Tarot is a specific type of deck of 78 cards, while oracle decks can come in any number with any meaning. Both kinds of cards are used as divination tools. That’s the simple answer as to the difference between Tarot and Oracle cards, but of course, there is a much more detailed and nuanced explanation. Keep reading to find out more!
***Note: If you are new to Tarot, you might want to read my post Tarot 101: An Introduction first, and then circle back to this article.***
What Is Tarot?
Tarot cards have been around for a very long time. While they were likely in use and becoming more developed beforehand, the first time we see mention of them in writing is somewhere in the mid-1400s. The history of Tarot is split between using these cards to play games with and using them to tell fortunes, or “cartomancy.” It isn’t my purpose to give a history of Tarot here. Still, I wanted to provide the understanding that these cards have been around for a while and ultimately developed into the standard 78 card decks used by intuitive readers that we are most familiar with today.
There are some variations on the 78-card deck that we most frequently associate with traditional Tarot, with some decks having a few more or a certain amount fewer cards. For example, some common decks have 80 cards, and some 44, by the vast majority of decks on the market today, have 78.
Tarot is a structured divination tool, regardless of the number of cards in the deck. For example, in a typical 78-card deck, there are 22 Major Arcana (greater secrets) and 56 Minor Arcana (lesser secrets) cards. The Minor Arcana is divided into four suits (much like a typical playing card deck), while the Major Arcana is numbered from 0 to 21. These cards are all assigned various meanings, with significant themes and ideas running through most Tarot decks. Tarot cards are generally used in structured spreads meant to help the person using them receive answers for the person being read.
What Are Oracle Cards?
Oracle cards, like Tarot cards, are a deck of cards used as a divination tool. One of the oldest oracle card decks we are still familiar with today is the Lenormand deck, named for Marie Anne Adelaide Le Normand (1772-1843), the most famous fortuneteller in Europe during the Napoleonic era. Le Normand used many different divination tools in her fortune-telling, not just cards. In fact, the Lenormand deck as we know it today was actually developed after her death by someone wishing to profit off of her fame and was not necessarily based on any specific cards she used in her lifetime.
Fast forward to modern times and look around in any metaphysical shop or a search online, and you’ll see a plethora of oracle card decks. More decks than you can probably even imagine! Oracle card decks can be of any number of cards with any theme and meaning. Oracle decks are designed by individuals and are not necessarily based on any specific structure or meaning.
Oracle cards are meant to be used as divination tools. Different oracle decks have different themes, and the deck’s author often sets forth the rules for using them for your divination. Oracle cards can typically be used in the “one card pull” more easily than Tarot cards because each card typically has stand-alone solid meanings.
So, What’s the Real Difference?
Technically, in my opinion, Tarot cards are actually just another type of oracle deck. The definition of oracle is generally a person or thing which gives a prediction. The cards themselves can be seen as the oracle, but more truthfully, the cards themselves hold no actual power. The person using the cards, interpreting their answers, is the true oracle. So any type of card used for divination purposes can be seen as an oracle card.
Having said that, let’s talk a little more about the differences between what are, in modern times, commonly termed an oracle deck and a Tarot deck.
I once heard someone describe the difference between Tarot cards and oracle cards this way – Tarot cards are each like a sentence in a story and oracle cards are each a story. And I would have to say that largely, that is an apt description. Tarot cards are typically laid out in spreads of more than one or two cards, and it is the culmination of the meanings of the cards paired with the way they land within the spread that tells the divination story. Of course, a person can just draw one Tarot card and use the meaning of the card itself to answer a question. Oracle cards, while they can be used in spreads, typically each have full meanings in and of themselves. One oracle card often can tell a much fuller story than can one Tarot card.
How Do You Know Which Type of Cards to Use?
In my personal opinion, the answer to this question is “personal choice.”
Using Tarot as a tool in your divination can feel a bit more complex than using most themed oracle decks on the market today. Tarot decks do typically come with booklets explaining the meaning of each card, and how to use them in a spread. So, you generally do not need any special training to use them, and you can do a reading with them even if you’ve never picked up a deck before.
However, new users of Tarot, often feel they need a lot of practice or to take some kind of course or lesson, or at least to read “how to” books on the subject before using them in readings. I remember that I felt at least quite awkward for quite a long time when I started out with Tarot. I eventually got to feeling more confident, but usually still used the book that came with the deck during my readings. Eventually, I took some classes and I practiced a lot until it became second nature for me to do readings with them. In the end, I’ve even written my own Tarot manual and taught many, many people to use Tarot cards as a divination tool.
Oracle cards often come with detailed booklets that explain the backstory of the deck, talk about the theme of the cards, and give very precise meanings for each card. Many oracle decks will explain in their booklets the ways in which the author intends or suggests that their deck be used. They may talk about the types of questions that are best answered with their deck or how to use the deck for self-growth, meditation, or inspiration. In the end, oracle decks are typically very easy for someone who has never even picked up the deck before to use.
Both Tarot cards and oracle cards can be used intuitively. Many people read either type of card based solely on what the artwork or configuration of the card sparks their intuition to understand. These people may never even pick up the book or manual that comes with the deck. Either way of using any of these kinds of cards is certainly a legitimate way to use the divination tools.
You Are The Oracle
As we have already talked about, in the end, you are the actual oracle. So, whatever divination tool feels the best to you is the one you should use. Hopefully, you have a little more insight now as to the difference between the two tools. The main thing that I tell all my Tarot students, and anyone else I might be discussing the different kinds of cards with, is that the cards themselves hold no magical power. At least that is my opinion. They are all strictly tools that help you to tap into your own intuition better through words and images.