Your Fortune In A Cup: The Ancient Art of Reading Coffee Cups

The origins of coffee cup readings stem from the ancient Chinese art of tealeaves

Turkish coffee

Article first appeared in Prediction Magazine, May, 2004, (page 65).

If you want to improve your understanding, drink coffee.” Sydney Smith, 1771-1845

I was recently asked by a London Women’s organisation to give a talk and demonstration about the ancient Middle Eastern art of coffee cup reading. At the end of that morning, intrigued by the number of turned coffee cups that ended back in the kitchen, the Chef of a reputable London Hotel asked if I would also read his!

Up until then, I had not given much thought as to the how and why of coffee cup reading. For the past thirteen years, I just did it. For me, it seemed to be a seer’s art that is passed down from one generation to another- much like tealeaves reading which I came to know about when I moved to England. Although Arabs and people of the Near East, Mediterranean and Asia are also serious tea drinkers; it was the grounds at the bottom of a coffee cup that held clues to their fortunes.

While growing up, I fascinated by watching my mother’s friends, relatives and neighbours turn their coffee cups upside down at the end of a meal or afternoon ‘tea’, and then a member of the gathering would start reading them. At that point, us children were sent out of the room. It seemed coffee cup reading was a right of passage, and I was curious and determined to be able to master the art- much before I developed my abilities as a professional psychic.

What was equally fascinating is the prolific, at times poetic, language readers used and the attention they commanded from the listeners. Aunty Lahza, Aunty Laila, and my aunt Fatima were always welcomed at any morning or afternoon coffee gathering when they seemed to hold court- as a royal would.

I observed people’s faces as the coffee reader unravelled a story that day leaving them, happy, pensive, relieved; however, always- listening with intent, and immense focus. Eavesdropping, I would hear: “your life and his are like rail tracks that run close, side by side, yet shall never meet”.., or “in the midst of the darkness, a light will suddenly shine, giving you the answers to your conundrum”. No wonder cup readers were referred to as ‘soothsayers’ in early ‘coffee literature’ in Europe.

Other times, the reading seemed like a coded message: “after three signals your wish will be granted”, or “watch out for a white rat”. “Keep a white snake at bay, but be careful of a dark one”, “there’s a camel, a peacock, a star and a cross in the distance”. The listeners would often nod in agreement!

Mostly, what those talented readers picked up was incredibly detailed and accurate. My aunt, for example, left no doubt in my mind as to whom she was talking about at the time, when describing a person appearing in my cup as someone who had green eyes! Friends, and relatives admitted the intrigue, claimed that it is not to be taken seriously; and yet where ever there was a gathering or coffee served, at the end someone would ask who can read cup; and one by one, they would start turning their coffee cups over anticipating their turn.

The Future In A Cup: Tea, Or Coffee?

The origins of coffee cup readings stem from the ancient Chinese art of tealeaves reading practised for centuries; originally by monks who ceremonially drank tea in bell shaped cups. Before that, it is thoughts that monks used to read patterns formed on the internal part of bells in temples, so the handle-less teacup was a logical progression.

This was later adapted to coffee grounds reading by the Arabs, who first discovered coffee beans around 600 AD and managed to keep coffee as a secret, having a monopoly on cultivating and drinking coffee for several hundred years. Coffee made its way and became known or used as a beverage in Western Europe and the Americas, only in the late 18th century.

Both tealeaves and coffee cup readings are known as Tasseography, or tasseomancy (kafemandeia in Greek). When I first moved to London, I met several women from different countries and cultural backgrounds who had the ability to read the future in a cup. The art was very much alive and practiced by these various seers from Greece, Persia, Russia, Armenia and Yugoslavia.

No matter what symbols the coffee grounds depicted to each of them, the interpretation was very similar and accurate. The one who stood out is the famed Maureen Treanor, who I met when I first started my spiritual journey as a student in Merryn Jose class.

The late Maureen Treanor was Merryn’s mother (see, and came from a line of Irish Mystics and seers. One day, while I was visiting Merryn on Kings Road for afternoon tea, Maureen offered to read my tealeaves. I could only see, literally, three leaves at the bottom of the cup, but Maureen unravelled an epic, that unfolded over many years since. As she focused on the cup, she described in detail where I lived, in a flat, on which floor, with whom, my talents, what is to happen- all from three or four leaves that were left in the cup.

I knew then, there was more to staring at leaves or coffee grounds in a cup. I went to study the reliable encyclopaedia that is “The Dictionary of Symbols”, by J.E. Cirlot, to better understand how symbols became to be, in each culture. I kept my own notes as to what formation or symbols appeared repeatedly in coffee cups, and what psychic insights they triggered. As with any method of divination, it’s fifty percent knowledge, and fifty percent intuition.

 Coffee cup readingswhat are they?

Coffee Readings are psychic readings done by using a cup of coffee as though it’s a crystal ball. Ground Turkish coffee is mostly used when cup readings are done. The residue is left at the bottom of the cup after the coffee is drunk, when the cup is then covered with a saucer, shaken, and turned over (upside down) into the saucer, and left to dry.

