How are tarot and oracle cards the same, and how are they different?

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by Cathy Douglas (with special thanks to Mari Powers for technical input)

Many times customers ask us, “What’s the difference between tarot cards and oracle cards?” We can start out by listing some similarities: Both types of deck can be used for divination and personal growth, both may feature stunning artwork, and both usually come with some sort of explanatory booklet. You can read them for yourself or others, using anything from a simple one-card reading to a complex spread. And both often come with a theme, which may be something as ancient as the four elements or as recent as Steampunk.

But there are differences as well, starting with the way the cards are organized. The tarot is a very old system; the earliest decks we know of are in museums, and date to the 1400s. Tarot decks have four regular suits similar to a regular deck of playing cards, plus twenty-two special cards called the Major Arcana. When people think of the Tarot, images from the Major Arcana are what usually come to mind–the Fool stepping off the cliff, or the Hanged Man dangling by his ankle from a tree. But it’s the other cards, called the Minor Arcana or pips, that make up the majority of the deck. When choosing a deck, it’s a good idea to pay special attention to the pips. Sometimes in newer decks, original artwork is focused on the Major Arcana, while the pips are far less interesting, and may even look somewhat alike.

The four suits of pips–pentacles, chalices, wands and swords–correspond to the four traditional elements–earth, water, fire and air. When reading the cards, these suits have meaning. The number on the card also has meaning, which is related to numerology; for example, the number four has a connotation of stability. The court cards–king, queen, etc.–always correspond to human traits. A reader can memorize this information, but there are further levels to reading the cards as well. Each deck has a wealth of symbolic information in its images, and experienced readers can draw even more out through intuition, history, etc.

In comparison, oracle decks are much more free-form, and a much more recent innovation. The oldest example we’ve been able to find are the 1988 Jamie Sams Medicine Cards, still loved and used by many people. Each oracle deck is a system unto itself, although since quite a few of the decks are designed by the same authors, there are natural consistencies between them. The prolific Doreen Virtue has created more than enough oracle decks to fill a shelf all by herself, while others such as Toni Carmine Salerno, Sonia Choquette, and Steven Farmer (to name just a few) regularly produce new and interesting decks.

Oracle decks can be anything, but there’s always a theme that draws the deck together and makes it useful. Sometimes this theme has to do with the purpose of the deck. For example, Soul Mate Cards and the Life Purpose Oracle are valuable for people who want to find insight into a specific kind of question. The theme of other decks has to do with whatever inspired its message–for example angels, fairies or animals. Other decks may simply provide a daily thought, perhaps to get you grounded in the morning or encourage you when you’re down.

There are many titles in both tarot and oracle cards, which have stood the test of time and continue to provide guidance for many people. For example, the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot has been around for more than a century; people continue to use it happily, and many later decks are based on Pamela Colman Smith’s memorable illustrations. No oracle deck is anywhere near that old, but decks like Kathy Taylor’s Original Angel Cards have remained popular years after their publication.

New tarot and oracle decks come out regularly, so that it can be hard to pick out the most exciting new ones from everything our suppliers have to offer. If you want to know more about a specific deck, we’ll be happy to open show you the cards in the store. Aeclectic Tarot is a great resource for card reviews and descriptions.


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