When Katelan Foisy drinks her tea, she thinks about how her ancestors have been doing the same thing for generations. She says originally most tea traditions come from China but that the practice of reading tea leaves—and how to read tea leaves, for that matter—and coffee grounds comes from Greece, Turkey, and Armenia. It also has strong connections to Romani culture. “For a lot of [Romani], tea was the only way of getting money at some points, because rich ladies wanted their fortunes told. So I’ll think about that as I’m preparing my tea.”
Katelan’s grandmother was Romani and, though she didn’t teach her tea reading, she did pass on her love and respect for nature and plants. “It’s interesting talking to my grandmother because she wasn’t ever like, ‘Hey, I’m a witch!’ She just did things and I watched. So, she would talk to her plants. She would harvest her plants. She would make these odd little concoctions and call them healing salves or healing baths. So that’s how I picked those things up, but I don’t think she read the leaves. She did a lot of things in secret. There’s little things you learn when you watch people and you realize, I guess this isn’t in every household.” She maintains that just because her grandmother wasn’t overtly practicing witchcraft doesn’t mean she wasn’t doing magic. “I tell people all the time, there’s bits of magic that come through and if you pay attention your’e gonna see it. If someone mops the floor and throws the dirty water out the door—that’s a form of magic. Throwing the negativity out the door.”
When Katelan herself began practicing tasseography, or the reading of tea leaves, resources were sparse and she relied a lot on her grandmother’s knowledge of herbs and dream dictionary with image glossaries. “As a young kid in a really small town in the 80s there weren’t a lot of wonderful books about it so I kind of just had to find what I could.” She admits she wasn’t good at first: “When you’re young you want to be good at it right away and that’s just not the way it works.” But she kept practicing. “That’s how I got into it. It’s one of those things that just kept coming back into my life over time and I feel like it’s been a part of my life for a long time.”
So. How do you actually read tea leaves?
1. Picking the Tea—
Katelan says you can tailor your tea choice by what you’re looking to harness in your life. She says to drink nettle tea if you need protection in your life or need to stop fear. “You can get black tea that has roses in it or Earl Grey with bergamot for prosperity. If you want to bring more love into your life you can drink hibiscus tea with roses.” She tells me about a recipe her friend passed along to her a while back: “It was hibiscus, roses, rosemary, cinnamon, nutmeg, and some mint. You put a little honey in it and honestly it does taste like love.”
I hear her rattle around her kitchen looking for a specific box of tea she wants to recommend, and she emerges victorious: “Dellamore by Deerwomen. It’s organic black tea infused with Italian amaretto, cacao, 24 karat gold and rose petals.”
I ask her if there’s a tea for getting your shit together (for a friend). “Rooibos,” she says. “It’s an incredibly magical plant and bush and it can bring a lot of healing. Also, mint tea. Mint tea is no-nonsense. It’s like, ‘I’m here to settle your stomach and bring you clarity.”
Katelan says, when in doubt, “you can also just use black tea from the grocery store in a box.” There’s no specific tea that’s more magical than any other, she says, and no need to splurge on anything expensive. The only tea she wouldn’t recommend is a blend with fruit chunks in them. “I did that once and I was like, what am I doing?” She says you can always make your own blends if you love certain herbs– “just make sure they’re all food grade!”
Katelan also recommends choosing a cup you really love. “I have trays and teacups I’ve gotten at antique stores for 3 dollars. Find something beautiful that you want to drink out of and wanna play with a little bit and have it be more of a ritual. That always helps.”
2. Drinking the Tea—
Katelan says as you drink the cup you’ve prepared, it’s helpful to think about the specific plants in the brew and where they come from. “What I tell people to do is, if your’e having coffee or tea I want you to taste it. I want you to be in that moment.” She says you should also be thinking about any questions you want answered or what’s on your mind. “The thing that’s beautiful about the tea lead reading is that your essence is going into the cup.” In Romani culture a person’s saliva is considered sacred. “Your spit is essentially your essence, your life, and that’s going into the cup.”
Drink until you have a few tiny sips left. If you’ve been drinking tea from a loose leaf strainer or a bag, take a tablespoon of the leaves or open up the teabag to add leaves to the remaining tea. “There’s not really a right or wrong way to do it,” Katelan adds, because so many people have different processes for it. What matters most is what feels right to you.
Take the cup into your left hand (“your left hand is your intuitive hand”) circle it clockwise three times, and put the saucer on top of the cup. Flip the cup over onto the saucer to drain, and when you turn the cup back over again it’s ready to read.