The patterns formed on the inside of the cup trigger psychic insight; and are interpreted according to what they mean to the seer. Once you allow the information to flow intuitively, and with little training you can soon be well on your way to reading your own cup.

There are others who read filter coffee, and instant coffee too – much like crystal ball, or water cup scrying. (In fact, you can pretty much read anything- cloud formation, carpet patterns, or rabbit bones- as they do in Africa).

It is important to mention here, for the reading to be meaningful, or indeed accurate; you are to sip or drink the coffee while relaxing, sort of in a contemplative mode. My experience showed me that the intention or the emotional and mental condition of the drinker affects how, and what symbols the coffee grains shape- your vibes at the time.

If a coffee cup that is drunk in a hurry, without the intention of having it read, or while not in a relaxed state, it can’t be read. The grains do not appear to form any meaningful patterns- merely chaotic brown dots or mud in a cup! This is probably true for any form of divination, if you focus or intention is not present, the medium used will not provide a useful insight into the future.

How to read a Turkish Coffee Cup

You will of course need to prepare your coffee in such a way that there are grounds to read. Use grounded, powdery soft Turkish or Greek Coffee (the only difference between the two is the type of coffee beans and degree of roasting, the former is a darker roast, the latter a blonde, or lighter roast). Cafeterier, or percolators coffee is too course to form legible patterns. By the way, the residue from a cappuccino or espresso will work just as well.

  • Enjoy your coffee while relaxing, and ask yourself: “What do I need to know about my present situation?” or “What will be the important changes in my life in the near future?”
  • Now, take out a piece of paper and pen, and in a stream-of-consciousness style, begin jotting down your thoughts as you casually meditate on the shapes you see there. Above all, don’t edit yourself.
  • Write what pops into your mind. If the first thing has nothing to do with the coffee, jot it down anyway. For example, if laundry is the first thing that pops into your mind – whatever it may be, write it down; however, continue to stare at your cup as if you were lying face up on your lawn (if you are fortunate enough to have one) staring at the clouds above.
  • Try not to read what you are writing; rather keep you eyes on the grounds in your cup. It does not matter if your writing is illegible at this point.
  • Observe the thought, jot it down, and let it pass, moving onward to whatever comes next as you continue to stare at the cup.
  • Continue writing for at least ten minutes-enough for you to enter the first stages of a meditative state, both by the exercise of looking at one thing and by the rhythmic pattern of your free association and the motion of your hand upon the paper. If your mind keeps wandering back to your laundry- let it.
  • You don’t need to read every cluster of grounds or patterns in your cup. Interpret only what speaks to you.
  • There is no right or wrong here. Each of your interpretations is “correct.” You really do have all the answers within you. Trust yourself.
  • Write the date down, and go back to your notes in few days, you will begin to notice happenings taking place and understand what each symbol or pattern mean according to your own dictionary.
  • Symbols convey messages; focus on the message rather than the symbol. With practice, you will develop your own dictionary. (A camel would probably mean nothing to a Russian reader who would probably see a bear!)

The Origins of Coffee Cup readings in Europe: “I must have my Coffee!”

The long kept secret of coffee by the Arabs has probably helped make the history of coffee and coffee readings into the stuff of legends and lore.

Initially, Arabs brewed coffee from green, un-roasted beans making a tea-like beverage. By the late 13th century, Arabians roasted and ground coffee before brewing it. Ironically, it is said Arabian men usually brewed coffee, which was drunk by Arabian women to alleviate menstrual discomforts.

From Yemen, where coffee was cultivated, using coffee beans spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula and later via the Ottoman Empire to Turkey. The world’s first coffee shop, Kiva Han, opened in Constantinople in 1475.

When the Turks were forced to break off their siege of Vienna in 1683, they left behind them 500 sacks of coffee. An enterprising Polish businessman used it to open the city’s first coffee house. Coffee quickly became the choice of Europe’s Middle Class and Coffeehouses sprung up all over. It became the drink over which all matters—important and mundane—were discussed. Barista, was coined as the coffee bartender who makes coffee specialty drinks as his or her profession.

‘The great coffee wave’ created a number of ancillary trades. “Cup-women” entered the scene – anyone in search of wisdom would come to consult one of these women with a small bag of roasted beans. The art of reading coffee cups appeared in various literature of the time. “We have a sort of Mother Witch . . which are the Coffee and Tea Throwers to tell People’s fortunes”- From Round About Our Coal-Fire, 1731.

Coffee cup fortune telling became very popular – and notorious -, with official notifications to ban the activity. The first such fortune-tellers started their trade in Paris, and subsequently set up business in Germany. So much so, that in 1713, Johann Sevastian Bach composed his Kaffee-Kantate.

Partly an ode to coffee and partly a stab at the movement in Germany to prevent women from drinking coffee (it was thought to make them sterile), the cantata includes the aria, “Ah! How sweet coffee taste! Lovelier than a thousand kisses, sweeter far than muscatel wine! I must have my coffee.” In 1742 a pamphlet appeared in Leipzig entitled “The prophetess of the coffee cup with observations by G.G.B.”, and a decade later in Hungary “The Oraculum- Geomaticum or the art and wisdom on seeing Fate in coffee and all other infusions”.

