James Norwood Pratt
Who hasn't heard of reading tea-leaves! If you buy this book, you may have the good fortune to discover that it is no joke but an exercise of insight and intuition, not infrequently shading over into genuine psychic ability.
Here is, most probably, the oldest book in English on the subject, just recently rediscovered by the distinguished tea merchant John Harney. It is based on an authentic tradition that goes back several centuries, "which has been preserved for us by our anonymous author, a Highland Seer. with practice, I suppose accurate and reliable information from the tea-leaf oracle is possible; at least sometimes it seems so to me.
Perhaps the best thing to be said for reading tea-leaves is that it can be thoroughly frivolous from start to finish. No messy entrails to inspect, no lugubrious departed spirits to invoke, no supposed medium's palm to cross with green, These are serious procedures. In reading tea-leaves, seriousness is optional and often out of place altogether. All one needs is a friend or two, tea, of course, and this book to leaf through in more ways than one.
If you are really keen to get to the instructions, skip ahead to The Tea-Leaf Oracle section. Divination-fortune-telling if you insist-is something I've thought about for a long time and there's a good deal I'd like to say before we return to the reading of tea-leaves.
Highly Selective And Correspondingly Superficial Remarks On Divination
My first experience of Fortune-telling was the Thanksgiving of my twentieth year. An interest in anything vaguely occult had led me to invest in Tarot cards and a guide to their use by a turgid and pompous Victorian author named A.E. Waite. A fellow student was my first guinea pig.
I laid out the cards just as the book directed and plodded through the arrangement, reading the meaning Mr. Waite attributed to each card. It was probably the most thoroughly amateurish performance of any occult ceremony in history. It was patently absurd to boot, for my friend faced the brightest of futures without a cloud on his horizon and the cards predicted nothing but difficulty and disappointment.
The next time I ran into my subject a year had passed and I had forgotten the whole episode. Who could have guessed, he said, a little awestruck, that his life had turned out exactly as the cards had foretold.
Over the years since then I have become somewhat familiar with seership, divination, oracles, prophecy, etc., which are often approved of by the same people who condemn Fortune-telling. I continued to play with the Tarot for about a decade, long enough to be able to dispense with guidebooks. I gradually got into the I Ching. For a while I even owned a crystal ball, though I can't say I ever saw anything in it when sober.
Over the years my fascination has compelled me to read a shelf of books more or less on the subject. I say more or less because the subject of divination is a broad one and covers a bewildering variety of practices in almost every culture from the most ancient times to the present.
Amongst the most impressive experiences of my life are a couple of predictions others made of my future, which turned out to be spot on. A psychic once told me out of the blue that I was about to fall in love and damned if I didn't- madly, blindly, disastrously as it turned out, and only three months later.
Not too long ago the proprietor of a cafe on an Aegean beach foretold an unimaginable treachery that lay in store for me and within four months this too had come to pass. This cafe proprietor was someone I met in Bodrum, Turkey, whose only contact with me came from reading my fa'al-Arabic (and Turkish) for fortune.
If you don't believe in this sort of thing I invite you simply to close the book. I am only too well aware of the arguments that can he brought against Fortune-telling, but "I have no will to try proof-bringing," as the poet puts it. The whole idea of scientific proof outside of laboratory conditions is ridiculous anyway, when you stop to think about it.
You cannot, for example, prove that you're not secretly a Satanic space sister or brother from a galaxy far away. The great C.G. Jung wrote a famous foreword to the I Ching in which he suggests synchronicity as a possible explanation for how predictions work. The sentence I like best in his remarkable essay is: "The less one thinks about the theory of the I Ching, the more soundly one sleeps."
The forecasts I've mentioned in my own case are alike only in being completely accurate and absolutely inexplicable. One was done almost professionally, you might say, by a gifted psychic in a near-trance state. The other, equally valid, came from a man who could not pronounce my name and was reading my cup simply as a pastime for my amusement. These are merely the most vivid examples amongst a myriad I could cite. Like the Tarot reading I gave my fellow student at Chapel Hill, they seem to show that whether solemn or completely casual, Fortune-telling may turn out to be on the money.
The Ancient World And Delphi
Divination seems to be as old as any human endeavor there is, and though it was sometimes taken lightly in antiquity, it was never meant so. Think of Cassandra warning against the Trojan horse. Ever Roman schoolboy understood the moral of the story of the admiral so eager for battle he ignored the omen and ordered the sacred chickens thrown overboard when told they would not drink. "They're drinking now," he wisecracked, "let's fight." Of course he lost disastrously.
