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Tarot cards and oracle cards are both tools for divination. So while there are some similarities between these two types of card decks, some key differences exist as well. This means tarot and oracle decks are not interchangeable and not the same thing!
Read on to learn more about the difference between tarot decks and oracle decks.
How are tarot decks and oracle decks similar?
Tarot decks and oracles deck are similar in that they are both divination decks. What does that mean?
The word “divination” most commonly refers to fortune-telling or predicting the future, but that’s not exactly always the case. Divination refers more broadly to better understanding or learning the hidden meaning or truth of things. We can do this through various means, including spiritual, psychological, or other techniques.
So while divination can involve foretelling the future, that’s not necessary. (I don’t try to predict the future with tarot, and I know many other modern tarot practitioners who don’t either.) I think a more accurate way to describe divination decks – which tarot and oracle both qualify as – are cards that offer intuitive messages and guidance.
How do tarot decks differ from oracle decks?
So what are the key differences between tarot cards and oracle cards? Let’s dive in.
Tarot and oracle cards differ in structure. The structure of tarot decks and oracle decks are actually vastly different.
Tarot is a very specific system. A tarot deck, if it is correctly named by the way (sometimes publishers use the name tarot way too freely in my opinion), has a set structure of 78 cards divided into the Major and Minor Arcana. More specifically, a standard tarot deck will have 22 Major Arcana cards and 56 Minor Arcana cards. All tarot decks, even if the names of individual cards vary or themes and artwork vary, are based on the same archetypes, numerology, and elemental suits.
Oracle cards, on the other hand, have no set structure or number of cards. Oracle decks are much more open-ended and freeform. Anything goes for an oracle deck! It can contain any imagery, words, concepts, or number of cards. Whatever the oracle deck writer and artist want to do, they can do.
Tarot cards have traditional meanings that are fairly consistent across decks, even though there are nuances and room for interpretation.
Like I said above, all standard tarot decks have the same 22 Major Arcana cards and the same 56 Minor Arcana cards. In essence, tarot tells a specific story, and while deck creators can put their unique flair or spin on the tarot story, general tarot card meanings are fixed.
For example, the Major Arcana of a tarot deck tells the story of the Fool’s Journey, which mirrors the mono-mythical Hero’s Journey, most famously taught by mythologist Joseph Campbell. This is true of every tarot deck (again, if it is accurately called a tarot deck and not just called tarot as a marketing strategy.)
In contrast, oracle cards can depict anything, be named anything, and mean anything the deck creator desires. Oracle cards can be named after emotions, people, literary characters, objects, animals, and more. Sometimes oracle cards have inspirational quotes on them and aren’t even meant to be symbolic or cryptic. Other times, oracle cards can be quite icon and symbol-based and require more work on the part of the practitioner. In other words, there are no system guidelines or rules that oracle deck creators need to follow the way tarot creators do.
How to Read Them
As you can probably gather by now, tarot doesn’t just refer to the cards. Tarot is a rich system of knowledge based on psychological archetypes, mythology, and symbols in our collective unconscious. As such, a big difference between tarot decks and oracle decks is the act of reading them – or interpreting them.
While working with any kind of divination deck – whether oracle or tarot cards – involves tapping into intuition, reading tarot involves intellectual study as well. I mentioned above that knowing the myth of the Hero’s Journey helps us understand the Major Arcana. To illustrate further, knowing basic numerology – the spiritual significance of each number from 1 to 10 – helps us understand the Minor Arcana.
Oracle cards, because they do not rely on these arcane systems and bodies of knowledge, don’t require intellectual study. You might have to read some of the guidebooks that come with oracle decks more closely than others, but that depends on the design of the oracle deck. There’s no universal, outside system involved in oracle decks the way there is with tarot.
Which Has a Bigger Learning Curve?
Can you guess the answer to this question? Reading tarot cards comes with a bigger learning curve than reading oracle cards. In fact, many people tell me that they have always wanted to learn tarot but don’t have the time yet so they will start with oracle cards! I think oracle cards can be a wonderful gateway to tarot cards for those who are curious about divination decks but want something a little less complex.
All divination requires us to activate our intuition. In fact, reading tarot is wonderful practice for that! It’s actually why I started working with in the first place! But, I should mention that some tarot readers insist that reading tarot is all intuition and doesn’t require any intellectual study. In other words, if you are a “purely intuitive” reader, you don’t need to study anything because the messages are being channeled through spirit guides or perhaps the person they are reading the cards for. A a non-psychic, I can’t speak to this type of reading. I think those types of intuitive readers can probably work with any cards and probably don’t need the system of tarot specifically for what they do. If that process sounds more like your style, I’d say you could probably go with either deck!
The bottom line is that if you want to learn the system of tarot, you need to make sure that the deck you purchase is a true tarot deck. An oracle deck – although a great tool – is not the same thing.
[Related: Why Your First Tarot Deck Matters]
Let me know if you prefer tarot decks or oracle decks. Or, do you ever use them together in readings? I’d love to hear about that too!