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Tarot vs. Oracle decks: What's the difference?

Michelle Gruben beginner divination tarot

Lots of people approach our Tarot display with this question:  I'm trying to choose my first deck, but I see there are Tarot and oracle decks.  What's the difference, and which one should I get?

The sheer number of options for your first deck can be mind-boggling, but understanding their similarities and difference will help you make an informed decision.  Read this short article, and you'll be an expert in no time!

The Name

Technically, an oracle (meaning "that which speaks") can refer to any item used for divination.  So Tarot decks are actually a type of oracle--as are runes, bones, pendulums, and many other tools.  But in the world of Tarot publishing, an oracle deck means a deck of cards used for divination that doesn't fall under the narrower category of Tarot.  (We'll talk more about what that means in a moment.)  But the very simplest way to tell what kind of deck you're holding is to check the title.  If it says "Tarot," you probably have a Tarot deck.  If it doesn't, you may be looking at an oracle deck.

The Structure

Tarot follows a very specific structure.  (A certain number of cards in a certain sequence.)  While its card order, number and names have evolved across the centuries, the Tarot deck has settled into a fairly rigid form.  All modern Tarot decks share the same basic structure, with relatively superficial differences.

A Tarot deck, almost by definition, has 78 cards.  The 78 cards are divided into two Arcana, or groups:

The Major Arcana ("Greater Mysteries") has the 22 "picture cards" that most people associated with Tarot: the Hermit, Death, the Fool, and others.  The Minor Arcana ("Lesser Mysteries") holds the remaining 56 cards, which is further divided into numerical and court cards. The cards of the Minor Arcana are divided across four suits. (The Minor Arcana somewhat resembles a 52-card deck of regular playing cards, but it has four extra court cards.)   Usually the four suits are Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles, but one or more suits may have an alternate name.  (Staves, Hearts, Coins, Gems, etc.)

In contrast to the fixed 78-card structure of Tarot, oracle decks have various numbers of cards.  They may follow a different, traditional structure (like the 36-card Lenormand). They may use suits or other divisions to separate different types of cards. Oracle decks may also be completely freeform.  There are no rules when it comes to designing an oracle deck.  The artist may choose the number of cards that best suits the intended purpose of the deck.  Or they may just stop making cards when they run out of ideas!

So, a deck must have 78 cards, or it's not a Tarot deck, right?  Well, not necessarily.  Some Tarot decks have 79 or 80 cards.  The reason is this: Tarot cards are printed on an single sheet of cardstock, usually eight cards wide by ten cards high, making a total of 80 cards.  So two extra cards are printed with each deck. 

Most often, the extra cards are carry the artist's or publisher's information.  But some deck designers choose to use this extra space to make a bonus card or two.  (Examples are the Unknown Card in the Crystal Visions Tarot, or the Happy Squirrel card in several decks.) Still, Tarot purists disdain the extra cards, insisting that a Tarot deck with more than 78 cards is an aberration.  (There are also alternate historical versions of the Tarot, like the 97-card Minchiate Tarot, but they're rarely used.)

Technique

Tarot is an incredibly versatile tool, with dozens of magickal and divinatory applications.  Still, over time, some common ways of using the cards have evolved, and card meanings have become somewhat standardized.  Most Tarot decks come bundled with a "little white book" that gives an introduction to reading the cards.  The content of these books tends to be very similar across decks.  The reader will be instructed to deal the cards into a number of pre-assigned positions, then interpret the card according to its meaning in that context.

Most oracle decks can be used in the same way as Tarot, with a bit more variation.  Oracle decks are may include instructions for using the deck for game playing, discussion and ice-breakers, daily encouragement, and personal development.  They sometimes have extra text, like suggestions for meditation. Often, the accompanying book will have exercises or spreads that are specific to that deck.

Size and Shape

Tarot decks are usually rectangular, and about 2.75" wide by 4.75" tall.  The most popular decks also have mini and oversized versions available, and there are oddball decks like the round Motherpeace Tarot.

An oracle deck can be any shape or size.  Often, they are both taller and wider than a Tarot deck, the better to hold additional artwork and text.  Oracle decks are rarely shuffled like playing cards, so their size isn't an issue.

Content

Oracle decks are typically light and uplifting.  Fairies, angels, Gods and Goddesses, natural wonders, ancient wisdom, animals and plants are popular themes.  (Compare with a standard Tarot deck, which necessarily contains difficult cards like the Hanged Man, the Devil, and Death.)  Oracle decks are popular among people who shy away from the occult reputation of the Tarot. Their approachability makes oracle decks popular with non-Tarot readers, who may use them for daily inspiration and reflection.  (Many buyers don't "read" oracle decks at all, but instead collect them for their beauty and variety!)

Decks that blur the line

As if all that wasn't complicated enough, there are a few hybrid decks out there that don't fit neatly into either category.  The Osho Zen oracle, for instance, has a Tarot-like suit structure, but also a number of original cards that don't fit the Tarot model.  The Kris Waldherr's Goddess Tarot substitutes an oracle-like sequence of Goddess for the Major Arcana.  You're on your own classifying these decks!

Which is better?

As you may have surmised, the best deck for you depends on how you intend to use it.  Oracle decks make wonderful springboards for discussion and meditation, alone or in groups. They're also well-suited to the "daily draw" style of reading, where you draw a single card to instruct and guide you for the coming day.

However, open-structure oracle decks can have severe limitations when it comes to divination.  Often, the cards are too similar in meaning and tone.  They don't work together to answer questions or tell a story as effectively as the Tarot.  More seriously, most oracle decks suffer from a glut of positivity.  These decks simply lack that cards to describe situations that are difficult or complex, and can come across as maudlin in readings. 

Unless you have severe reservations about reading Tarot, I always recommend starting with a Tarot deck.  (Preferably in the Rider-Waite style.)  Since most Tarot decks are fundamentally similar, it doesn't really matter which one.  You can feel free to choose a Tarot deck with artwork that appeals to you.  Once you master the basics of Tarot, this knowledge will stay with you--even if you decide to switch decks at a later time.

That's not to say that oracle decks don't have a place in your magickal library.  Many of them have splendid artwork and original themes that work best outside of the limited structure of Tarot.  With so many fabulous decks available, you may be tempted to collect both!

Image: Eleven Tarot decks--and one "imposter"!

More articles by Michelle Gruben here.

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