The ancients looked for omens everywhere. The Etruscans specialized in augury based on the flight of birds, a method of forecasting the Romans preserved well into the Christian era. They also borrowed the Etruscan practice of haruspicy, or inspecting entrails, which enlightened opinion never wholly accepted. Dour old Cato said he would be surprised if entrails-inspectors didn't exchange knowing grins when passing one another on the street.
The Roman augur and haruspex were paid public officials, but there was also an age-old array of popular practices used in personal Fortune-telling, from astrology and dream interpretation to mediumship and the sortes Vergilianae, or Virgilian lottery. You opened the Aeneid at random and put your finger on a line, which was the answer to your inquiry if only you managed to interpret it right. Christians later used the Bible in the same way, and Muslims the Koran.
The first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine, erected in the hippodrome of his new capital city a monumental pedestal of brass in the form of three coiled snakes, which the Greeks had dedicated after their victory over the Persians at Platea in 479 B.C. This ancient artifact, which stands in Istanbul to this day, formerly supported a gold tripod before the entrance to the temple at Delphi. (It remained intact until the early 1700s, when the heads of the serpents were broken off for some reason.)
By the time the oracle of Delphi was finally closed in the name of Christianity in 390 A.D., it had served as the center for divination in the ancient world for over a thousand years. We readers of tea-leaves are successors, in a way, to the ancient Pythia who prophesied in Delphi's sacred precincts, and it can do us no harm to consider, briefly, our antecedents.
Apollo's oracle was known throughout the Greek world by 700 B.C. and subsequent Greeks dated its foundation back to the earliest days of the world. Modern archaeologists assert that the site was in use a thousand years before the first stone temple was erected there in the 7005 B.C.; this temple was destroyed by fire circa 548 B.C. and its much larger replacement by earthquake in 373 B.C.
Then the temple whose remains are still to be seen today at Delphi was built, surely the most imposing setting in all of Greece. Delphi is situated about two thousand feet up the slopes of Mount Parnassus, poised between soaring, luminous rocks above and the olive-clad valley below. Nowhere is the effect of the rich, blue Mediterranean sky with its diaphanous light more remarkable. The ancients had other oracles, but none with a more inspiring location.
Although a good deal is known about the oracular procedures, much remains a mystery. The Pythia, as Apollo's priestess at Delphi was called, underwent a period of fasting and various rituals of purification before she would enter the inner sanctum of the temple. There she was given leaves of the laurel or bay, sacred to the god, to chew on while a small fire of laurel leaves and barley was ignited on the altar.
After a drink of holy water from a stream that flowed into the temple, she took her seat upon a tripod to deliver the oracle. In every account of these consultations we are told that the inquirers spoke directly to the Pythia (or the god) and that then the Pythia (or the god) responded directly to them. The responses were sometimes obscure and enigmatic, but other times they were straightforward and unequivocal, as when the oracle pronounced Socrates the wisest man alive. Or consider the oracle's last utterance, circa 300 A.D., in reply to an inquiry from Julian, the last pagan emperor:
"Go tell the king: The carven nail is fallen in decay.
Apollo has no chapel left, no prophesying bay,
No talking spring. The stream is dry mat had so much to say."
A modern misinterpretation of ancient sources is responsible for the widespread but mistaken belief that the Pythia inhaled intoxicating vapors from a cleft in the rock inside the sanctuary. We moderns also tend to overlook the fact that this sanctuary was reputed to contain the tomb of Dionysos, who ruled over Delphi for the three winter months.
We tend to juxtapose Apollo, the god of clarity and consciousness, with the younger god of vegetation and the irrational, but an ancient would consider suck dualism just as simple-minded as our idea that me spiritual is pitted against the material.
In reality they are integrally related. Nature is a manifestation of divinity, and as Plato put it, time is a moving image of eternity. The esoteric dimension of Greek religious thought is rich with runts that illuminate me workings of divination.
A distinguished professor emeritus of classics at Berkeley, Joseph Fontenrose, has written a 500-page book titled The Delphic Oracle in which he assembles all that is known on the subject and manages at the same time to miss the central point entirely. Our ancient ancestors may have been a superstitious lot, but stupid they were not.
