’s not helpful information now.

So, after all that talk about old-fashioned stuff, what does a modern symbol like a power drill mean? That’s not in Kent’s book at all. You might be tempted to just assume that – since gimlets were for drilling – a power drill means the same thing as a gimlet. Unfortunately, outdated objects aren’t usually equivalent in meaning with their replacements due to changes in the way the new object functions.

Why did a gimlet represent a disagreeable fact in 1922? Probably because it was a tedious and unpleasant tool to work with. Drilling holes by hand wasn’t quick or easy, and getting the holes straight was quite a chore. If you had to drill a hole, well, you were stuck with using a gimlet. A power drill is much easier to work with. You just pop in the required drill bit, plug the tool in, turn it on, and seconds later you have a perfect hole. So what else could a power drill mean? Getting to the heart of a problem. A menial task. If the person you’re reading for is a builder, it might have something to do with work. Also consider what the tip of the drill pointing at – is it something that needs to be fixed or built? These are all pretty basic literal meanings.

To help us build this further – why did a corkscrew represent being vexed by inquisitive people bothering you with questions? Possibly because people ask questions when they see corkscrews and empty bottles lying about. Possibly because drunks lose their ability to notice social cues and can get nosy. This is a bit more abstract than the meanings I’ve already offered. With this in mind, a power drill could represent someone who’s creative (you need to be creative to build things), reconciliation (fixing things), glimpsing things that are hidden (because you can make a hole to peer through), or happy memories with family (you need to drill a hole to hang a picture frame).

So, a power drill could mean a lot of things – how do you know which meaning is the right one?

Intuition, again. And context.

Intuition tends to escape explanation – it’s that instinct that says ‘it’s this thing, not that.’ All I can recommend here is not to second guess yourself.

Context, though, that I can describe a bit better.

If your querent has asked for a reading about their love life, the symbols in the cup will all relate in some way to that – they won’t be talking about unrelated things. You can often rule out a lot of potential meanings by sticking to the question you were asked.

Next, look for other symbols near the one you’re interpreting – symbols don’t usually appear in isolation. If it’s a question about love (and your querent is looking for a male partner) and the cup reveals an image of a man next to a power drill, chances are the man represents someone important to the querent’s love life (an ex-partner, a person who’s interested in the querent, or perhaps someone in the way of the querent getting into a new relationship) and the drill is likely to be referencing something about the man. Is he reaching for it? It could be that the man is an aspiring handy-man, builder, or carpenter. Is he standing above it, or holding it? It might represent that he does that kind of work professionally. Is it above his head? Then it might be referencing his creative tendencies. Is the drill cable tied around the man’s ankle, like a ball and chain? He might be someone who’s dragging along a bunch of emotional baggage from his previous relationship.

Who is he though? You can most easily decipher who he is through intuition, but if you’re not getting an intuition about it, try examining him in context with other nearby symbols, or asking the querent if they know a person that matches the description you’re getting from the cup. If it’s an ex, the querent will be able to verify that they know this person, and previously dated them. If it’s a prospective partner, they may not yet know this person, or they might say that they’re interested in someone matching that description.

This is getting pretty ridiculously long, so I’ll end it here. Hopefully, this has been a helpful primer on reading tea leaves, and you feel more prepared to do it yourself. ‘Til next time;

May the leaves fall in your favour,

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