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.
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. Sometimes, after the libation was poured, ‘the empty cup was examined for signs of oracle.’ The Old Testament mentions Joseph’s skill in divination by use of a cup, 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. The humble coffee cup can thus be seen as belonging to a long tradition of ceremonial vessels used in divination.
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’. 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’.
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.’
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.’ 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.’ 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. 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.
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.’‘  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.’  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.’  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
 Green, 1992:85, Miller 2015:2, Seremetakis 1991:56.
 Connelly 2007:176.
 Walker 1995:191.
 Genesis 44:5.
 Stone 2014:194.
 Barber 2013:186, Karcher 1997:14.
 Connelly 2007:2.
 Stone 2014:187-197.
 Tedlock 2006:70, citing Winkelman 2000: 243-44.
 Tedlock 2005:xv, 4-5.
 Christ, FAR February 16, 2015.
 Brizendine, 2006:121.
 Brizendine, 2006:120.
 Brizendine 2006:120.
 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.