“Show me love, show me life. Baby show me what it’s all about.”
<<Preface: My Virgo Rising got the best of me while writing this article and I dove into a short history of card reading. If this strikes you as TLDR and you just want the juicy differences between oracle & tarot, I get it: scroll down to the ✩ stars & go from there!>>
☞ A Brief History of Card Reading ☜
Pendulums, runes, tea leaves, bones, water, fire… one of these is not like the other. Which is it?
Prank! These are all tools that can be used for divination. But perhaps the most common divinatory tool in our modern society is missing from that list: cards.
When someone says “I’m a card reader,” the first thing that pops in to many minds is, “Oh! Tarot.” While that’s not wrong, let’s chat about some other forms of card reading, shall we? #themoreyouknow
First off, there is cartomancy. Simply put, this is using a deck of playing cards to give someone a reading. We don’t actually know the definitive “beginning” of card reading, however it is believed to have stemmed from a card game called “Malmuk” in the Middle East and then popularized in 14th century Europe. Some scholars hypothesize that this method of divination actually evolved from cards created in 10th century China, while others believe the source to be ancient Egypt. Regardless of origin, cartomancy uses the deck of 52 playing cards, broken into 4 suits (and tie-ins to numerology) to generate a reading for a person.
(( I find it worth noting that some readers, myself included, use the word “cartomancy” as an umbrella term referring to all forms of card reading. ))
So when does tarot come into the picture? Tarot is believed to be an evolution of cartomancy. It spread and developed across Europe, and by the 1500’s the Italian aristocracy were well-versed in a popular divination “game” called “Tarocchi Appropriati.” The Italians are credited with commissioning illustrations of these original tarot decks and eventually embellishing them to include the Major Arcana cards and one additional card per suit (the Page).
Artwork and imagery continued to evolve, leading us to the 19th century where we see the first instances of oracle decks pop up, most notably Madame Lenormand’s traditional 36-card variation. Unlike tarot, oracle decks did not originate as a game; they were always meant to be divinatory tools. By the late 20th century, a variety of oracle decks filled the shelves of local metaphysical stores. Now you can find an oracle deck (or a tarot deck for that matter) on just about any interest, theme, topic, or pop culture trend!
✩ Differences Between Tarot & Oracle Decks ✩
Okay so now let’s break it down: In order for a deck to be considered tarot, it will consist of 78 cards: 22 Major Arcana and 56 Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana cards follow the Fool’s Journey from 0 to 21 (The World). The Minor Arcana is home to the 4 suits (Swords, Wands, Pentacles, and Cups). Within these suits, you have your Pip Cards (Ace through 10) and your Court Cards (Page, Knight, Queen & King). Some tarot decks change the names of these, but the structure should still remain intact for it to be considered tarot. Ex: changing the names of the suits to the elements they represent or donning more gender-neutral descriptors for the court cards while still retaining structure keeps them in the tarot category. So considering that tarot is a system of cards, you must consider how each card relates to another within the hierarchy when you pull a spread. A tarot card is part of a bigger picture and less so a stand-alone messenger.
Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of decks containing additional non-Arcana cards (especially in indie decks). Having additional cards in a deck does not mean the deck isn’t a tarot deck. You can simply set them aside if you don’t wanna use ‘em in your pulls. I’ve most commonly seen 2 extra cards in decks and my un-researched theory on this is that printing companies don’t offer packages based on exactly 78 cards, but they’ll print 80 (in groupings of 10). So this means that the creator needs to come up with 2 more cards or just have some blanks in the deck… which is less fun. Not to say there aren’t creators out there who really feel it important to add in cards of their own creation. I just am of the mindset that the tarot is tried, true and tested; it doesn’t need any add-ons or extras to deliver accurate and complete messages. But to each their own! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
If you come across a deck that seemingly has no suits, no numerical structure or hierarchy, you’re probably holding an oracle deck. No need to throw it back on the shelf and deem it an imposter of tarot! Oracle decks are very magical in their own super unique ways. Unlike tarot, oracle decks have no required structure or order. However, some decks may include a hierarchy or grouping system, with cards relating to each other in certain ways. For instance, The Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck features various animals as card messengers. These animals are grouped into four categories based on the elements they represent according to the author. There is also a spiritual hierarchy within each element grouping that sort of “orders” the animals/cards. Then there are other oracle decks, such as The Universe Has Your Back or Affirmators, where each card is a totally self-contained message and is not part of a grouping.
The last big difference between tarot and oracle is card meanings. Tarot has been around for such a long time that the meanings associated with the cards have come to be generally accepted and agreed upon, no matter the deck you’re using. By that I mean, the 4 of Swords in one deck can still be interpreted the same way as the 4 of Swords in another deck. You learn to read tarot once and you can apply this knowledge across any deck that you connect with. However, you learn to read it in your own way that speaks to you. You may find that a certain card takes on its own meaning to you, it comes to represent something specific in your life, and maybe this personal meaning is not in line with the “traditional” one. That’s okay! Tarot is a tool for self-reflection and if you feel connected to a card in a specific way, go with it! To this point, some tarot deck creators have adjusted or altered meanings of the cards based on their experiences and unique perspectives. That’s fine because you can still choose the meaning you associate with the card, whether it’s the author’s interpretation, the more universally accepted/traditional meaning, or your own personal definition for that card.
Now oracle card meanings are usually exclusive to that deck and that author’s definition. They often will have words or sentences explaining their meaning written on the card itself. So in some ways, you rely on the author’s guidebook more heavily when it comes to oracle. ((Again, this does not mean you can’t have your own definition or interpret cards intuitively!))
Reading oracle is often a great way to begin your spiritual exploration and dip your toes into divination. It’s less overwhelming to familiarize yourself with a smaller deck (oh yeah, oracle decks usually consist of less than 78 cards). Plus they often have descriptors written right on them, making it easy to begin reading. Finally, they come in a huge variety (as do tarot decks), but you can focus on something very specific or meaningful to you that perhaps you already know a good deal about. Love crystals and working with them for healing? Check out Crystal Reading Cards. Really tuned in to angels? Try Messages from Your Angels. What about moon phases and astrology? Then Moonology could be a great place to start for you!
Wherever you decide to jump in with card reading, I promise there is a deck out there that is meant for you! Have questions or thoughts? Hit me up on Instagram @Tiger.Moon.Mystic or come see me for an Angel Card reading at Future Perfect!
Kaylie aka Tiger Moon