An institution like Delphi could not have persisted in use for over a millennium if its utterances did not prove of practical value to its inquirers. Today Delphi can be reconsidered in the light of what we have learned since 1959 about the workings of state and other oracles in Tibet.
The Modern World And Tibet
Before the Chinese takeover in 1959, the government of Tibet regularly consulted an oracle who was installed and maintained at a special monastery-Nechung-near Lhasa. In recent years we have learned a good deal about these practices from sources as impeccable as the Dalai Lama and, interestingly, also from Lopsang Lhalungpa, the son of a former oracle. These oracles were male and generally short-lived, as the strain of undergoing possession by supernatural beings took a tremendous physical toll on their human channels.
From time to time one would be dismissed for malfeasance of some sort, which shows the all-too-human temptation to abuse that must accompany soothsaying at any time and place. All Tibetan oracles were supposed to be spiritually pure in order to exclude contact with evil forces. The particular supernatural being who spoke through the Nechung oracle was Dorje Drakden, also known as Tibet's Protector of Religion.
The ritual of consultation was elaborate, sitting on his throne in the Nechung assembly hall, the oracle slowly went into a trance to the sound of deep chants and invocations by the Nechung monks. Only when deep in trance could be support the weight of his ritual headdress, which was so heavy it required two men to lift it onto his bead.
The oracle rose and danced beneath this weight, finally prostrating himself three times before the image of Tibet's great tantric mystic Padmasambhava and men before the Dalai Lama himself. A list of questions was read by a high official and the oracle gave his answers, which were transcribed on the spot for the official government records. The Tibetan government-in-exile still consults this oracle in modified form today.
The medium, it might be noted, passes into unconsciousness immediately following possession and awakes with no memory of the event. Whereas the Pythia is described as speaking in her normal voice at Delphi, the Nechung oracle speaks in an ethereal, halting hollow tone suggesting immense age and distance.
A lengthy description of these procedures along with references to other oracles is to be found in John Avedon's biography of the Dalai Lama. In his autobiography the Dalai Lama gives further details and mentions the tender personal regard Dorje Drakden exhibits for him.
As a state institution, the Nechung monastery stood at the apex of a nationwide system of thousands of mediums and their respective spirits where the intercourse between human and non-human beings has been carried on uninterrupted for some thirteen centuries.
Further Selective And Superficial Remarks
In Tibet and throughout Asia generally, not only oracles but a variety of methods of foretelling the future with varying degrees of sophistication and complexity continue to be employed and divination remains a normal and unquestioned part of life.
Now with evidence of accurate divination, even the most moronic materialists should find themselves obliged to admit, as did Horatio, that there are indeed more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. As for the thousand doubts, questions, and criticisms these strange powers may stir, I answer these only by quoting once more Dr. C.G. Jung: "The Irrational fullness of life has taught me never to discard anything, even when it goes against all our theories (so short-lived at best) or otherwise admits of no immediate explanation."
Let us leave the insoluble mystery of oracles and mediumship, which are not involved in most divination anyway. Among the doubts, questions, and criticisms possible, let us by all means avoid such heavy questions as whether life is foreordained and predestined or at least if some freedom of choice is possible. Pondering the nature of time also gives me a headache, so I omit all mention of that issue. There are still a few considerations concerning foretelling the future with which to cudgel our brains. For instance:
Everything must mean something, or else nothing would mean anything. Think about this. Another way to phrase it might be: Everything that happens, no matter what, is an inconceivably improbable coincidence. Here you are-and no other person-reading this book-and no other book-just at this moment-and no other moment. How did this come about? Had the events of the last hour, even the last several minutes, gone ever so slightly different, you would not be reading this sentence just now.
Now consider all the factors stretching back into all eternity which have contributed, each in its precise degree, to bringing you to this very place with this unlikely book in your hand. What a fantastic improbability! Yet here we are. Viewed in this light, every phenomenon is equally improbable-and infinitely so! There's nothing mere about coincidence-the universe is nothing out coincidence.
We individuals are part of a seamless web, the continuous whole of reality. It seems to me that a person who is totally unsympathetic to Fortune-telling has an unbalanced mind, trapped in the strait-jacket of our time and cut off from the underlying patterns of existence that give life its meaning.
