Kafemanteia: Women Reading the Coffee Cup by Laura Shannon

Greek Coffee

In my lifetime of researching women’s ritual dances in Greece and the Balkans, I have often come across related practices of divination or healing. One of these is the custom of coffee divination, the art of interpreting patterns in the fine grounds left in the cup after drinking Greek or Turkish coffee. The practice is found in Greece, the Balkans, Asia Minor, the Caucasus and the Middle East, and all over the world where people from these regions have emigrated. It is practiced mainly by women, particularly older women.[1]

Kafemanteía is related to much older techniques of divination and ritual, including the libations or liquid offerings which were an integral part of prayer in ancient Greece.[2] Sometimes, after the libation was poured, ‘the empty cup was examined for signs of oracle.’[3] The Old Testament mentions Joseph’s skill in divination by use of a cup,[4] while Istustaya and Papaya, the spinning and weaving pre-Hittite goddesses of destiny, divined using bowls of liquid akin to vessels used for scrying in many cultures.[5] The humble coffee cup can thus be seen as belonging to a long tradition of ceremonial vessels used in divination.[6]

Female figure in stance of invocation, with miniature votive shrines, pillars and cups or bowls for offerings. 5000 BCE, Netafim spring, Eilat, Israel.

In antiquity, Joan Breton Connelly makes clear, ‘religious office presented the one arena in which Greek women assumed roles equal and comparable to those of men,’ a fact which despite abundant evidence ‘has, until recently, been ignored by modern commentators or, worse yet, denied’.[7] In ancient Germanic, Celtic, Canaanite, Mesopotamian, and Anatolian cultures, ‘it was primarily women who were regarded as able to interpret signs and omens and to foretell the future’.[8]

Women who read cups today tend to view their ability either as a divine gift or as a talent learned or inherited from their mother, grandmother or aunt.  The concept of inherited oracular or shamanic talent is an ancient one, according to Barbara Tedlock, who suggests that intuition as an ‘unconscious cognitive process’ may be ‘genetically determined in its structure and function.’[9]

In her 2005 book The Woman in the Shaman’s Body, Tedlock describes what she calls ‘the primacy of women in shamanism’, stating that ‘women’s bodies and minds are particularly suited to tap into the power of the transcendental.’[10] Her assertions have important implications for the discussion of kafemanteía as a women’s art, but also reignite feminist controversy about biological ‘essentialism’ and ways that theories about differences between the sexes have been used to justify oppression based on gender.

As an in-depth discussion of essentialism is not possible here, I highly recommend Carol P. Christ’s excellent posts on the topic for those who wish to think more deeply about these questions. As Christ shows, the assumption that ‘if there are sex differences they must inevitably determine behaviour’ is a flawed syllogism. Christ invites us to discuss these issues in a more open-minded way: ‘I think our feminist conversations would be richer if we could find ways to talk about sex differences without immediately jumping to the conclusion that it is regressive or anti-feminist to do so.’[11] In our discussion of kafemanteía, I suggest we remain open to the possibility that neurological and biological differences may have significance, though not in a deterministic way. Men can also be readers of coffee grounds and tea leaves, but the fact remains that most readers of cups are women. Why might this be?

The social component of kafemanteía is very important, offering comfort and company to both reader and querent. According to neurologist Louann Brizendine, women have both a greater need and greater capacity for the positive emotional interaction of this social relationship. Neurologically, the female brain contains more mirror neurons than the male brain, giving women an advantage in establishing emotional connection and triggering production of the anti-stress hormone oxytocin.[12] Rather than ‘fight or flight,’ female stress responses follow a behavioural pattern known as ‘tend and befriend,’ based on the maintenance of social networks that increase bonding and decrease stress.

Reading the patterns

The intuitive response when reading the patterns in a cup often comes from what we call ‘gut feelings,’ which, as neuroscientific research reveals, ‘are not just free-floating emotional states but actual physical sensations that convey meaning to certain areas in the brain.’‘ [13] As Brizendine shows, areas of the brain that track gut feelings are larger, more sensitive, and more active in women’s brains; thus ‘the relationship between a woman’s gut feelings and her intuitive hunches is grounded in biology.’ [14] A further element to consider is the fact that neurological activity in most men is left-brain dominant, while women’s brain function tends towards a more even balance between left- and right-hemisphere activity.

