Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Reading the Future and the Past in a Teacup

A while back on my gaming blog I posted that getting no results for a Google search for "secret history of tea" was one of the saddest Google results I had ever seen. Obviously, as is common in the ways of these things, there are now 5.

But let's back up. My wife manages a tea shop (shameless plug shameless plug). She has been on a vintage tea cup buying spree lately, and this weekend she brought home a piece that drew me like a moth to flame, or like an Englishman to a cuppa.

To quote from the description of the cup on the website, "The interior of the cup is decorated with the signs of the planets, and common symbols seen in Tasseography (telling fortunes using tea leaves). The saucer is decorated with the signs of the zodiac."

That's just awesome, is it not? Let's break this down, though, because tasseography is super interesting and we need to cover it in detail before looking at this specific cup.

All things considered, Western tasseography is pretty recent because Europe didn't start drinking coffee and tea until the mid-17th century. Using the random configurations of the remnants of a cup of coffee or tea finds its origins in other "random spill" style divinations, mostly done by spilling molten wax or metal into a vessel of cool water and reading the resulting shapes. Of course, this all goes back much further to the rather bloody affair of haruspicy which stands as the forefather of all shape-reading-based methods of western divination.

Surely, much like the ancient human past-times of idly finding shapes in the clouds or the stars, some early Western tea-drinker noticed an evocative shape at the bottom his or her new-fangled cup of tea or coffee and decided it might be a sign. And to be honest, looking for literal shapes in a cup of coffee or tea feels a bit mundane, as are the standard explanations for the shapes provided by "A Highland Seer" in the 1920 book Tea-Cup Reading, and the Art of Fortune-Telling by Tea Leaves. Literality and homeyness and familiarity are the order of the day: HORSE-SHOE means luck, SNAKE means misfortune and treachery.

Which is what makes the cup in the photo above so awesome. Because all of a sudden, folk magic is supplemented with the Hermetic astrological tradition. Cups like these were actually fairly common in 20th century Britain. Sure, suggestions for common shapes are traced all around the inside of the cup, but at the bottom of the cup are the seven planets, so now you can place your HORSE-SHOE in Venus and say you'll be lucky in love, or your SNAKE in Mercury and say that you'll be betrayed in travel or in communication. The signs of the zodiac on the saucer? Well, one doesn't usually spill one's leaves into the saucer but perhaps a drop of tea hits one or more signs? All of a sudden you have three sets of magical data to interpret and interpolate, all interrelated.

What do I want now, after researching all this? I'm greedy. I want a teacup with the 36 decans on the inside.

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