Coffee… The Stuff Of Legends

Botanical evidence indicates that Coffea Arabica originated on the plateaus of central Ethiopia, several thousand feet above sea level. The word “qahwa” goes back some 1000 years BC in mud tablets, which means coffee in Arabic, where wild coffee berries were part of staple food for tribesmen.

One of the oldest coffee discovery legends tells of a young goatherd called Kaldi in Ethiopia in around 650 AD, who went looking for his herd and noticed that after eating a certain kind of berry, they were particularly lively. He tasted the berries and his sleepy eyes opened. Acuba, a learned man from town saw how Kaldi and his goats were lively, tried the berries and took them back to town where he mixed the berries with drinks at his monastery.

When the Monks first tried it, they were disappointed by the bitter flavour of coffee beans that they threw it in the fire. Soon, a delicious aroma was wafting around. The monks used the roasted fruits to create a brew, which they saw as a gift from God because it helped them to stay awake half the night. Coffee then spread to other towns and monasteries, Acuba became a rich man. No one knows what happen to Kaldi!

Another legend relates how the Archangel Gabriel brought a dish of the dark elixir to the prophet Mohammed, who lay dying. Thanks to the ‘divine power’ it gave him, he unsaddled 40 knights and went on to create the greatest Islamic empire ever seen.

During the Islamic expansion (circa 11th–16th century), coffee found its way across the Red Sea to Turkey, Spain and North Africa. By the thirteenth century, coffee’s medicinal and religious usages became well known from the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to Egypt, Persia and Syria.

The invigorating effects of this new “wine of Islam” enraptured the Persians because real wine was strictly forbidden to Muslims, Turkish people claimed coffee to be an aphrodisiac and husbands kept their wives well supplied; if the husband refused, it was a legitimate cause for a wife to divorce! The first coffee houses were opened in Damascus and Aleppo in 1530 and 1532.

Legend also has it that the Arabs, protective of Coffee Arabica, forbade transportation of the plant out of the Moslem nations.

Despite efforts to control this wonderful commodity, coffee was smuggled to India, by a Muslim Pilgrim called Baba Budan, around 1650. He planted his seeds in the hills in Mysore, India where they flourished. From there, the Dutch began cultivating Coffea Arabica in Java on the Indonesian archipelago.

In 1714, The Dutch unwittingly provide Louis XIV in Paris with a coffee bush as a gift- which he kept well-guarded green house; until 1723 when a French naval officer Gabriel Mathieu do Clieu stole a seedling and transported it to Martinique. Within 50 years and official survey records 19 million coffee trees on Martinique. Eventually, 90 percent of the world’s coffee spreads from this plant.

  • The Arabs used so much coffee that the Christian church denounced coffee as “the hellish black brew.” But Pope Clement VIII found it so great tasting that he baptized it and made it a Christian beverage saying “coffee is so delicious it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.”
  • The first coffee House opened in England in 1652. A cup of coffee sold for a penny.
  • In 1901 the Japanese Dr. Sartori Kato presented the first soluble coffee powder.
  • In 1938 the Nestlé Company laid the foundation for the commercial marketing of soluble coffee (instant coffee).
  • The scale of coffee use is reflected in the trend of world raw coffee consumption in the last 250 years.

    1750: 600,000 bags,
    1850: 4 million bags,
    1950: 36 million bags,
    1995: 94 million bags,
    2000: 103 million bags.

Coffee become a signature cultural drink in America at the time of the Boston Tea Party in 1773, when Americans revolted against King George’s Tea Tax and, the Continental Congress declared coffee the official national beverage. Today it still exists as a form of diversion for young people in coffee houses in France and Italy, Romania and Spain and of course all over the Mediterranean.

Interpreting Coffee Symbols

With Practice, compile your own. But here are some of mine:

Rings: A deal completed, a proposal, and engagement.
Circles with a dot inside: Desire for children will be fulfilled.
Fire Works: Quarrels, unpleasant personal problems.
Squares: New home.
Lines: Journey, a project. If lines are clear, they will go smoothly.
Candle: A wish fulfilled, help from above. Fulfil your promise.
Mounted horseman: A new man, good news, engagement.
Cat:   Moody person (white is good, black, be weary).
Cross: Victory over an ordeal.
Ladder: Social advancement, promotion, change.
Open window: Lucky Break.
Fire: Careful of electrical wiring.
Peacock: Splendour, luxury, something you will be proud of.
Butterfly: Flirting.
Fish: Money- specific sum- depending on size of fish!
Bird: Good piece of news.
Rat: Robbery, theft. (If there is a dot inside, stolen item will be returned.) 

© Sahar Huneidi, 2004              

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About Sahar Huneidi-Palmer
Author, Columnist, Holistic Therapist & Personal Mentor; helping my clients achieve the life they are meant to live since 1992. I am passionate about demystifying the abstract, podcasting & and love Turkish coffee!

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