Finally, Barbara Tedlock presents fascinating information on protein and collagen matrices embedded in connective tissues in the human body, ‘composed of liquid crystals and biopolymers that behave as electronic conductors, storing large amounts of cognitive information.’ [15] Given that these matrices can be seen as the biological structure in which ‘somatic consciousness’ resides, I would venture to ask whether the greater proportion of fat cells in women’s bodies may enable greater cellular conductivity for storing and transmitting intuitive and cognitive information. I would love to see further research in connection with the biological tendency of women to accumulate more fat cells post-menopause, and the image of the older wise woman or crone considered in many cultures to have oracular or divinatory powers.

I have had my cup read many times on my travels, and have often been astonished by the accuracy of information offered by the reader, including precise personal details which she could not have possibly known. This remains a mystery. Although I support further study into kafemanteía, I acknowledge that in essence it appears to defy conclusive rational explanation and therefore may remain permanently impenetrable to the scholarly mind. Perhaps all we can do is to simply increase our awareness of, and respect for, this living divinatory art, and the older women who keep it alive worldwide. I would be interested to hear from others about their experiences!

This post is drawn from a much longer article I have recently written, ‘Kafemanteía: coffee divination as women’s prophetic art in ancient and modern times.’  It appears in the current issue of Walking the Worlds 3:2 (2017): 52-68, available from www.walkingtheworlds.com

[1]          Green, 1992:85, Miller 2015:2, Seremetakis 1991:56.
[2]          Connelly 2007:176.
[3]          Walker 1995:191.
[4]          Genesis 44:5.
[5]          Stone 2014:194.
[6]          Barber 2013:186, Karcher 1997:14.
[7]          Connelly 2007:2.
[8]          Stone 2014:187-197.
[9]          Tedlock 2006:70, citing Winkelman 2000: 243-44.
[10]         Tedlock 2005:xv, 4-5.
[11]         Christ, FAR February 16, 2015.
[12]         Brizendine, 2006:121.
[13]         Brizendine, 2006:120.
[14]         Brizendine 2006:120.
[15]         Tedlock 2006:71.

Laura Shannon has been researching and teaching traditional women’s ritual dances since 1987. She is considered one of the ‘grandmothers’ of the worldwide Sacred / Circle Dance movement and gives workshops regularly in over twenty countries worldwide. Laura holds an honours degree in Intercultural Studies (1986) and a diploma in Dance Movement Therapy (1990).  She has also dedicated much time to primary research in Balkan and Greek villages, learning songs, dances, rituals and textile patterns which have been passed down for many generations, and which embody an age-old worldview of sustainability, community, and reverence for the earth. Laura’s essay ‘Women’s Ritual Dances: An Ancient Source of Healing in Our Times’,  was published in Dancing on the Earth. Laura lives partly in Greece and partly in the Findhorn ecological community in Scotland

Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. The Dancing Goddesses. New York: Norton, 2013.
Brizendine, Louann. The Female Brain. New York: Morgan Road Books, 2006.
Christ, Carol P. ‘What If There Are Sex Differences But Biology Is Not Destiny?’ FAR February 16, 2015.
Christ, Carol P. ‘Has the Vatican Discovered that Women Should Be Running the World?’ FAR February 9, 2015.
Connelly, Joan Breton. Portrait of a Priestess. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.
Green, Marian. “Wise Women Counsellors: Popular Methods of Divination.” In World Atlas of Divination, edited by John Matthews, 81-87. Boston: Little, Brown, 1992.
Karcher, Stephen. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Divination. Shaftesbury, Dorset: Element, 1997.
Miller, Guldjin. The Secret Art of Coffee Reading. Australia: Guldjin Miller, 2015.
Seremetakis, C. Nadia. The Last Word. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Shannon, L. ‘Kafemanteía: coffee divination as women’s prophetic art in ancient and modern times.’ Walking the Worlds 3:2 (2017): 52-68
Stone, Merlin. “Inner Voice: Intuition.” In Merlin Stone Remembered, edited by David B. Axelrod, Carol F. Thomas, and Lenny Schneir. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Books, 2014.
Tedlock, Barbara. The Woman in the Shaman’s Body. New York: Bantam Dell, 2005.
Tedlock, Barbara. “Toward a Theory of Divinatory Practice.” Anthropology of Consciousness 17:2 (2006): 62-77.
Walker, Charles. The Encyclopedia of the Occult. New York: Crescent Books, 1995.
Winkelman, Michael. Shamanism: A Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing. Westport, Conn.: Bergin and Garvey, 2000: 243-44. Quoted in Tedlock (2006):70.