3. Reading the Tea—
“You may not notice anything at first. You may think ‘these are just blobs of tea. This is what I see.’” After a while, she says, you may start to see patterns. “If there’s x’s and o’s and it looks like a little mess it can mean there’s clutter in your life. Little symbols like crossed lines, curvy lines and crosses are usually changes, and they can be dramatic ones. If you have straight lines or a series of lines it’s going to be projects or creativity, and if you have curved or wavy lines it’s basically saying you might want to use a little caution. Think of it as wavy water—If you see high waves you’re going to use caution.” She says you can start to put the symbols together like a storyboard, where different symbols can interact with each other.
Pay attention to groups: “For instance, a group of straight and wavy lines could mean you need more direction in your creative process, or maybe some time management.” Groups or clusters can represent emotions too. “Say there’s a cluster of circles and lines. You could be completing certain cycles or even breaking some cycles, some addictive patterns. If there’s lines it may be in your creative aspects, or if there’s dots you might be breaking some cycles in your money habits.
Katelan says there may be a lot of symbols in your cup, or maybe just a few. “It depends on how much is being shown to you at that time. If you get one symbol that might be the most important one, and that might be what the tea is trying to tell you to watch out for.” She says one time she was contemplating a trip to California and the tea leaves spelled out CA, literally. “I said, okay, I guess I’m going!”
When it comes to timing in the cup, it’s usually subjective. But a good rule of thumb is that the handle is the current month, the area immediately to the left of the handle is the next month, and the pattern continues around the cup to the twelfth month at the right of the handle. “Some people also divide the cup into seasons,” looking at the cup in four sections instead of twelve. Some say the bottom of the cup is far away and the top of the cup where the lip is is soonest, but others say it’s the other way around.
“I always tell people, like with tarot or anything like that, it’s going to be what works for you and what feels right for you. There’s plenty of people who read cards or cups in a way that others wouldn’t. Other people say not to read your own cup but, you know what, it works for me. So I think, do what works for you.”
Sometimes, she says, the cup might even be oriented around changes you have to make to get the outcome you want. She remembers a friend whose readings kept showing them a relationship coming in the spring or the fall, but it didn’t manifest after a year or two. “The tea was showing them their future but also showing all the things they had to go through in order to get to the place where they’d be open to it. Say you want to get into a relationship but you’re still dealing with baggage from exes. You might get that in a teacup. You might get a person shape and a little suitcase and think, yay, I’m going to travel. But then you notice the person is looking to the left.” In tasseography, symbols facing left have to do with the past, and symbols facing right indicate the future. “You’ll realize this is from the past, and this may be some baggage from this person.”
4. Don’t Panic—
Recognizing symbols in the tea leaves takes time, patience, and practice, Katelan says. “There is a little panic mode that happens when people are trying to read for themselves right away. It’s just practice, squinting your eyes, looking at different symbols.” She says in art school she was taught to squint when drawing “so we would only see shapes instead of focusing on getting the lines perfect. So that’s what I tell people to do, let your eyes go out of focus so you can pick up on any shape that’s trying to come through. If you think something looks like something, write it down. Chances are it’s probably there.” Make sure to rotate the cup in your hand so you can see the leaves from different angles. Katelan says to look up any symbols you see in a dream dictionary or online, and apply your own intuition to it. “If you see crocodiles it can be false friends but if you see dragons it has something to do with the heart or protection.”
She says involving other people who read leaves is also helpful. Every time she posts a photo of her cup online other people weigh in with symbols she didn’t even notice, which makes it easier to spot them.
She says no matter what, it takes time and practice.
“For anyone who is doing this, it’s going to take a while. If you’re serious about it, practice and trust what you see in the cup. If you’re just starting out, she recommends drinking a lot of tea and starting with small, daily questions. “Try asking ‘what is the energy for today?’ or ‘what should I focus on today?’ Maybe the teacup will give you that answer and you can practice with that.
5. Consider Your Dreams—
“A lot of your dreams and what comes up in the cup can coincide with messages,” Katelan says. She describes a nighttime ritual when she needs an answer. “I’ll do the tasseography at night before I go to bed and say, ‘if you have any answers to this question please let me know in my dreams.’ And sure enough, within a couple of days I’ll get a coinciding answer in my dreams as well. So working with tea leaves and working with dreams is a potent combination. The tea is going into your body to nourish it but it also enhances it.”