You might imagine our reality as a tube of time extending through space. We are constantly moving through this tube along with everything we perceive. Now if we could slice through the tube at a certain, perhaps perplexing, moment and study this cross-section, we would see the elements presently coinciding and the pattern formed by their immediate relationships to one another.
Evaluating present patterns and relationships amongst disparate, apparently meaningless, things allows us to divine what to expect in the future. I believe this is why the most common method of seeking oracles involves the inspection of some sort of pattern-whether in the flight of birds, the fall of coins as with the I Ching, or, yes, the leaves in the bottom of a tea-cup.
None of this makes the procedure or its outcome any less mysterious, of course, but there you have it. Whatever happens at a given moment inevitably possesses the quality peculiar to that moment and no other. In my years as a professional wine critic and writer, I often saw colleagues correctly judge the site of a wine's vineyard and the year of its origin just from the appearance, taste, and behavior.
A sister who deals in English antiques can with uncanny accuracy frequently name the time and place of origin and even the maker of a piece of furniture merely by looking at it. Several astrologers of my acquaintance can look at you and tell the position of the sun and moon and what sign of the zodiac was rising above the horizon at the moment of your birth. I advance these facts as a purely practical argument that moments can leave long-lasting traces.
Now for the leap: We have to assume that these accidents or coincidences are in some way linked with the unconscious mind. The explanation for all prophecy and clairvoyance, apart from mediumistic inspiration or possession, boils down to the assumption that the unconscious already knows the answer to the question.
There clearly are powers of exchange beyond the senses and the muscles, but the conscious mind has the thick skin of a rhinoceros; it is powerful but insensitive. It separates us from a sense of connection with the rest of the universe, yet we spend most of our lives trapped in this one area of the mind.
As I sit here writing on a sunny morning looking out across San Francisco Bay, I am only theoretically aware that I even have an unconscious mind. I cannot see it or feel it. It's like an arm I've been lying on in my sleep, which has become quite numb and without feeling. Strangely enough, contemplating patterns of cards or coins or tea-leaves can serve to restore circulation to these regions of the mind and gain us admittance to our hidden awareness.
The use of this perfectly normal power of the human soul involves entering a state of mind that is both purposeful and yet passive, relaxed. Mediums, psychics, and sensitives have developed this capacity to an extraordinary degree, no doubt, but all of us possess it. A little practice will most likely allow you to experience this for yourself.
In The Sixth Sense (1927) Joseph Sinel described a friend who read tea-leaves as invariably starting with the usual rigmarole about meeting a tall, fair lady or handsome man, but his expression would then change as he began to exhibit clairvoyance, sometimes trivial, sometimes serious. As you'll see for yourself, there's a knack to it but it's nonetheless quite simple. You use the pattern formed as the take-off point for your imagination, in a way, liberating the mind to admit ESP.
The Tea-Leaf Oracle
As predicted, we have now returned to our tea-leaves. There are more powerful methods, quite apart from mediumship and oracles, which may produce profound, heavy-duty results, but they require heavy-duty commitment and disciplined training. Reading tea-leaves is not the most powerful way to answer questions, look into the future, reveal the past, or understand the present. But it too can produce accurate and startling results. You may not learn everything there is to know about reading tea-leaves, but you can certainly learn enough to make it worth your while. All that's required is an open mind and a spirit of adventure or of light-hearted fun.
Reading tea-leaves is fun, whether you become adept at it or not. It certainly doesn't hurt to number it among one's social attainments and the devious will find it especially useful in courting and other situations. The author of Tom Jones said scandal and gossip are the best sweeteners of tea, and nothing beats a peek at the future after one has finished it. Just be careful.
As my own experience proves, you may speak more truly than you know. Further advice:
Assume there is an energy transfer or psychic rapport of some sort between the leaves in the cup and the individual consulting them. As our author says, "What matters is that the person shaking the dice, shuffling the dominoes, cutting the cards, or turning the tea-cup, is by these very acts transferring from his mind where they lie hidden even from himself the shadows of coming events..."
Some assert this allows the person to influence the arrangement of the leaves. The word para-psychologists have coined for this is psychokinesis. Others claim the inquirer's contact is important because it allows the reader to practice psychometry, which is what para-psychologists call discerning things from inanimate objects by clairvoyance.
