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The difference between tarot and oracle cards

Every time I work an event with the Traveling Tarot Trunk, I have the same conversation with several people:

Curious shopper: Are those all tarot cards?

Me: They’re a combination of tarot and oracle decks.

Curious shopper: What’s the difference?

Some people seem embarrassed or uncomfortable asking–I remember feeling that way about magical stuff when I was starting to explore and discover my path. I’m grateful that I had people who were willing to answer all my questions, and I’m equally glad that now I can pass that info on to others. So, here’s the difference between tarot and oracle cards:

Tarot decks have a very specific structure.

Every deck will have 22 cards in the major arcana, as well as 4 suits (the minor arcana). Each suit has cards numbered 1-10 and 4 court cards. Boom. That’s the structure. Some decks have bonus cards, like the Wooden Tarot’s Happy Squirrel or the Fountain in the Fountain Tarot. Some decks vary from the traditional suits of swords, wands, cups or chalices, and pentacles or coins/disks. Some use different names for the court cards. But to be considered a tarot deck, the cards have to conform to that system: 4 suits numbered 1-10; 4 court cards per suit; 22 major arcana.

Here are some examples.

Aces from the traditional Rider Waite Smith (RWS) deck:

RWS Aces

Aces from the Antique Anatomy tarot:

Aces from the Antique Anatomy Tarot

The suits here are named for the elements. While the RWS suits correspond to the elements, this deck eliminates that layer.  Rather than having swords represent air, wands signify fire, cups stand for water and pentacles represent earth, the artist used the elements as the suits.

Next up, the court cards from the RWS:

Rider Waite Smith Court Cards

King, Queen, Knight, Page. Great.

Now here are the court cards from the Wanderer’s Tarot:

Wanderer's Tarot court cards

Philosopher, Goddess, Prophet, and Wanderer. Also, instead of swords, wands, cups, and pentacles, you’ve got knives, feathers, moons, and stones. You know what? IT DOESN’T MATTER. Still a tarot deck. And if you’re getting all wrapped around the axle about how to read with a deck that’s different… that may not be the deck for you. If you look at it and go, “Oooohh! Moons! I love that! I don’t really care what suit they are, I think these cards are cool and I’ll be able to get clear messages with this deck,” then by all means, carry on and get yourself that deck. If you’re tempted to buy and think the artwork is cool but you anticipate problems interpreting the cards, ask yourself if you want a deck to read with or a collection of small pieces of art.  That answer should help you decide whether or not to reach for your wallet.

Oracle decks are kind of a free-for-all.

For real. There is no prescribed structure for oracle decks. They can have as many or few cards as the artists feels like creating. Oracle decks don’t have to have a theme. They don’t have to provide a guidebook or offer interpretations for the cards. Basically, the artist gets to create whatever he or she wants to make and call it an oracle deck.

That being said, most oracle decks have a theme that ties all the cards together. Moon phases/astrology, angels, crystals, plants, archetypes… these are all common subjects for oracle decks. But even decks that have similar themes often take different approaches. For example, here are moon phase cards from three different decks:

waning moon oracle cards

The Arcana of Astrology deck, far left, includes the moon’s shape and phase; the Moon phase oracle deck, center, just mentions that it’s waning, and the Spirit de la Lune deck at right calls out a specific day in the moon’s waning crescent cycle. Entirely different treatments.

Often, oracle cards skip the guidebook and print messages directly on the cards, like these cards from the Dreamer’s Journey Oracle:

Dreamer's Journey oracle

Others simply provide keywords, like the Earthbound Oracle:

Earthbound oracle

Others have keywords, simple cheat sheets, and in-depth guidebooks. No matter what level of freedom to make your own interpretation or prescriptive guidance you’re looking for, there’s an oracle deck out there for you.

What about Lenormand decks?

Those also have a very specific structure, which is entirely different than tarot cards. I have very little experience with Lenormand decks, so… not covering them in this post.

Why would someone choose one system over the other? Is one better?

For years, I was a tarot purist. I liked the structure and the rich history the tarot tradition provided. I loved the notion that the Four of Wands was the Four of Wands and it meant the same thing no matter what deck I was using… right up until I learned intuitive tarot reading and that concept flew out the window. If you’re someone who relies on a book or website or wants an expert to tell you what the cards mean, there may be a certain level of comfort in tarot. (Or in oracle cards with interpretations printed directly on each card.)

There are benefits to working with both types of cards, even within the same reading. For example, Tarot Readers Academy Headmistress and Tarot Goddess Ethony has a great post about how/why you may want to do that. Often, oracle cards can provide a summary or affirmation to work with as the outcome of a tarot reading–or simply add a different perspective. I find that if I’m trying to work with a specific quality or energy, it may be helpful to pull an oracle card that represents that message (something like “healing” or “release,” perhaps) and set that card on my altar as a focal point for meditation.

Both systems have their merits and drawbacks. But that shouldn’t stop you from exploring to figure out if one works better for you. Happy learning!



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