Categories: Body, Folklore, General, Women's Power, Women's Spirituality, Women's Voices

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13 replies

  1. “I suggest we remain open to the possibility that neurological and biological differences may have significance, though not in a deterministic way. Men can also be readers of coffee grounds and tea leaves, but the fact remains that most readers of cups are women. Why might this be?”

    I think it is very important that we pay attention to this kind of thinking. I think neurological and biological differences may have many consequences, one of which may be women’s sensitivity to “reading,” be it cards, tea leaves coffee grounds, signs in Nature etc.

    It wasn’t until my late 30’s that I was able to deal with the fact that I could read the future though it terrified me to do so. I had no container/context for this experience and thought I might be crazy. In the early 80’s Tarot cards appeared and I took the plunge and began using them, first, for a year on myself -recording the readings and my feeling sense about what these might portend, and then gradually for others. The accuracy of what I saw astonished me and helped ground me in the reality that time simply did not work the way I had previously thought. I have been using cards as well as reading the signs in Nature ever since… This ‘gift ‘ is a two edged sword because often what I learn is not what I want to know.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for sharing your experience. That’s a good point you make at the end, Sara, and I have heard cup readers say this before. Some (in Armenia for example) will not say things they see in the cup that are unlucky, but simply end the reading saying ‘this cup doesn’t have much to say today’. I have wondered whether that is one reason people don’t usually read for themselves, where there is no filter to keep out potential bad news. In any case I agree that the gift brings an enormous responsibility. I think, though, that the ability to hold that responsibility can be developed in the same way that the gift can. Good luck to you.


  2. “I would love to see further research in connection with the biological tendency of women to accumulate more fat cells post-menopause, and the image of the older wise woman or crone considered in many cultures to have oracular or divinatory powers” Yes! More research please! Thanks for this post!


  3. This is fascinating! What divinatory practices such as this also say to me about women is our capacity and comfort with giving each other our intense attention and being willing to share the most intimate aspects of our lives. When you do a coffee reading or any other divination for someone else, you are focusing entirely not only on their well being now and in their outward life, but also in their future and in their lives in the spiritual realm. However this comes about, it is so important that this be maintained and encouraged in this world when our communication and interaction can be so brief and shallow, with disastrous consequences for personal relationships between individuals as well as between groups and even nations.

    As a post-menopausal woman who has been putting on a few extra pounds recently, I second Elizabeth’s comment about wanting more research into how this relates to our divinatory powers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, absolutely, this is the typical women’s way of speaking and sharing, which generates oxytocin and strengthens those social (and spiritual) bonds. I am sure you are familiar with Deborah Tannen’s work on women’s conversational style, all about giving one another attention, investigating the details before taking action.


  4. In my experience women who are in their child-bearing years also know how to read the flitzania as we call coffee cups here in Lesbos. I don’t know how younger women who came of age in recent years feel about the custom. I suspect many of them have taken their lives into their own hands and don’t rely the cups to tell them how their lives will unfold. Not sure, I could be wrong on that.


    • Yes, I have also met younger women who are gifted readers (I know of one young woman in Greece who makes her living from it!) as well as young women who consult readers. I think you are right, and older Greek friends have told me, that it happens much less nowadays compared to the past.


    • Looking back on my many experiences of cup reading with older women friends, I would say that the element of community was the most important. I don’t recall any prophesies that came true, but I have great memories of laughing and giggling as we “passed the time” (the words of one of my friends) together.


  5. Love this post Laura. My mother, and her mother before her, read coffee grounds (and grandma read tea leaves too)–Norwegian ancestry. My mother’s readings were very astute. I like to think the gift was passed down to me in my psychic and tarot work.


  6. Hi Laura, I enjoyed this post very much as it brought back many memories of my mother who was quite gifted in reading the coffee grounds of demitasse cups. She mostly divined only for close family members, but one year she decided to do it a the church Glendi. She was definitely channeling something that day because her customers created a buzz, and soon thereafter there was a long line of people waiting for her to read their cup. She created such a frenzy that the priest shut it down the next day, fearful that her spot on readings were not consistent with orthodoxy.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I enjoyed this article!

    When you talked about collagen and protein matrices and “that these matrices can be seen as the biological structure in which ‘somatic consciousness’ resides” it made me think that that must be how the body holds the memories of trauma. I remember you used to work with women to help heal what was stuck in their bodies through the medium of dance.

    I knew a woman years ago who told me that she could tell every day, when she poured the cream into the coffee cup at work and saw its patterns, how that day was going to go.

    Since I use a steel cone filter for my coffee and often have residue, l I will have to look in my cup and see if I find anything!


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