Reading the Tay: Samhain, Divination, and Speaking to the Dead

This article was written by (c) @ David Halpin Circle Stories

As we approach the time of Samhain I thought I’d take a look at some of the ways in which divination has been practiced in Ireland over the years. While some of these methods are ancient, others are much more recent. The art of reading tea leaves has a relatively short history in Irish folklore in comparison to Ogham divination or scrying through the flames of a fire, for example. And yet, it is a tradition which turns up regularly in the folklore archives as well as in the oral histories of families.

There are numerous accounts of travellers conducting readings in the rural areas of Ireland in the folklore archives but, in my own case, I know of tea leaf readers who were well known in Dublin city going back to the early 20th century. The actual name of this method of divination is Tasseography, although I have to admit that I never heard of it being called this when I listened to the incredible stories of dire predictions and foresight as an awestruck child.

When I have written about this subject before, some people have mentioned that herbal drinks may have served the same purpose before tea arrived in Ireland. We know that wise women and cunning folk certainly brewed potions, medicines and drinks so perhaps divining the pattern of the ground leaves of plants may have worked in the same way.

In that context, tea leaf prophecy is simply part of a wider art of pattern reading which is observed in every world culture and tradition. Whether we look to the example of reading the innards of animals or the flight pattern of birds, this art of magical prophecy was an auspicious hand upon the shoulder of Kings, Queens, Druids and magicians.

As I have mentioned before in previous articles, the Irish Druids also used cloud divination, ‘Neldoracht’, and Geoffrey Keating writes of another method of divination called Tarbhfeis, where the seer was wrapped in a bulls skin to produce a more powerful trance state.

Other examples of divination throughout the world include the Greek oracles, listening to the rustle of leaves upon sacred trees, the I Ching, Tarot and, of course, Astrology. Indigenous people also see a correspondent relationship between divination and the landscape. Reflections of future events might manifest in the behaviour of animals or the changing path of a stream or river, for example.

Perhaps it is fair to say that tea leaf reading is a less ambitious incarnation of some of these more complicated and far-reaching techniques, or maybe I am wrong about that? A fascinating work which examines the potentially connected reasoning behind all of these disciplines is Robert Temple’s book, Oracles of the Dead: Ancient Techniques for Predicting the Future. https://www.amazon.com/Oracles-Dead-Ancient-Te…/…/1594770859

Tea only arrived in Ireland in the early 19th century but it wasn’t until decades later that the poorer people had access to it at all. There are many accounts in the Duchas archives of how poorer people tried to consume it as a dish when they first came across it. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4602702/4596812/4631953

The methods of reading the leaves do vary but, as a very simple explanation, the cup is often understood as a microcosm of the universe and life of the person inquiring their fortune. In this context we can also notice some astrological parallels, perhaps. The person seeking their fortune will drink most of the tea before being asked to swirl the remaining tea three times. The reader will then work their way through the pattern of tea leaves clinging to the inside of the cup from the edge and rim downwards, travelling through the near and far future of the querent.

Of course, it should be noted that this is not the only method, and often a particular reader will incorporate their own beliefs and universal outlook into their reading. There is very much a rural and urban divide, I notice, with some of the older country readers openly calling upon fairy helpers whereas some of the city readers will say that the recently deceased will offer them advice. Perhaps, as we have seen throughout Irish folklore, the division between these definitions is far too murky to even comment upon. Biddy Early, who was well known for her ability to communicate with the good people, possessed a bottle which she would shake before examining the particles within it to tell a persons future. This example from the Duchas archives describes these particles being similar to tea leaves. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4583310/4578499/4591583

Another ancient mention of Irish divination occurs in the text the Cogadh Gaedhel re Gaillaibh . In this case the seer is a woman named Otta who used the church at Clonmacnoise for her oracle workings. She would seat herself in a high chair upon the altar where she would enter her trance states.

When it comes to tea leaf reading, though, there is one rule which should never be broken and that is cutting open a tea bag in order to use the leaves. This is said to give a corrupt reading and bring bad luck upon both the reader and querent. Whether this is because it is seen to be altering a predestined pattern or simply contaminating a more authentic technique depends upon who you ask, I find. One thing is certain, though, tea leaf reading or ‘reading the tay’ is still an ongoing and popular method of fortune telling in Ireland today.

(C.) David Halpin.

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