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The Fortune Teller by Georges de La Tour.
Putting the psycho in
Icon psychic.svg
Men who stare at goats
By the powers of tinfoil

Fortune-telling is a form of superstition. Its roots can be traced back to ancient times. In Delphi, an ancient sanctuary in Greece, there were priestesses/oracles called Pythias. Nostradamus was a famous French prophet from the Renaissance period. A common theme in the predictions of the Pythias and Nostradamus (and any other "prophet" or fortune-teller for that matter) is that their prophecies were told in a vague, often self-fulfilling way, without a specific date in mind.

Fortune telling can also be when a supposed psychic reads your palm, makes a chart for astrology, or "channels" spirits of the dead for answers.

If a psychic tells your future through the use of the supernatural, this is called divination. Divination is extremely popular in various circles, including Neopaganism who tend to use traditional arcane methods that rely somewhat on chance.

Christians officially frown on fortune-telling or divination, but some people (like Harold Camping) engage in it anyway by claiming that God has told them the world is going to end or a major disaster is coming.

There have been many other methods of trying to predict the future in the past, but animal sacrifice is frowned upon now. (It should be noted, though, that the earliest Chinese writing is from their earliest form of divination.)

Fortune telling doesn't always work as shown here.

Bujo / Egg curse scam[edit]

Some unscrupulous fortune tellers use the divination business as a front for a scam traditionally called the bujo or egg curse scam.[1][2] The fortune teller uses her cold reading skill to detect that a client is genuinely troubled rather than merely seeking entertainment; or is a gambler complaining of bad luck. The fortune teller informs the mark that they are the victim of a curse, but that for a fee a spell can be cast to remove the curse. In Romany, this trick is called bujo, originally meaning simply "bag", but now meaning "a swindle involving a large amount of money from a gullible fortune-telling customer."[3]

This name comes from a traditional form: the mark is told that the curse is in their money; they bring money in a bag to have the spell cast over it, and leave with a bag of worthless paper;[4] or money or property are given to the fortune teller to be destroyed as bearing the curse, and an item of lesser value is swapped and conspicuously destroyed instead.[5] In some cases the curse is "verified" by a sleight of hand trick, often involving an egg. The fortune teller tells the mark to bring an egg to a reading,[6] which when cracked open reveals disgusting matter or symbols of evil. This discovery confirms the curse.[1][7]


Japanese fortune telling machine


It's only tea leaves—stop being dramatic!
—"Apophenia", by They Might Be Giants
"I can see your future... you are washing this cup."

Tasseography (tasseomancy, tassology) is the posh word for a group of divination/fortune-telling methods that involve "reading" patterns in coffee grounds, tea leaves or wine sediments left in a cup after emptying it. The usual name is 'tea leaf reading', because tea is the customary medium used.

For best results, tea must be brewed in a teapot without a strainer, because getting tea leaves into the cup is the object. A wide, cylindrical cup allows for the patterns to form. The person consulting this oracle must drink most of the tea, leaving some in the bottom to swish around three times. This creates the patterns in the wet tea leaves that are read by the psychic interpreting the oracle. Letters, numbers, and various imagined symbols in the patterns of the leaves whose meanings are more or less obvious (an angel means good news, an airplane foretells travel, etc.) are then discerned in the wet leaves.[8]

Like other types of fortune-telling, when it "works", it "works" mostly by cold reading (or hot reading, if the fortune-teller is unscrupulous enough and the stakes are high enough).


A palmistry hand.

Palmistry[note 1] is a bunch of crap that claims to be able to tell a person's future based on the lines on the palm of their hand. It has its roots in ancient Hindu astrology. It is generally accepted as fraudulent, considering one of the "methods" is to make stuff up. Strangely, some people believe in it. They're probably the same people who read their stars in the paper or go to fairground fortune-tellers for "genuine" advice.


See the main article on this topic: astrology

Other techniques[edit]


  1. Also called chiromancy, chirology or cheirology by people who like to get all mystical about it or to show off what fancy words they know. The root is the same as in chiropractic — χειρ is Greek for "hand".


  1. 1.0 1.1 Illinois State Police, Common Citizen Scams, accessed Nov. 17, 2010
  2. People v. Bertsche, 265 Ill. 272, 106 N.E. 823 (Ill. 1914)
  3. Anne Sutherland, in Gypsies, Tinkers, and Other Travellers (Academic Press, 1975)
  4. See, e.g., Marks v. State, 144 Tex.Crim. 509, 164 S.W.2d 690 (Tex.Crim.App. 1942)
  5. W. W. Zellner, William M. Kephart, Extraordinary groups: an examination of unconventional lifestyles (Macmillan, 2000; ISBN 1-57259-953-7), pp. 121-122
  6. Sylvia Browne, Lindsay Harrison, The Truth About Psychics: What's Real, What's Not, and How to Tell the Difference (Simon and Schuster, 2009; ISBN 1-4391-4972-0), pp. 230-321
  7. Skip Hollandsworth, "The Curse of Romeo and Juliet", Texas Monthly, June 1997
  8. Gibson, Walter and Litzka. The Complete Illustrated Book of the Psychic Sciences (Bell, 1966; ISBN 0-517-67152-2), p. 367 et. seq.