What’s the difference between Tarot and Oracle decks?

Are tarot and oracle cards the same? Let’s have a look at what makes each type of deck unique!

Tarot and oracle cards may seem alike, but what’s the difference? If you’re just getting into reading cards, it can be tricky to find an entry point. The best deck is always the one which chimes with you, but knowing the difference between tarot and oracle decks will help you choose where to start.

Do you want to dive into tarot’s deep, intricate symbols? Or would you rather leap through the wondrous, wild worlds of oracle decks? Let’s take a look at what makes tarot and oracle decks unique, and what they can each offer you…

What makes a tarot deck… a tarot deck?

With a long, mystical history, it’s easy to see why tarot is so popular. Each card is laden with symbols, its layers of meaning offering lots of different interpretations, and there are countless designs and styles to choose from. But what is tarot?

Tarot cards are based on the tarocchi, medieval cards which included the four suits that make up a normal playing card deck, plus 22 trump cards. These trumps were lavishly illustrated and followed more or less the same characters, like the Pope, the Lovers, the Moon, etc. These eventually became the Major Arcana, which the tarot is best known for.

Over time, tarocchi evolved into the tarot, an inherently mystical deck used for fortune telling and divination. The deck that brought the tarot into the modern era was the Rider-Waite-Smith, which was published in 1909. Inspired by the original tarocchi decks, the Rider-Waite-Smith proved wildly popular — which is why most modern tarot decks are based on this deck.

There are lots of different tarot decks to choose from! The Modern Witch Tarot, Mystical Medleys, The Luna Sol Tarot, and the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot

How tarot works

To break it down, in order to be considered tarot, each deck must include…

  • 22 Major Arcana cards
  • 4 Minor Arcana suits
  • 16 court cards

The Major Arcana track life’s great journey from the first step to ultimate enlightenment. Put simply, they’re life’s big moments. When they pop up in a reading, pay attention!

Meanwhile, the Minor Arcana is comprised of four suits. These are based on playing card suits (eg: diamonds, hearts, etc). In the tarot, these suits are the Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles. The cards depict situations we face in everyday life — albeit in an abstract, parable-like way.

The court cards are included in the Minor Arcana — the Page, Knight, Queen, and King. These cards represent characters you may encounter in life, and usually refer to people in readings.

Tarot’s system does determine makes up each deck, but that doesn’t mean they lack individuality. Artists love to reinvent and reimagine the tarot, resulting in a diversity of art style and many variations on the cards. Once you really get to know tarot, you’ll start to delight in how every artist shakes it up. But beware, that’s where the danger lies: you might get so interested in the different versions that you can’t stop buying tarot! And that’s how I ended up with a dozen decks…

So what are oracle decks?

Both tarot and oracle decks can be used for divination, but oracles have no set system to obey. This makes them really exciting, because the creator can structure the deck any way they want! Oracle decks might include different suits and character cards. Or they might be totally different. There’s basically no wrong way to create an oracle deck!

Artists often base oracle decks around a specific theme. This could be anything from mythology, to dreams, to astrology, to plants… the list goes on and on! So let’s look at some examples.

The Golden Constellations Oracle

The Golden Constellations Oracle

Created by Alba BG for The White Numen limited edition, the Golden Constellations oracle was inspired by astronomy. Each card depicts a different constellation in the night sky. To create this deck, Alba researched the ancient folk tales that each constellation sprang from. From these stories, she crafted each card’s meaning.

This deck, and others that use mythology as a basis, add a note of ancient mysticism to readings, making you feel like your life is just the most recent echo of a song that began centuries ago…

The Seed & Sickle Oracle

This deck, created by Fez Inkwright, is based on plant life. Fez used the ancient magical and medicinal meanings of each plant to create the card meanings. Her deck, and other botanical decks like it, are a lovely way to explore how nature still has meaning in our lives. Like Alba’s, this deck also connects us to the folklore of our past. Plus, it’s a really fun way to learn about plants!

The Seed & Sickle Oracle has two guidebooks — one for life advice, and one for introspection. Because tarot cards have different meanings depending on whether they’re right-side-up or upside down, Fez wanted to add variation to her deck. Other oracle creators have expanded their card meanings in similar ways.

The Citadel Deck

Inspired by Dungeons and Dragons, Fez also created The Citadel Deck as a bonus for the Seed & Sickle limited edition. She used classic fantasy storytelling as a basis for her card meanings, giving each card a note of drama.

This deck can also be turned into a game, using a system Fez created. Other oracle decks have multiple purposes too, and some can also be used to play a game, like Open Portals by James R. Eads.

Should I get a tarot or oracle deck?

Either! Both! Really, you should get the deck that is right for you. Tarot and oracle decks offer different things, and one might be better for your needs than the other.

Because tarot is based on one universal system (with some variations), once you learn the basics it’s very easy to start reading! There are tons of materials to help you learn, because tarot has been around so long and is so popular. If you’re looking for a deck which many other people understand, one with lots of lore to explore and so many interpretations, tarot is for you.

Oracle decks, on the other hand, can be much more straightforward. Without one system to follow, oracles are much freer. Each one is different, so you can just pick one up and it’ll tell you exactly how to read the cards. Often, oracle decks have their meaning written right on the card in the form of keywords. You can also pick a theme that really chimes with you. If you want a deck that’ll give you a feel for divination without you having to learn a system, you might want an oracle.

In terms of reading the cards, tarot decks have multiple interpretations and layers of nuance. This means you have to practice, but once you get used to it the tarot is very versatile, making for readings that are very deep and have lots of connections.

Oracle decks, on the other hand, are more intuitive. They can be gentler than tarot, and thanks to how different each deck is, you can really tailor your experience. Most decks do lack the depth of tarot, because tarot’s level of complexity and historical significance is very hard to replicate — and many oracle creators don’t want an overly complicated deck. However, this can give your readings a directness and clarity that tarot sometimes lacks. (After all, there’s always another interpretation with tarot!)

Basically, each have their advantages, especially for a beginner. Tarot has a universal system that means that you can read any tarot deck (mostly). Oracles are more quickly understandable, but sometimes lack depth. Ultimately, I would advise you just pick the one that you like the look of. You really can’t go wrong!

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1 Comment

  1. August 13, 2022 / 1:58 pm

    Great article! I’m a big fan of oracle cards and love to use them.:)

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