Don't worry about how it works; just make sure the person for whom the reading is done prepares his or her own
cup. Drinking the tea should provide contact enough, but to impregnate the leaves with one's energy for sure, it doesn't hurt to cover the cup with the hand for a minute or so. If asking a specific question, this is the time to concentrate on it. There are a number of points like these, which our author omits, and a few others which could he amplified.
"It should be distinctly understood, however, that teacup fortunes are only horary, or dealing with two events of the hour or the succeeding twenty-four hours at furthest," we read. Not necessarily. Another experienced tea-leaf reader has shown me how to read a fortune for the next twelve months. The cup is read clockwise from the immediate left of the handle, which represents present time.
Three months from now lies a quarter of the way around, six months directly across from the handle, nine months three-quarters around, and a year hence at the immediate right of the handle. According to this scheme, symbols on the flat bottom of the cup pertain to the entire period. If a symbol lies partly on the bottom of the cup and partly on the side-say a four-leaf clover one-quarter of the way around-it should be interpreted as great good fortune beginning in about three months and continuing for the remainder of the year.
Remember that you must decide beforehand on the type of reading you want. A cup that is used to answer a question is valid only for that question. Expect the cup to foretell only the coming twenty-lour hours unless you specifically inquire as to the next twelve months. In either case, nothing unimportant ever shows up in the cup, for every symbol has significance, whether you can make it out at first or not.
"But how do I see these symbols'?" you may ask. The same way you see shapes and figures in clouds after gazing at them for a while. You don't have to force anything-take your time and the symbols sort of jump out at you. I urn the cup around this way and that, tilt it, and examine the leaves from all angles. Contemplate quietly. If you rush you won't see anything. It's not like watching television, where the pictures just appear with no effort on your part. But when a symbol is there, it is just as clear as any form you see in a cloud.
I should add that not all tea-leaves give me a meaningful picture, but remain merely blobs of wet leaf. When the cup contains little besides blobs of this sort, I take it to mean the day or year ahead contains nothing very noteworthy, which is also meaningful information of a sort.
A major consideration is the kind of tea you use and the way you prepare it. In theory this should not matter, and certainly the Chinese, who use chiefly whole leaf teas, have always practiced tea-cup divination. Of this I know nothing; however, for purposes of using this book, teas of me type used by our author will no doubt give best results. It is clear from the illustrations that these were broken grade, small leaf teas-but not so fine as the dust our tea hags contain.
I find the BOP and smaller grades of Indian and Ceylon teas available today work dandy. It's also okay to
use a teaball or pot with a removable infuser basket provided you throw a nail teaspoonful or more of tea directly into the pot. This way the cups will have leaves enough left for Fortune-telling when the brew has been drunk.
About This Book
The identity of our author, "a Highland Seer," is unknown but I think it likely he or she was indeed Scottish, exactly as advertised. Amongst my other reasons for thinking so is the recurrence of the term spae-wife-as obscure a bit of Scots dialect when this book was written during the first World War as it is now. It derives from the Old Norse spa, which means "prophecy," and was used by the Highlanders to denote those gifted with second sight, no great rarity among these rural Celtic clans folk even today.
The authenticity of any grimoire, book of spells, signs, or the like rests upon the amount of tradition behind it, and I am inclined to accept the author's truthfulness in claiming: "Generations of spae-wive's have found that the recurrence of a certain figure in the cup has corresponded with the occurrence of a certain event in the future lives of the various persons who have consulted them: and this empirical [sic] knowledge has been handed down from seer to seer until a sufficient deposit of tradition has been formed from which it has been found possible to compile a detailed list of the most important symbols and to attach to each a traditional meaning.
These significations have been collected by the writer- in a desultory manner-over a long period of years chiefly from 'spae-wives' in both Highland and Rowland Scotland, but also in Cornwall, on Dartmoor, in Middle England, in Gloucestershire and Northumberland.
Any such dictionary of symbols must be taken as a starting point, of course, for the seer is describing landmarks on a voyage as they appeared to him or her and not as they would look on a map or from the air. There may be other ways to describe these things, but it must he also said that the symbols seem to have an existence strangely independent of the minds involved.
This is the oldest hook on the subject I've ever come across and may well be the first such book published. Certainly "Sepharial," "Minetta," and a few other pseudonymous compilers since have pillaged it mercilessly. When John Harney discovered this book and asked me to write an introduction, we decided I should not edit or anywise alter the text. The present edition is a faithful replica of the work as written and seen through the press by "a Highland Seer."