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What’s the difference between tarot cards and oracle cards?


“What’s the difference between tarot cards and oracle cards” is a question I hear a lot.

There’s no doubt, the similarities can be confusing. I use them both, and I should start by saying I’m a fan of both types of cards.

Tarot and oracle cards share a lot of the same qualities, and they’re used in very similar ways.

Tarot and oracle cards share a lot of the same qualities, and they’re used in very similar ways. What can make things even more confusing for newcomers is that oracle decks and tarot decks are often sold side-by-side on the same shelves.

Many even have similar sounding names. The style, presentation, boxes and card artwork can also be very similar.

So what’s the difference?

Tarot cards vs. oracle cards

What are tarot cards?

Tarot is a centuries-old tradition which originated in Italy during the Middle Ages, and later spread to France and throughout Europe. Long before the cards were ever used for divination or “tarot reading”, they started out as simple playing cards for a card game called Tarocchi.

In the late 1800’s, the popularity of tarot cards for fortune-telling, divination and self-exploration purposes took off, thanks to a secretive occult order called The Golden Dawn.  It was two members of the Golden Dawn, Arthur Waite, and artist Pamela Colman Smith who created the world famous “Rider-Waite Tarot” deck, which remains the most popular deck of tarot cards in the world to this day.

Have you tried reading tarot cards online? Try a free tarot reading now and see how easy it is to read your own cards.

Ever since the days of the Golden Dawn, tarot cards have been primarily associated with divination and self exploration. The rules and divinatory meanings of tarot cards have remained largely the same for over 100 years.

The characteristics of a tarot deck:

Today, virtually all decks of tarot cards share the same basic characteristics:

  • There are 78 cards in a deck of tarot cards.
  • There are 22 “trump” cards called the Major Arcana.
  • There is 56 numbered “pip” cards called the Minor Arcana.
  • The Minor Arcana is divided into 4 suits — Wands, Cups, Swords and Pentacles (Although the suit names often vary)

While the exact names of tarot cards and suits may vary, the meanings of each card are consistent in every deck of tarot cards. One advantage of tarot cards, is that once you learn the meanings of each card, you can switch to any new tarot deck and immediately know your way around. While imagery may be different, the underlying card meanings are always the same. In that respect, tarot is a universal language.

diagram showing how many tarot cards in a deck?


What are oracle cards?

Oracle cards by contrast are more free-form.  Oracle cards are like tarot cards in many ways, but the structure is unique to each deck. The idea behind oracle cards is to take the idea of tarot cards — meaning, you can use them for divination, and you can lay them out in spreads like you do with tarot cards — but oracle cards strip away all the rules.

The characteristics of an oracle card deck:

  • There can be any number of cards in an oracle deck. There’s no strict adherence to 78 cards, as with tarot.
  • There’s usually no Major Arcana and Minor Arcana.
  • Oracle cards are often much easier to learn. There’s usually less “lore” to learn, and the meanings are often more straightforward and less arcane.
  • There are often no “suits” in oracle cards. (Lenormand oracle cards are one exception)
  • The cards can have any names, and aren’t bound by the same names as Minor Arcana cards.
  • Oracle card names differ from deck to deck.
  • Card interpretations are up to the author of the oracle deck.
  • Oracle cards sometimes borrow card names, imagery and symbols from tarot.

In other words… if you like the idea of fortune-telling, self-exploration and divination using cards, but you don’t want to learn the classical tarot system then oracle cards are probably for you.

The meanings of the cards in one oracle deck, are not necessarily the same as the meanings in another

The downside though, is that because oracle cards all work a little differently, you’ll have to re-learn every new deck of oracle cards that you buy.  The meanings of the cards in one oracle deck, are not necessarily the same as the meanings in another — even if the card names are the same. For some, that learning process is part of the fun. For others, the free-form thing becomes a chore, forcing readers to re-learn each new deck from scratch.


Tarot and oracle cards are very similar

What makes the two types of cards very similar is what we use them for. Both kinds of cards are very useful as a framework for self-discovery, problem solving, introspection and yes, divination.

The way in which we use both types of cards is also very similar. You can draw one card at a time for simple answers. Or you can lay both types of cards out in complex spreads to tackle more complex questions and life issues.

So why choose one over the other? For many, tarot cards can seem a little scary. They do tend to carry more old-school, biblical overtones and contain some scary looking cards. Many oracle card decks tend to be more positive and upbeat. Tarot can be brutally, painfully honest at times. For me, I like that about tarot. It’s not sugar coated. But if you’re looking for positive, supportive messages, then oracle decks are definitely the place to go.

Should I buy a tarot deck or an oracle deck?

The question of which type of deck to buy is a common one. Here are 3 different answers:

The short answer is: Buy whichever one you want. If the artwork or ideas in a particular deck speaks to you, then make it yours. A big part of choosing the right deck of tarot or oracle cards is finding a deck that calls to you.

Not sure what kind of deck to buy? Try a free tarot reading now and practice reading tarot online.

A slightly longer answer is: If you find the idea of tarot or oracle cards interesting, the chances are, you’re going to be buying a few decks over the years. Maybe dozens. (Trust me, collecting a library of tarot cards is a really fun hobby). So in many ways, where you start is less important than being happy with your purchase. However, if you plan on buying more decks in the future, it might not be a bad idea to start with tarot, which is a more universal language.

If you’re just starting out and you want to really learn tarot, there’s a good argument for starting with the Rider Waite tarot deck

And lastly, the boring answer: Sorry, I also have to give you the boring, responsible answer as I do teach tarot classes. If you’re just starting out and you want to really learn tarot, there’s a good argument for starting with the Rider Waite tarot deck as it’s the most popular tarot deck in the world. When people make references to tarot symbolism, 99% of the time they’ll be talking about Rider-Waite.

The thing about modern tarot decks is that most of them “tip the hat” to each other in terms of symbolic references. Almost all tarot decks today make some kind of reference to Rider Waite. In many ways, it’s the Rosetta Stone of tarot cards. Learn Rider Waite, and you’re on very solid footing to use any other tarot deck under the sun. (Here are more reasons why Rider Waite is a great place to start your tarot adventure.)

In the end, the choice is yours. If you find a modern deck calling to you for whatever reason, start there. There’s no “right place” to start learning tarot, or using oracle cards.

Better yet, buy one of each.


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